Notebook, 1993-

CERAMICS -- Generations in Clay [Dittert] -- The Mimbres Art and Archaeology [Fewkes] -- The Mogollen Mimbres Culture [Resources]

Brody, J. J. Mimbres Painted Pottery. School of American Research, Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press [With support from the Weatherhead Foundation]. 1977, 1989.

Mimbres Painted Pottery




The Following are Discussed in the Text: The Human Environment - The Swarts Ruin: A Typical Mimbres Village - The Individual and Community Life - The Potters and Their Wares - Pottery Painting: Form and Structure of Mimbers Black-on-White - Vessel Form - The Painting Tradition - Basic Pictorial Structures - Motifs and Images [discussion of Line control/tone and color distribution] - Representational Paintings - Pictorial Organization: Single-Figure Compositions [discussion of Decorative success in relationship to meaning of illustrative content] - Pictorial Organization: Multiple-Figure Compositions [discussion of Orientation of figures and pictorial control of viewing surface] [Symbol to find discussion of mass, volume, and spatial depth are indicated by perspective drawing] - Pictorial Means and Subject Matter - Iconography - Ethnoaesthetic and Other Aesthetic Considerations -The original utility of Mimbres Painted Pottery -Mimbres Painting as Community Identification - Mimbres Art as Metaphor - New Uses for Old Art - Mimbres Influence on Later Wares

--- T E X T ---

FORWARD [Douglas W. Schwartz, General Editor. School of American Research Southwest Indian Arts Series] - Mimbres pottery painting represents a powerfully inventive and expressive climax in the traditional Indian arts of the American Southwest. Using elegant lines and dynamic masses, the artists placed complex nonfigurative, representational, and narrative compositions on the interiors of hemispherical bowls. The resulting paintings communicate authority, skill, and a remarkable perception of reality.

These anonymous Mimbres artists lived between about A.D. 1000 and A.D. 1200 in what is now southern New Mexico, contemporaneously with Pueblo peoples to the north in Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon. In several hundred small villages of no more than 200 inhabitants each, with a subsistence culture based on the growing of corn, beans, and squash, they developed an art style that has become a symbol of "primitive" sophistication.

. . . . listing the major topics of this volume gives little insight into the heuristic questions that run like threads through its pages: How could art of this consequence have arisen in these cultural circumstances? Who were the nonspecialist artists who for two centuries made this stable, high-quality product, and how were they motivated? To what extent was the art a radical innovation, [p. xvii] and to what extent a local evolution? What was the nature of the complex ritual system reflected in the paintings? Does the focus in the paintings on economic activities and food production suggest a demanding religious system in a period of trouble? While the answers to many of these questions, like the iconography itself, are beyond the present limits of anthropology, their consideration makes this study one of the most stimulating yet written on a single facet of prehistoric southwestern Indian art.

. . . . From its inception the Southwest Indian Arts Series was envisioned as serving three important audiences: Indian artists, who we hoped would find in it a visual link to the traditions from which they have always worked; southwestern scholars, for whom the series would draw together source material, documentation, and new research; and the large number of knowledgeable general readers who have demonstrated a growing interest in the quality, variety, and history of southwestern Indian arts. [p. xviii]

Initially conceived as forming the core of the series and currently in press or under active development are, in addition to the present one, volumes on prehistoric jewelry, rock art, drypainting, historic jewelry, prehistoric weaving, Navajo and Pueblo weaving of the historic period, the Southwest Indian art market, and basketry. To this list will be added other works, now in the planning stage, on architecture, painting, pottery, music, dance, costume, and sculpture.

Southwest Indian art, especially such forms as Navajo blankets and Pueblo pottery, has long been recognized throughout the world as an important element in the wide range of human artistic expression. This series is intended to deepen and broaden that recognition. [p. xvii-xix]

PREFACE - Almost seventy years ago, Marcel Duchamp invented "readymades" and demonstrated that art spectators could have an active art-creative role. A readymade was an object or part of an object that had been made, perhaps industrially, for some nonartistic purpose. These could become works of art by virtue of being discovered and named. Several decades before Duchamp created his first readymade, the industrial world was inventing the concept by its acts of discovery; acts that made art out of artifacts created by and for ancient and modern nonindustrial peoples. The "creation" -by discovering and naming -of primitive art clearly enriched the sensibilities and artistic vocabularies of the industrial world. However, even today it is by no means certain that the original makers of these new-old art objects are generally thought of as artists, any more than were the manufacturers of Duchamp's readymades. Instead it seems that the makers of these artistic things are most often thought of as the insensate tools of something very like a natural force that we call culture.

