Treasures from the Basement: Kumeyaay/Tipai Pottery

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In the interest of full disclosure I should admit that this subject is quite close to my heart. I grew up in the Anza Borrego Desert and spent a healthy portion of my early life scouring dunes for arrowheads and potsherds at the intersection of the Desert Cahuilla territory in the north, the Kumeyaay/Tipai land in the south and the ancient shore of lake Cahuilla to the east. I was mesmerized by the evidence that this place, which seemed so inhospitable and sparsely populated in my own time, was once positively buzzing with human activity. So, if I wax too romantic I hope you will forgive me.

First, a word about names: if you’ve spent any time in the San Diego area you’re probably familiar with the inescapable Interstate 8, dubbed in that county “Kumeyaay Highway”. That is not an invalid designation, as its path from the Pacific to the Imperial Valley does roughly follow the territory of a particular band of the people in question, who now call themselves Kumeyaay, and further east its journey to the Colorado river again follows an important route used for trade further abroad. However, Kumeyaay, as it is used as a modern political designation does not nearly cover the scope of the territory the larger Tipai cultural group inhabited until roughly the middle of the 19th century.

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The Tipai, and their counterparts, the Ipai to the north, are to the best of our knowledge descended from the Patayan, a pre-contact cultural group closely related to the Hohokam (briefly discussed in this previous article) that originally occupied southwestern Arizona, but moved west toward the coast sometime around 700 C.E. The Patayan who would become the Tipai developed a highly distinctive semi-nomadic lifestyle in order to fully utilize the great variety of resources and environments (desert, mountains, coast) in such close proximity to each other. 

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An organization developed wherein bands divided their territory into several wide, east-west oriented strips of land that incorporated all three environments. These spanned from just north of the modern city of San Diego to roughly halfway between the Mexican border and Ensenada in Baja California. Thus each band could exploit the resources of each environment when it was in season, store the surplus, and move on to the next location to harvest. Crucial to that ability to store food and water was Tipai ceramic technology. The cultural group produced the largest and most durable ollas in southern California and had by far the greatest variety of documented forms. 

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Tipai pottery was utilitarian, intended to store water, mesquite beans, acorns and other natural resources for travel or caches to compensate for lean times, but this does not mean it is not beautiful. Though technically the available clays in southern California range from brown (mountains) to buff (desert), the diverse geology has granted a rainbow of inclusion from the familiar shimmering mica and jagged feldspar to peculiar oxidizations produced by local hot springs. Further still, the unpredictability of pit firing turns large ollas in to canvases where bands and spots of reactive clay provide organic abstraction. Tipai pottery was occasionally decorated with pigments as well, in designs that reflect their iconic rock art. These pieces are very rare and we do not have any in the Museum collection.

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It is a privilege to be able to work with these beautiful complete pieces of what I spent much of my young life collecting tiny shards of, and through them to gain an even better understanding of the land I came of age on. I’d like to particularly thank Don Liponi for the map of Kumeyaay territory and for his book La Rumorosa Rock Art Along the Border, which helped immensely in my research (I highly recommend it). You can learn more about the Kumeyaay/Tipai and their art on his website and more on the Kumeyaay today here.