The MIMBRES CULTURE

 
 
The Mimbres Culture was centered along the Mimbres River which forms the western boundary of the Black Range.  The exact nature of the relationship between the Mogollon Culture and the Mimbres is not known but the Mimbres are generally considered to be a distinct “subregion” within the Mogollon sphere of influence.  Mimbres pottery, and in particular pottery from the Mimbres Classic period (see below) is typically used  to define the Mimbres Culture.  It is not known if the Mimbres people defined themselves as a separate people or if they saw their pottery as a defining characteristic of their culture.  During the early common era there were three major cultural areas in the American Southwest/Northern Mexico.  The Ancient Pueblo People(s), the Hohokam, and the Mogollon.  The map above (courtesy Wikipedia) shows the geographic area of influence for these three cultures. 


The Mogollon culture was cohesive during the period 150 AD to about 1400 (AD).  As a subregion of the Mogollon culture the Mimbres are most clearly defined during two periods:  The Three Circle Phase (AD 825 - 1000) - which is the last period in which the Mimbres lived in pithouses - and the Classic Mimbres period (1000 and 1130 AD).  (The period spanning from 200 AD to 850 AD is less well defined.)  The Mimbres are best known for their wonderful pottery, which has been described as some of the best in the world. 


THE PITHOUSE PERIOD


The pithouses of the Three Circle Phase the Mimbres were four-sided structures of about 180 square feet (17 square meters).  The walls and floors were plastered.  “Kivas” were separate structures with some having a footprint of more than 30 square meters, the outline of these structures varied, some were round, some were D-shaped, and some were rectangular.  The differences in shape appear to have changed over time, with the circular ones being the oldest (700 AD) and the rectangular ones coming later (1000 AD).  The walls of these kivas were different from the kivas at other Mogollon sites and from sites elsewhere in that they had upright support beams integrated into them.


During the Classic Period structures (except for “kivas”) were above ground and formed into blocks of rooms (sometimes as many as 150) grouped around a plaza.  Quite often these blocks of rooms contained rooms thought to be for ceremonial purposes. (“Kiva” is a Hopi term which has been used to describe religious structures found below grade at most sites of this period.  As such, it is not clear how appropriate it is to use this term to describe the structures at Mimbres Culture sites.)


The Mogollon Culture (and by extension the Mimbres Culture) was one of what is broadly defined as the Oasisamerican Culture.  These cultures were able to adopt agricultural practices fairly early because of reliable water sources in an otherwise dry environment.  For instance, domesticated maize dating from 3,500 BC was found in Bat Cave, Arizona.  Agricultural practices in Oasisamerica were both developed by the indigenous peoples of the area and influenced by the practices found farther south.  Extensive trade existed between the populations in the southwestern portion of what is now the United States and what is now Mexico.


During the two pithouse periods (Early Pithouse from 1800 to 1500 years ago and the Late Pithouse Period from 1500 to 1000 years ago) agriculture and the use of pottery increased through out the Mogollon culture.  It was during the Late Pithouse period that what we now know as Mimbres pottery really came into its own. 


Swanson and Diehl (Mimbres Pithouse Dwellers) posit that “few pithouses on any given site were occupied simultaneously...evidence point(s) to relatively short occupations by small groups of people, with reoccupations over long time spans.”  There research seems to indicate that the pithouse sites were not villages as much as evidence of an “entrenched pattern of movement by small residential groups”.  During the Late Pithouse Period pithouse structures were repaired more frequently than they had been in the past.  In earlier periods they were simply allowed to decay.


During the pithouse periods, ritual structures (kivas) associated with the Mimbres culture were burned in what appears to be ceremonial acts of “retirement” (see Creel and Anyon - New Interpretations of Mimbres Public Architecture and Space: Implications for Cultural Change).  After the roof of the structures collapsed the walls, in most cases, were pushed inward covering the burned roof material and filling what had been the interior of the structures.  These “retirements” and the locations of the abandoned kivas remained in the oral histories of the Mimbres for centruries.


Creel and Anyon contend that the last of these acts occurred concurrently with the introduction of irrigation technology from the Hohokam culture, leading to more intense agriculture and what became known as the Classic Period of Mimbres culture.  Irrigation was certainly a concept that the Mimbres were familiar with but Creel and Anyon argue that it had not been necessary for their subsistence livelihoods prior to this time.  When it did become necessary they were able to take advantage of relatively sophisticated systems developed elsewhere.  They posit that this was not a dramatic and singular interaction of cultures.  They believe that significant interaction with the Hohokam had started during the 800‘s.  At about 1000 A.D., Mimbres transitioned from pithouses to pueblo style living structures and kivas were replaced with other structures.  For the most part, ritual structures used during the Classic period were allowed to simply decay.


The kivas of the Mimbres typically had objects imbedded within the architectural form of the structure.  These objects have been interpreted as “dedicatory offerings” made when the structure came into service.  Apparently these structures were viewed as transitory in nature, with their retirement from service planned from the very beginning.  Objects identified as “retirement offerings” are typically found in burned kivas.  Creel and Anyon discuss this process in “Ritual and Societal Transformation at the End of the Late Pithouse Period.”


CLASSIC PERIOD


With the advent of more sophisticated agricultural techniques the Mimbres population appears to have increased significantly and its society became more complex.  What appear to be residential clusters of pithouses during the Late Pithouse Phase became clearly that during the Classic Period when room clusters are clearly defined in the pueblo structures.  In some cases plazas and kivas were clearly associated with some room clusters and not others.  During the Classic Period society appears to have become more stratified, with some burial sites much more elaborate than others.


