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This Site Last Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2003
This Page Last Updated: Tuesday December 16, 2003
Introduction
[Sculpture of a Crane Swallowing Fish]
The Mimbres culture consisted of several hundred small villages in southern New MexicNew Mexico, each with less than 200 inhabitants, existing between approximately A.D. 100 and A.D. 1150. Their valley supported a rich diversity of wildlife, and the people lead a peaceful existence, relying on gathering, hunting, and some limited farming.
[Sculpture of a Gekko]
Nobody knows exactly why the Mimbres disappeared. Archaeological evidence suggests that towards the end the Mimbres suffered a population boom that swelled their population to the point that they were forced to farm highly marginal lands and exceed the land's capacity to supply firewood and game.
When it became impossible to eke out a living, the population migrated sometime circa A.D. 1150 and their culture collapsed and the people dispersed. With their passing, Mimbres pottery vanished along with the remains of its makers for almost eight hundred years.
No Rock Art
Unlike many other southwest cultures, the Mimbres did not leave a rich set of rock art. There are few exposed rock surfaces in the Mimbres valley, and there are petroglyphs on those that do exist. Some of the images overlooking the Mimbres valley are of Tlaloc, a rain deity common throughout the southwest.
While some of petroglyphs do contain elements suggesting the Mimbres, it is not clear which culture actually made them. As similar petroglyphs have been found as far away as El Paso, Texas and Three Rivers, New Mexico, the rock art may be the work of a different culture entirely. Given the difficulty in dating rock art and assigning it to a particular people it is hard to be certain.
Looters Destroy Many Mimbres Sites
[Sculpture of a Frog]
The discovery of Mimbres pottery in the early part of this century led to research and digs, not all of which were made by archaeologists. A growing market for Mimbres pottery led to the influx of professional looters who used bulldozers to strip-mine sites in a quest for salable objects.
The destruction of a site means that pottery and other artifacts cannot be studied in situ, and that information which has survived for centuries vanishes in a matter of hours.
Archaeologists date artifacts by the layers in which they are found and make inferences based on what objects are found together. When an artifact is removed by a looter valuable information about its age and purpose are irrevocably lost, even though the object may later be recovered. Roughly half of all known Mimbres sites have been destroyed by looters, and most of what is known of Mimbres culture comes from the early finds made by archaeologists before the influx of looters.
Little Cultural Information Known
Relatively little is known about the Mimbreños, as the inhabitants of the Mimbres region are known, including the name they called themselves. The name "Mimbres"  is actually the Spanish word for the willow trees that grow along the stream running through the Mimbres region.
Had it not been for their wonderful pottery, the Mimbreños would likely be of no interest to anyone today other than a handful of archaeologists.
Location
[Sculpture of a Bat]
The Mimbres culture consisted of several hundred small villages, each with less than 200 inhabitants, in a forty-six mile long valley in what is now southern New Mexico. Standing in the valley gives the illusion of the world as being an enormous bowl inverted over one's head. (This explains certain Mimbres funeral rights.)
The Mimbres valley is sandwiched between the Gila River to the west and the Rio Grande to the east. The Mimbres were contemporaneous with the Mogollon to the North, the Anasazi to the north of the Mogollon in Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, the Hohokam to the east, and the Fremont to the northwest.
Food From A Subsistance Existance
[Sculpture of a Jack Rabbit]
The Mimbreños led a subsistence existence, as the land was unsuitable for intensive agriculture. The annual rainfall in the area is about 20 inches, which means the Mimbres valley may have had the best rainfall of the entire southwest. Much of the rain falls in the mountains, and runs off into streams and rivers. This meant that irrigation was often required.
Cultivated crops included corn -- the primary staple -- along with beans, squash, and sunflowers. These were supplemented with wild plants such as piñon nuts, acorns, berries, prickly pear and other cactus fruit, prickly pear pods, and roots. Meat came from birds and animals.
[Sculpture of a Mountain Sheep]
Typical hunts were for waterfowl, turkeys, rabbits, deer, antelope, and bison, with an occasional bear or mountain lion. Hunters used snares, nets, clubs, and projectiles, including spears, throwing sticks, and bow and arrow. The sculpture to the right is of a mountain sheep, which is wily and mean, and can be very dangerous to hunt.
Origins of Pottery
The Mimbreños began making pottery circa A.D. 200. These ordinary, plain brown pots became red burnished bowls and jars circa A.D. 500. The first painted bowls were made circa A.D. 550. The pottery stopped about A.D. 1150, with the collapse of the mimbres culture.
[Sculpture of a Whirlwind Pattern]
Much of the Mimbres pottery was made for utilitarian purposes, and was not decorated. Such pottery is, even by the most generous artistic standards, completely ordinary aside from its age. The decorated pottery, however, is truly amazing.
