The Southwest
Anasazi Culture 500 CE - 1600 CE

Navajo culture 

Hopi Culture




According to the Brittanica Encyclopedia the Anasazi culture was a,
a North American civilization that developed from about AD 100 to modern times, centring generally on the area where the boundaries of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah intersect. (Anasazi is Navajo for "Ancient Ones.") It is customarily divided into these developmental periods: Basket Maker period, 100-500; Modified Basket Maker period, 500-700; Developmental Pueblo period (formerly designated Pueblo I and II), 700-1050; Classic Pueblo (formerly designated Pueblo III), 1050-1300; Regressive Pueblo (formerly designated Pueblo IV), 1300-1700; and Modern Pueblo (formerly designated Pueblo V), 1700 to date.

The origin of the Basket Maker Indians is not known, but it is evident that, when they first settled in the area, they were already excellent basket weavers and that they were supplementing hunting and wild-seed gathering with the cultivation of maize and pumpkins. They lived either in caves or out in the open in shelters constructed of a masonry of poles and adobe mud. Both caves and houses contained special pits, often roofed over, that were used for food storage.

This basic pattern continued into the period of the Modified Basket Makers, when agriculture became their major interest (bean crops were added and turkeys were domesticated) and hunting and gathering were reduced to supplementary roles. Villages remained either in caves or out in the open; but those in caves consisted of an array of semisubterranean houses, and those in the open consisted of chambers both aboveground and belowground, all often contiguously joined in straight lines or crescents. Aboveground chambers probably served as storage places and the pit houses as domiciles and ceremonial rooms. These pit houses were actually elaborations of the old storage pits. Sun-dried pottery was introduced during this period.

During the Developmental Pueblo period, the same type of straight-line or crescent-shaped multiple house was built, but gradually enlarged. Stone masonry, too, began to replace the earlier pole-and-mud construction. The pit houses became kivas, the underground circular chambers used henceforth primarily for ceremonial purposes. Aboveground chambers were used wholly as domiciles. Agriculture may have been augmented at this time by the cultivation of cotton. Pottery assumed a greater variety of shapes, finishes, and decorations. Basketry was less-common. Throughout the period the area of occupation continued to expand.

The Classic Pueblo period was the time of the great cliff houses, the villages built in sheltered recesses in the faces of cliffs but otherwise differing little from the masonry or adobe houses and villages built elsewhere. This was also the time of the large, freestanding, apartment-like structures built along canyons or mesa walls. In either locale, many dwellings consisted of two, three, or even four stories, often built in stepped-back fashion so that the roofs of the lower rooms served as porches for the rooms above. These community structures had from 20 to as many as 1,000 rooms. An actual shrinking of the inhabited areas took place as people of the outer fringes moved in to build the large units. Craftsmanship in pottery reached a high level, and cotton and yucca fibre were skillfully woven.

Abandonment of the cliff houses and large community dwellings marked the close of the Classic Pueblo period. In part this may have resulted from the incursion of nomadic Navajo and Apache from the north and a prolonged drought that occurred from 1276 to 1299.

The Regressive Pueblo period was characterized by movement of the people south and east, some to the Rio Grande valley or the White Mountains of Arizona. New villages, some larger than those of Classic Pueblo, were built but were generally poorer and cruder in layout and construction (sometimes walls consisted wholly of adobe). Fine pottery making still flourished, however, though changed in design, and weaving continued as before.

The Modern Pueblo period is usually dated from about 1700, when Spanish influences first began to be pervasive. Official Spanish occupancy of the area had begun in 1598, but the Spaniards' attempts at forced religious conversions and tribute caused hostility among the Indians, leading in 1680 to open revolt and the killing or expulsion of the Spaniards. Not until about 1694 was Spanish authority reimposed. A century of unsettled conditions, however, had reduced the number of Pueblo settlements from about 70 or 80 to 25 or 30. Much of the culture and many of the skills in agriculture and crafts, nevertheless, have continued down to modern times.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Keet Seel ruins
Cliff Dwellings
1300 CE - 1500 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo Period

Ruins at Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona
circa 1100 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo Period

Form:  These ruins were once buildings that were built one on top of another into the side of  sandstone cliff.  Made of stone, adobe, and timber.  The placement shelters the structure from the brunt of the heat and is also highly defensible.

Iconography:  While probably not built as overt symbols of power, complexes such as Keet Seel and Mesa Verde represent a highly organized and cooperative civilizations.   As icons of the culture that created them and stand as fortresses against the dessert and against hostile invaders.  Today, for many Americans, these ruins have been adopted as symbols of Native American heritage.

