Effigy vessels are very rare in the prehistoric Southwest, and human effigy vessels even more so. Most known examples, especially in the Anasazi area, are of animals, and by far the most common of these are the so-called “duck pots,” a distinctive type of vessel shape that is often considered to be a representation of a duck or similar bird, although there has been some dispute over whether this is actually a single type of vessel, rather than a number of different types with different functions that happen to look similar, and to what extent the resemblance to a duck is really an inherent characteristic of the type(s). Certainly some examples do seem to have been molded and/or decorated in a way that makes them clearly resemble ducks, but others do not, and the fact that the shape of the pot generally leaves an opening at the top (the duck’s neck) means that there is rarely a head, making even the most duck-like of these vessels considerably more abstract than is typical of other types of more obvious effigy vessels. That is, some of these do seem to have been intended to represent ducks, but that does not imply that the others, more abstract in both form and decoration, were also so intended.
Be that as it may, quite a few duck pots were found at Chaco, and under the assumption that they were in fact effigy vessels they make up the majority of known Chacoan effigy vessels. One noteworthy example, which most definitely does not look like a duck, was described by Marjorie Lambert of the Museum of New Mexico in 1967. This is an unusually large specimen, almost a foot in length, that was found in “a burned room in a stone masonry site” to the southeast of Chaco, near the line between Sandoval and McKinley Counties. (The abstract mistakenly identifies this as southwest of Chaco, but from the description in the text it is clearly southeast.) The exact location of this site and the circumstances of its excavation are left suspiciously vague, presumably because it was excavated illegally. When Lambert examined it the vessel was in the private collection of William Littrell, the superintendent of the Philmont Scout Ranch in northeastern New Mexico. It is unclear from Lambert’s article if Littrell excavated the site in question himself, although from the details included it seems likely that he did.
The vessel, while having the general “duck pot” shape, has the remarkable characteristic of two modeled clay arms reaching out from the sides to the hollow tube connecting the top to the rear of the vessel. This tube is a common feature of duck pots, but the arms are unique. From their position Lambert interprets the vessel as a representation of a flute player, specifically the alleged “humpbacked flute player” of Hopi tradition known as Kokopelli. My understanding is that this interpretation of the Hopi traditions in question is now thought to be mistaken, and that while they do include humpbacked divinities and flute players, there is not in fact a single divinity known as “Kokopelli” who is both humpbacked and a flute player. I haven’t really looked into the details of this issue, but I’ve been meaning to.
In any event, Lambert definitely took the standard approach to the Kokopelli idea and interpreted this vessel accordingly. She even interpreted it as a representation of Kokopelli lying down, with the curved underside of the vessel standing for his hump, when it seems clear to me that both the position of the vessel and the curved underside were due mostly if not entirely to the fact that this is a duck pot and that is how duck pots are shaped. It’s certainly possible that the potter intended to exploit those characteristics of the type of pot to represent attributes of the being portrayed, but it’s not at all obvious just from looking at the pot, and I think Lambert’s conclusions here were heavily influenced by her assumptions about Kokopelli.
Despite Lambert’s Kokopelli focus in interpretation, her article contains some interesting information about the vessel. For one thing, it showed extensive evidence of use, which she interpreted as ceremonial due to the unusual shape. The actual uses of duck pots are not known, however, and it is possible that this was just a particularly elaborate example of a mundane item. Another interesting aspect of the decoration, which is mostly Gallup Black-on-white in mineral paint, a common Chacoan style, is the presence of a pair of human figures, one male and one female, on the shoulders of the figure. Since painted human figures, like effigy forms, are rare in Anasazi ceramics, this pair makes this vessel even more interesting.
Unfortunately, given the lack of precise geographic or chronological provenience information, not much more can be said about this fascinating vessel. From the decoration it is clearly Chacoan and probably dates to the eleventh or twelfth century, and from the general geographical information it may have come from one of the late or even post-Chacoan sites on Chacra Mesa to the southeast of the canyon. This area was sparsely populated during the height of the Chacoan era, so while it is possible that this vessel came from one of the few known sites from that period (perhaps associated with a road between Pueblo Pintado and Guadalupe?), it is more likely that it came from a slightly later time. Beyond that, however, it is difficult to interpret.
Lambert, M. (1967). A Kokopelli Effigy Pitcher from Northwestern New Mexico American Antiquity, 32 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2694672