Mimbres Pottery

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Coil Pot Lesson Below
Student Reflection -Assessment



The iconography of Mimbres Classic Black-on-White pottery refers, often with great specificity, to Mimbres life and culture. Highly stylized imagery of animals and human figures relate directly to Mimbres life and religion. The non-figurative curvilinear and geometric patterns that dominate Style II Mimbres pottery and endure into Style III (Classic) are more difficult to interpret. Mimbres art lessons are below...


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Triangles and circles are the most common shapes used (Brody 148). Variants include diamonds, squares, crosses, and spirals. These, combined with amazingly fine and consistent lines, form complex yet balanced arrangements. Structural motifs tend to be oriented to the center of the vessel, reaching outward or framing the base of the bowl. Non-structural zone fillers usually border the rim of the bowl (Brody 148). Nonobjective designs are usually split into four or more sections radiating from the center of the bowl. Banded divisions and overall patterns also common. Radiating sections are subdivided and filled with an endless array of triangle-based formations. Excluding those with all-over patterning, the center of the bowl is left white. Although any intended meanings have been lost to time, the tension of dark and light motifs suggests an energetic struggle of opposing forces. Jagged triangular motifs recall lightening. Curvilinear and spiral designs may refer to water. Such interpretation is plausible considering the importance of water to Mimbres survival and the presence of religious and rainmaking imagery on other Mimbres pots.


The term Black-on-White is misleading as varied firing temperatures produce hues ranging from bright orange to russet brown to black. The bold iron ore paste designs were painted on a white kaolin clay slip using yucca brushes. Mimbres pottery is usually hemispheric in shape, about 10 inches (25.4 cm) in diameter and 5 inches (12.7 cm) deep. The pots were fired in large above ground kilns. Mimbres potters were primarily women, though men may have contributed to some stages of production.

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A wide variety of animals, including many religiously symbolic animals, is depicted in Classic Black-on-White pottery, including fish, birds, bats, lizards, frogs, rabbits, and turtles. While the images of animals, fish, birds and human figures are highly stylized, details are often emphasized. Images of animal and fish species provide tremendous insight into Mimbres life ways.

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Nonhuman mammals, including rabbits comprise about 26% of all figurative images on Classic vessels (Brody 179). Rabbits are common symbols of the moon in the Southwest and Central America. Apparently the Mimbres, as well as the Maya, observed and recorded celestial occurrences, incorporating them into their mythology. A compelling image of a rabbit holding a circular object emanating 23 rays represents the supernova that created the crab nebula in 1054 AD. Visible for 23 days, the position of the supernova relative to the moon corresponds to the disc relative to the rabbit (Peterson 396). Other images show a crane, associated with lunar eclipses in Mesoamerica, eating a rabbit. Rabbits were also a food source for the Mimbres during the Classic period, as populations of large herding game animals had been depleted by this time. According to Mayan legend, the Underworld is guarded by birds, jaguars and bats. Not surprisingly, birds, felines and bats appear frequently on Mimbres vessels. Mimbres bats are often depicted with crosses on their wings, resembling Mayan representations of killer bats with crossed bones on their wings (Brody 206). Amphibians and reptiles are featured on about 15% of figurative figurative Mimbres Classic Black-on-White vessels (Brody 179). Although reptiles are popular Pueblo totems, mythology often associates them with death and the Underworld. Lizards, frogs and turtles are usually depicted from above with emphasis on bilateralism (Brody 178).


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Fish comprise about 8% of figurative depictions on Mimbres pottery. Comparisons of fish imagery indicate that many species represented are saltwater fish from the Gulf of California, over 500 kilometers away. A Mimbres fish motif from the Swartz ruin has been identified as a long nose butterfly fish, an inhabitant of California Gulf reefs (Jett 701). Other pots show men swimming among such fish and carrying burden baskets of fish. The Mimbres may have visited the California Gulf on a seasonal basis to supplement their food supply and collect shells for trade and jewelry-making (Jett & Moyle 688-89). Their most probable route would have taken them near Casas Grandes, a contemporary Mesoamerica trading center and cultural outpost.


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Images of birds are plentiful, comprising about 22% of figurative imagery, including eagles, turkeys, quail, and cranes, as well as macaws and parrots. Images of macaws and parrots support the theory that the Mimbres were seasonal travelers. There are numerous images of these birds, often in transport or with human trainers. Mimbres inhabitants apparently participated in a bird trade and breeding system that spanned northern Mexico and the southwest (C&MK515-518). Macaws are not known to have been bred in the Southwest until the 1200s at Casas Grandes. The brightly colored feathers of scarlet macaws and parrots may have been used in the construction of masks. Large numbers of macaw skeletons have been recovered from Chaco Canyon sites, 350 km to the north. Interestingly, several buried macaws recovered from Cameron Creek and Galaz, some of which were part of human burials, lack a left wing. Possibly, the birds were sacrificed in ceremony. Severed heads and other singular body parts of macaws have also been found in burials.