Context:  Some structures, such as those at Keet Seel, were built over time.  The rooms were placed one on top of another possibly because the center rooms were filled in either with stored goods or debris or because more space was needed.  The Anasazi built dams to divert water and provide irrigation for crops and were highly organized.  Today some of the earlier research concerning the Anasazi (some based on excavations of trash pits is being reexamined refuted.

According to the Brittanica,

prehistoric house of the Pueblo Indians of the southwestern United States, built along the sides or under the overhangs of cliffs, primarily in the area where the present-day states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. Such masonry cliff dwellings are associated with the Classic Pueblo, or Pueblo III, cultural period after which the Pueblo moved farther south and built the pueblo villages that they still inhabit.

The ancestors of the Pueblos were nomadic Indians of the Basket Maker culture. When they became sedentary and began to cultivate corn, they also began to build circular pits as storage bins. When the bins were later reinforced with stone walls and covered with roofs, some Indians began to use these enclosures as houses. Finally, the Indians became proficient enough in the dry farming required in this arid climate to live completely from the corn (maize), squash, beans, and cotton they grew and to establish permanent communities. At that point they began to build their houses above ground.

The cliff dwellings are the culmination of this architectural development; the use of hand-hewn stone building blocks (the principal construction material) and adobe mortar was unexcelled even in later buildings. Ceilings were built by laying two or more large crossbeams and placing on them a solid line of laths made of smaller branches. The layers were then plastered over with the same adobe mixture frequently used for the walls. Edifices several stories high were built with succeeding stories set back, creating a row of terraces on each level that gives the structure the appearance of a ziggurat (ancient Babylonian temple tower).

Residential rooms measured about 10 by 20 feet (3 by 6 metres). Entrance to ground-floor rooms was by ladder through a hole in the ceiling; rooms on upper floors could be entered both by doorways from adjoining rooms and by a hole in the ceiling. Each community had two or more kivas (see kiva), or ceremonial rooms, usually round in early times but later square.

It is thought that the Pueblo Indians began to build these cliff dwellings in about AD 1000, as a defense against northern tribes of Navajo and Apache, who were invading their territory. In addition to the natural protection of the cliff, the absence of doors and windows to the rooms on the ground floor left a solid outer stone wall that could be surmounted only by climbing a ladder, and the ladders could easily be removed if the town were attacked. Many smaller communities joined together to form the large towns built beneath the cliffs. Two of the largest, the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado and the five-storied Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico, probably had about 200 and 800 residential rooms, respectively.

At the end of the 13th century, these cliff dwellings were deserted by the inhabitants. Two factors account for the move: an examination of tree trunks indicates a severe drought between 1272 and 1299; and it is thought that there was internal dissension between tribes in these large urban cliff pueblos. Thus, smaller pueblos were created in the south near better water sources.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

These Anasazi ruins are thought to be the prototypes for the modern day Navajo and Hopi people's adobe Pueblos that are not built into cliffs.  Renown art historian Ernst Gombrich developed a theory to explain these adaptations and changes and refered to it as schema and correction.  If we were to look at the Anasazi culture's art and architecture as the plan or schema, we can see how the later Navajo and Hopi cultures might have taken Anasazi art as its schema and updated it in order to make the designs more pleasing according to the  later tastes.  These changes are referred to as the correction.

Another look at schema and correction:

Summary of Gombrich

To understand his theory called "schema and naturalization," or "schema and correction." To understand it you basically just need to know the definitions of three words. 

  • Schema is the cultural code through which individuals raised in a culture perceive the world. For example, we recognize stick figures to be humans.
  • Correction is where you take that schema and you compare it to what your senses tell you about the world and then you make it more accurate.
  • Mimesis is the process of correcting your schema.
Gombrich's idea can be expanded to looking how later groups can take the eralier work of art and mimic it (mimesis).  This is a kind of Darwinian theory kind of like Darwin's theory of the "survival of the fitest."

Read some stuff by Gombrich if it interests you!


Pueblo Bonito
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
900 CE - 1250 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Aerial view of Pueblo Bonito from the north. 
[Copyright David L. Grill]
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo Period

According to the Brittanica,

formerly CHACO CANYON NATIONAL MONUMENT, national historical park in northwestern New Mexico, U.S. It is situated 45 miles (72 km) south of Bloomfield. It was established in 1907 as a national monument and was redesignated and renamed in 1980. It occupies an area of 53 square miles (137 square km), which consists of a canyon dissected by the Chaco and Gallo washes. It contains 13 major pre-Columbian Indian ruins and more than 300 smaller archaeological sites representing high points in Pueblo cultures. Pueblo Bonito (built in the 10th century), the largest and most completely excavated Pueblo site, contained about 800 rooms and 32 kivas (underground ceremonial chambers). The excavations indicate that the people excelled in toolmaking, weaving, pottery, farming, and masonry. Artifacts are displayed at the visitor centre.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.


