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The peaceful village dwellers
who settled along the banks of
the Mimbres River in Southern
New Mexico created some of
the most enchanting painted
pottery designs during their
brief existence.
Using modern
scientific dating
methods, the
culture that settled
along the 46 mile
banks of the
Mimbres River in
southern New
Mexico apparently
began about 200
And then the
entire culture
without a trace
around 1150 CE.
Archaeologists generally group the Mimbres
Culture, the Anasazi to the north, and the
Hohokam to the west into the Mogollon Cultures.
All three existed in this general area of New Mexico
during the same period.
The Apache are generally considered decendants
of the Anasazi, and the Pueblo as decendants of
the Hohokam.
But there is no evidence of anything like Mimbres
pottery in any subsequent cultures and this makes
this pottery, and the culture that produced it, even
more unique.
The 5,000 ft elevation of the Southwest high desert can
produce blazing heat in the summer and snow in the winter.
It flowed southeast
into the Rio Grande
River which flows
1,800 miles from
Colorado, through
New Mexico and
Texas and into the
Gulf of Mexico.
The Mimbres River
drained a high and
very fertile river valley
surrounded by
It is in this this fertile
and relatively
protected valley that
nomadic tribes settled
and prospered.
And since little else
remains, it is primarily
through their pottery we
are able to learn
anything about the
Mimbres people.
Time Line for the Mimbres Culture
Japanese invent paper - 100
Jesus crucified - 134
Last Gladiators battle in Rome - 404
200 CE
First Period
Buddhism reaches Japan - 538
King Arthur killed - 587
550 CE
Second Period
Chinese invent porcelain - 650
Battle of Karbala in Iraq - 680
First Norse explorers to NA - 1000
William The Conqueror 1066 to 1087
900 CE
1150 CE
Third Period
FIRST PERIOD 200 to 550 CE
During this time, the first groups began to establish
permanent settlements along the Mimbres River.
Due to...
Despite the 5,000 ft elevation this river valley was
somewhat temperate.
Hunting in the surrounding mountains was
There were fish in the river, the soils were fertile and
firewood was plentiful.
And, of course, other natural materials like clay were
First Period Pit House 200 to 550 CE
Population – 4-5 villages with 500 or less inhabitants total.
Like in many cultures, the first pottery was simply made
by hand, without any tools using the simple ‘pinch pot’
And like most other cultures, the Mimbres
peoples made larger pots by the using the
‘coil method’.
Simple coil shapes
The red-brown natural clay
appearance is produced by
the rubbing of iron oxide
onto the surface of pots
before or after firing in open
And some “effigy jars.”
The process of making
pots would be the
same throughout all of
the periods, and would
be similar to that done
all-round the world.
Pots would be first
formed by hand.
They would be stacked into an open-pit fire.
Fuel could be wood, or in this case cattle or buffalo dung.
Fuel would be added and when the fire died, the pots appear.
Increased sophistication in their pottery including the
making and use of their distinctive bowl shapes that,
for archaeologists in our era, define their civilization.
The second period period saw increased agriculture
in the valley.
Less reliance on hunting of larger game animals in the
Larger villages and an increased population to perhaps
1,000-1,500 people.
Above ground homes
More & larger villages
housing – up
to 15 units.
Characteristics of
Second Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Coil construction
While other
shapes were
made, more
bowls have been
One style of
included radial
geometric designs.
Discovery of a White Slip for decoration.
Characteristics of
Second Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Red-White Slip
patterns were
very common
and may have
had religious
Quadrant - North – East – South - West
Characteristics of
Second Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Another common
style had
geometric patterns
extending across
the bowl.
feature in this
bowl is the hole
in the center.
THIRD PERIOD 900 to 1150 CE
During this period Mimbres Pottery reached its highest
forms of expression – including more sophisticated
geometric designs and especially the use of images of
animals and of man as the hunter.
Settlements grew in size and number to 16 villages
with an estimated population of about 2,500 people
living along the 46 mile stretch of the Mimbres River.
They were largely self-sufficient and virtually no
evidence of trade exists. No evidence of the their
distinctive pottery is found among the ruins of either
the Anasazi or the Hohokam cultures.
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Quadrant with
Use of border
at the rim.
Might these figures represent something ?
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Black and
Circular or
spiral patterns
Rim border.
Spirit hole.
J.J. Brody, a Professor of Art History
at the University of New Mexico for
over 30 years, and the leading
authority on Mimbres pottery says:
“The Mimbres often placed a pot
over the head of the dead with a
hole punched in the bottom; a
“killed“ pot.
In death one looks up through the
hole in the killed pot while most of
one’s life is spent looking down
toward the ground. A duality is
perhaps implied by this.”
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Depiction of
both man
and animal.
What did
the snake
represent in
many Indian
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Bird ?
Or insect?
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
The designs
frequently offer
of animals and
Pueblo art
frequently has
a humorous
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
This bowl
could be
viewed from
two sides.
meant as a
greeting or a
welcome ?
Or just as a
bowl for
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
Man as the
fiqures were
often shown
, or
part animal –
part man.
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
finely ruled
design using
Characteristics of
Third Period
Mimbres Pottery.
images of
birds was a
Over 7,000 pieces of Mimbres pottery
have been saved. Nearly 80% are
these distinctive flat bowl shapes.
And, of course, I have some favorites
Discovery of the Mimbres Culture
Only in the late 1870’s did word of an ancient settlement
begin to reach the museums and universities of the east
coast of the U.S.
An amateur archaeologist
names E.D. Osborn had been
searching through the
Mimbres River area for years
and eventually he discovered
some shards and brought
them back east to J. Walter
Fewkes of the Smithsonian
Institution in Washington D.C.
in 1910.
Fewkes is best known for his archaological
discoveries on the prehistoric Southwest,
Mexico, and West Indies, while working with
the Smithsonian's Bureau of American
Ethnology (1895-1928).
Fewkes was intrigued by
what he saw, and thru
the Smithsonian he
funded Cornelius and
Harriet Cosgrove who
explored and dug in the
Mimbres River valley on
7 expeditions through
the mid-late 1920’s.
Exploration ended because:
1. They thought they’d
found the entire culture
at Swart’s Ruin.
2. The Great Depression.
Unfortunately, while financing for
expeditions wasn’t available during the
depression, there were many people out
of work and all were looking for ways to
make money or to survive.
During the 1930s entire
villages were destroyed by
looters looking for highly
saleable artifacts.
As late as
1960 looters
continued to
search and
sites, until
was passed
and severe
enforced to
these thefts.
Causes for the disappearance of the Mimbres Culture
Their over-hunting of game in the area.
Depletion of the soils through extensive agriculture.
Consumption of all of the locally available firewood.
The population grew to 15 times what it was
during the 1st Period.
A 20-30 year-long widely documented period of
drought throughout the Southwest just after
1100 CE.
Lack of trade and contact with other cultures of
the same general period.
“Mimbres paintings can teach us
much about greed, but above all,
they teach us about art and the
power that creative expression have
to link together the past, present,
and future.”
J.J. Brody
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