Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 8, 2019

To New Mexico and the Mimbres Culture; Voices That Are Lost

If you wake up early in Silver City, New Mexico on a summer morning, wander over to downtown. Looking north along Bullard Street, it might appear like this:

Bulllard St Brad Nixon 6236680

No, there’s not a lot of vehicular traffic at 5:45 a.m. in downtown Silver on a July morning. Nor was there any traffic on that spot in the year 1100.

But, within a few miles of what’s now Silver City, the nearby Mimbres River valley was home to a remarkable culture. Everyone was awake, hard at work. Southwestern New Mexico was the center of a thriving population.

The 12th century had larger centers of population. Baghdad may have had a million people. Kaifeng, in China, certainly had 400,000 residents.  A city that no longer exists, Merv, in Turkmenistan, central Asia, probably had half a million residents.

In 12th century Europe, Constantinople had 300,000 people; Paris, 50,000; London, perhaps 25,000.

In North America, 1,200 miles east of the Mimbres River, the Cahokia complex, east of present-day St. Louis, was one of the world’s largest cities, with as many as 40,000 people.

Back in New Mexico, it wasn’t about large numbers of humans. Along the Gila and Mimbres Rivers and their tributaries, small communities of 100 to 200 people built pueblo-style compounds of mud brick and timber, farming corn (maize), beans and squash with the help of relatively sophisticated irrigation, as well as hunting deer and rabbits.

Like the Cahokia and other native cultures of that era, the Mimbres Culture had no metal tools, only stone and wood. (“Mimbres” is the plural of the Spanish word for “willow,” and the river valley is home to native willows.) They did not have the wheel, nor did they use draft animals. Horses, sheep and domesticated cattle would only be introduced several hundred years later by European invaders, long after the Mimbres had moved on.

Before that, they did something remarkable. To see what they did, let’s go back to Bullard Street in present-day Silver City.

Drive north, turn left on College Avenue and work your way uphill to the campus of Western New Mexico University (WNMU). At the top of the hill, you’ll find Fleming Hall and the WNMU Museum.

WNMU Fleming Hall Brad Nixon 6420 680

Built in 1917, the main floor of Fleming Hall was the school’s gymnasium.

Today, it’s been converted into the WNMU Museum, which holds the world’s largest publicly available collection of the remarkable works of pottery craft created by the Mimbres culture, primarily between 900 and 1200 A.D.

WNMU Fleming Hall Brad Nixon 6418 680

Pottery vessels were of primary importance to native American cultures. They held water and food, served as cooking vessels, and also — it’s believed — had important ceremonial roles. Here is a man carrying a basket on his head in the distance, surrounded by butterflies in the foreground. Is this a story? A parable? A fable? 

Mimbres butterflies Brad Nixon 6350 680

The pottery is unlike anything ever seen before or since. The “classic” Mimbres period, from about 900 – 1150, incorporates astonishingly inventive figures, like this snake emerging from the body of a bird that may be a turkey.

Mimbres snake Brad Nixon 6274 680

The artisans who created those ceramic vessels were, almost certainly, women. Men had the tasks of building and maintaining structures and hunting, while farming was likely a collaborative effort. Contemporary southwestern native potters today are, primarily, female, and it’s likely that prehistoric pottery was also the work of women, like this black-tailed jackrabbit, instantly recognizable to any resident of today’s southwestern desert.

Mimbres rabbit Brad Nixon 6340 680

In a hard land, where work began at the break of every day and continued past dark, with starvation always a threat, a few thousand humans found the means to express something ineffable in how they’d decorate a bowl, with artfully designed figures that reflected the world they lived in: lizards, rabbits, snakes, turtles …

Mimbres turtle Brad Nixon 6267 680

A year of drought would put the community at risk. Two years? There’d be no water for crops, game would become scarce, requiring weeks instead of days of hunting. Still, some essential urge of the human spirit inspired the artisans of a threatened world to express something about what they saw, what they knew about the world around them.

Mimbres bees Brad Nixon 6281 680

What do these figures represent? Are they merely records of the nature the Mimbres encountered? They’re carefully observed and — to a great degree — accurately represented. Did they have totemic, symbolic significance, or were they mere decoration?

At least one legend from that day has come down to us: Kokopelli, the flute-playing fertility symbol. A trickster god, the hunch-backed Kokopelli is a familiar figure throughout the American southwest, endlessly repeated in local crafts in the form of pendants and decorations. A thousand years ago, he played many roles in cultures from the Hohokam in southern Arizona to the Mississippian cultures far to the east, and it’s impossible to define just what he meant to the Mimbres. Yes, he was there.

Mimbres Kokopelli Brad Nixon 6317 680

We can’t say what those images signified. The Mimbres — like most prehistoric native cultures in North America — possessed no writing. Theirs was an oral culture, passed from person to person across generations. Now, their culture is lost to us, except for these artifacts.

The artistry of the pottery was passed along in the same way: person to person, mother to daughter. In the the WMNU collection is a remarkable piece. A scholar has suggested that the execution of the artwork indicates it was done by a child of 5 or 6 years old. An almost heartbreakingly beautiful moment in the life of what it might mean to be a child, learning to paint pottery in the year 1100.

Mimbres mountain lion Brad Nixon 6252 680

Mountain lions. Rarely seen, even then. What would Grandmother say? Did you get it right? Keep working.

There, in one glimpse into another world, is a moment that resonates with our time. A mother or grandmother, teaching a child how to decorate her pot. “Make your brush like this. Dip it into your paint. Paint like this.”

If you spend a couple of hours in the WMNU museum, as I did, you’ll encounter a stack of pull-out drawers in one of the basement rooms. In them are artifacts retrieved from Mimbres sites. Among them are axe- and spearheads, arrow points, awls and tools made of bone. There are preserved fragments of fabric, and sandals, intricately woven of yucca fiber more than a thousand years ago. And this, a sandal made of soft deerskin, once worn by a tiny child, with my finger as an indication of the scale.

Mimbres sandal Brad Nixon 6394 680

Only a few inches long, it once held the foot of a child, perhaps a year old. The world turns on, long after the Mimbres left.

A world immeasurably distant from ours. And, yet, the same world we inhabit today. They left to us to carry on. What do we see? What will we leave?

Finally, this. One of many pieces in the collection labeled “provenience unknown,” unlabeled. As a kid who grew up in the American Midwest, if that is not an owl, then I can only say that I have nothing in common with the people who walked across the land I grew up on on. But I think they knew an owl when they saw one, and captured it there, painted into enduring pottery, a thousand years before I was born.


Mimbres owl Brad Nixon 6382 680

Western New Mexico University Museum

Silver City is in southwestern New Mexico. The museum is in Fleming Hall on the university campus. While the address of the university is 1000 West College Ave., you can drive to the museum from 10th Street, parallel to College, one block north. College becomes Louisiana St., and the entrance to the museum parking lot is on the right.

The museum is open 7 days a week, but hours vary. Entrance is free, but donations are suggested to support this impressive collection. More details at

© Brad Nixon 2019. Items pictured are in the collection of the University of Western New Mexico, photographed in July 2019.


  1. Now I must go there Brad. Perhaps the wheel is an invention of need. If they were born, living and dying for hundreds of years in an area no farther than they could see, why conjure up a stagecoach. Wheels are easy to conceive but hard to build out of clay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You present a wonderful selection of these delightfully fanciful, yet grounded in nature, designs. I loved spending hours in this museum, finding Mimbres animals and figures I’d never seen reproduced before. An extraordinary collection.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. And thank you for sharing several hours there with me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I consider that one of your best blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

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