I am standing on a terrace of land above the Gila River in southwestern New Mexico, not far from Silver City in terms of geography, but centuries away in terms of time. I am holding a 900-year-old potsherd in my hand and seriously considering — for the first time in my adult life — committing an act of pre-meditated theft.
Not even as big as the palm of my hand, the pothserd is warm from the sun and shaped a bit like an irregular triangle. Its edges are rubbed smooth by time and it is decorated with dark lines in a flowing curled design that could be just geometric or could be a wave breaking.
After a lifetime of plucking black and gray shark’s teeth from the rough sand of Atlantic Coast beaches, I am good at finding potsherds. The designs — especially the ones with black lines on white backgrounds — make them easy to see against the tawny earth. I have been making my way along the terrace, head bent, being so careful about where I put the soles of my clunky hiking boots that, to a casual observer, I probably look like I’m afraid of stepping on a lost contact lens.
I’ve found dozens of broken pieces of pottery in the last half hour. They are strewn among the wiry grasses and the pebbled dirt here in the Conservancy’s Gila Riparian Preserve exactly as if someone had opened a box and scattered a puzzle across the ground.
And up until a few minutes ago, I’d been a model of responsible hiking. Every time I found a new potsherd, I picked it up, touched the worn, broken edges with my finger tips and then, very carefully, put it back exactly as I had found it. If it was half-buried in the pebbly dirt, I slid it back into the hole I pulled it out of. If I found two pieces side-by-side, I only picked them up one at a time so I could be sure to put them back as they originally were. In situ.
It’s important to leave the things you find in situ — in place, in context — so perhaps you can tell how they were used or what they went with. When you remove things from their context, you destroy their connections. When looters, for example, or even, say, otherwise conscientious hikers with sudden kleptomaniacal tendencies, remove baskets or masks or jewelry or even potsherds from a site, they destroy an important part of an artifact’s story. They disconnect it from its history and destroy its meaning.
The story of the potsherds on this terrace of land, the little I know of it, belongs to the Mogollon people. They were Native Americans who lived along the rivers in parts of what are now New Mexico, Arizona and northern Mexico.
There are indications the Mogollon left this site along the Gila River sometime after 1100 A.D. Drought may have driven them out or they may have just exhausted the fragile resources here. They may have gone to Casas Grandes in Mexico or maybe to Hopi Lands in the north. No one knows for sure. All that’s left of their presence here are the potsherds.
Even in pieces, even after being scoured by nine centuries of sunlight and sand, the designs on the clay retain enough of the intricate art work to give us a sense of how magnificent the pottery was.
Of course, the potsherd in my hand — the one tempting me to jettison all my principles and possibly my job — has little or no monetary value. It’s the design I can’t let go of, the one that to my eyes looks like the perfect curl of a breaking wave. Here, in this desert place someone once lived and created a bowl that danced with ocean waves. The sense of connection is so unexpected and so striking that it almost feels as if the potsherd belongs to me. It is a privilege to touch something so simple and yet somehow so sacred.
So I stand here, weighing the atavistic pleasure of keeping the little piece of clay against the potential spiritual consequences of taking something away from the place where it belongs. And in the end, of course, I put the potsherd back very carefully where I found it, where it is now, where it has been, in context, in situ among the dry grasses and the sand. The clay, long outliving the creator.