Petroglyph near the top of Fajada Butte. It is 24 cm by 36 cm and located about 10 m west of the three slab Sun Dagger site (see Sofaer et al. 1979). A, B, C & D indicate features of Pueblo Bonito, shown in the ground plan below.
Classic Pueblo period

Kivas at Pueblo Bonito
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
900 CE - 1250 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo period

Kiva painting from Kuana Pueblo Bonito
1300 CE - 1500 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo period


Form:  The overall plan of Pueblo Bonito is shaped like the letter "D".  The structure were built out of wood, adobe, and stone.  The masonry was constructed by making a core of stones and mortar that was then faced with ashlars. (Ashlars are alternating rows of masonry that look similar modern day brick work.) The round structures in the center of the Pueblo are large subterranean buildings that would have originally been covered with logs of  pine to create an "igloo" like structure of timbers. 

Iconography:  The overall shape and or plan of Pueblo Bonito might be symbolic of the cultures relationship to the astral bodies, this matter is still hotly debated.  The kivas were used as subterranean temples.  By descending into the Kiva through the roof at the top the individual may have been going back into the "mother" earth.  Therefore worship inside and the ascension out of the kiva may symbolize spiritual rebirth.  (Keep this in mind when you look at the architecture of the Northwest Coasts' houses.)  The circular form may be a symbol of natural cycles or eternity.  Stokstad refers to the Kivas' iconography as making reference to the "navel of the earth." 

Context:  Pueblo Bonito was built over the ruins of an earlier site and seems to have been planned and constructed as an over all cohesive complex.  It was built in 25 to 40 years and was probably used more as a ceremonial center for the Anasazi elite rather than as a pragmatic living and defensive structure.  Many of these conclusions are based on recent study of the petroglyph at left, the relationship of the structures to the sun and stars, and the study other Anasazi structures across the Southwestern US. 

The petroglyph appears to relate to the overall structure of the pueblo and its relationship to the sun and stars.  At certain points during the seasons the pueblos walls line up with the passage of the sun in a similar way to the petroglyph at left. Recent excavations of the site has also lead researchers to some interesting but highly suspect conclusions.

The lack of certain debris in the trash pits at Pueblo Bonito have caused some historians to believe that the pueblo was not not occupied full time.  Other archaeologists have discovered human remains in some of the pits with markings or gashes on the bones that may indicate ritual sacrifice or even possibly ritual cannibalism.  Nevertheless, these observations and conclusions are still open to argument.

The existence of the site's many kivas and the ritualized destruction of the kivas by burning have lead to the following conclusions.  The site was used mainly for ritual and for some reason, possibly religious in nature, the site was abandoned some time in the middle of the twelfth century.  Based on observations of contemporary Native American rituals historians believe that only men were allowed into the kivas. 

According to the Brittanica kivas are,

subterranean ceremonial and social chamber found in the Pueblo American Indian villages of the southwestern United States, particularly notable for the colourful mural paintings decorating the walls.

Because the kiva is related to the family origins of the tribe and because two or more tribal clans always inhabit a Pueblo community (see pueblo), there are always at least two kivas per village.

A small hole in the floor of the kiva (sometimes carved through a plank of wood), called the sípapu, served as the symbolic place of origin of the tribe. Although its most important purpose is for ritual ceremonies, for which altars are erected, the kiva is also used for political meetings or casual gatherings of the men of the village. Women are almost always excluded from the kiva.

The traditional round slope of the earliest kiva, in contrast to the rest of Pueblo architecture, which is square or rectangular, recalls the circular pit houses of the prehistoric basket-weaving culture from which these tribes, primarily Hopi and Zuni, descend (see cliff dwelling).

The kiva murals depict sacred figures or scenes from the daily life of the tribe. The style of these paintings tends to be geometric, with an emphasis on straight rather than curved lines and with the entire mural laid out in a linear pattern around the walls. The murals are painted on adobe plaster with warm, colourful pigments made from the rich mineral deposits of the area. Frequently the Indians plastered over an old mural to paint a new one on top; in recent years the several layers of a number of kiva murals have been unpeeled and restored.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

A Kiva and its interior.


