Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 29, 2019

Mimbres Culture, Southwestern New Mexico

In two previous blog posts about southwestern New Mexico, I’ve mentioned the prehistoric Mimbres culture near present day Silver City, including the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.

gila cliff dwellings vincent nixon 082 680

This article is a brief introduction to a native culture that may be unfamiliar to you.

Mimbres

The Mimbres culture lived in and near the Mimbres River valley in New Mexico. Mimbres is a Spanish word for a variety of willow tree native to the area.

In a pattern repeated throughout the southwest, from about the 2nd century c.e., migrant hunter-gatherer tribes began subsistence farming, establishing small communities of excavated pit houses covered by structures of wood and mud wattle. They grew maize, beans and squash — the “three sisters,” as they later became known.

They supplemented their diet by hunting and with gathering native berries, nuts and edible plants.

In about 800 or so, with their numbers increasing, they built above-ground structures of adobe and rock cobble around central plazas. The same pattern is evident elsewhere, as with the structures of Chaco Canyon to the north, built of stone.

Chaco Canyon Pueblo Bonito Brad Nixon 4187 (640x247)

Artistry

In about 900 c.e., the Mimbres did something remarkable: They developed a style of decorated pottery without peer anywhere in ancient North America, and not quite like anything else, anywhere.

mimbres property u new mexico 4610 680

This didn’t happen all at once. The people had been making pottery for hundreds of years. In stages, the Mimbres developed an idiosyncratic style that began with geometric shapes painted in black on white backgrounds, until in the “classic” period, from about 900 – 1150, they also included astonishingly inventive figures.

Women are the traditional potters in most native cultures, which is still true in the American southwest. It’s assumed that a relatively small number of female potters created these remarkable works of art.

Burials

The most dramatic pottery of the culture is often found in burials, the bowls covering the skulls of the dead. Invariably, these bowls have a hole punched through them, known as a “kill hole.” Many anthropologists conclude the hole was intended to let the spirit of the deceased to escape, or perhaps to receive sustenance through the bowl after death. We do not know.

mimbres property u new mexico 4689 680

“Disappearance”

By about 1150, the population of the Mimbres area had grown to perhaps 2,500 people. In the best conditions, the native corn-bean-squash + game formula provided a diet at the knife’s edge of survival, low in fat and protein. They were farming, irrigating and hunting their resources to the breaking point.

Somewhere between 1130 and 1150, a succession of drought years ended the existing order. Large numbers of people moved away or scattered into smaller bands seeking better soil, more water, more game. They ceased making the black-on-white ware and the pueblo communities emptied. The people survived, but ceased being the “Mimbres Culture.”

Archaeology

Archaeologists developed an interest in the ancient ruins of the southwest early in the 20th century. Most of the attention went to more dramatic locations like Chaco Canyon and, here, Mesa Verde.

Mesa Verde Brad Nixon 9769 (640x480)

A number of excavations in the Mimbres valley disclosed the extraordinary artisanship of the craftspeople. There are collections of the pottery at Beloit College in Wisconsin, the University of Maine and the University of Minnesota as a result.

Then, notoriety nearly ended Mimbres archaeology forever.

Apocalypse

You can visit the area and see a stunning collection of Mimbres wares in the museum of Western New Mexico University. Other examples are in the Silver City Museum. See below for more collections.

But you can only visit one partially excavated original Mimbres community, the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site.

Yet there were dozens of Mimbres communities. Why is there just one you can visit?

Once collectors saw the spectacular examples of pottery being collected from the Mimbres sites, they wanted some for themselves. Entrepreneurs — we’ll call them — organized to fill the demand — not with shovels, but bulldozers.

Entire Mimbres villages were literally bulldozed over by looters in order to extract pottery. Looters destroyed remains of structures, burials, hundreds of years’ worth of cultural artifacts, grabbing anything salable. Their focus was the “pots,” but they “collected” anything that might find a market, including human remains, which are now in private collections.

Aerial photos show enormous tracts of land bulldozed and pitted with trenches dug by looters. Here’s one ground level view of bulldozers at work “uncovering” a Mimbres village to extract pottery.

mimbres excavation mimbres foundtation paul minnis

The Cost

Approximately half the known Mimbres community sites were destroyed in a relatively short time.

The sites are still there, and it’s possible to retrieve some number of artifacts, but they’re worthless from a scientific perspective. There is no way to study the layers of debris or the relationship of artifacts to one another in those sites. The details of daily life, ritual, burial, farming, irrigation, what they hunted, what they ate, are lost. Those sites are mere jumbles of bulldozed debris.

Like all the prehistoric southwestern tribes, the Mimbres had no writing system we know of. Our only means to understand their culture is through the application of careful archaeological study. Much of the Mimbres’ record has been destroyed beyond recall.

In the 1970s, The Mimbres Foundation was able to secure the Federal Archaeological Resources Act and begin protecting the sites. The large-scale looting ended, but long after enormous damage had been done.

Remains

A number of relatively untouched Mimbres sites exist, and are being studied as time and resources permit.

You can visit the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site east of Silver City, New Mexico in the Mimbres Valley.

