2018 Ritzenthaler Museum Research Internship Award

Samantha Bomkamp is the 2018 Ritzenthaler Museum Research Internship Award Recipient. During the 2018 Spring Semester she worked with the Milwaukee Public Museum’s (MPM) Casas Grandes collection from Chihuahua, Mexico.  While the collection includes a variety of items such as shell jewelry, ceramic vessels and figurines, an axe, spindle whorls, agates, and potsherds, Samantha’s research focused on over 80 of the whole, mostly whole, or reconstructed vessels that date between the Viejo and Tardio periods (700-1660 A.D.).

Before Samantha started her research, little was known about the MPM’s collection since its arrival in the 1970s. All vessels were simply marked as “Casas Grandes”, referring to the cultural region; there was no provenience information and little information on Peter G. Wray, the collector of the majority of the artifacts. Unfortunately, Mr. Wray couldn’t be asked about the collection because he passed away in 2016. Further research is still being done, but this work will hopefully result in shared information between institutions that have materials from Mr. Wray. This includes the Detroit Institute of Arts, Howard Rose Gallery, Museum of Northern Arizona, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Ceramic analysis was conducted on each vessel to collect attribute data in order to determine typology and date. This included determining morphology, neck and rim shape, temper, exterior and interior treatment, paint, decoration type, texture, and measurements. A majority of vessels date to the Medio period (1250-1475 A.D.). This period was the height of the Casas Grandes culture and the period when ceramic vessels were the most ornate and variable, especially the beautiful polychrome and effigy vessels.

Research on this collection is important for many different reasons. The site of Casas Grandes (Paquimé) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was one of the largest centers in the Southwest during its time. The site had over 2,000 rooms and acted as a regional center to over 300 sites in the Casas Grandes region. Casas Grandes is also believed to have been a central trading site between the American Southwest and Mesoamerica. Paquimé is located in a prime location between the American Southwest and Mesoamerica; material remains have been found at Paquimé that make it clear that the two cultural regions shared trade goods and ideas. Because of these clear and intertwined relationships, researchers believe studying the Casas Grandes region is essential to understanding both the Southwest and Mesoamerica.

This internship has provided the basis for Samantha’s thesis research. The information learned through this project will help the MPM to understand these vessels, time periods, and overall region in more depth.  While the MPM does not currently have any Casas Grandes materials on exhibit, Samantha hopes that providing information on the collection will allow for it to be used for exhibit or programs in the near future.