Anasazi Culture
Seed Jar circa 1250 CE
8" tall

Anasazi Jars
1125 CE - 1200 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo period

Form:  The vessels are ceramic and made using the coil built technique.  Anasazi pottery is mainly geometric in design, but features naturalistic patterns as well.  The designs play with negative and positive space while enhancing the shape of the vessels.  These pots are an example of horror vacui.  They were made with the coil method.  This method consists of making a long snake like form out of clay and spiraling it around a hollow core.  The coils were then smoothed out.  The pots were then fired, probably in a pit, and glazed with a thin coating of watered down clay called slip or engobe.  The way in which all of the pots' surfaces have been covered with decorations and designs is referred to as horror vacui.  Horror Vacui is Latin a fear of empty space.

It is interesting to note that the style of decoration on the seed jars at left typifies many of the main qualities of Anasazi, Hopi and Navajo art.  The majority of the decorations are stylized in a geometric fashion, (designs based on geometric forms such as circles, squares and counterbalancing curves.)  The pots are also decorated with some naturally occurring repeating designs found in nature, such as wave forms, but, may also incorporate manmade things found in the environment such as block forms used in buildings.  

Some pots, such as the top most seed jar incorporate the naturalistic depiction of lizards (such as the three dimensional lizard handle on top) which is counterbalanced with the flat geometrically stylized painting of the lizard on the bottom of the jar.  

Iconography:  Based on contemporary Navajo interpretations, here is a chart that may describe what each pattern means.


Border Patterns are used by weavers and silversmiths to establish boundaries and as designs in their own right.  The Hopi silversmiths, especially, have made great use of these foreground/background patterns in their overly jewelry. Many of the recurring spirals and whorls are connected with bean sprouts, life springing out, cycles of life, and eternal renewal.  We call this one "Greek key".
Border Pattern, Spirals, whirlwinds, renewal, water
Border Pattern, kiva steps, or Clouds, direction and change
Border Pattern, Waves, spirals, water and cycles, life and renewal

Context:  These pots are called seed jars because they were used to contain seeds.   The pots were suspended from the roof poles by leather thongs to thwart rodents.  The lizard on top of the jars may serve a protecting function since some lizards eat rodents.

Women made the pottery in the Anasazi culture.  The iconography of the pottery is probably based on the immediate environment the potters experienced. 

Some iconographic symbols from the modern day Navajo culture which will help you to understand the next section.

Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a spirit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony acheived is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.
The Hand, represents the presence of man, his work, his acheivements, his legacy.  It also represents the direction of the creative spirit through a man, as a vessel for the Creators power. 

(Pay attention to this symbol because you will see it again in Paleothic Cave paintings).

Feathers, depicted in many, many ways, are symbols of prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas.  They represent the Creative Force, and are taken from birds connected with the attribute for which they might be utilized: goose flight feathers to fledge an arrow because of the long flights of the geese; Eagle feathers for honor or to connect the user with the Creator, Turkey feathers to decorate a kachina mask. As design elements, they may appear plain, banded, barred, or decorated.
Pahos or Prayer Sticks, are carefully notched and painted cottonwood or cedar sticks with specific feathers attached to catch the wind.  They are planted in the ground at religious sites, and at springs to carry specific prayers to the Creator or to the Kachinas.  Their forms are found in many Pueblo and Navajo designs.


Kiva painting from Kuana Pueblo Bonito
1300 CE - 1500 CE
SW United States
Anasazi Culture
Classic Pueblo period
Form:  This painting is very one dimensional and no sense of space is created.  The depictions of the animals and human figures are diagrammatic, flat, and without shading.  The forms tend to be stylized in a geometric fashion.  The colors are muted and generally in shades of brown because the pigments used to color the murals were created from minerals and naturally occurring dyes found in their environment.

Iconography:  There is no standard or accepted interpretation of the mural's iconography.  Interpretations based on contemporary Navajo symbols indicate that the central large figure may represent a thunder god or a person praying or performing a ritual.  In the figures right hand is a figure that looks very similar to the yei figures from the Navajo "Whirling Logs" blanket shown below.  The figure is also holding a prayer stick similar to the yei figures.   A bird descends from the right with water, a god may have sent him or he may be a god.  The eagle on the right has seeds, arrows, and a rainbow coming out of his mouth.  This and the fish in the middle represent the desire of the Anasazi for fertile earth. 


