A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
By JASON URBANUS
Monday, May 20, 2013
Fifth-century Britain was a tumultuous place, wracked by violence, upheaval, and uncertainty. The Roman Empire was crumbling throughout western Europe as waves of barbarian invaders overran its borders. By A.D. 410, groups of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes began crossing the North Sea from Germany and southern Scandinavia to claim land in Britain that had been abandoned by the Roman army. These tribes succeeded Rome as the dominant power in central and southern Britain, marking the beginning of what we now call the Anglo-Saxon Age, which would last for more than 600 years.
While the story of this period is known to us in broad strokes, in archaeological terms, there remains much to uncover. The early Anglo-Saxon period is a time whose events are often shrouded in fantasy. This fantastical view can be traced to later, Christian writers who described the pagan world of the fifth and sixth centuries as being inhabited by wizards, warriors, demons, and dragons. Legendary tales, passed down, were often the subject of later Old English works of poetry. Perhaps the most famous of all is the epic work Beowulf, whose eponymous hero battles monsters and fire-breathing dragons. But some of the details of early Anglo-Saxon life that have been gleaned piecemeal from texts are now being confirmed by archaeology. Such is the case with the recent surprising discovery of a Saxon royal feasting hall.
For the last six years the Lyminge Archaeological Project has investigated the modern village of Lyminge, Kent, located a short distance from the famous white cliffs of Dover. Researchers from both the University of Reading and the Kent Archaeological Society are documenting Lyminge’s transition from a pagan royal “vill” into a significant Christian monastic center. The settlement encompasses both the pre-Christian and later Christian Anglo-Saxon periods and is proving valuable in understanding the development of early English communities. According to Alexandra Knox, archaeologist and Lyminge Archaeological Project research assistant, the work there is supplying a key piece of the puzzle. “The history of the Christian conversion in Kent,” Knox says, “the historically earliest kingdom to be converted in the Anglo-Saxon period, is integral to our understanding of the creation of medieval and, indeed, modern England.”
The Christian Anglo-Saxon community in Lyminge founded an important “double” monastery—home to both monks and nuns—dating from the seventh to ninth century. The existence of this monastery has been known from at least the middle of the nineteenth century, when Canon Jenkins, a local vicar and amateur archaeologist, discovered the remains of the ancient monastic complex. But apart from these Christian ruins, little was known about Lyminge’s earlier history.
During the dark and violent times of the fifth century, pagan warrior kings ruled southern Britain. At Lyminge, current archaeological research is now making it possible to retrace the village’s early history to Anglo-Saxon settlers, just a few decades after the fall of Roman Britain. The recently discovered Anglo-Saxon hall, which researchers believe dates to about 600, would have been an essential feature of any important early Saxon settlement. In Old English poetry the hall is often the scene of royal feasts and banquets. In the story of Beowulf, the hero is tasked with slaying the monster Grendel, who has been terrorizing the famous hall of Heorot.
The royal feasting hall in Lyminge remained undisturbed for nearly 1,400 years, just a few inches below the surface of a village green that lies at the center of the modern town, and within view of the monastery site. It is the first of its kind to be discovered in England in more than 30 years. “Excavating large open areas in villages of medieval origin can be an extremely successful strategy in uncovering the evolution of the Saxon village,” explains Knox. “No large building was visible on the geophysical survey, so it was a great surprise to the team to uncover the full floor plan of such a significant structure.”
Large royal halls such as the one found in Lyminge are known to be associated with local elites and played a central role in early Anglo-Saxon society. The king and his guests would gather to socialize, celebrate victories, or listen to performances. The hall not only hosted legendary feasting parties, sometimes lasting days, but was also a key multipurpose assembly space for early Saxon communities. These halls were the site of essential political, social, religious, and legal activities. Since the feasting hall at Lyminge was constructed from timber and other perishable materials, only the foundation trenches and postholes remain visible. Its rectangular plan measures approximately 69 by 28 feet, making it comparable to the grandest Saxon halls ever discovered, such as those at Yeavering in Northumberland and Cowdery’s Down in Hampshire.