[Sculpture of a Spider]
Mimbres pottery is known as "Mimbres black-on-white"  or "Mimbres Classic black-on-white" . Variations in firing can cause the pigments to be brown or red and the clay to be a light gray or buff. The Anasazi typically used black-on-white and the Hohokam used red, brown and buff.
Many Mimbres designs are painted in steep sided hemispheric bowls, typically about ten inches in diameter and less than five inches high. Painting such a bowl is complicated, since a flat image must be distorted in the proper way in order to look right when painted onto the curved inner surface of the bowl. This is the same type of problem faced when Michaelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, albeit it on a much smaller, and more manageable, scale.
Early Mimbres designs resemble those of the Hohokam, but soon diverged into a form all their own. Late Mimbres designs are similar to those of the Casa Grandes, or "Big House" , culture to the south.
This is interesting given that Casa Grandes was becoming a thriving culture about the time that the Mimbres culture collapsed. The influence was likely caused by immigration from the collapsing Mimbres culture, but it could simply have been the result of trading or other interaction. (Casa Grandes is believed to have traded a number of goods, including parrots and copper items.)
[Sculpture of a Geometric Pattern with Rectangles and Curves]
Clays are present throughout the Mimbres valley, including occasional deposits of kaolin, a fine, white clay. (You may be familiar with Kaolin as the active ingredient in Kaopectate.)
[Sculpture of a Geometric Pattern With Lines and Spirals]
Pottery was made by rolling clay into a rod and then coiling it up in the desired shape. While still wet the coils were smoothed together until they could no longer be seen as distinct entities.
Coiling was the only way to make pots, and the Mimbreños never invented a potter's wheel. Using the coiling technique requires about an hour to make a bowl ten inches wide and five inches deep. This is the first stage in producing a pot.
When dried to about the same hardness as leather, the pot would be scraped to smooth the surface and any cracks would be filled with with wet clay. After scraping the pot would be about 3/16 of an inch thick.
The pot was then left to dry until hard and was then painted with a thin wash of kaolin clay called "slip" , in order to give the pot a white appearance. Several thin layers were used, since a thicker layer might crack as it dried. Once dry, the slip would be burnished with smooth stones until the finish was satin smooth.
The mineral resources of the area provided natural pigments in the form of copper and iron ores (such as hematite, limonite, and other iron ores). These ores were found as nuggets on hills and in streambeds, and as ochre, which was dug from the hillsides.
Paint was made by grinding ore, usually iron based, into a fine powder which was mixed with water, and sometimes boiled plants, to form a thick paste. This paste was applied with a brush and was applied to an unfired clay pot, where the slip's porous surface quickly absorbed it. This meant that erasure was essentially impossible, as the only way to obliterate a design was to physically remove all of the ink-stained slip or to cover it over with new slip. Small grains of pigment would often remain on the surface and would fuse to the slip during firing, leaving a spot much like grain of sand.
Brushes were made from yucca leaves, which are readily available in the southwest. The leaf was first split to the desired line width, and then cut to about three to four inches. Approximately one inch was then stripped of the outer fiber and chewed until it was soft. The remains of the leaf would still be hard and fibrous, and served as a handle. The brush itself has a blunt edge and square sides and readily takes up paint.
Because the yucca leaf becomes floppy when wet, it closely follows the contours of the surface. When moved at the proper speed, it deposits even quantities of paint in a smooth line.
[Sculpture of a Female Turkey]
After painting, pots were left to dry in the sun for seven to ten days to ensure that any residual moisture evaporated. (As any potter knows, residual moisture turns to steam during firing, and the expansion can cause a pot to explode.) The kiln used to fire was a circle of wood about six feet in diameter covered with shards of previously fired pottery.
The pots to be fired would be placed on the shards to prevent them from contacting the fuel, and would be surrounded by other shards. (Contact with the fuel would leave a sooty spot and could damage the pigment.)
The pile would then be covered with more wood and burned. The fire would burn for about ninety minutes, and the pots would be cool enough to handle a few hours after that. (Present day Mexican potters who reproduce Casa Grandes designs often use cattle dung for their kilns, as dung provides a hotter fire.)
The paint, slip, and clay all contain iron which oxidizes during firing and changes color. The color depends on the degree of oxidation which, in turn, depends on the amount of air present in the kiln. When air circulates during firing there is an oxidizing atmosphere, and this changes the paint to brick-red, the slip to pink, and the clay to tan. When air is not allowed to circulate, the firing occurs in a reducing atmosphere, and the paint turns to black, the slip to white, and the clay to gray.
