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Earth Notes: Four Mile Polychromes

A round bowl with geometric patterns of black rimmed in white, on a red background
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
public domain
The ceramic style known as Four Mile, which emerged in the 1320s in what is now east-central Arizona, is considered one of the most dynamic, and is known for bold, polychrome geometric designs.

Four Mile Polychromes represent a Pueblo ceramic tradition with origins in the Mogollon Rim and mountains of eastern Arizona. This style was developed in the 13th century and is associated with the construction of large villages such as Pinedale, Show Low and Four Mile Pueblo, from which the ceramic is named.

When these ancestral groups left the area, evidence shows that they migrated north and joined other Pueblo groups such as the Hopi and Zuni, with whom they had established ties through trade, intermarriage, and similar worldviews. Their populations increased during the 14th century, according to demographic research and oral histories of both Hopi and Zuni that speak to the integration of clans migrating from southern regions.

Four Mile Polychromes exhibit a high degree of skill and artistry and as such, they are highly sought after on the black market. What sets apart this ceramic style is the use of bright, reddish backgrounds that highlight black designs and encircling bands, usually outlined with white. Vessel forms are predominantly bowls, decorated with bold, centered geometric patterns, scrolls, stylized birds, and F-shaped hooks that are unique to this tradition.

These ceramics also depict katsina symbology, making them a marker of cultural continuity between these ancestral groups, and their present-day Pueblo descendants. As the clans migrated on, they carried this ceramic style with them, blending it with others in their new homes, continuing a tradition that stretches over a thousand generations.

This Earth Note was written by Lyle Balenquah and produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University, with funding from the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies.

Lyle Balenquah, Hopi, is a member of the Greasewood Clan from the Village of Paaqavi ("Reed Springs Place") on Third Mesa, located in northeastern Arizona. He currently works as an archaeologist, as well as a river and hiking guide across the Four Corners region. Through his work he advocates for the protection and preservation of ancestral landscapes, combining his professional training with personal experiences and insights about Hopi culture and history.
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