While halls of this type have generally yielded very few significant artifacts, in the case of Lyminge, archaeologists found one important object—an exquisite gilt copper-alloy horse-harness mount was discovered in one of the wall trenches. The quality of its design, style, and craftsmanship indicate that it most likely belonged to an important Anglo-Saxon warrior, adding archaeological support to the stuff of legends. According to Knox, “This artifact is a direct link to the warrior ideal embodied in Beowulf.” Artifacts such as these are often seen in horse and warrior burials of the fifth and sixth centuries. “The Anglo-Saxon hall,” Knox adds, “provides clear evidence that elite individuals, most likely the kings of Kent, were staying at Lyminge in the pre-Christian period.”
The days of the pagan Anglo-Saxon kings were to be short-lived. After only one or two generations, the settlement that took the royal hall as its symbolic center was abandoned. In another part of Lyminge, on a spur of land above the old pagan village, a new community formed, this time concentrated around a newly built Christian monastery.
The monastery at Lyminge has old and storied connections to the earliest Christian Anglo-Saxons. While the populations of Roman Britain had already converted to Christianity following the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312, the foreign tribes who invaded the island after the Roman collapse were pagans. St. Augustine of Canterbury was commissioned by Pope Gregory to travel to Britain to reestablish Christianity there and to convert the pagan Saxon communities. Shortly after his pilgrimage in the sixth century, the monastery in Lyminge was founded by Queen Æethelburga, daughter of King Æthelbert of Kent, who, in 597, became the first Anglo-Saxon king to be converted to Christianity.
Lyminge was transformed by its Christian monastic settlement, which brought about changes in lifestyle, identity, and behavior of the local population. Recent excavations have revealed a large granary and an industrial-sized ironworking facility that attest to the growth of Lyminge’s economy. The presence of fish bones and other marine evidence shows that the monastic community was connected to broader trade networks and was capable of exploiting coastal resources. This also indicates the impact that Christianity had on diet, as fish became a much more significant staple in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The transition from the Roman Age to the Anglo-Saxon Age in this part of Britain can be understood as a two-part process. The first was characterized by the dominance of pagan warrior kings and the second by the reestablishment of Christianity. The last days of the pagan Saxon kings and the great feasting halls of the age of Beowulf gave way to an era that would be even more influential in the construction of the modern English identity. All is finally visible in the village of Lyminge.
Jason Urbanus has a Ph.D. in archaeology from Brown University.
By KATE RAVILIOUS
Monday, April 08, 2013
Working amid the confusion of the East India Docks in London in the early 1800s was perilous trade. In the holds of rolling ships, men could be crushed by falling barrels and chests. On deck, grappling hooks swung wildly, and carelessly loaded containers burst, sometimes showering longshoremen with toxic substances such as iodine, phosphorous, asbestos, and lead. Losing one’s footing was often a death sentence—crushed between ship and dock or drowned in the filthy Thames.
There was no shortage of men willing to take these risks. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was booming and immigrants flooded in from Ireland and the continent in search of work. Many ended up on the docks or in the factories of London’s East End. Wages were low and homes scarce—four of every five families lived in filthy single rooms. Open sewers ran down the streets and the air was clogged with soot.
Industrialization took its toll on the community’s health. Their only bulwark against frequent disease outbreaks and horrific injuries was the London Hospital. But among the very sick or seriously hurt, even admission to the hospital did little to improve chances of survival. Infection was rife on the wards and surgery was a brutal business. The standard treatment for a broken bone was amputation, and there were no anesthetics or antiseptics.
In a way, though, for such a bustling, desperate neighborhood, death often represented opportunity. Medical science was undergoing a revolution of its own, and the corpses of the recently deceased were in high demand by surgeons and medical students. Though it was illegal, there was a roaring trade in dead bodies.
Until now, little was known about exactly what nineteenth-century medical professionals did with those cadavers, or how far they were prepared to bend the rules to get them. The recent discovery of a long-forgotten cemetery on the grounds of the London Hospital is illuminating some of these practices and, while some of the details are not for the squeamish, they have much to tell us about the foundation upon which modern medicine is built.
Founded in 1740 by businessmen and philanthropists, the London Hospital was part of a new wave of voluntary hospitals that sprang up across England and North America, supported by contributions from the public. Specifically, according to original hospital records, it was intended for the sick poor among “the merchant seaman and manufacturing classes”—the population of the East End at the time.
Today the hospital (which became the Royal London Hospital in 1990) is still going strong. In 2006, an expansion necessitated archaeological excavations in two areas east of the main building. One was a known cemetery used from 1840 onward, while the other turned out to be the long-forgotten burial ground. Covering a key period in medical and social history, the puzzling remains from this cemetery have enabled archaeologists to piece together a surprising, and sometimes unsettling, portrait of the early days of modern medicine.