Context:  The murals in kivas were painted over at various times and this layering presents a time table for art historians.  These paintings may show a culture preoccupied with irrigation systems and agriculture.  The reasons for making a mural within the underground Kiva maybe similar in nature to the reasons why Catholic and Christian churches are adorned with wall paintings.  The murals serve several purposes.  The murals are didactic. They instruct, indoctrinate, and educate the worshippers in the stories and symbols used in the Anasazi religion.  The creation of the mural may have been a form of worship as well.  Many cultures throughout the globe use religious art for the same reasons.
The Navajo are the descendents of the Anasazi.  According to the Brittanica Encyclopedia the Navajo are,
also spelled NAVAHO, the most populous of all Indian groups in the United States, with about 170,000 individuals in the late 20th century scattered throughout northwestern New Mexico, Arizona, and southeastern Utah. The Navajo speak an Apachean language, which, like the language of their Apache cousins, is classified in the Athabascan family. It is uncertain when the Navajo and Apache migrated to the Southwest from Canada, where most other Athabascan-speaking Indians still live, but it was probably between AD 900 and 1200. Those early Navajo would have borne more resemblance to contemporary Apache than to contemporary Navajo, because the Navajo came under the strong influence of the Pueblo Indians. These Pueblo influences included farming as the primary mode of subsistence, with a concomitant trend toward a sedentary existence. In historical times, farming has been supplemented--and, in some regions, superseded--by herding of sheep, goats, and cattle.

The Navajo resemble other Apachean peoples in their lack of a centralized tribal or political organization. Formerly, they were organized into small bands of related kinsmen, with local headmen. Similar groups, based on locality of residence rather than kinship, still exist, and many of these local groups have elected headmen. A Navajo local group is not a village or town but rather a collection of dwellings scattered over a wide area.

Navajo contacts with Pueblo Indians are recorded at least as early as the 17th century, when refugees from some of the Rio Grande Pueblos came to the Navajo after the Spanish suppression of the Pueblo Revolt. During the 18th century, some Hopi Indians left their mesas because of drought and famine and came to live with the Navajo, particularly in Canyon de Chelly in northeast Arizona. These Pueblo visits influenced the Navajo not only in agriculture but also in the arts. Painted pottery and the famous Navajo rugs, as well as elements of Navajo ceremonialism such as dry-sand painting, are all products of these contacts. Another famous Navajo craft, silversmithing, dates from the middle of the 19th century and was probably first learned from Mexican smiths.

The Navajo religious system was intricate. Some of the many myths related the emergence of the first people from various worlds beneath the surface of the earth; other stories justified the numerous rites that were performed. Some of these were simple rituals carried out by individuals or families for luck in travel, trade, and gambling and for protection of crops and herds. The more complex rites demanded a specialist, who was paid according to his skill and the length of the ceremonial. Most rites were primarily for curing bodily and psychiatric illness. In other ceremonies there were simply prayers or songs, and dry paintings might be made of pollen and flower petals. In some cases there were public dances and exhibitions at which hundreds or thousands of Navajo gathered. Many of the rites are still performed.

Although the Navajo never raided as extensively as the Apache, their raiding was serious enough to cause the U.S. government in 1863 to order Colonel Kit Carson to subdue them. This order resulted in the destruction of large amounts of crops and herds and the incarceration of about 8,000 Navajo, along with 400 Mescalero Apache, at Bosque Redondo, 180 miles (290 km) south of Santa Fe, N.M. This four-year (1864-68) captivity left a legacy of bitterness and distrust that has still not entirely disappeared.

The Navajo Reservation and government-allotted lands in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah today total more than 24,000 square miles (64,000 square km). The region, however, is mainly arid and generally will not support enough agriculture and livestock to provide a livelihood for everyone. Thousands earn their living as transient workers away from the Navajo country, and appreciable numbers have settled on irrigated lands along the lower Colorado River and in such places as Los Angeles and Kansas City, Mo. Compare Apache; Hopi; Pueblo Indians.

Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Sand Paintings
SW United States
Navajo Culture

Form:  The paintings are made out of colored sand that is placed on the ground in a pattern.  They are usually fairly symmetrical and use several different colors.  The pigments are made from, charcoal, colored sands and pollen. 

Iconography:  The painting itself is an icon of supernatural or religious power.  It is both a symbol and a space that can be inhabited.  The ritualized creation of the painting symbolizes and focuses the priests' powers and is physical evidence of it. The wiping away of the sand at the end of the ritual may be symbolic for the wiping away of the problem and the cleaning of the area after may be symbolic of purification or cleansing.

If you look closely you may recognize that some of the symbols are similar to the symbols that we looked at for the Anasazi culture.  Primarily you can see a yeii spirit and feathers.

Navajo Yeii Spirit, is a depiction of a spirit considered by the Navajo to be a go-between between man and the creator.  Yeiis control natural forces in and on the earth, such as day and night, rain, wind, sun, etc.  A very special kind of yeii is the Yei'bi'chai, grandparent spirit or "talking God" who can speak with man, telling him how to live in harmony with all living things by following a few rules of behavior and using only the basic things he needs to survive.  A symbol of the harmony acheived is the "Rainbow Man", a yeii controlling the rainbow, who gives beauty to those in harmony.

