- “Reconstructing a Miracle,” by Jim Hills:Analysis and Response
A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.—David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748
In the spring 2012 issue of Journal of the Southwest Mr. Jim Hills served as guest editor and also contributed an article titled “Reconstructing a Miracle: New Perspectives on Mata Ortiz Pottery Making.” Mr. Hills used oral history obtained from interviews as the main research tool in crafting his report. After the introduction, his lengthy piece is divided into three parts. Part 1 outlines the history of pot hunting in the Casas Grandes region and its relationship to the rise of fake prehistoric ceramic ware. Part 2 introduces Mr. Hills’s “group” theory, which redefines the history of the development of pottery making in Mata Ortiz. Part 3 critically examines the story of Mata Ortiz pottery as initially provided by Spencer MacCallum. He then concludes the article by describing Mr. MacCallum’s version as a myth.
At first glance the article appears to be scholarly and well documented. Anyone not familiar with the history of the emergence of ceramic art in Mata Ortiz might well believe that Mr. MacCallum created this story “to promote a single narrative, which required omitting, modifying, or diluting facts” (Hills 2012, p. 144) and that “the many dimensions of the formative story … as told by Spencer MacCallum were a fabrication to promote sales” (Hills 2012 p. 142). Close examination, however, reveals that Mr. Hills’s report does not support his contentions. It has [End Page 687] serious methodological flaws and employs inappropriate and inaccurate citation attributions. It also fails to acknowledge prior work by other authors and lacks a discussion of potential limitations to the use of oral history.
Mr. Hills’s observation that Mr. MacCallum’s primary motive was economically driven is unsubstantiated. Most egregious is the implication that Mr. MacCallum sold pre-Columbian Casas Grandes pottery that had been illegally exported. The purpose of my rebuttal is to refute much of what Mr. Hills purports to be true. I will provide evidence and specific examples that question the reliability of his data. My review will show that his article, while exhibiting a patina of scholarship, rests on unsubstantiated assertions, speculation, and innuendo.
Mr. Hills conducted oral history interviews with traders, collectors, and potters. Since several of the prominent figures in the rise of pottery in the Central and Porvenir Barrios of Mata Ortiz have died he interviewed their spouses, siblings, and even their children. It is information from these secondary sources, often quoted anonymously, that forms the basis for his thesis that the “MacCallum Narrative” is a myth. Unfortunately, he failed to interview multiple primary sources including the two most central to his report, namely Juan Quezada and Spencer MacCallum. He also ignored the opportunity to interview Consolación, Lydia, Reynaldo, Reynalda, Jesús, Genoveva, and Rosa, Juan’s siblings, who were all actively engaged during the period of time of greatest interest. He apparently interviewed Juan’s brother Nicolás prior to his death but fails to provide any information from that session. He also neglected to interview Taurina Baca, who was involved in the early days of pottery in Mata Ortiz. Failure to interview primary sources exemplifies significant “selection bias.” Oral history is a valuable tool but requires the systematic collection of information from all who may contribute data rather than from just a selected population. By neglecting to interview these primary sources Mr. Hills failed to obtain information that might contradict his hypothesis.
Upon seeing a very early draft of his paper I and others suggested to Mr. Hills that he should interview all primary sources to avoid selection bias. He replied that there was no need because he knew what they would say. There is really no way that he could know that and his refusal to conduct the interviews resulted in selection bias. In addition, many of the factual errors he made would have been avoided had he interviewed them. [End Page 688]
His report also suffers from “confirmation bias.” From those individuals that he did interview he extracted only information...