While the known cemetery was more or less like any other, the newly discovered one consistently produced the strange and unexpected. The excavation team, from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), uncovered some 262 undocumented burials, many in heavily decayed wood coffins stacked atop each other and, in some cases, filled with remains of different individuals. “Two-thirds of the coffins contained complete people, and the remainder were very incomplete people!” says MOLA’s head of osteology, Natasha Powers. “At the time we were digging,” adds MOLA’s Louise Fowler, the senior archaeologist involved in the excavation, “we didn’t know who these people were and why they had been left in such a jumble.” Almost all the bones belonged to adults, and the handful of children buried there had been left intact. However, for the unlucky disarticulated adults, their bones could end up in coffins that contained multiples of the same body part, such as elbow joints or feet. Many of the bones were covered in saw cuts, knife marks, and drill holes. “For us, piecing together these bones was a gruesome and very challenging jigsaw,” says Powers.
Documents from the hospital archives indicate that the newly uncovered cemetery was in use from around 1825 until 1841. However, the records provide no clues as to why so many people were buried in such a macabre and unusual way. “For us it was really interesting and challenging to work out who these people were,” says Powers. One of the first things that stood out about the burials was that most belonged to adult men. “This highly skewed demographic fits with the people who we suspect might have been unclaimed, probably including many dock workers, and who therefore would have been buried at the hospital,” says Powers.
Studying the location of cuts on the incomplete skeletons revealed some clear patterns. In particular, many of the bodies had consistent cuts through the vertebrae, to divide the body into three portions: head, torso, and lower body. Some of the cuts demonstrate skill and detailed knowledge of human anatomy, while others are more amateur, with slip marks and multiple attempts at making the same cut. A few of the bones had iron pins inserted into them, or sometimes traces of red dye. And some of the bones were not human but animal, belonging to dogs, cows, and even monkeys.
After cataloguing their finds, Powers and her colleagues began to understand the story behind these bones. “The location of the bones in the hospital cemetery tells us they were linked to the hospital, and the standardized patterns and distribution of cut marks tells us that these were the remains of medical school dissections and autopsies, rather than medical ‘waste,’” she explains.
Many of the bones show classic cut marks associated with autopsy, including ribs that were sawed through and skulls with craniotomies (removal of the top of the skull), all techniques that are still used in autopsies today. Other standard cuts produced joint portions for medical students to study and practice amputations—one of the most common operations at that time.
Often cut marks could be matched with the instruments used to make them. For example, only cranial saws could produce the length and serrations seen on the craniotomies, a procedure done with circular saws today. Meanwhile, round holes seen in two of the skulls would have been made by a trephine. “These were specialized drills that were narrower at the base than the top, to prevent the disc of bone slipping into the hole,” explains Jonathan Evans, an archivist at the Royal London Hospital Museum. Trephining was used on depressed skull fractures, to relieve intracranial pressure, and also to treat a range of illnesses, including epilepsy, migraines, and mental disorders.
Fine knife cuts and scratches on the bone surface are evidence of soft tissue removal—one of the first procedures the students would have learned. Lack of refrigeration meant that corpses didn’t last long, so anatomy classes were only held in the winter months and dissections were carried out in order of which tissue decomposed first. “Textbooks from the time always show medical students smoking, to cover up the terrible smell,” says Fowler.
Some bones show a steep learning curve for medical students. “We see false starts and multiple attempts at making a cut before finding the optimum location,” says Powers. In most cases, the students appear to be following the dissection instructions from early-eighteenth-century textbooks, instructions that were later illustrated in the classic Gray’s Anatomy, a book still used by medical students today. The animal bones—from dogs, horses, cows, rabbits, cats, and some exotic species, including two headless mona monkeys and two tortoises—also provide evidence of the learning process. Often, the cut marks on them were identical to those on human bones, suggesting that they may have been used in a comparative anatomy class.
The human bones with iron pins in them would have been kept as specimens, and the red staining observed on some fragments, including the remains of a preserved fetus, would have come from red wax pumped through the circulatory system to create models of the arteries and veins, another technique still used today. Other curious finds were some lead casts of an aorta. “We can’t be sure, but perhaps these could be a link to a senior doctor at the London Hospital, Archibald Billing,” says Powers. “He was very interested in trying to diagnose aortic aneurysms and these lead casts may have been his handiwork.”
