By Lee Allen -- Today correspondent
TUCSON, Ariz. - It's called ''The Pottery Project: 2,000 Years - 20,000 Vessels''; and while China may have its ancient Great Wall, the Arizona State Museum in Tucson has its brand-new Great Wall of Pots.
The wall, actually a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall display of whole-vessel ceramics, is just a portion of the pottery that spans 2,000 years of life in the unique environments of the American desert Southwest and northern Mexico. ''Every one of the contemporary tribes in the Southwest that makes pottery is represented here in the largest and most comprehensive collection on Southwest cultures anywhere,'' conservator Nancy Odegaard said. ''You can find other fantastic museum collections elsewhere, but ours is far-reaching and outstanding in the breadth of our older works. Our oldest vessel, discovered not far away from the museum location on the University of Arizona campus, is about 2,000 years old.''
The collection, representing prehistoric cultures like the Hohokam, Mogollon and Ancestral Pueblo, as well as other historical but more contemporary cultural groups, is one of the nation's most significant resources of this art form. It has been designated an official project of the Save America's Treasures program to celebrate and preserve our nation's cultural legacy. Saving historical treasures - in this case, pottery - has been likened to modern-day microchips, where the tiniest piece of pottery holds an amazing amount of information. Each sherd might reveal something from the past that could result in new understandings of what came before and what it could mean to the future.
''The Pottery Project is a critical step in the museum's efforts to secure its collections and make them more accessible to the public,'' said museum director Hartman Lomawaima, a Hopi (Bear Clan) member from northern Arizona's 2nd Mesa, who has been in the museum field since his student excavation days in the early 1970s.
While additional fund-raising is ongoing, Lomawaima is especially proud of a historic partnership formed to help with initial financing. ''The Ak-Chin, Gila River and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian communities contributed $675,000 to the effort, helping match a $700,000 Heritage Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It didn't take very long or require much convincing for the tribes to support the program,'' he said. ''In fact, Ak-Chin, the smallest Indian community in Arizona with only 400 people, jumped right in and challenged the others to join them. A lot of historic pottery from these three tribes is now housed in our facility.''
''We've got a few more footsteps to take [like completion of a multi-station Interpretive Center that will tell the story of pottery making in the Southwest from gathering clay to the finished product], but we're nearing the end of the path. I'm exhausted, but elated at what we've managed to accomplish; and our success in this $2.5 million renovation has begat additional success with available funding to construct one of the best conservation labs in the country and a climate-controlled, high-density compact shelving pottery vault for storage.''
Just in the nick of time apparently, as the collection, spread out in five storage areas in different buildings, was beginning to show serious signs of wear. ''What we were finding was some of the more fragile pottery samples were starting to deteriorate,'' said Odegaard, also a professor of Heritage Conservation Science. ''Soluble salts, the white powder that forms on brick buildings and patio pots, also shows up on old, porous earthenware pottery that isn't stored on special shelving under temperature and humidity control. Old adhesives where pots had been restored in the past had dried and were failing. Now storage air is filtered, humidity is controlled and our ancient displays are nestled gently atop padded pottery rings. As we've moved each item, we've had a chance to examine each piece, do any needed restoration and fully document its history.''
With the wall, the vault and the lab already in place, work is under way to complete the interpretive center stations - hopefully with interpretations of the pottery through the voices of contemporary Native American potters - in time for the grand unveiling. ''What is taking place here is a gallery that will very much warrant repeat visits,'' said Lomawaima, who contemplates a grand opening right after the New Year.
The Save America's Treasures pottery project was one of very few archaeological collections selected on the basis of national significance and a compelling case for preservation. As its Web site notes: ''It is one thing to read about our history in books. It is another to understand our history by seeing it, walking through it and experiencing it first-hand. Our important structures, original documents, works of art and authentic artifacts inspire us as nothing else can.''
As the Arizona State Museum notes in its brochure on The Pottery Project: ''This collection represents our shared cultural heritage and must be preserved for generations to come. Some of these objects have endured for hundreds of years. If they are lost, they are lost forever.''
Now they have a home.
For an online tour of a virtual gallery with 3-D pottery, visit www.statemuseum.arizona.edu/exhibits/pproj/index.asp.