The Ancestral Pueblo people who lived on the austere New Mexico landscape between the early 10th and early 14th centuries undoubtedly spent most of their time securing food, shelter, and clothing. But they also found time to make art.

“They made great art,” said Joseph Traugott, co-author of a new book about ancient Pueblo pottery. “It’s very important to understand that these are very sophisticated works of art that often have been simply attributed to a culture rather than to a maker.”

A thousand years ago, the Ancestral Pueblo artist dipped a brush cut from a yucca leaf into pigment. His palette of basic marks included stepped forms, zigzags, prongs, curvilinear and rectilinear spirals, and the fine parallel lines known as hachures. In the startling new book, Painted Reflections: Isomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery (Museum of New Mexico Press), artist and art historian Traugott and archaeologist Scott G. Ortman show that these painted patterns on bowls, jars, pitchers, and other pieces from the period are more than decoration or simple symbolism.

In fact, the imagery on these beautiful objects often reflected notions of the physical and spiritual worlds as represented through sophisticated patterns and the use of mirror-image designs, which echo beliefs about the inextricable relationship between those worlds. To express the latter, they borrow the term “isomeric” from chemistry: In that context, pairs of compounds are mirror images of each other. In the designs painted on these venerable artworks, we often see the manipulation of negative and positive space that creates the two-dimensional optical illusions in work by 20th-century artist M.C. Escher.

The optically energetic patterns on Ancestral Pueblo vessels point to advanced artistic ability. “Oftentimes people have looked at Ancestral Pueblo pottery as ‘Oh. Oh, that!’ But when you really look at it and think about it, it’s quite complex and very sophisticated,” said Traugott, who hopes to offer an exhibit of this pottery at the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in 2021.

To prepare readers for the challenging analysis, Ortman and Traugott’s first chapter, “Perceiving Isomeric Design,” is a short course in some complicated concepts, such as light-dark spatial illusion, border-contrast phenomena, the law of simplicity, and figure-ground illusion. Then, they divide Ancestral Pueblo pottery marks into several, often overlapping, design strategies that they believe the artists likely used to generate “optical dualities.”

A most helpful illustration of these obtuse concepts appears in a series of drawings by Traugott in chapter two, “Isomeric Design Strategies.” Each set of drawings demonstrates how complex tesselated patterns, for example, were built up by the artists, starting with simple lines on the bowl or jar. The progression of the patternmaking of even simple designs is often surprising.

“I had to reverse-engineer these designs,” Traugott said. “The simple ones were easy, but a couple of the really complex ones took two or three days to figure out.”

The dynamic variety on baked-clay works is on display in the final chapter, which boasts large photographs of 50 examples of Ancestral Pueblo pottery from the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the School for Advanced Research, the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, and other collections in the American Southwest. Each one is accompanied by an enlightening description, as well as a list of the relevant isomeric-design strategies and optical phenomena.

These lively designs, once understood, fueled Traugott’s explorations. “I was stunned because it reversed everything that we had been taught about looking at Pueblo pottery,” said Traugott, the former curator of 20th-century art at the New Mexico Museum of Art, a post he held for 17 years. “I saw the background as more important than the painted figures in some cases. It was amazing, and it’s so simple. You wonder why it didn’t happen before.”

One reason that these pattern phenomena were previously elusive is that archaeologists have typically found and examined pieces of broken pottery, not whole vessels, he said. “It’s much more difficult to see any of this when you only have a piece.”

The phenomenon of these figure-ground patterns becoming more vivacious — and perhaps more perplexing — as we study them has to do with the fact that we are accustomed to viewing dark writing on white pages. “Our minds are so conditioned to seeing figures on a ground that it’s hard to unlearn that to the point that you can effortlessly see these patterns in the way I think Pueblo people saw them in the past,” said Ortman, who worked with Traugott on the Painted Reflections project for seven years.

“I’m not sure that every artist that created these patterns did so intentionally or consciously, but I definitely think that the virtuosos of that world did, and were meditating on the philosophical dimensions of these phenomena and really trying to highlight them in ways that connected to other Pueblo people regarding the important ideas in their life.”

Isomeric design actually originated in pre-ceramics Pueblo culture — in the weaving of yucca-strip sifter baskets in about 1000 CE, according to Painted Reflections. The plaiting technique had been around for a long time, Ortman explained, and isomeric patterning just arose as an innovation. “A creative weaver noticed that if you play around with the skipping pattern in the plaiting process, you can create these complimentary figure-ground designs. Our suggestion is that Pueblo people really ran with that realization and elaborated on, or seized upon, the phenomenon as an expression of something deeper.”

One powerful instance of this relates to the ancestral spirit-beings known as katsinas, which, the authors write, “can see the true, internal states of community members regardless of their outward behavior.” And because of that, pretending to be good won’t work. “Rather, each person’s heart and mind must generate respectful and helpful thoughts for one’s surroundings and for other people.” The duality in isomeric designs reminded people, the authors wrote, of the mirror-image reality of the physical and spiritual worlds. The designs “became a powerful expression of, and aid to memory for, the accumulating philosophical and practical knowledge that made Ancestral Pueblo society possible.”

“Based on my understanding of contemporary Pueblo culture,” Ortman said, “this seems like a reasonable, informed speculation or interpretation of one of the messages the patterns were intended to convey or reinforce. Whether they were always explicit and discussed is an interesting question. In oral societies like these, there’s a real premium on compressing or zipping information. You sort of have to find how the important ideas that govern people’s lives need to be condensed and expressed in multivalent kinds of ways, simply because there’s a lot to know and they didn’t have libraries to go to.”

So these ideas about how to live were “zipped” into the pottery designs? “Yeah, in a sense,” Ortman said. “They were abstracted into it, as a means of remembering and thinking about something larger.” ◀


▼ Authors Scott G. Ortman and Joseph Traugott talk about Painted Reflections: Isomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery

6 p.m. Monday, May 13

Santa Fe Woman’s Club, 1616 Old Pecos Trail

$15; 505-466-2775,

Painted Reflections author presentation and book signing

6 p.m. Tuesday, May 14

Collected Works Bookstore & Coffeehouse, 202 Galisteo Street