From the fiery alchemy of volcanic ash, pumice and basalt come the whispers of the ancestors.
Former Jemez Pueblo governor Joshua Madalena has recaptured an art form lost for 300 years: the pueblo’s original black-on-white pottery.
Even more significantly, the broken shards and chips that led him to the clay’s original recipe allow the Jemez people to trace their history back to northern Utah’s Fremont culture before 200 A.D.
Madalena’s discovery came through 10 years of painstaking research and experimentation, cracked sides and explosive firings.
“When we revived this pottery, we got our identity back,” he said. “It gives us the connection back to our ancestors. We can prove we have direct ancestry to the Anasazi people at Mesa Verde. We are the only tribe in the U.S. that can claim direct descendants of the Fremont culture.”
Pair the revived pottery with the Towa language for more evidence that the Jemez descend from the pre-Columbian Fremont period, said Eric Blinman, director of the State Office of Archeological Studies.
“They reinforce each other,” he said.
Blinman has watched Madalena’s progress over the years.
“He would bring things to me to criticize,” he said. “He would ask me questions about other black-on-white traditions. But he never asked me for advice.”
From 600 to 900 A.D., the people who spoke the Tewa and Tiwa languages broke off from the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains to create the northern Rio Grande pueblos, he explained. The more conservative Towa-speakers remained in the San Juan River basin near Gallina.
Madalena’s discovery is as important as Maria Martinez’ famous pottery revival at San Ildefonso Pueblo in the teens and 1920s, said Matthew Barbour, an archaeologist and manager of the Jemez Historic Site.
“When you look at historic sites at Mesa Verde and the Fremont petroglyphs, you’re looking at ancestors or close relatives of the Jemez,” he said. “They share similarities in their culture and their symbology, which makes archaeologists take note. The Jemez were so culturally conservative that the legacy traces back very well. Nobody else makes Jemez black on white.”
Visitors to the adobe home Madalena built 18 years ago see a mammoth 24- by 22-inch black-on-white corn vase perched on a foyer pedestal. A smaller bowl cradles cornmeal for prayer. Half a dozen jars and bowls, large and small, embellish the dining room table.
A self-taught archaeologist who served as pueblo governor in 2010, 2012 and 2014, Madalena was a Sandoval County commissioner from 2004 to 2008.
He also worked as a special research assistant to the pueblo archaeologist. The pair traveled the world, while Madalena absorbed information and techniques.
The distinctive black-on-white pottery thrived from 1300 to 1700. It vanished with the Spanish reconquest.
“We were oppressed,” Madalena said. “The black-on-white pottery was one of the casualties. We managed to save our language and our culture, but the pottery was lost.”
The Jemez people originally lived atop the mesas that tower over the current village in the valley along Jemez Creek. The Spanish conquistadors drove them to lower altitudes in order to convert them to Catholicism. Pottery shards still tile the mesa tops like ancient tablets of a lost culture.
Madalena climbed those mesas as part of his research.
“I would ask the ancestors permission to take a pottery shard,” he said.
Then he discovered the original mine on a mesa top near the village.
He spiraled the clay into a pot using the traditional coil method, added a white slip, then polished his first piece with a stone.
He gleaned paint formulas from his grandmother, known as one of the finest storytellers at Jemez: a combination of roots and bee weed, boiled and extracted to the consistency of molasses.
“It’s kind of like painting with honey,” he said. “It’s sticky.”
The straight lines, triangles and animal motifs reflect pictographs and petroglyphs as well as ancient pottery shards.
“They would paint their desires, their hopes, their wants,” Madalena explained, “like courage, unity, mountains, the stories of elders. I consider it like an encyclopedia because it gives you information from the past.”
Traditional pit firing would prove even more difficult.
“I probably broke over 200 pieces of pottery,” Madalena said. “The first time I fired a piece, I heard it crack. I didn’t know what I was doing. It popped, it cracked and it fell on the ground.”
Frustrated, he threw some dirt over the broken piece, then walked home. When he returned in the morning, it was black.
Today he smothers the pottery with dirt.
He took his first pieces for a talk at the 2009 Santa Fe Indian Market. In 2012, he won the Lifetime Achievement Allen Houser Legacy Award from the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, the market’s umbrella organization. He also took the First Place Award for pottery.
The Amarind Museum east of Tucson, Ariz., is showing Madalena’s pottery in a ceramic revival exhibition that includes works by Maria Martinez (San Ildefonso), Nampeyo (Hopi), Ida Redbird (Maricopa) and Juan Quezada (Mata Ortiz).
Madalena hopes the findings encourage other pueblo people to rediscover the pottery. His 2-year-old grandson Liam already has his hands in the clay.
“No pottery that has been made in the last 100 years has done what we’ve done,” he said. “This is to pay tribute to the ancestors for all their sacrifices.”