Feathers, depicted in many, many ways, are symbols of prayers, marks of honor or sources of ideas.  They represent the Creative Force, and are taken from birds connected with the attribute for which they might be utilized: goose flight feathers to fledge an arrow because of the long flights of the geese; Eagle feathers for honor or to connect the user with the Creator, Turkey feathers to decorate a kachina mask. As design elements, they may appear plain, banded, barred, or decorated.

Context:  Sand paintings were made by shamans to perform rituals and effect events beyond physical or natural control.  For example if someone was sick the shaman would make a sand painting and have the sick person sit in the center of it.  Then he would chant over the person for hours or even days.  When the ritual was completed he would wipe the sand away from the area and then clean it thoroughly.

According to the Brittanica,

among several Plains and California Indian tribes. Although sand painting is an art form, it is valued among the Indians primarily for religious rather than aesthetic reasons. Its main function is in connection with healing ceremonies.

Sand paintings are stylized, symbolic pictures prepared by trickling small quantities of crushed, coloured sandstone, charcoal, pollen, or other dry materials in white, blue, yellow, black, and red hues on a background of clean, smoothed sand. About 600 different pictures are known, consisting of various representations of deities, animals, lightning, rainbows, plants, and other symbols described in the chants that accompany various rites. In healing, the choice of the particular painting is left to the curer. Upon completion of the picture, the patient sits on the centre of the painting, and sand from the painting is applied to parts of his body. When the ritual is completed, the painting is destroyed.

For years the Indians would not allow permanent, exact copies of sand paintings to be made. When the designs were copied in rugs, an error was deliberately made so that the original design would still be powerful. Today many of the paintings have been copied both to preserve the art and for the record. 

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Navajo Eye Dazzler Blanket c 1880's

Context:  The following contextual analysis is a really great example of art historian Ernst Gombrich's theory of schema and correction.

By the early twentieth century Navajo culture had altered radically because of forced movements on to reservations and the introduction of European sheep into the Navajo economy.  A byproduct of this was that the Navajo women began to weave and make blankets from the wool of these sheep.  The original blankets were based in dull colored dyes but later on developed into brighter colors.  These blankets were referred to as "Eye Dazzler" blankets and were sold to tourists to supplement income.

"Like all things Navajo, the weaving of a rug involves both the spiritual and temporal world. From the spiritual side, the Navajos believe that the art of weaving was passed on to them by Spider Woman, a deity of the Navajo emergence story. From a temporal view, they respond to both artistic pride and augmentation of their meager income."

In 1930 Franc J. Newcomb began to glue the sand down in order to preserve the traditions which were now being threatened by the assimilation of the Navajo people into mainstream US culture.  In 1919 another Navajo shaman-singer, Hosteen Klah, combined the new tradition of weaving with the older one of sand painting and began to make weavings of sand painting to help preserve their traditions.  Unfortunately this was greeted with mixed reaction because weaving was considered a female art and also because creating permanent works based on ritual was considered blasphemous by some.

According to the Brittanica, Navajo weavings are,

blankets and rugs made by the Navajo and thought to be some of the most colourful and best-made textiles produced by North American Indians. The Navajo, formerly a seminomadic tribe, settled in the southwestern United States in the 10th and 11th centuries and were well established by 1500. With a new life as a sedentary and agricultural people, the tribe began to practice weaving, which had been virtually unknown to them, learning from the Hopi how to build looms and construct fabrics on a large scale. The introduction of domestic sheep by Europeans revolutionized weaving by making a steady supply of wool available, and the Navajo began to raise sheep for wool.

The Hopi had limited their designs to striped patterns, but the Navajo introduced geometric shapes, diamonds, lozenges, and zig-zags. Symbolic representations of such phenomena as the elements, the seasons, and the times of day did not develop until about 1820. Mexican design influenced Navajo weaving.

Before 1800, Navajo blankets were largely made of natural-coloured wool--black, white, and a mixture of the two that produced gray; a limited amount of dyeing was done, with roots, herbs, and minerals from the rich soil of the area, primarily producing dark colours, like those of the Hopi. Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, however, red bayeta cloth purchased from the Spaniards was unraveled and the thread used to make Navajo textiles. The introduction of aniline dyes in the late 19th century led to a period in Navajo weaving characterized by bright and even gaudy designs. Vividly coloured yarns were used to weave into the rugs and blankets a broad range of decorative motifs based on commonplace modern objects; representations of automobiles, bottles, tomato cans, and airplanes, for example, found their way into the formerly dignified and restrained fabrics.