When we think that way, then the shape an art takes is necessarily perceived as inevitable, formed by culture in much the same way canyons are carved by rivers or skies colored by atmospheric dust. Rather than being people, artists become tools of culture. By contrast, our own artists are generally thought of as the essence of ego, creative individualists who invent novel ways of expressing unique personalities. We place great value on biographical information [Beethoven's deafness, van Gogh's mental illness, Billie Holiday's drug addiction] that reinforces our image of art as an idiosyncratic activity practiced outside of culture by tormented if talented individuals. Museums, scholars, and collectors carry the concern for documentation a step further and consider the record incomplete if they cannot locate the precise spot from which Cézanne painted a landscape or discover what the weather was like that day.

Because of the way so many of us think about primitive art, its documentation is all too often shabby. Many of the same museums, scholars, and collectors who know that Mozart wrote a particular song in a particular key to suit the talent of a particular singer, have art objects in their collections that were torn from the earth by treasure hunters or taken from remote West African villages by modern-day Mountain Men who treat the stuff as though it were beaver pelts. Subsequently we know nothing about the artists, and must guess [with resultant errors] the time and place a thing was made.

The distortion is gross and symmetrical; our artists are no more free of their culture than were those of the Mimbres a thousand years ago . Theirs were as free as ours to play individualistic, expressive games with their art. Ours, by their lifestyle and their products, express alienation from society; theirs expressed integration with society. In both cases, individual artists merely performed or perform the roles assigned to them by their respective societies. In both cases, the respective cultures modified or modify the shape of the art in many of the same ways, with much the same effect.

There are vast differences between the artists of small, tightly integrated societies and those of our sprawling industrial states, and these differences are evident in their respective art products. These are differences only of degree, not of kind, and they cannot be interpreted unless we accept the fact of basic identity. Artists are human beings; people who make art. What I have attempted here is to treat Mimbres art as real art made by real people . . . . [p. xxi-xxii]

For all practical purposes there was no Mimbres art at the beginning of the twentieth century, and thus in a sense this ancient art belongs to the modern world. Certainly it has acted like a twentieth-century commodity.....An essential fact about Mimbres art is its conversion from something made by craftsmen of the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries into a market product for the modern world.

When Mimbres people left their villages in the thirteenth century their art was effectively erased from all knowledge. By about A.D. 1600 parts of their territory had been reoccupied by other farming peoples, had been abandoned once more, and then had become home to bands of Apaches. The Apaches made it difficult for other people either to live in the territory or to exploit it. A mining camp was established at Santa Rita during the early years of the nineteenth century [Ogle 1939:338], but it was not until the last quarter of that century that military conquest of the Apaches and the coming of the railroad opened this isolated and difficult country to settlement by townspeople and ranchers. Earlier, some exploration of the area had been reported by military and surveying expeditions, but the late-nineteenth-century settlers and some of their military protectors were the first people we know of to disturb the long-dead Mimbres villages. Eventually, their information reached scientists who had the means to interpret the finds, conduct systematic investigations, and communicate the new knowledge to the rest of the world . . . . [p. 6]

The general flow of southwestern prehistory is fairly well understood. That of particular communities has in some cases been reconstructed in great detail. However, attempts to synthesize a detailed prehistory of the entire region or large parts of it have had only limited acceptance. Different specialists have derived entirely different historical meanings from the same information, and more than one specialist has, over the years, developed contradictory interpretations of the same data [Bullard 1962; Martina and Plog 1973]. The basic problem is the absence of written documents, making tangible objects and oral traditions the only sources for historical information. Deductions are based on the presence or absence of certain material goods and on the meanings inferred from style changes of artifacts that were sometimes of marginal importance to the people who made and used them. Not only are these interpretations unprovable, but they depend on the attitudes and assumptions of the person making them. Regardless of these limitations, however, we must attempt to fit the events and the art of the Mimbres Valley into some sort of historical perspective. It is certain that Mimbres Branch people were neither the first nor the last to occupy that country, and, despite their isolation, changes in their way of life occurred that were in direct response to widespread regional events.

