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On the Trail of the Mimbres

Archaeologists are tracking the disappearance of a remarkable type of pottery to rewrite the story of a culture’s decline

May/June 2013

Mimbres-pot-geometricSince 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.