Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 18, 2019

Visit to an Ancient Civilization: Mimbres Valley, New Mexico

In my previous post, I related a visit to the Western New Mexico Museum in Silver City and its collection of pottery and other artifacts from the native American Mimbres culture. (click here to read it).

The culture’s unique decorative style features dramatically rendered geometric patterns and sometimes fanciful interpretations of people, animals, fish and birds. Here is an inventively stylized rabbit.

Mimbres rabbits Brad Nixon 6364 680

Part of a larger group of tribes called the Mogollon people, the Mimbres inhabited southern New Mexico between about 800 and 1300 A.D. Over the course of those centuries, their communities evolved in ways similar to those visitors see in more commonly visited sites like Mesa Verde National Park and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Beginning with pit houses dug into the earth and roofed by wooden beams, the Mimbres eventually built freestanding, above-ground “pueblo-style” compounds of river rock, adobe brick and timber. There were dozens or scores of small villages along the Mimbres and Gila Rivers and their tributaries. Below is a reconstruction of one Mimbres community, the Mattocks Ruin, just outside the village of Mimbres.

Mimbres site model Brad Nixon 6501 680

Approximately 200 people lived there on the flood plain of the Mimbres River. They were farmers who used relatively advanced irrigation, but also hunted and gathered naturally growing vegetables, seeds and nuts. Their remarkable pottery began as purely pragmatic wares for storing and carrying water and food. Then, the Mimbres became creative artists of impressive accomplishment, as shown in this fish decoration. 

Mimbres fish Brad Nixon 6338 680

The fish’s four legs are sometimes a symbol of the Warrior Twins, present in many creation stories of the southwestern cultures.

Most of the known Mimbres sites are on private property. Only the Mattocks site is open to the public, and only since 2014. I was delighted to finally have an opportunity to see it this summer. 

What’s Been Lost

The Mattocks site is, regrettably, one of a limited number of Mimbres sites that have been systematically excavated and studied. As I wrote more extensively at this link, a significant number of Mimbres village sites were looted for their pottery and artifacts some decades ago, sometimes with the use of heavy machinery, as in this photo from the 1970s.

mimbres excavation mimbres foundtation paul minnis

Looting made those sites virtually useless for systematic archaeological study.

You can visit the Mattocks site, about 27 miles east of Silver City, New Mexico. (See directions below.)

There’s a small museum, operated by volunteers and funded by a variety of programs and donors, located in an 1890s ranch house, known as the Gooch House, after its first residents. The property was later owned by another rancher, Bert Mattocks, hence the name of the Mimbres village there.

Mimbres Museum Brad Nixon 6502 600

Visit the museum, talk to the volunteer on duty, ask questions, and tour the small exhibit space, which includes the village reconstruction shown above.

Also on the site is an older structure, the 1880s Wood House, built by the first European settler on the property, Dr. Granville Wood, a physician.

Wood homestead Brad Nixon 6504 680

Dr. Wood planted apple, peach, cherry, pear, apricot and plum trees, grew alfalfa and vegetables and raised livestock. The house is one of the oldest surviving structures from the period of European settlement in the Mimbres valley.

A Walk Through the Village Site

Walk north from the museum, following a paved path, which will lead you into a broad flood plain of the Mimbres River. In the photo below, you look north, toward the distant Gila Mountains.

Mattocks Site Brad Nixon 6495 680

No. It is not the Pyramids, Stonehenge or the Forum Romanum. The site was extensively excavated in the early decades of the 20th century, and those excavations have provided a significant percentage of what’s known of Mimbres culture from in situ study.

Archaeologists found walls, pottery, tools, weapons and waste fields (middens) — mapping and charting as they went — permitting the reconstructions I picture here. When the field work was complete, the archaeologists followed common practice, covering the ruins to protect them. The standard wisdom is that later studies, benefitting from more advanced technology or informed by adjacent work, will make it possible to derive further information by digging again.

Instead of seeing ruins at Mattocks, you’re going to use your imagination, with some assistance from the Mimbres Culture Heritage organization. Follow the path.

Below, you’re looking east. The trees at the foot of the brown hills mark the course of the Mimbres River, immediately beside the village site.

Mattocks site Brad Nixon 6472 680

The community farmed a considerable portion of the flood plain, and hunters ranged far up those hills and the rugged territory beyond, some of which is now the federally protected Gila Wilderness.

Throughout the site, there are display boards describing the portions of the village near you, like this one.

Mattocks diagram Brad Nixon 6478 680

There are also individual reconstructions of  living structures that are now beneath the soil.

Mimbres model Brad Nixon 6494 680

Seeing a Place That Is No Longer “There”

Even without visible structures, you can imagine the life of an ancient community.

The Mimbres possessed only stone tools — no metal — advanced pottery-making skills, a knowledge of farming, hunting, food-gathering and making clothes. What would it be like to sustain a community with those capabilities and limitations?

What was daily life like? What was it like in winter? How much work did it require to gather and prepare food, collect firewood, build and maintain housing, raise children? Who had the nearly endless task of carrying pots to the river, filling them with water, carrying them back, then repeating the trip?

The Mimbres, like contemporaneous southwestern Puebloan societies, possessed no known form of writing. We have only artifacts, pottery and an understanding of their farming and hunting practices. Although we’ve learned a reasonable amount about their culture, much has been lost through the looting and destruction of many sites.

We can only stand under the western sky, ask and wonder.

Mattocks Site Brad Nixon 6500 680

Visiting the Mattocks Ruin

The Mattocks Ruin is located on the edge of the village of Mimbres at mile marker 4 on Route 35. From Silver City, take Rt. 180 east, then Route 152, turn left on Rt. 35. The site is on the right, marked by a road sign.

Mimbres Map Google

The routes are all paved, progressively narrower and slower as you travel from Silver City to Mimbres, through lovely high desert country.

Tucson is about 3-1/2 hours west. Las Cruces is about two hours southeast.

For more information visit the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site website at this link.

A informative and attractive book for learning more about the Mimbres, with many excellent photographs, is Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest, Brody et al, Hudson Hills Press, New York, 1983.

Appreciation to the volunteers and docents of the Mimbres Heritage Culture Site who provided valuable information, answered many questions, and deserve credit for their work in preserving the Mattocks Ruin.

© Brad Nixon 2019. Pottery photographed in the collection of the Western New Mexico University Museum, and may not be used for commercial purposes. Excavation photograph by Paul Minnis © The Mimbres Foundation, and may not be used for any commercial purpose. Map © Google.


Responses

  1. I’d forgotten where the name ‘Mimbres’ originated. Thanks for including that in your previous post: (“Mimbres” is the plural of the Spanish word for “willow,” and the river valley is home to native willows.) From your photos, it seems the willows function there much as the cottonwoods do in western Kansas, and the cypress in Texas: signs to the traveler that there’s water ahead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. Absolutely. And all across the southwest. Line of trees ahead? Water! Or at least the hope of water. Good observation.

      Like


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