The Mimbreños are now recognized by virtually all southwestern prehistorians as a subdivision of a larger group called the Mogollon, who in [p. 57] turn were not too dissimilar from other prehistoric peoples of the region. Tangible objects made by Mimbreños before about 200 B.C. hardly differed from those made by neighboring peoples, and by the time they abandoned their home territory they were once again producing artifacts similar to those made by some nearby non-Mogollon groups. During the fourteen or fifteen hundred years that Mimbre÷os lived in the Mimbres Valley, from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1300, populations expanded throughout the Southwest, the inventory of material products multiplied everywhere, and style differences increased. Some prehistorians therefore define a wide variety of peoples during later periods, each called by a different name and recognized by the manufacture of stylistically different sets of similar material objects; others tend to be sparing in their use of cultural designations, perhaps because of greater tolerance in their expectations concerning the material behavior of peoples and communities. No attempt will be made here to reconcile these different philosophies except to advance a single objective, that is, to explore the relationships among southwestern peoples that may bear on the history of Mimbres art.

Attempts to define the characteristics of temporal periods for all of the Mogollon have been thwarted by the great diversity that apparently existed among the regional branches. Technological differences define the branches of the Mogollon, and within each branch, define local temporal phases. But the technology of one branch may have had no relevance to any other, and it may be that after all the term Mogollon is a catch-all, used to describe not a culture so much as a variety of groups whose commonality was difference from both the Hohokam and the Anasazi. Each Mogollon branch may be considered as a separate entity, but the concept of a Mogollon culture has utility nonetheless, particularly for early periods before the branches diverged enough from each other to be described. It appears that all people we now call Mogollon behaved in much the same manner then and were indeed a culture, a very basic southwestern one.

The Mimbres Phase, the last period of the Mimbres Branch, differs radically in many material respects from any earlier phase of that branch, but, as demonstrated at Swarts and elsewhere, many of its innovations were forecast during the generations immediately preceding it. No matter what the origins of these novelties, most seem to have been filtered through and altered by earlier Mimbres Branch traditions.

The interplay to be studied, then, is that between the generations-old traditions of the Mimbre÷os and the alteration of these by internal and [p. 58] external forces. The painted pottery of the Mimbres Phase was apparently a radical innovation , and whether this art is perceived as a sudden idiosyncratic invention that became a local tradition through imitation, or as an evolution from local prototypes, is a central issue. Art is a form of human behavior, and to the extent that other behavioral activities of Mimbres ancestors suggest conformity to certain patterns these also must be examined. The assumption made is that the art of any group is more likely to conform to, reflect, and express the general patterns of behavior of that group than to diverge from those patterns. To put it another way, genius may have its place, but the social, economic, ecological, and historical contexts are to idiosyncrasy what a lake is to a raindrop. [p. 57-59]

From first to last, enormous differences in lifestyle and material culture can be perceived between Mimbres Phase people and their remote Cohise [p. 74] ancestors. Nonetheless it seems certain that these differences evolved as the result of invisible, time-consuming internal processes rather than as clear-cut events. Novel ideas seem to have been adopted from all available sources for pragmatic reasons and altered to fit particular Mimbreños needs and behavioral patterns. The painted pottery tradition that developed in the Mimbres valley during the tenth century served decorative and communicative functions. In respect to the latter use, this potter was a symbol of the new system and its novel economic, social, political, and religious forms. As an integral part of Mimbres Phase life, Mimbres art must also have evolved in the same manner as did all of the other activities that serve to define the Mimbre÷os. [p. 74-75]

The Individual and Community Life. The people of Swarts and the other Mimbres towns were probably not at all concerned about what to call themselves. They knew who and what they were and in self-imposed isolation managed to achieve lives of moderate comfort and reasonable security. As an individual, each was restricted by the environment, the necessity to exploit it, and the cyclic nature of the exploitation. Material objects and mechanical and social techniques were invented or adopted to deal with problems of survival and of success. These imposed further restrictions on each person. Each was part of a system, and, as in any organic and working cultural system, the restrictions imposed on each were so varied, diffused, and impersonal as to be invisible.