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Most Mimbres bowls were found in burials, placed over or near the head of the deceased. The Mimbres people buried their dead indoors, underneath the living quarters. Bowls were ritually punctured or broken prior to interment. This burial context lends religious significance to Mimbres pottery and it's imagery.


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Human depictions represent only about 7% of Classic Mimbres figurative images. Yet, these images provide the most comprehensive glimpses of Mimbres life and ritual. Solitary figures engage in a variety of activities, often everyday tasks. Other images show singular human figures in ceremonial or mythical scenes. There are several images of men holding wooden staffs similar to those found in nearby caves. Other examples show male dancers in ceremonial costume. Sipapu, the place of emergence from the underworld, is represented in images of men tunneling through spiral structures and by a man emerging from an underground cave with birds (left). Groups of multiple human figures, frequently with animals or anthropomorphic creatures, illustrate mythical concepts or ritual. Ceremonial dances and rituals, similar to later Pueblo rites are also represented. Numerous hunting and fishing scenes expand our knowledge of the Mimbres diet. Hunting scenes show masked figures hunting turkey, rabbits, antelope and other animals. The startling decapitation scene shown below may represent human sacrifice similar to contemporary Mesoamerican practices (Brody 206).


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An overwhelming number of Classic Black-on-White motifs relate to historic Katchina religions. Katchina are anthropomorphic, spiritual creatures that live in the mountains, clouds, rivers and springs. According to historic Pueblo mythology, the Katchina used to visit the Pueblo people and dance in their fields to make rain. In Pueblo Katchina ceremonies men dress in elaborate costumes and masks to emulate Katchina dances, bringing rain and prosperity. The Mimbres most likely practiced an early form of this religion.


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Cultural and religious ties to Meso-America and Katchina are demonstrated in numerous depictions of anthropomorphic creatures and fantastic animals on Mimbres pots. These beings, which display multiple traits of animals and humans, are most likely depictions of masked figures or deities. Images of horned or feathered serpents can be identified with Quetzalcoatl, the Mexican deity sometimes depicted as Ehecatl, the wind god. Other images recall Tlaloc, the Mexican rain god. Multiple examples of half man, half fish creatures have also been recovered. Other examples of anthropomorphized figures incorporate attributes of numerous animals and birds, including rabbits, fish, lizards, birds and felines. These creatures are sometimes shown in the act of ritual, interacting with human figures. The bowl at left shows mythic and human figures in a ceremonial scene involving what appear to be feathers and rattles. Images of masked figures may represent ceremonial costumes or the Katchina themselves.



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mimbre pictureThe Mimbres culture centered around the Mimbres and Gila river valleys in the southwest region of New Mexico. The Mimbres are primarily known for their unique pottery, much of which was produced during the Classic Mimbres period of 1000-1150 A.D. The motifs found on Classic Mimbres Black-on-White include nonobjective designs, animals, fantastic creatures and human figures. The iconography of the bowls relates to prehistoric Mesoamerican culture as well as historic Pueblo religious beliefs and mythology. Unfortunately, much information regarding the context of Mimbres pottery has been lost due to pot hunting and careless excavation. The following pages discuss the common themes of Mimbres iconography and their meanings. Numerous images on Mimbres vessels suggest strong cultural and religious connections between Mesoamerica, Mimbres and later Pueblo groups.

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200 A.D.

Pottery production begins in the Mimbres region

Early Pithouse Period
200 - 550 A.D.

Rough, unpainted greyware utilizing coiled construction techniques, local clays and volcanic temper. Pot shapes often mimic basketry designs.

Late Pithouse Period
550 - 1000 A.D.

Pottery painting traditions develop in Mimbres Valley and Mongolian regions, including Mogollon Red-on-Brown & Three Circle Red-on-White.

Style I
750 - 900 A.D.

Non-figurative, repeating patterns covering entire inner surface of bowls.

Mimbres Boldface Black-on-White (Mangas)
750 - 1000 A.D.

Radial designs are sometimes split into four or more divisions. First stylized animal motifs appear. Composition emphasizes negative space.

Style II
900 - 1000 A.D.

Style I and Mangas traditions continue, with greater precision and increased figure-ground ambiguity. Fine lines and hatch marks at bowl rims.

Classic Mimbres Black-on-White (Style III)
1000 - 1150 A.D.

Region population peaks at 5000. Bowl designs feature finely detailed drawings of human or animal figures in a white center surrounded by banding and/or geometric patterning. Some polychrome pottery produced.


