WHEN the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology sent expeditions to New Mexico a hundred years ago, the researchers stopped at the Zuni Pueblo.

Mostly, they collected pots. Pots were everywhere: eating bowls, and water jars to prop on a woman's head and canteens to fit snug in the small of a hunter's back. The Smithsonian ethnologists set up camp and let it be known they wanted to buy.

Many of the pots in "Gifts of Mother Earth: Ceramics in the Zuni Tradition," at the Museum of Natural History, come from those expeditions.

"In some cases," notes guest curator Margaret Ann Hardin, "the ladies were clearly getting rid of old crockery." But the pots are beautiful, nonetheless.

It is a show organized by the Zuni Pueblo, which is alive and well with 7,500 inhabitants, more than double its population of a hundred years ago.

This is the first time a tribe has planned an exhibit with its own Smithsonian artifacts. The clay pots the Zunis picked out for the show are distinctive, with mystical designs of rust and brownish-black. Rain is important to the Zunis, and so the pottery symbolism sometimes speaks to that: tadpoles for the warm rains of spring, dragonflies and butterflies for the sudden rains of summer, frogs for the cold rains of fall and winter. The full meaning of the clay pots extends into the shape and the use of each object, and into its very essence.

"The materials, the clay, the slip, the iron pigment that makes the red paint -- each of these is regarded as a gift of the earth and therefore sacred," says Hardin, who recently lived with the Zunis as researcher and resource for the exhibit. "They simply don't treat these things as objects as we do."

Nowadays, Tupperware has replaced the storage pot in the pueblo. The use of pots is confined to traditional ceremonies -- although of course there is always the cherished decorative bowl that grandmother constructed.

In the exhibit, alongside the hundred-year- old pots stand some very contemporary copies. Besides the Zuni owls that are made for the tourist trade, traditional pots are still being made. A small-scale revival of the potter's art is happening in the pueblo. Using photographs that Hardin gave to the Zuni high school, teenagers are modeling new pots after old. Senior citizens are taking up clay where they left off in their youth.

-- Pamela Kessler.

GIFTS OF MOTHER EARTH: CERAMICS IN THE ZUNI TRADITION -- Opening Saturday at the Museum of Natural History, second floor, Constitution Avenue gallery, through November 30.