There are collections of Mimbres ware in a number of museums, including the following:

There’s a large collection, not all of it on display, at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque

Early 20th century archaeology by Beloit College resulted in a collection in the Logan Museum of Anthropology, Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin, including numerous pieces from the Mattocks Site. This is useful, for it shows the evolution of pottery styles over several hundred years.

South of Silver City, the Deming Luna Mimbres Museum, Deming, New Mexico, is a local museum stuffed with everything from antique dolls and farm equipment to liquor bottles. They have a sizable collection of Mimbres ware collected by local landowners on private property.

Virtual

Online, you can view a number of Mimbres pieces at Central-Cal-Clay.

Another online collection of images culled from the Maxwell, Silver City and Deming museums is at Black Range Rag.

Reading

One of the foremost scholars of Mimbres culture, Michelle Hegmon, Arizona State University, published Experiencing Social Change: Life During the Mimbres Classic Transformation,” eminently readable by laymen.

As a basic text and reference, I recommend the interesting and visually appealing Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest.

Envoi

We “modern” humans continue a millenia-long history of despoiling the past. It happens today, worldwide. What have we lost? Leave a comment.

For more articles on this subject, see

Gila Cliff Dwellings Day Trip

Silver City Bound

© Brad Nixon 2019. Pottery photographs are the property of The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico. Bulldozer photograph © Mimbres Foundation/Paul Minnis from Mimbres Pottery, etc. “Experiencing Social Change….” © Michelle Hegmon et al, Arizona State University. Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest,  © J.J. Brody et al, Hudson Hills, New York, 1983.

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Responses

  1. Great post and references. I fell in love with the inventive figures in this singular pottery the moment I saw them and often return to J.J. Brody’s book.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Excellent report, Brad!
    Sadly, we’ll never know what we’ve lost, or may have lost, or will lose.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s the “will lose” that should concern us now, absolutely.

      Like

  3. lots of great info here as well as beautiful photos!

    Like

  4. When I was in Paris in 2002, I saw a fascinating exhibition on Afghanistan art over the millennia. Tragically, the Taliban has intentionally destroyed many priceless world heritage sculptures there.

    Like

  5. We have the Cradle of Mankind here in South Africa, so proud of the cherished pieces of history. Brent Owens, the chef, from Melbourne came to visit and he was thrilled with the history. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it took us humans a few years (!) to reach North America. Thanks for the note.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Nice photos, the buildings in the cliff look really interesting. It would be fun to wander around there.

    Like

  7. Brad, this was an informative and interesting post. I love cliff dwellings. I desperately want to visit the Mesa Verde dwellings. The details you shared about the Mimbres culture are fascinating, and I liked the pictures of the pottery. What a tragedy that they had to break up and spread out, and there’s so much about them that we still don’t know. I earned my BA in History and I’m just a fan of anything historical. Hope your 2019 is turning out amazing so far! Have a beautiful day 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Maria. I’m gratified to have measure up for the student of history.
      Mesa Verde is a stupendously fascinating place. It’s BIG, and you can drive around most of it in a day, but you won’t SEE it in a day. Give yourself a couple of days, if you possibly can.
      One CAN get there in a single day of driving from L.A.
      History students should pay attention to hundreds of years’ of ruins on the mesa tops, not just the cliff dwellings, as successive waves of cultures developed more and more sophisticated modes of farming and evolved from pit houses to the cliff dwellings.
      It requires some effort to tour even a few of the cliff houses in a day, and you should also try to hike at least one of the canyon trails in the stunningly beautiful terrain.
      The more I study the Puebloans, the less dismayed I am that they scattered. They encountered an almost perfect storm of over-growth, over-hunting, over-farming, and then drought that drove them beyond the point of starvation, and they had to move.
      They did that successfully, establishing other centers, and you can still meet their Hopi and Puebloan descendants. Although they’re separated by 1,000 years of time, there are some deep resonances of their aboriginal cultures that survive.
      I wish you joy of it. You can stay in nearby Cortez, but Durango, 30 miles east, is a fascinating old western town with its own appeal, too.
      Oof, sorry. Didn’t mean to get going. I’m rather fond of the place, obviously.

      Like

  8. For some reason, the bison that once roamed our grasslands have come to mind. Likewise, the whooping crane, and the egrets who were slaughtered to provide feathers for women’s hats. Beyond that, the folks who showed up at the Mimbres sites with the bulldozers seem to have something in common with black friday shoppers. (No, I will not capitalize black friday.)

    Trying to think about more human examples, gentrification came to mind, and the bulldozing of the past here in Houston to make way for more commercial real estate and luxury housing. The housing fills up (where DO these people get their money?) but the commercial developments often stand empty.

    Your comment about it being the “will lose” that should concern us is exactly right. I’ve been following with interest the No Olympics movement in L.A. after being introduced to the term “sportswashing.” The term has made its way to Houston, and is starting to raise a little ire in certain segments of the population.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An excellent analogue.
      I read Ambrose’s “Undaunted Courage,” about Meriwether Lewis, last year. Wonderful account of the Expedition, including the countless herds of bison they encountered, as well as unimaginable numbers of other birds and animals. And the bison were very nearly extinct within a generation! Every time I contemplate that, I shudder. Beaver were nearly extinct, too. Countless others.
      Not to mention entire cultures of humans erased by invading forces, worldwide, throughout history. We’re a wonderful species.

      Like


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