Piers Mitchell, an expert on early medicine at the University of Cambridge who wasn’t involved with the project, is excited by the secret cemetery discoveries. “It is the first excavation in the United Kingdom to have recovered such a broad range of anatomical finds from the 1800s, allowing us to see which aspects of anatomical research recorded in dissection manuals of the time were actually put into practice,” he says. Furthermore, the time period covered by the cemetery straddles crucial changes in the law regarding where such research cadavers came from. Because of this, Powers and her colleagues have been able to use the bones to deduce whether the surgeons of the day respected these new regulations.
The large number of dissected skeletons indicate that the London Hospital medical school was very active at the time, but who were these people the students were experimenting on? For most, the idea of donating their bodies to medical science was abhorrent. So, prior to 1832, the only legal method for obtaining a body for dissection was to acquire that of an executed criminal, of which there were nowhere near enough to supply medical schools. The extreme shortage of cadavers created a black market for “body snatching”—digging up fresh graves and selling the corpses to medical schools through the back door.
Known as “resurrectionists” or “resurrection men,” gangs stole newly buried corpses to order. Though the practice was illegal, prosecutions for body snatching were rare. The activities of the resurrection men were certainly macabre, but many have found a dark humor in them, most recently in the 2010 black comedy Burke and Hare. William Burke and William Hare were perhaps the most notorious resurrection men; they were brought to court in Edinburgh in 1828 and found guilty of murdering 16 people and selling the corpses for dissection. Public outcry from the Burke and Hare case triggered a change in the law, granting anatomists access to the unclaimed bodies of those who died in workhouses and hospitals. Known as the Anatomy Act of 1832, it was intended to increase the legal supply of bodies for dissection and to cut off the black market. “One of the most exciting things about this cemetery is that it was in use around a decade either side of the Anatomy Act, enabling us to see if the law caused any changes in behavior,” says Powers.
Two-thirds of the graves in this cemetery were ordinary burials, clearly unexhumed. But it is possible that there had been many more ordinary burials that were then lost to the trade in cadavers. Documentary sources confirm this may have happened to many burials at London Hospital. In particular, a pamphlet published by Ann Millard, wife of William Millard, “king of the resurrection men,” provides a damning indictment. Following the capture of her husband at the London Hospital burial ground and his subsequent death in prison in 1822, she paid to have a pamphlet published to blow the whistle on the illicit trade. In it she writes, “It has long been custom to disinter the persons buried in the London hospital ground for the use of the anatomical school attached to that institution or if not required by that school for the use of anyone who was willing to purchase them.”
The hospital chaplain, Reverend William Valentine, writes in his diary entry for July 2, 1829, about a body-snatching incident: “On Monday morning some wretches had disinterred the body from the ground, but patients saw them from the ward window about 5 o’clock. The fellows left the body in a sack, partially covered, in the grounds, to the horror and disgust of all who saw it.” Ironically, the new finds suggest that many of these stolen skeletons were probably returned to the cemetery eventually—albeit in a very different state from when they were exhumed.
Comparing bones that predate the Anatomy Act with those postdating it, Powers and her colleagues have been able to assess the impact of the new legislation. A handwritten addition to the hospital bylaws on October 18, 1832, suggests that procedures were tightened, stating, “every body removed … for the purpose of anatomical examination, shall, previously to removal be placed in a decent coffin or shell and removed therein, and he shall give notice to the Chaplin, of every such removal, within six hours after it takes place.” However, the archaeological evidence suggests that these words were mere lip service. “We actually see very little change in the volume of dissections and the way they were buried, suggesting that the Anatomy Act had little impact on the practices being carried out,” says Powers.
In addition to providing a peek into the shadowy world surrounding medical training in the early nineteenth century, the excavation of the forgotten cemetery has also revealed the living conditions and lifestyle pathologies of London’s poorer classes in the East End. Some 170 of the 262 burials there contained complete skeletons. “The presence of whole and apparently untouched bodies within the excavated assemblage suggests a degree of hyperbole in Ann Millard’s account,” says Powers. These complete burials illuminate the hospital’s function as an early emergency room and show how these East Enders lived.