Early in this century, the scope and influence of Mimbres culture was underestimated and marginalized by scholars. Interest focused on the region's unique and striking pottery, while much cultural information was overlooked. Alfred Kidder classified Mimbres as an underdeveloped branch of the Mesa Verde Anasazi culture, notable only for their high quality ceramics (Lekson 50). Contrasting the skill level of Mimbres potters to the relative simplicity of their settlements, the bulk of the academic community followed Kidder's lead and few excavations were conducted. The work of Hattie and Burt Cosgrove, who first defined the Mimbres sequence in the 1920s and 1930s, stands out as a notable exception. High demand by museums and collectors for Classic Mimbres bowls led to the unfortunate destruction of many Mimbres sites in the 1950s and 60s. As a result, much cultural evidence has been lost and many pots have not been appropriately documented and studied. It was not until the 1970s that tree ring techniques dated Classic Mimbres to the 11th and 12th centuries, contemporary with the Chaco and Hohokam cultures, and predating Mesa Verde by at least 100 years. This context has spawned excavations of pot hunted Mimbres sites and a review of earlier research. Focus has shifted from the beauty of Mimbres pottery to the importance of the Mimbres people in the Southwest and their place in Pueblo prehistory. Yet, the detailed iconography of the vessels can provide important information regarding Mimbres culture and religion.


Images from Internet: Meaning of Mimbres Images - see Legends in Clay (Archive) by Randy Werner




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UNM Maxwell Museum Mattocks Ruin Bowl - Click Pic for Maxwell Musuem

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mimbres pot      New Mexic (Mimbres), Mimbres Classic Black-on-White Bowl

Mimbres black-on-white pottery bowl with bat motif      mimbre picture

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This wonderful Hopi Pueblo Pottery piece is by award winning Hopi potter Lawrence Namoki.       mimbre picture



Culture: Mogollon
Dates: ca. AD 1000-1150
Location: Mimbres Valley, NM

Material: Ceramic

Classic Mimbres Black-on-white pottery is painted in geometric or figural decorative styles. The latter style often features whimsical or strange composite creatures. The Mimbres painting tradition is recognized as one of the high points of Native American art.



Mimbres Pottery: Ancient Art of the American Southwest. - New Mexico civilization's extraordinary craft, the Mimbres. In this book are stunning photographs of pottery and clear description of styles and meaning. Several art teachers say this book is a must-have.

The Mimbres: Art and Archaeology. - This reissue of three early essays on Mimbres archaeology and design fills a major gap in the literature on the Mimbres, whose pottery has long fascinated students of the prehistoric Southwest.


Submitted by: A Getty TeacherArtExchange list member
Grade Level:
Middle School through High School

Introduction to Creating a Clay Coil Pot

Objective: To be able to build a clay coil pot that has the following criteria:

  • Control of media-- demonstrates good craftsmanship.

  • Designed with specific function in mind- container, teapot, etc.

  • Emphasizes good design- unity, rhythm, form, and balance.


Moist Clay - approximately 5 lbs.
Cloth covered table or board.
Plastic bag- large enough for storage of work in progress.
Rolling Pins.
Clay Slip and Brushes
Scoring and Clay Modeling Tools
Small container of water to moisten hands.
Circular base pattern- 4" or 5" (10 or 12.7 cm) in diameter.



  1. Make A Base
    Flatten clay with rolling pin - ½" (12.7 mm) thick

  2. Use Pattern as Guide
    Cut circle

  3. Create a Clay Coil
    From a small ball - roll out clay until ½" (12.7 mm) thick with moistened hands.
    Keep coil round as light rolling motion is used.

  4. Joining Clay
    Rough edge of base and coil with scoring tool.
    Apply slip with brush to base.
    Gently press coil to base.

  5. Continue to Add Coils
    Place next coil on top of first.
    Use same joining method.

  6. Shaping the Walls
    The pot's shape may be curved outward or inward depending on placement of coils.


Student is able to:

  • Describe the coil pot building process and apply this understanding to creating an actual coil pot.

  • Demonstrate good craftsmanship through the final appearance and construction of the pot.

Meaning of Mimbres Images - see Legends in Clay (Archive) by Randy Werner


REFLECTION PAPER submitted by Maria Lengauer


Experimental Coiled Pot project


Name_____________________________________________ Period_____________


Please answer the following questions by "reflecting" back to the process.
Be descriptive and respond in full sentences. Please write neatly!

1. Is this your first experience building a coiled pot?

2. Now that you have built (or are in the process) of building a coiled pot, what are some of the characteristics that you have discovered about the "personality" of the clay?

3. At the beginning of construction, what shape did you expect or want your pot to look like? Describe and draw a simple sketch in the box of how you thought the pot might turn out. In the second box draw a simple sketch of the actual shape of your pot.



4. Did you have to start another pot? If so why?

5. What did you do the second time to avoid first mistakes? OR What did you do to get control of the shape and form on the first one?
6. Why is it important to properly score and apply enough slip to the coils? What else is important in constructing a coil pot?

7. Which tools worked the best for you in constructing your pot? How and what did you use them for? Name all including your hands and fingers.

8. Was the shape and form of the pot directed by you or the clay? What did you do or not do to control the shape?

9. What are some of the" do’s" and "don’ts" you learned about coil construction? What will you do differently on future coil pots? You can use a list format

10. Draw a simple shape of a coiled pot you would like to construct someday.  How high and wide do you want it to be? Create a diagram of that sketch including dimensions, design or imagery. Please sketch on a separate sheet of unlined paper.