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Historic Polychrome Zuni Rain Bird Jar


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  • Category: Historic
  • Origin: Zuni Pueblo
  • Medium: clay, pigment
  • Size: 9-½” height x 13-½” diameter
  • Item # SC4161A
  • Price: $12,500.00

Zuni Pueblo jars of the style of this one were apparently made earlier than 1875 and continued being made after 1900.  The main body design was named Rain Bird by H. P. Mera who published a comprehensive study of this design in 1937.  It appears that this design on almost every single jar is quite similar. Most documented jars with this design date to circa 1875 or earlier, however, this one has been estimated to circa 1890s-1900s.

Mera states that if one “Upon viewing, for the first time, a large collection of Pueblo pottery of the historic period gathered from the various villages where the art of the potter has been perpetuated for the last three centuries, one is very likely to be impressed by the seemingly endless variety of design.  A more critical study, however, discloses the fact that in reality astonishingly few basic elements were employed to produce complex design structures.” His point is well taken on jars with the Rain Bird design. As complicated as they seem, most are quite similar. Mera 1937

Mera further states that the Rain Bird design had its beginnings back to the early centuries of the Christian era.  These earlier designs were rudimentary, but one can see the beginnings of fine line elements with little attempt at organization.  As time progressed, to a thousand years later, these random designs began to assume more semblance of order. Eventually, the distal ends of straight lines began to curve, eventually leading to the volutes we see today in Zuni pottery.

It has been proved that the Tularosa people were ancestral to those of Zuni, but few elements from Tularosa pottery show up in historic Zuni wares except the curved elements of the head of the Rain Bird.  It is speculated that the use today of ancestral designs was and is an attempt to perpetuate a connection to tradition, first for ceremonial use, then later considered proper for secular use jars.

The head of the Rain Bird is the hook on the left of the design.  It is outlined in dark brown and filled with fine lines in a diagonal pattern.  The body is a zigzag elongated device filled with black parallel fine lines. There are three of these birds surrounding the body of the jar. The body of the bird is outlined in a narrow black line which is then outlined in a darker and wider black line.  This is very typical on most of the Rain Bird jars.

The neck design is a more stylized presentation of the beak of the bird or what is usually referred to as a volute.  Note the eye of the bird in the dark brown beak. The underbody of some of the pre-1860 jars was painted red, a color that essentially began to give way to black (dark brown) around 1865.   The color of the underbody of this jar is dark brown, the same color used in the body design.

There is a small outward curve at the rim of the jar and the rim is painted dark brown, the color extending down inside the rim.

Zuni jars with Rain Bird designs are among the most sought by collectors.  The design of the Rain Bird is always an appealing one and seems to focus the eye of the viewer on the large design.  It is perhaps the lack of many design elements and the focus on one major one that makes it so appealing.

Condition: this Historic Polychrome Zuni Rain Bird Jar is in very good condition

Provenance: from a gentleman in Santa Fe

Reference: THE ‘RAIN BIRD’: a Study in Pueblo Design by H. P. Mera.  Memoirs of the Laboratory of Anthropology, vol. 11. Santa Fé, New Mexico, 1937

Close up view of side panel design.

  • Category: Historic
  • Origin: Zuni Pueblo
  • Medium: clay, pigment
  • Size: 9-½” height x 13-½” diameter
  • Item # SC4161A
  • Price: $12,500.00

SC4161A-zuni.jpgSC4161A-large.jpg Click on image to view larger.