A report from The Times newspaper on August 11, 1806, details a typical accident that London Hospital surgeons would have had to deal with. Four drunk bricklayers fell from the rafters of the building they were working on. The paper reports, “One … was killed on the spot, and the others were taken to the London Hospital, one of whom has died since the incident, and the other two are not likely to recover.”
While definitive proof is elusive, one of the complete burials in the cemetery could have been one of the unfortunate bricklayers. The skeleton is that of a 26- to 35-year-old male with an unhealed spiral fracture of the femur. “This injury would have required considerable force and is most likely to have been caused by a fall from a height,” says Powers. A small amount of new bone growth shows that the injury was healing and that the man survived a few weeks after the accident. Broken bones were common, with over 35 percent of the complete skeletons showing signs of trauma. Such injuries often necessitated the terrifying ordeal of an amputation. “Prior to the advent of antibiotics, many severe injuries ended in amputation, to prevent the wound going gangrenous,” explains Evans.
Anesthetics were not in widespread use before the mid-1800s, so surgical patients were “bled” before operations to make them more soporific and compliant. Medical students watched proceedings from steep tiers around the wooden operating table. In one corner, a fire would be burning to heat the cauterizing irons. “Before the introduction of artery forceps, the wound would be cauterized, to stop it bleeding,” says Evans. One-quarter of the patients failed to survive their operations, and often ended up in the hospital cemetery, which now offers a record of the other lifestyle pathologies of the industrializing East End.
For example, a number of the intact male skeletons had broken noses, perhaps from fighting. “The type of nasal fractures they suffered from often results from the landing of a punch,” says Powers. Many of the men were pipe smokers, too, with 25 of the complete skeletons showing rounded grooves in their teeth, caused by perpetually clamping a clay pipe between them. The few female skeletons in the cemetery demonstrate a dedication to fashion, with 13 percent exhibiting painful bunions of the feet (probably caused by tight shoes) and two of them having tapered ribs (suggesting that they had worn tight corsets).
A London Hospital diet sheet from the late eighteenth century shows that hospital food was dire, with no vegetables at all in the meals. “Physicians had to prescribe vegetables specially,” says Evans. The menu shows a stodgy, cereal-based diet with porridge or gruel for breakfast, and broth with bread and cheese later in the day, washed down with beer. A piece of an enema kit found in the graveyard attests to the diet’s effects. Nutrition at home was poor too, as evidenced by the high levels of tooth decay (60 percent of skeletons showed signs of dental disease) and nutritional disorders such as rickets (just over 8 percent of the skeletons had the bowed legs associated with this vitamin D deficiency) and cribra orbitalia (22 percent of the skeletons had small holes in the roofs of their eye sockets, indicative of iron deficiency). Poor diet started early in life, as severe tooth decay in one of the rare examples of a young child’s skeleton demonstrates.
Patients with infectious disease were generally excluded from the hospital, but the cemetery excavations reveal that some slipped through the net. Lesions on the spines of three skeletons indicate that these patients suffered from tuberculosis—a significant killer in nineteenth-century London’s crowded communities. Given that bone changes only occur in around 5 percent of sufferers, it is likely there were many more tuberculosis cases. Six “sputum mugs” were recovered from the cemetery. Early hospital records indicate these pots were “provided in each ward to prevent them [the patients] from spitting against the walls”—possibly to help reduce the spread of tuberculosis.
The bones from the cemetery tell of hard lives, crude medical procedures, and the specter of death quietly looming. Today’s sanitized hospitals and advanced medical procedures seem a world away, but some things have been slow to change. Although the stigma associated with donating your body to medical science has gone, people still appear to be uneasy with the idea. “At Cambridge, we require about 50 donors a year and sometimes we struggle,” says Lynn Haythorpe, bequeathal secretary at Cambridge Human Anatomy Centre.
Trained medical professionals today can save many more lives than their colleagues of 200 years ago could. However, the clean, lab-coated environments and amazing medical advances we enjoy today have their roots in these grimy chapters of the Industrial Revolution. London’s sooty, crowded streets and its appalling working and living conditions provided a ready supply of unwitting subjects for medical students and professionals to experiment on and learn from. Like it or not, today’s medical science is built on the dubious and macabre activities of resurrection men and the people who purchased bodies from them. Modern medicine owes a huge debt to those dark days.
Kate Ravilious is a science journalist based in York, United Kingdom.