With everything to be done from house-building to relieving arthritic pains, and with so few people available to do it all, no one could be entirely a specialist. Success of the community depended on close cooperation and on [p. 55] the assurance that each person knew almost all there was to know about almost every facet of existence. Born into the system, each individual was trained from birth to maintain it, and there was litle time, energy, or motivation for innovative experiments. Results were what counted, and pragmatism required that proven methods should be repeated. The freedom to fail is a luxury that only full-time specialists can afford, and whether as artist or artisan, housewife or hunter, individual Mimbreños rarely if ever had the price. Change tempered by conservatism defines the Mimbres Phase and its art.

The material success of Mimbres Phase life is self-evident. Swarts grew as did many other neighboring, contemporaneous villages. There and elsewhere similar mechanical and social techniques were invented, adopted, or adapted to deal with the problems of growth. Nowhere is there compelling evidence to explain the desertion of Swats or the abandonment of the area by other Mimbreños. However, about the end of the twelfth century, the people of Swarts seem to have packed their valuables and left for reasons and regions unknown. Other Mimbres valley towns were also vacated at about the same time, and the rich valley may have been depopulated until Animas Phase people of the thirteenth or Saldo people of the fourteenth century reoccupied some villages and built others in what had been the Mimbres homeland.

The death of the town was not an isolated event: "Fertile valleys, the Southwest over, tell the same story of intensive aboriginal occupation, then desertion. The factors involved... are larger and more comprehensive than any isolated drainage can give . . . " [Haury 1936: 129]. Up until the very end of Swarts, its pottery-painting art was vital and inventive. Later, the art apparently flourished elsewhere, and it seems that wherever the people went, they carried with them a set of intellectual concepts and manual skills that were not to be abandoned for some time longer. To begin to understand these events it will be necessary to examine more fully the history of the entire region, for, clearly, Swarts Village, the Mimbres Valley, and the Mimbreños everywhere, despite their isolation, were deeply affected by events and activities in surrounding areas. [p. 55-56]

The Mimbres potters are anonymous; none of their workshops or kilns have been positively identified, and except for the pottery itself there is little evidence of their industry. In this respect they are no different from all other prehistoric potters of the American Southwest. Throughout the region kilns were self-consuming, tools were small and most perishable, and work areas had few furnishings or other identifiable features. This is as we would expect it to be if the ancient potters worked in ways similar to those of the modern Pueblos, where the ceramic industries leave almost no physical evidences other than the end products. Analogy with modern Pueblo practices therefore seems to be the best and is perhaps the only way to gain some understanding of the processes and methods of the Mimbres potters.

By such analogy it has generally been accepted that the people who made and decorated the ancient pottery of the Southwest were women who were trained in their craft by their own kin or by older relatives of their husbands, depending on locality and marriage practices of a particular community. It may also be assumed that even though makers' marks were never placed on pottery, the work of each potter of a village was recognized by her contemporaries through idiosyncrasies in design, form, or craftsmanship.

Paintings on some Mimbres Phase vessels raise questions about the validity of the first of these assumptions. Some pictures of men in groups show [p. 115] details of esoteric, male-oriented ceremonies. Women are pictured seldom and are usually shown in passive attitudes or as subsidiary to the actively dominating male figures. The masculine orientation and esoteric nature of these figurative paintings imply that some of the Mimbres pottery painters may have been men. Their usual high quality suggests that the artists, whether male or female, were as well trained and experienced in their craft as were all other Mimbres painters.

If some Mimbres men did paint pottery, they did no great violence to southwestern traditions. Male participation in pottery making is and has been far more common than is usually conceded, although it is true that few have formed pottery until very recent years. For several generations Pueblo men have been observed decorating pottery, gathering and preparing clay and tempering materials, building kilns, firing, and doing everything else except fabricating the pots.

