The Mimbres Culture

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
A view at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
Probably the most famous (and most accessible) Mimbres site
View of a typical Mimbres pottery bowl
Mimbres bowl with rabbit design

The Mimbres Culture was most likely an offshoot of the general Mogollon Culture centered around the Mimbres Valley in southern New Mexico. Mimbres includes the upper Gila and San Francisco River basins in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. It also extends eastward to the Rio Grande and its western tributaries in southwestern New Mexico. While the Mogollon Culture spanned most of a thousand years, Mimbres Culture seems to have spanned the time period between 825 and 1450 CE with the most developed phase being between 1000 and 1130 CE.

From about 825 to 1000 CE the Mimbres developed distinctive pithouse villages. Houses were generally rectangular with sharp corners, well-plastered walls and floors and averaged about 180 square feet in size. Subterranean kivas were well developed and often included ceremonial features like foot drums. Pottery was already well developed and included early forms of Mimbres black and white ("boldface") designs, red-on-cream designs and textured plainwares. Something happened around 900 CE that caused the Mimbres to burn their ceremonial constructions in spectacular conflagrations. After that it appears their social and spiritual practices changed and ceremonial constructions evolved to be more above ground.

View of a Mimbres bowl
A Mimbres bowl with fine line
and geometric designs

The Classical Mimbres Phase lasted from about 1000 CE to about 1150 CE and was marked by ever larger stone masonry pueblo constructions with clusters of roomblocks (some containing as many as 150 rooms) centered around an open plaza. Quite often each roomblock had its own ceremonial rooms. Kivas tended to be smaller and became square or rectangular in contrast to the Anasazi and Puebloan circular designs. The largest Classical Mimbres sites are also located in areas of wide flood plains with regular water flows able to support the level of agriculture necessary to support the population although smaller upland villages also existed.

The Tularosa Phase lasted from about 1150 to about 1450 CE and is marked by the advent of cliff dwellings and the abandonment of the larger pueblo structures. For many years it was thought the Mimbres simply disappeared but further research has turned up evidence that they simply migrated to nearby areas and merged into the local societies there.

Most people associate "Mimbres" with Mimbres pottery, a highly developed and distinctive ceramic form. The pottery produced in the Mimbres region was often in the form finely painted bowls, distinct in style and decorated with geometric designs and stylized paintings of animals, people and cultural icons in a black paint on a white background. These images often suggest familiarity and relationships with other cultures in northern and central Mexico. The elaborate decoration also indicates the people enjoyed a rich ceremonial life.

A typical Mimbres bowl from the Classical Period
A Mimbres bowl with fine line,
geometric and stylized fish designs

Early Mimbres black-on-white pottery, called Boldface Black-on-White (now called Mimbres Style I), is primarily characterized by bold geometric designs with a few early examples of stylized human and animal figures. Over the years, both geometric and figurative designs became increasingly sophisticated and diverse. Classic Mimbres Black-on-White pottery (Style III) is characterized by elaborate geometric designs and very refined brushwork (including very fine linework), and often included figures of one or more animals, humans, or other stylized images bounded by simple rim bands or by geometric decorations. Bird figures are prominent on Mimbres pots, including images of turkeys feeding on insects and birds being trapped in a garden. Images of fish are also common.

Mimbres bowls are often found in burial sites, usually with a hole punched out in the center. Most commonly Mimbres bowls have been found covering the face of the buried person. Wear marks found on the insides of the bowls show they were used in real life situations and not just produced as burial items.

Photos are in the public domain