Janet Lever-Wood and Laurie Webster – “What’s in the Bag? A New Look at Ancient Bags through Museum Collections and Rock Art”

Basketmaker II human figure with bag, Grand Gulch, Utah. Credit: William D. Hyder, “Basketmaker Ceremonial Caves of Grand Gulch, Utah.” In Rock Art and Cultural Process, edited by Solveig Turpin, 2002.

Ancient bags are depicted in Southwestern rock art and have been recovered from many archaeological sites in the region. Despite their widespread presence in the prehispanic Southwest, little research has been conducted on their styles, archaeological contexts, and uses. Ethnographic research suggests they served as medicine bags, as containers for tool kits and foodstuffs, or simply to haul things around.  In indigenous Mexico and Guatemala, woven bags are traditionally a man’s accessory and often a male product.  What is the evidence for their use and production in the U.S. Southwest?

In this presentation, a rock-art researcher and an archaeological perishables specialist team up to explore a variety of questions related to bags. How are they depicted in rock art? What forms are portrayed? In what contexts do they occur? What kinds of archaeological examples survive in museum collections, how were they made, and what did they contain? Taken together, what do these multiple lines of evidence suggest about the uses of bags in the ancient Southwest?

Drawing from rock art images from the San Juan River corridor of southeastern Utah, depictions from other regions, the Southwestern archaeological literature, and ethnographic information from other parts of the world, we embark on a visual and cultural exploration of this rarely considered, but always ubiquitous,  item of material culture.

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