A Mimbres Painted Bowl

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Elegant geometric patterns, dynamic figures, and sophisticated draftsmanship unite in the ceramic bowl on the opposite page, which shows a man with rabbit ears and tail carrying a basket on his back. It is an excellent example of the pottery created between A.D. 1000 and 1150 by a few anonymous Native American artists. They were members of a group called the Mimbres, early ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, who inhabited large portions of southwestern New Mexico, and their pottery is considered the finest ancient art tradition in North America.

Bowls, the most common form of Mimbres pottery, were used for food storage and preparation, but they also served a final, significant role as funerary objects, buried with the dead beneath the earthen floors of Mimbres homes. While some held mortuary offerings, others, like this one, were ritualistically “killed”—a hole punctured the center of the bowl, making it useless to the living—and placed over the corpse’s head.

Having no potter’s wheel, the Mimbres used local clay rolled into snake-like coils, in much the same way traditional Pueblo potters form their pots today. They piled these coils one on top of another and then smoothed the bowl with a piece of gourd or other shaping tool. But unlike modern Pueblo potters, the Mimbres painted only the interior surfaces of their bowls, laying down the color with thin yucca brushes, creating strong, graphic images of animals, people, plants, and mythic beings—creatures made up of a combination of different animals, or figures that are part man, part beast. Some of these pictures allow us tiny glimpses into Mimbres life; but most represent a world of ritual and belief that we know next to nothing about.

It was these extraordinary bowls that first spurred early-twentieth-century archeologists to take an active interest in the seemingly unremarkable culture of the Mimbres. Unlike the spectacular dwellings of the Anasazis found earlier in the Four Corners region, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah come together, the Mimbres ruins were mere heaps of stone.

It was not until the bowls captured the interest of a few dedicated amateur and professional archeologists that the true nature of their culture emerged. It is now believed that the Mimbres built the first pueblo settlements—settlements that were among the region’s largest before their mortar dried with the passing centuries and let these sophisticated structures of river cobblestones dissolve into piles of rubble.

It was because of these extraordinary bowls that archeologists first took an interest in the seemingly unremarkable Mimbres culture.

The Mimbres villages were scattered throughout southwestern New Mexico, big blocklike complexes of connected storage and living rooms. The compact living quarters, about 45 to 60 feet square, were lit by ceiling hatchways and small vents in an outside wall. Large plazas in the center of each village, surrounded by the housing complexes, provided space for public ceremonies, communal rituals, and food preparation—activities depicted on the bowls.

The Mimbres gathered wild plants and hunted game, but they also cultivated squash, corn, and beans, and—at a time when the Anasazis relied on scarce and unpredictable rainfall—constructed extensive irrigation systems to ensure a steady water supply for their crops. Although their agriculture suggests a static existence, the group did not live in complete isolation. Ocean fish depicted on their bowls indicate the Mimbres traveled as far as the Gulf of California, five or six hundred miles away. And they seem to have traded with various groups to obtain shell jewelry, feathers, stone axes, and other luxury and ritual items.

Their remarkable success at managing their environment may finally have led to the depletion of important natural resources. Skeletal evidence suggests that the Mimbres suffered from poor health and dietary deficiencies. Ultimately, the group disappeared around A.D. 1150, although there is little doubt of their connection to the Pueblo people.

Today their bowls are highly prized: an average pictorial piece sells for between $10,000 and $45,000, and in 1989 a human and snake pictorial went for $82,500 at Sotheby’s. Purely geometric designs might bring $2,500 to $10,000. But Stephen H. Lekson, curator of archeology at the Museum of New Mexico, stresses that “people shouldn’t buy prehistoric pots to put on the mantelpiece.” Virtually all the Mimbres pottery that finds its way to the marketplace is recently stolen from burial sites by scavengers who ravage important archeological remains with bulldozers.

At the same time, others are striving to preserve what is left of the Mimbres culture. Skilled potters at Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, for instance, blend the ancient motifs with their own, breathing new life into the ancient Mimbres art.