New Book by Southwest Scholars Explores the Phenomenon of Isomers in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery Design

Published January 19, 2019

SANTA FE — For the past two millennia the American Southwest has been home to one of the most vibrant and compelling peoples ever to have graced the earth. The vitality, distinctiveness, and resilience of Pueblo culture is apparent in its traditional pottery, a famous aspect of which is intricate painted designs. These designs, based on simple geometric forms, make Ancestral Pueblo pottery distinctive and easy to recognize.

Painted Reflections: Isomeric Design in Ancestral Pueblo Pottery by Scott G. Ortman and Joseph Traugott is the first book to contemplate a phenomenon they call isomeric design. The concept of isomeric design is based on an analogy with isomers in chemistry, which are chemically identical compounds that have mirror-image structures. In Ancestral Pueblo painting, isomeric design is the use of paired forms that can be perceived as reversible. These designs create optical illusions and figure-ground ambiguities that challenge conventional descriptions of Pueblo pottery. The authors apply archaeological research with art historical interpretation to investigate the perceptual relationships between painted and unpainted forms and emphasize the importance of unpainted elements for understanding Pueblo design.

Presenting one hundred examples of Pueblo pottery from various museum collections in the Southwest, Painted Reflections takes a closer look at the psychology, history, and cultural significance of this unique aspect of Ancestral Pueblo painting, providing fascinating insights into the very foundations of Pueblo culture.

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