By JUDE ISABELLA
Monday, April 08, 2013
Since first being unearthed in New Mexico in the late nineteenth century, the striking ceramic bowls made a millennium earlier by people living in the Mimbres River Valley of the American Southwest have inspired countless counterfeiters, a clay art festival, a burglary at the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department, and even a line of railroad dinnerware.
While their undecorated outsides appear unremarkable in technique and form, their insides are magic, a canvas for haunting depictions of tortoises, fish, jackrabbits, and sometimes humans, as well as intricate geometric designs. The black forms on a white background create an arresting contrast.
For more than a century, beginning in the late tenth century A.D., thousands of these black-on-white bowls were produced, with distinctive designs more spectacular and elaborate than those of any other culture in the Southwest. “It was strikingly unique,” says Steve LeBlanc, an archaeologist at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, who has studied the pottery makers since the 1970s.The figurative painting on the bowls—sophisticated composite animals and complex scenes and stories—sets Mimbres pottery apart from that of neighboring cultures, where geometric shapes dominated. Then, in 1130, according to the archaeological record, the manufacture of the bowls stopped.
The Mimbres lived in an area that today is nestled in New Mexico’s southwest corner, spilling over the border there with Arizona, and dipping into the Mexican state of Chihuahua. Archaeologists consider Mimbres a subset of the Mogollon culture. Mogollon is one of three major cultures of the ancient American Southwest, along with the Anasazi, also referred to as the Ancestral Pueblo, and the Hohokam. The Ancestral Pueblo are known for large, sophisticated village sites and road systems, such as Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. The Hohokam engineered complex irrigation canals, unrivaled by other pre-Columbian cultures in North America. Traced to a.d. 200, the Mogollon stretched across the mountainous region near today’s Mexican-American border, living in semiunderground dwellings. Overall, they did not farm intensively. The Mimbres, however, used irrigation methods similar to those of the Hohokam to exploit the fertile floodplains of the Mimbres River in order to produce corn, squash, beans, and other crops.
The Mimbres River, named by the Spanish for the willows that grew along its banks, was an oasis in the dry Southwest where rain clouds cross west to east over the peak of Black Mountain before shedding their rain. The Mimbres region stretched east to the Rio Grande and west to the Gila River Valley, in what is today southwestern Arizona. The years between A.D. 1000 and 1130 mark the culture’s apex, called the Mimbres Classic period. People built pueblos, living in densely packed villages along the Mimbres River Valley, with a large increase in population during that time bringing their total numbers as high as 6,000.
Archaeological investigation of the Mimbres began with early digs by independent archaeologists Burt and Hattie Cosgrove around 1919. Their foundational work soon resulted in Harvard’s Peabody Museum asking the pair to lead detailed excavations at the Swarts Ranch site in southern New Mexico. Their investigation lasted from 1924 to 1927 and included the recovery of almost 700 Classic black-on-white bowls. The pots were so impressive that pothunters were gutting other sites, often on private land. The Swarts Ranch site was chosen because it was relatively intact.
Thereafter, archaeological work stalled until the 1970s, though looting of Mimbres sites persisted. When pothunters began to use heavy machinery in the 1970s, destroying sites in the process, LeBlanc formed the Mimbres Foundation, which helped restart work on the culture at sites such as Mattocks Ruin in the southwestern corner of New Mexico. At many of the newly studied sites, archaeologists recovered burned roof rafters, which they think might have been part of a ritual involved in closing a settlement. Tree ring analysis of the charcoal returned a series of dates that ended at a.d. 1130. “It wasn’t until about 1974 or 1975 when we got the first tree ring dates back, and the terminal date of 1130, that we began to ask, what happened?” LeBlanc says.
Since then, the prevailing view of researchers was to read the break in the archaeological record as a systemic social collapse—depopulation accompanying the abandonment of a site. Others, such as Margaret Nelson, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) who began studying the pottery makers as a graduate student in the 1970s, have a different interpretation. For Nelson and her ASU colleague Michelle Hegmon, the sudden cessation of Mimbres pottery production, though abrupt in the archaeological record, doesn’t necessarily point to the end of the Mimbres culture.
“We like that pottery, we call them the Mimbres people, and they became a famous archaeological case. But people are always changing their styles,” Hegmon says. “I’m not sure it was as big a change for them as it was for us.”
