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Basketry Treasured at the Arizona State Museum

The Craft of Basketry

3.5 foot tall handmade olla.

Basketry is among the oldest human crafts on earth. Both utilitarian and artistic, baskets served as transport, storage, and ceremonial vessels as well as decorative objects. Basketry is a technology that cannot be mechanized with the same results. This skill continues to be taught and developed in indigenous communities.

Almost every American Indian tribe who inhabited the Southwest has produced intricate woven baskets, and many continue to do so. A few of these artifacts, such as Basketmaker sandals, have lasted hundreds, even thousands of years. The baskets have intrinsic value but they also provide insight to the daily lives of ancient cultures. The Arizona State Museum writes: “Weavings can tell us a lot about what kinds of food the people gathered, stored and ate; where they gathered resources; what they wore; how homes were furnished; how they expressed themselves creatively and spiritually; and many other details of their lives. Deciphering the details of technology, material choice, and design on a basket can provide tremendous information about its maker.”

Basketry Treasured Exhibition

Arizona State MuseumArizona Historical Advisory Commission—Legacy Project

Arizona State Museum (ASM) at the University of Arizona houses some of world’s most significant collections of artifacts representing indigenous cultures of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Twenty thousand pieces from the basketry collection were collectively named an American Treasure in 2000.

The Basketry Treasured exhibition, running from April 28, 2012 to June 1, 2013, honors the state’s centennial by celebrating a variety of North American basketry traditions. Curators have selected 500 remarkable pieces out of 25,000 specimens to display. The exhibition is drawn from the spectrum of woven materials. On display are baskets, cradleboards, sandals, mats, cordage, and preserved fibers representing every indigenous basket-making group in North America from 6,000 years ago to the present.

Basketmaker sandals.

Baskets, sandals, and other fiber arts made by the prehistoric cultures of Basketmaker (including the Anasazi), Hohokam, Mogollon, ancestral Pueblo, including the Salado and Sinagua, are displayed in the exhibition hall. Many of these tribes practiced a combination of semi-nomadic hunting and gathering and floodplain agriculture or dry farming for sustenance.

The collection's oldest objects are hundreds of ancient Basketmaker (ca. 1000 B.C.E.–850 C.E.) sandals made by a combination of plain weave and alternate pair twining of finely spun yucca fiber cordage. The raised, sometimes colored, designs on the soles of these sandals, in addition to being an expression of the makers' artistic sensibilities, may also have served to uniquely identify sandals and their weavers.

Pieces from modern cultures including the Akimel O’odham (Pima); Western, Chiricahua, Jicarilla, and Mescalero Apaches; Chemehuevi; Cocopah; Havasupai; Hopi; Hualapai; Navajo; Pascua Yaqui; Pueblo; Quechan; Southern Paiute; Tohono O’odham; Yavapai; and Zuni show the recent history and the modern expressions of the craft.

Weavers use  a number of native fibers in weaving techniques to create distinctive styles and patterns. Yucca leaf, cottonwood, rabbitbush, beargrass, and other fibers provide basketweaving cordage that is plaited, twined, wickered, or coiled. Open the Basketry Treasured Gallery Guide (PDF) to explore techniques, materials, contemporary weavers, and more.

The museum’s largest example is a stunning Yavapai or Western Apache coiled olla [a container with a belly wider than the neck often used for cooking or storing food or water] that is almost 3.5 feet tall. It probably was made just after 1900 by an anonymous but extremely talented weaver who may have lived at San Carlos, Arizona. Discover more about the Basketry Treasured exhibition.

Download the Basketry Treasured Gallery Guide.

Hopi-Tewa pottery by the Nampeyo family, c. 1900–1930.

Other Collections at the Arizona State Museum

Arizona State Museum holds the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southwestern pottery in the world. Over 20,000 vessels representing 2,000 years of the craft are accessible to the public through a climate-controlled display wall, a visible storage vault, and a dedicated exhibition gallery. Arizona State Museum conservator and professor Nancy Odegaard calls it the most complete Southwest collection anywhere.

Preserving History with the Woven Wonders Project

Arizona State Museum (ASM) The Woven Wonders Preservation Initiative is finding new ways to protect these historic objects. Although our dry climate goes far towards preserving ancient fibers, natural deterioration is inevitable. Archaic fibers are so rare because they become brittle and break down as they age. ASM conservators have been innovating a process to arrest this deterioration by experimenting with methods of de-acidification for cordage and basketry materials. ASM is the first institution to extensively test the use of nanoparticles to de-acidify ancient fibers. It is also striving to create a climate controlled environment to further slow deterioration. This research benefits museum collections worldwide.

Save America’s TreasureThe museum, which is housed in two historic buildings on the University of Arizona campus, both on the National Register of Historic Places, has received a $400,000 grant from the federal preservation competition Save America’s Treasure to renovate the interior for maximum climate control. ASM is seeking an additional $500,000 to complete the work.

Basketry Exhibit at the Arizona State Museum
Late archaic period seed jar with red and black geometric decoration, McEuen Cave, Graham Co., AZ, ca. 400 C.E. Late Basketmaker coiled bowl with geometric decoration, Vandal Cave, Apache Co., AZ, ca. 450–750 C.E. This Anasazi (Ancestral Pueblo) plaited ring basket, showing obvious damage, is 800–1000 years old. Western Apache bowl, ca 1900. One of 87 baskets donated by Arizona's first state governor George W. P. Hunt. Pima (Akimel O'odham) bowl basket, ca. 1900. Photo by Jannelle Weakly, from the permanent collections of Arizona State Museum. The museum’s smallest example is a coiled willow Pomo basket (1924–1925) of impressively small dimension, about the size of the lentil shown with it here. ASM's examples of braided H-strap sandals from the Sinagua culture are very rare. Hopi wicker bowl with eagle design, ca. 1960. 3.5 foot tall handmade olla.