When the agricultural and economic system of the Mimbres valley collapsed in about 1150 CE it is thought that the Mimbres people dispersed into different cultural areas, adopting the resident people’s style of pottery.  In any case, examples of Mimbres pottery are difficult to find after about 1150 CE.  Hegmon and Nelson in “The Archaeology and Meaning of Mimbres” (a compilation of several articles) argue that when many “large villages were depopulated around A.D. 1130, settlement continued in other villages, and people remained in the region...”.  As the resources (land fertility and wood primarily) of the Mimbres valley declined and a period of prolonged drought ensued the Mimbres Valley populations shifted; to the eastern slopes of the Black Range (Reorganization period), northward to be incorporated into the Tularosa tradition, and southward into the Southern Desert Tradition (best known for the huge complex at Casas Grandes (Paquimé) in what is now the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.


THE POTTERY


Mimbres Style l pottery is a black-on-white (sometimes called Boldface Black-on-white) style of pottery generally decorated by geometric designs (with a few examples of human and animal figures).  Mimbres Style III pottery, referred to as the Classic Mimbres Black-on-white style by some, generally depicts human and animal images and sophisticated geometric designs.  The work is often finely executed.  The image depicted is generally the central motif of the pottery and will usually be surrounded by a geometric  design around the edge of the pot.  The images of fauna are often accurate enough to determine the species of the animal depicted.


Many Mimbres pots, from the Late Pithouse and Classic Periods, have been found in grave sites, often as face masks, and usually with a hole punched in the bottom of the bowl.  (Prior to this time pots were smashed when they were “killed”.)  It is obvious from these holes that the color of the motif, whether it be black-on-white or polychrome is a surface coat which is placed on a pot of brown clay.  The use of a brown clay is typical of all Mogollon cultures.  Of note, is the fact that these pots were used prior to being placed in the grave (they show evidence of everyday use) and were not produced as burial artifacts per se. 


Starting in about 700 AD pottery styles changed fairly quickly, starting with red-on-brown they changed to red-on-white and then black-on-white.  The relative simplicity of the geometric designs on red-on-brown ceramics changed over time to become more complex and intricate.  By the mid-800’s Mimbres Style II Black-on-white designs had developed, including some that depicted the natural world rather than being limited to  geometric designs.


Various sites from the “Reorganization Period” contain examples of both Mimbres pottery and examples of other stylistic traditions (like Socorro and Chupadero).  These sites clarify the transition of a culture that is today defined primarily by its pottery.


THE SITES


The Swarts site (or Swarts Ranch Ruin) was excavated between 1924 and 1927 by Harriet and Conelius Cosgrove.  The publication of their book, in 1932, about the site and the pottery found there generated the interest in Mimbres pottery that we see today.  The site was also excavated in 1929-1930 by Paul Nesbit of the Logan Museum.  The Logan Museum of Anthropology depicts a number of pottery examples on its webpage on the Mimbres Culture.  Depicted are pottery examples from (their classifications); Mimbres Plain, Mimbres Incised, Mimbres Corrugated, Manga Black-on-white (formerly Mimbres Boldface), Mimbres Black-on-white Figural, Mimbres Black-on-white Geometric, Mimbres Red-on-white, and Mimbres Polychrome.


The Mattock’s site (see numerous examples of pottery from this site in our photo gallery on Mimbres Pottery) is now the home of the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site (open daily 11-3).


Lastly, the need to protect Mimbres sites from looting was the impetus for the Federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act.  The Mimbres Foundation did its best to save Mimbres sites from the bulldozers which ravaged the area in search of the pottery which made the culture famous.

 

ANCIENT CULTURE IN THE MIMBRES VALLEY

We use AD (Anno Domini)/BC (Before Christ) and CE (Common Era)/BCE (Before Common Era) interchangeably when referring to dates.


This page is not meant to be a definitive discussion of the Mimbres Culture.  Other sources of information about the Mimbres are found at the bottom of this sidebar.


Our photo gallery of Mimbres Pottery depicts close to 200 pieces of art from this culture.

During the classic period many examples of Mimbres pottery are highly symmetrical, often with each side of a bowl mirroring the other.


Classic Mimbres pottery often depicts scenes of everyday life (like the wood gathers above) and creatures that they had regular contact with like the Ant Lion (a small insect) depicted below.

The Mimbres also worked in other mediums besides clay.  The bird effigy in quartzite (shown above) serves as a nice example of their artistic expertise in other media.

Symmetrical scroll patterns were often used to decorate pottery by the Mimbres.
Mimbres pottery can also be highly geometric, something we sometimes ignore as we fixate on their representational pieces.
The depiction of humans in Mimbres pottery can be lifelike or stylized.

This polychrome effigy jar is from Villa Ahumada near Casas Grandes and dates from 1300 - 1400.


OTHER RESOURES


The Swarts Ruin by Harriet and Conelius Cosgrove.


Mimbres Culture Heritage Site


Logan Museum of Anthropology


The Archaeology and Meaning of Mimbres (free download of several articles from Archaeology Southwest Magazine).


Mimbres Lives and Landscapes by Nelson and Hegmon


New Interpretations of Mimbres Public Architecture and Space: Implications for Cultural Change in American Antiquity, Vol. 68, No. 1 by Creel and Anyon - available through JSTOR.


On the Trail of the Mimbres, by Jude Isabella, Archaeology, Dated 4/8/13.


Ancestral Art


American Archaeology, vol. 11, No. 3, What Became of the Mimbres? by Tim Vanderpool


Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History, Mimbres Pottery


Incredible Art


The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque


Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest by J. J. Brody


The Mimbres: Art and Archaeology by Jesse Fewkes


Mimbres Archaeology at the NAN Ranch Ruin by Harry Shafer


Painted by a Distant Hand: Mimbres Pottery of the American Southwest by Steven LeBlanc & Hillel Burger