The first decorations on Mimbres pottery—simple geometric shapes in red on brown clay—appear around A.D. 600. The potters developed the black-on-white style, an artistically pleasing contrast found in much Southwest pottery, 150 years later. By about the late 900s, the exceptional design that came to define the Mimbres Classic period took off.
Mimbres artists painted geometric lines and patterns on two-thirds of the bowls found and figures on about one-third. They smoothed the insides with stones, applying a fine white clay slip over brown clay, and then brushed on black paint made by mixing ground iron ore and a plant-derived binder, probably with yucca brushes. Animals depicted include prey species such as deer, pronghorns, and jackrabbits; insects such as grasshoppers; spiders; snakes; and fish. They also painted feathered serpents and other mythical creatures. They portrayed ceremonial and everyday human scenes, too: a ritual dancer; a hunter bringing home a kill, trailed by dogs; a mother birthing a baby. The bowls apparently were not traded, as they rarely turn up outside Mimbres sites.
Indications from use suggest that though thoughtfully created, the bowls were not the equivalent of heirloom fine china, carefully stashed away for a grand event. Marks found on their interiors suggest they were scraped by people using spoons, which were probably made from gourd or wood since none survive. The bowls measure roughly four inches tall and vary from six to 16 inches in diameter. The large range of sizes suggests multiple functions, among them serving and eating. In fact, the people even buried their dead—under their living areas—with the bowls placed on skulls. The bowls found with skulls have a “kill hole” in the middle tapped out by a sharp object, perhaps as a way for a spirit to rise out. At Swarts, the Cosgroves recorded 1,009 such burials.
Jars, not as carefully made, and only occasionally found intact, are more often unpainted plain brownware. It’s probable, LeBlanc says, that few potters would bother to decorate a pot for cooking over a fire or one shoved in a corner with beans stored inside. Jars were large enough to hold a gallon or two of water, or small, a couple of inches across, just big enough for seed storage. “We find jars basically as sherds,” LeBlanc says. “The number of complete examples of large painted water jars, for example, is 10 or 15, something like that, versus 10,000 bowls.”
LeBlanc notes that researchers have yet to locate the sources of the clay used in Mimbres pottery, although a technique called instrumental neutron activation (bombarding small sherd samples with neutrons to reveal the clay’s chemical composition) reveals that the clay came from a local source. “Clay is heavy stuff,” LeBlanc says. “I would be surprised if they were going farther than a couple of miles to get it.”
In the early twelfth century, after a few generations of favorable climate conditions, the drought-prone Southwest experienced another dry spell. Faunal remains indicate that big game species such as deer and pronghorn may have already been scarce throughout the Classic period. But, despite the drought, the people could apparently still grow crops. Scientists have taken soils from terraced fields back to the lab and been able to grow corn in them.
Within the Mimbres region responses to the climatic shift differed. Signs of Mimbres architecture and pottery peter out in the Gila River drainage before A.D. 1100. Stephen Lekson, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado Boulder who worked in the Mimbres region with Nelson in the 1980s, believes many of the Mimbres Valley dwellers steadily headed south through a series of post–Classic period villages.
For the past two decades Nelson and Hegmon have concentrated their digs in the east, a promising area, less ransacked by pothunters than the main valley. As part of the Eastern Mimbres Archaeological Project, the archaeologists excavated at least a dozen sites, including five Classic villages and smaller sites located about one and a half miles from them. Results from their digs indicate the people adapted to changes in their climate and reorganized their social structure.
Nelson and Hegmon’s fieldwork revealed a pattern repeated in the smaller eastern Mimbres sites. They were finding rooms often the size of a single-car garage and big enough for a small family to live in, with hearths, food grinding areas, and ventilation. One well-preserved structure was uncovered at nearby Mountain Lion Hamlet, which sits above the Palomas Creek drainage just south of the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The site was named for a petroglyph of a four-legged creature that a wildlife biologist pointed out had a long tail like that of a mountain lion.
“We found masonry, four walls,” Hegmon says, also noting the presence of a cooking hearth, warming oven, and grinding feature. “It looked like a place where people lived year-round.” During their initial excavations in 1994, they found an evenly plastered floor about an inch or two thick with 16 postholes in it. The posts would have likely held up a roof made of beams and reeds. Masonry walls surrounding the floor were three to four feet high.