More traditional, geometric designs subsequently regained their popularity and are once again the dominant patterns. Weaving remains a vital aspect of contemporary Navajo community life and of its economy.

Copyright © 1994-2001 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Contemporary Whirling Logs
Whirling Logs
1990's CE
SW United States
Navajo Culture
Form:  The rug is nearly symmetrical and is stylized.  The figures are stylized in a geometric fashion and the colors are bright.  This is important because the colors used on this rug would be slightly different from the colors used in the sandpainting on which it is based.  Nevertheless, the original colors, were based on the natural dyes or substances found and associated with each character on the rug.  Slight errors were introduced into the rugs and permanent sand paintings in order to discharge some of the spiritual energy created by these paintings and weavings.

Iconography:  The swastika like whirling log motif is visually similar to icons from many cultures, it stands for the cycle of life, seasons, winds, and most frequently an unstoppable force.  The iconography of color is based on the colors of the four holy plants, black tobacco, blue beans, yellow squash, and white corn.

This particular blanket is based on a fertility ritual.  The object of the ritual was to insure a good harvest or to create fertility in an individual. 


"The whirling log episode is most readily identified with the Nightway chant, where it appears on the sixth night. The sandpainting of the whirling logs also appears in the Feather or Plumeway and Waterway chants. It is also called the Floating Logs episode."

"In the sandpainting, you will see the gods, clockwise from the top, they are Talking God (B'ganaskiddy), the teacher; and at the bottom, Calling God (Hastye-o-gahn), associated with farming and fertility. On each side, left and right, are two humpbacked guardians, dressed alike. The humps are usually regarded as back-packs. They are the seed gatherers and bearers. The two guardians usually carry tobacco pouches.

The Gods carry prayer sticks, Talking God, elder of the Gods, carries a medicine pouch in the shape of a weasel.

Where the rivers met, the hero came upon a whirling cross with two Yeiis seated on each of the four ends. From them, he learned the knowledge of farming and is given seeds. He then returns to his home to share these gifts with his people. The yei pair are male and female. The male in black, with a round head mask. The female has a square head mask.

In the sandpaintings, these plants are shown, from the right of Talking God as corn, and clockwise as beans, squash, and tobacco. The plants, and/or other elements of the design are shown in the four sacred colors, white, blue, yellow and black, according to their cardinal positions.

On the right side, bottom, and left side of the sandpainting is portrayed the Rainbow Yei, a guardian god. There is sometimes a circle drawn, and painted blue, at the intersection of the cross, said to represent the whirlpool which was the destination of the episode's hero.

Figures in Navajo sandpaintings generally proceed either towards the sunrise or clockwise, depending upon the viewers orientation. For the Navajo, the cardinal directions start in the east (as opposed to our north), and the east is usually shown at the top of a sandpainting, and open (to let in the dawn's light). This is the same orientation of a hogan, whose door is always in the east."

Kachina Palhik' mama 
(Water Drinking Girl)
1920 CE
approximately 12" tall
wool, paint, carved wood
SW United States
Hopi Culture
Form: On-line students will have to do a formal analysis of this work on the worksheet.  You will have to describe, what it's made of, it's size, it's naturalism and or it's stylization.  You may want to look at the see jar above to see how naturalism and stylization both occur in this work. 

Iconography:  The figure is an icon of a god.  (I need to do more research to find out specifics concerning this god/character.  If you find something I may give you extra credit if you e-mail an essay or some links to me with a summary of what you've found.

Context:  When Europeans began to assimilate indians they began producing these Kachina ("Ka" - meaning respect and "china" - meaning spiritual) dolls to teach children about the gods in an covert way.  The children could play with their dolls and learn of their history as well.

According to the Brittanica Encyclopedia the kachina,

in Pueblo Indian religious practice, any of more than 500 divine ancestral spirits who act as intermediaries between man and god. Each tribe has its distinct forms and variations. Kachinas are believed to reside with the tribe for half of each year. They will allow themselves to be seen by the community if the men properly perform a traditional ritual while wearing kachina masks. The being depicted on the mask is thought to be actually present with the performer, temporarily transforming him. Kachinas are also depicted in small, ornamented carved-wood dolls, which are made by the men of the tribe and presented to the children. These wooden dolls are intended both as playthings and as devices to teach the identities of the kachinas and the symbolism of their costumes. The identity of the spirit is depicted not by the form of the doll, which is usually simple and flat, but primarily by the applied colour and elaborate feather, leather, and, occasionally, fabric ornamentation of its mask.

