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Pottery a key to people of the past

Boonshoft exhibit showcases Niehoff Collection

When the time had come to donate his prized collection of prehistoric pots, New York financier K. Richard B. Niehoff began a search for the ideal museum.

He knew it would need to be an institution where the entire collection would be maintained and appreciated, as well as a place that would allow the public to enjoy the fruits of his 30-year research and view the Mississippian and Caddo pottery acquisitions that date from the Late Prehistoric period. (A.D. 800 to 1750.)

That special place has turned out to be the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, where Niehoff’s collection is the focus of the current exhibit, “Impressions of the Past: Exploring the Cultural Properties of Pottery.” To date, he has donated 57 of his artifacts to the Dayton Society of Natural History’s Anthropology Collection.

“It’s fantastic. I am extraordinarily happy with the exhibit,” said Niehoff, who has been to town twice to see the show created by associate curator Jill E. Krieg.

A couple years ago, Niehoff hadn’t even heard of the Dayton museum.

“I’ve been a collector of Native American artifacts since I was a small child,” said Niehoff, who grew up in Cincinnati and has fond memories of field trips to Fort Ancient, and of Saturday morning classes at Cincinnati’s Natural History Museum.

He was introduced to mounds by a professor at The Ohio State University who also was a collector.

“I learned what they represented historically, and it was fascinating,” he said. “As time went on, I was less interested in what’s called rocks — the arrowheads and stone pieces — and more interested in the pottery. And I decided if any pieces of pottery should become available, I should buy it — so I started doing that.”

But decades later, when the time came that Niehoff could no longer keep track of all his treasures, he decided it was time to find a new home for them. Driving between Columbus and Cincinnati on a business trip one day, Niehoff decided to revisit Fort Ancient. That’s when he discovered that a museum had been added to the site over the years and that it was now operated by the folks at the Dayton Society of Natural History.

Niehoff was impressed enough to change his route, ask directions to Dayton and visit the Boonshoft. He paid admission, didn’t tell anyone who he was or why he was there and decided he liked what he saw.

Some time later, after Neihoff had written a preliminary letter to the museum, he showed up with a car full of precious pots wrapped in bubble wrap. CEO Mark Meister and his staff liked what they saw as well.

When Meister told Niehoff that the Boonshoft had a large void in the area that his collection represented, Niehoff knew he had found the right home for his treasured possessions.

The exhibit and its accompanying catalog and guide were entrusted to Krieg, a registered professional archaeologist who also teaches in the Anthropology Department at Wright State University. In addition to the pieces from the Niehoff collection, she’s added artifacts from the museum, a display of pottery-making techniques, an interactive area where kids can walk through the different steps of pottery analysis.

“The oldest piece is the first pottery ever manufactured in Ohio, and it’s 3,000 years old,” she said. “The majority of the ceramics in the collection come from North and South America.”

Krieg says ceramic material is the first synthetic material created by people and allowed them to cook, store food, carry water and settle in one area for longer periods of time. The pots also were used as ritual objects.

At “Impressions of the Past,” visitors can explore what various types of pottery can tell us about culture — from Mississippian effigy bowls to jars from the Incan Empire, she explained.

One of her favorite pieces is an 800-year-old conch shell effigy bowl.

“You can see the transition from something in the natural world being interpreted and used as a ceremonial object,” said Krieg, who says she has always been interested in learning about the past and wanted to be an archaeologist long before she knew how to spell the word. She has spent the past year creating the current exhibit.

“You have to think of these objects as the remains and reflections of the people who made them,” said Krieg, who chose classical music as background to create “a quiet room of reflection” for her new show. “This exhibit is about pots but it is really about people — the people aren’t here so these artifacts serve as a proxy for them.”

In her classes at Wright State, she says, she also tries to explain to students that archeology isn’t really about the “stuff,” but rather the people who created and used it. Her goal for the current exhibit is similar.

“I want visitors who come to this exhibit to walk in the room and engage with the pieces,” she said. “I want them to look beyond the pots themselves and have a visible connection to those cultures.”

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