For example, the pottery revival begun at Hopi about 1890 by Nampeyo was strongly affected by her husband, Lese, who helped her collect sherds from nearby ruins to use as visual models and encouraged her to adapt the Sikyati forms and designs for a contemporary market [Frisbie 1973]; Nequatewa 1943]. The contributions made by Julian Martinez to the pottery revival begun at San Ildefonso Pueblo about fifteen years later were even more specific. His skills as a painter and designer far surpassed those of his wife, Maria, while the two together were jointly responsible for the technological innovations that were so vital to the success of the revival [Marriot 1948] . . . .

Most painted Mimbres pots were made to be used in the villages where they are found and by potters and painters who spent most of their time doing other things. Some who were more gifted than others may have made or painted vessels for those less skilled, who may have made none at all, but there is no evidence that anything approaching full-time craft specialization or professionalism occurred. Nonetheless, Mimbres Black-on-white painting gives the impression of being so consistently high in quality that something like craft specialization must have happened. This impression is somewhat misleading. Only the finest examples are usually seen, and examination of many hundreds of specimens suggests a much wider range in quality than is visible in museum exhibits and publications. Even so, the overall quality is high, and there is no question that the Mimbres made art without the luxury of having full-time artists.

Pottery making was probably taught to all or most of the women of a Mimbres community as one of the useful and necessary craft skills. As with all other crafts, it was learned by observation of and some instruction by experienced craftspeople and by practice. The entire training process took [p. 117] place within a community and the obligations of pupil to teacher were probably no more than those assumed by kin relationships and respect for age. Women learned how to paint pottery as they learned how to make it; if men also painted pots, their training was probably limited to that one skill. With emphasis on pottery manufacture as a useful craft, its techniques, forms, and decorative systems would have the appearance of being tradition bound, and conscious striving for radical innovations or highly individualistic personal styles would have been unthinkable.

Tradition as developed and transmitted by and through the community was the compelling feature of craft training that fortified conservative attitudes. The Mimbres aesthetic had evolved slowly and with an almost inevitable logic that permitted innovations only within strictly understood limits. The most radical of these was the introduction of representational subjects, but the forms these took evolved in accordance with the rules. Within its limitations, however, this conservative visual tradition provided the parameters for and even encouraged invention. The visual elements of Mimbres painting were simple and basic and therefore could be combined and recombined endlessly. Thus, despite the restrictions of custom and a finite number of patterning procedures, personal and expressive picture making was possible.

The phenomenon of having an art without artists required something like a restrictive tradition, for, without simplicity of means and form and without a set of easily followed rules, the part-time artists could never have achieved consistency. Level of performance is always partially or entirely a function of the relationships between the performer and the available models and ideals. The exceptional Mimbres painters produced exceptional paintings, but their quality is always related to the group standards or social ideas. The restrictive traditions of the group and its high expectations ensured a predominant mediocrity that served as the base for the occasional production of a memorable painting.

That similar limitations can be a means for achieving personal creative satisfaction is eloquently illustrated by pottery making in the pueblos during the twentieth century . . . . Traditional standards of form and design can change with surprising swiftness in the most conservative of systems, only to be reintegrated by the habits of traditional thought . . . . The craft remained vigorous only in those pueblos that developed new forms and designs to suit new and foreign markets . . . . These survivals demonstrate the vital role played by technology and training in the maintenance of traditional art. [p. 119] In the Mimbres towns traditional forces must have worked in much the same way. Radical innovations in form and design could occur under the proper circumstances and no lengthy period was needed for them to be accepted and absorbed. So long as there was stability of technology, training systems, and related social values, the fundamental tradition could absorb any amount of visual change. Within its constraints each potter and decorator had ample opportunity to express his or her individuality, most obviously by manipulating design elements, more subtly and pervasively by developing personal qualities of line and other technical means so that each vessel made or decorated became a kind of signature. [p. 119-120]


[Brody, J. J. Mimbres Painted Pottery. School of American Research, Santa Fe. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press [With support from the Weatherhead Foundation]. 1977, 1989.]



The contents of this site, including all images and text, are for personal, educational, non-commercial use only. The contents of this site may not be reproduced in any form without proper reference to Text, Author, Publisher, and Date of Publication [and page #s when suitable].