A trove of ceramic tiles unearthed from Academy collections turns out to be from one of the most celebrated Native American potters in the United States.

It was a most sophisticated archaeological discovery. In February, two collectors from New Mexico were scouring the cool, comfortably lit storeroom of the Academy's anthropology department, when they stumbled upon an assortment of 70 hundred-year-old ceramic tiles in near-perfect condition. They were products of the Hopi, a Native American group that has lived in northeastern Arizona for centuries, yet the tile artisan, until now, had remained a mystery. Both experts on Southwestern artifacts, the researchers knew the exquisite artwork could be only that of Nampeyo, the matriarch of Hopi potters.

The identification of the pottery "broadens the range of known styles attributed to Nampeyo," which could help identify other collections elsewhere, says Academy anthropology collections manager Russell Hartman. The postcard-sized tiles, which depict animals, geometric designs, and deities, were originally purchased by Jacob and Maria Breid, who were resident doctors on the Hopi Indian Reservation from 1904 to 1906. The Breid's daughter donated them to the Academy in 1987.

Nampeyo (ca. 1860-1942) was an ordinary Hopi woman who readily responded to a growing interest in native pottery by early tourists and museums in the late 1800s. Her success was in the details. With nothing more than a section of yucca stem, its end chewed to give it rudimentary bristles, Nampeyo painted with the symmetry and precision of someone with a pencil and ruler. Her work would become a favorite among collectors, which as early as the 1890s, included the Smithsonian Institution.


Hopi tiles made by Nampeyo, ca. 1905