When Nelson and Hegmon’s team peeled back the masonry along one wall, they exposed vertical pole imprints from what they believe was an earlier, flimsier wall made of jacal, stick-scaffolding filled in with mud. Further excavation revealed a lower, unevenly plastered floor with patches of packed dirt that sat six inches below the upper floor. From evidence at other sites, the archaeologists believe that what initially stood before the four-walled room was a temporary three-walled jacal structure—a Classic-period field house used by farmers when tending crops during the growing season.
Nelson says the remodeling of the field houses is akin to having a lake house or cabin in the mountains that initially one only visits a few times per year. “If eventually you left your town and moved into the cabin, you might add a bunch of things that make it a more permanent house for you,” she explains. “That’s what we see happening for those who remained in the region but left their villages at the end of the Classic period.”
Carbon dating of the roof beams and corn remains, and analysis of obsidian artifacts such as projectile points and flakes, all confirm post–Classic dates at the renovated hamlets found at eastern Mimbres sites. The best dating, however, is the chronology of the ceramics found at places such as the largest Eastern Mimbres site, Lizard Terrace, which consists of 12 rooms on an upper terrace and 10 to 12 on a lower one.
On the upper—later—archaeological levels of the site’s quarters was a hodgepodge of pottery sherds from some of the most widely traded ceramics in the Southwest after 1150, including St. John’s polychrome, which is most commonly found in west-central New Mexico. The bowl interiors have a thick orange-red slip and black geometric, swirling, or angular designs. The exterior of St. John’s polychrome has a white, chalky paint with simpler patterns. Also found was El Paso polychrome, which is easily recognized by its “popcorn” temper—from embedded white stones on its surface—even if the paint has been worn away. On the lowest, bedrock-level floor, only Mimbres Classic black-on-white pottery was found.
Nelson and Hegmon’s finds are mirrored by recent work at the largest post–Classic Mimbres site, Black Mountain, poised at the southern end of the Mimbres Valley and occupied by A.D. 1200 and likely earlier. Archaeologists there have recovered a mix of pottery linked to regions in every direction.
Katy Putsavage, a doctoral student of Lekson’s, began excavations at Black Mountain in 2010, uncovering the remains of two large adobe pueblos with up to 200 rooms. Putsavage finished her digs last year and is currently analyzing the findings. The pottery has already offered some interesting insights. In addition to St. John’s and El Paso polychrome, Putsavage also found pottery typically associated with sites as far away as southern Chihuahua. The presence of very little Mimbres black-on-white is interpreted by Lekson as a rejection of the old ways.
“From pottery types we can tell there was an expansion of exchange networks after the Classic Mimbres,” Putsavage says. “I would be interested to see how the ceramics compare to the ceramics from earlier time periods in the Mimbres Valley. It’s possible that some of the pottery types were made from the same clay sources as earlier time periods.”
The Mimbres people went from creating and using only the iconic bowls that are the signature of their culture to using up to eight different types of pottery that were either imported from anywhere and everywhere or made as copies of the different styles.
Archaeologists’ next challenge is to figure out exactly which of those eight or so different painted wares were made locally and which were imported. The key will lie in determining the sources of each of the different painted ceramics. Nelson and Hegmon have already noted that some of the El Paso pots were made from local brown clays, sometimes less expertly, as if the potters were learning a new style.
“If they’re emulating the pottery, then they’re quite likely emulating a lot of other things that are connected to the people who make that pottery, and to the region where it’s made,” Nelson says. “That’s an important observation because it tells us about the social process for adopting a particular ceramic.”
Though a lot of ceramic analysis remains to be done, the assembled evidence from the eastern Mimbres River Valley and from southern sites such as Black Mountain argue for the Mimbres transitioning from a closed society making arresting works of art to well-networked importers of other traditions. “It always bothered me, the sense that if the pottery disappears the people disappear,” says Nelson. Lekson theorizes, though evidence is scant, that the bulk of the Mimbres settled in the Casas Grandes region, forming the base population for Paquimé, located in what is today northwestern Chihuahua, Mexico. Paquimé was the last major city in the Southwest prior to European contact in the fifteenth century.
“Who are these guys?” Lekson asks about the people who inhabited Black Mountain. “Same people, different clothes.”
Jude Isabella is a freelance science journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia.
A surprising cannon in Central Park, Hawaiian Buffaloes underwater, ancient Panama’s first shamans, and 4,400-year-old curry in India