Funerary Purposes
Much of the painted Mimbres pottery was excavated from graves, and it is suspected that it may have been made solely for that purpose. The Mimbreños buried their dead beneath their floors, in individual pits. The drawing below depicts a Mimbres burial pit and was made by J. Walter Fewkes (1850 - 1930) of the Smithsonian Institution. (Fewkes ranks among the greatest archaeologists and ethnologists, and his papers are still standard references over a century later.)
[Drawing of Mimbres Burial Pit Showing Bowl Covering Skull]
Mimbres Burial Pit Showing Bowl Covering Skull
The drawing above shows a skeleton folded into an upright fetal position with a bowl over the head, and a stone slab covering the pit. Some of the burial pits were lined with rock or adobe before being sealed with adobe. Others were capped with a flat stone.
Offerings were placed with the body, typically including jewelry made from shell or turquoise, tools, and pottery.
Before being placed in the burial pit, however, a pointed tool was used to symbolically "kill"  a bowl by punching a hole through its base. This hole is, logically enough, often called the "kill hole". The bowl was then placed upside down on top of the body's head, possibly to symbolically mirror the view of the world from the Mimbres valley.
So much pottery was found in burial pits and the quality of these pieces is so high that many believe it was created solely for mortuary use and that the image on the bowl has some specific ceremonial meaning. Images of animals may indicate totems for the deceased's clan, or it may be a reference to some celestial body. Just as western culture sees animals and humans in the stars, so did the Native Americans.
Basic Shapes
[Sculpture of a Turkey Gobbler]
Mimbres pottery comes in four shapes: bowls, small jars, small effigy jars, and large jars. Bowls were used both for funary rites as well as for ordinary eating, and account for almost ninety percent of all Mimbres black-on-white pottery.
The small jars are known as "seed jars" , because they were used to hold stored seeds between the fall harvest and the spring planting. Without a jar to protect them, insects and animals could consume the seeds. Effigy jars were made in the shapes of animals. The large jars were used to carry and store water.
Because the images on funary bowls do not appear on ordinary pottery used for eating and cooking and because funary bowls do not appear to have ever been used, it is believed that the funary bowls were specifically created for burial.
Changes in Motifs
Initially, the motifs were simple and geometric, such as stylized lightning and water. Over a period that lasted about one hundred fifty years, however, the motifs became vastly more complicated and included animals, humans, and scenes from Mimbres legends.
[Sculpture of a Fish Monster]
The sculpture to the right is from one of the myths about the Hero Twins who vanquished a fish monster. The Navajo have similar mythology.
Contemporaneous with the motif changes were a reduction in oxygen levels during firing, causing the designs to be more black-on-white. This period is called the "Classic Period" . The resulting motifs remained constant for about three hundred years. The shapes of particular animals, along with specific design motifs, allow scholars to assign a bowl to a class likely done by the same artist.
Shamanic Rituals
[Sculpture of a Man Smoking a Pipe]
There are several kinds of wild tobacco in the southwest, and small amounts were cultivated for ceremonial use. The tobacco leaves were dried and smoked either in a cane tube, much like a cigarette, or using a "cloud blower", which is a short, funnel-shaped clay pipe.
The sculpture to the right is from a shows a man, likely a shaman, smoking a pipe and waving a bell. While the man appears to be sitting, he is likely dancing.
Lunar Cycle
[Sculpture of an Eagle eating Rabbit]
For example, the moon was considered to be a rabbit which was regularly devoured by an eagle, with the degree of devourment changing according to lunar phase. The sculpture to the left represents this myth.
The Anasazi consider the centipede to be a potent symbol of power, as it regularly travels between the spirit world and the physical world. The Hopi also believe this and consider the centipede symbol be taboo. The Mimbres apparently had similar beliefs.
An image on one Mimbres bowl shows a human who has been shot by an arrow. The bowl was looted sometime in the 1960s and has not been seen since. It likely resides in a private collection. A photograph of it, however, circulated in the 1980s, and scholars have been able to expand the knowledge of Mimbres beliefs based on it.
The bowl depicts a man whose internal organs, life breath, and whirlwind are lying on the ground. In one hand he grasps a giant centipede. The arms and legs of the figure are turned upwards as if in a praying stance. The centipede likely symbolizes a single pole ladder, and indicates that the human is making a journey to the spirit world.
Death has been represented by a fleshless head with a triangular nose and gnashing teeth as early as A.D. 950. This image is likely the same as the Hopi Death Deity, Maasaw.
Tlaloc
Tlaloc, "He Who Makes Things Grow" was a rain deity common throughout the southwest, Texas, and Mexico. The Hopi and Zuni have similar deities. Images of Tlaloc overlooking the Mimbres Valley were likely painted to ensure adequate rainfall. It is possible that after the collapse of the Mimbres culture that some of the Mimbreños migrated to Texas and this accounts for the pictographs there.