Glossary (not in alphabetical order)

  Web ArtLex
BCE:     Before Common Era.  Equivalent to BC.  Moves backward in time.

CE:     Common Era.  Equivalent to AD.  Moves forward in time.

ash.lar n [ME asheler, fr. MF aisselier traverse beam, fr. OF, fr. ais board, fr. L axis, alter. of assis] (14c) 1: hewn or squared stone; also: masonry of such stone 2: a thin squared and dressed stone for facing a wall of rubble or brick 

Ashlars are a type of masonry or stonework consisting of alternating courses of stone or brick blocks.

Coil method:    This method consists of making a long snake like form out of clay and spiraling it around a hollow core.  The coils were then smoothed out.  The pots were then fired, probably in a pit, and glazed with a thin coating of watered down clay called slip or engobe.

di.dac.tic adj [Gk didaktikos, fr. didaskein to teach] (1658) 1 a: designed or intended to teach b: intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment 2: making moral observations -- adj -- adv -- di.dac.ti.cism n 

geo.met.ric or adj (14c) 1 a: of, relating to, or according to the methods or principles of geometry b: increasing in a geometric progression <~ population growth> 2 cap: of or relating to a style of ancient Greek pottery characterized by geometric decorative motifs 3 a: utilizing rectilinear or simple curvilinear motifs or outlines in design b: of or relating to art based on simple geometric shapes (as straight lines, circles, or squares) <~ abstractions> -- adv 

Consisting mainly of geometric shapes, such as squares, rectangles, triangles, etc.


(1) : orderly method of arrangement (as in the presentation of ideas) : manner of coordinating elements (as of an artistic production or course of reasoning)
(2) : a particular kind or instance of such arrangement <the sonnet is a poetical form>
b : PATTERN, SCHEMA <arguments of the same logical form>
c : the structural element, plan, or design of a work of art --  visible and measurable unit defined by a contour : a bounded surface or volume
(3) The literal shape and mass of an object or figure.
(4) More general, the materials used to make a work of art, the ways in which these materials are used utilized in terms of the formal elements (line, light, color, texture, size and composition.)

formal analysis Analyzing a work's physical properties, such as its color, shape, lines, texture, composition and decoration.  Is the analysis of a work by discussing its form such as its shape, lines, color, texture and composition.

context Etymology: Middle English, weaving together of words, from Latin contextus connection of words, coherence, from contexere to weave together, from com- + texere to weave 1 : the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning  2 : the interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs : ENVIRONMENT, SETTING

contextual analysis Is the analysis of a work by discussing its history, culture and or background.

horror vacui:     A fear of empty spaces.  When something is completely covered with decoration.

icon- or icono- comb form [Gk eikon-, eikono-, fr. eikon-, eikon]: image <iconolatry> 
icon n [L, fr. Gk eikon, fr. eikenai to resemble] (1572) 1: a usu. pictorial representation: image 2: a conventional religious image typically painted on a small wooden panel and used in the devotions of Eastern Christians 3: an object of uncritical devotion: idol 4: emblem, symbol <the house became an ~ of 1860's residential architecture --Paul Goldberger> 5 a: a sign (as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning b: a graphic symbol on a computer display screen that suggests the purpose of an available function -- icon.ic adj -- adv 
Icon:     An icon is a symbol.  For example, the American flag is an icon that represents or symbolizes America.

ico.nog.ra.phy n, pl -phies [ML iconographia, fr. Gk eikonographia sketch, description, fr. eikonographein to describe, fr. eikon- + graphein to write--more at carve] (1678) 1: pictorial material relating to or illustrating a subject 2: the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a subject and esp. a religious or legendary subject 3: the imagery or symbolism of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art 4: iconology 

Iconographic analysis:     Analyzing a work's icons to develop a fuller understanding of the piece.  For example, although the American flag is an icon, the stars and stripes on the flag are also icons.  The stars represent the states in the unions and the red bands symbolize the blood shed for freedom.

Naturalistic:     Almost the same as realistic.  A style that mimics nature or forms found in nature.

Schema and correction:     A theory developed by Ernst Gombrich.  Schema refers to the original plan or idea of something and correction refers to the changes that were made to that original plan.

Stylized:     Rendering an artistic idea as opposed to rendering naturalistically.  To change the appearance or distort an image sometimes in a geometric or curvilinear way.

styl.ize vt styl.ized ; (1898): to conform to a conventional style; specif: to represent or design according to a style or stylistic pattern rather than according to nature or tradition -- n 

Symmetry:     Is when one side of something is exactly like the other side.