By: Isabella Raspa
The prehistoric Mimbres people of the American southwest are known for their signature black-on-white pottery they left behind. The New Jersey State Museum has a small brown jar corrugated labeled “JAR, Mimbres c. 1100 A.D., clay, 66.609”. This piece of pottery is certainly not the typical signature Mimbres black-on-white style, but a corrugated cooking jar accompanied with no information about where it was found or collected. To understand more about our piece, we must investigate the culture of the Mimbres people and the range of their pottery styles.
The Mimbres culture is known throughout the archaeology and art community for their elaborate and highly designed pottery. However the piece labeled as Mimbres pottery in the New Jersey State Museum collection is not the typical black-on-white style. This piece of pottery is a corrugated clay jar. Most pottery not made on a wheel is made by coiling and smoothing clay. Corrugated pottery is a type of ware for cooking or utility use that is “made by leaving construction coils unobliterated, and manipulating these exposed coils to produce a rough exterior surface” (Pierce). The NJSM coiled jar has a rounded fuller body and a thinner neck with an everted lip. The jar is a dark brown color that contains groups of four thin vertical lines in a step design on the exterior of the jar’s body and neck. There is some discoloration of the jar towards the base with some of the lip being chipped as well. The discolorations on the jar are from the firing process, but there is no evidence of charring from cooking, or residues inside. The interior and raised edges of the corrugations are polished, which likely would have been achieved with a small stone or pebble. This jar measures 11.5 cm in height, 12.5 cm in diameter of the body, 10 cm in diameter of the neck, and 10.5 cm in diameter of the mouth. The NJSM jar was a gift from Rutgers University special collections that was collected by Charles A. Philhower, a collector known all over the New Jersey area. He collected from the early 1900s until death his in 1962. He collected huge amounts of fantastic artifacts from all over the country however he took limited notes on how he acquired the pottery and the pieces themselves. Thus we know very little about this jar and are treating the labels as suspect.
The Mimbres people were a branch of the regional Mogollon Culture in the southwest part of the United States. The Mogollon Culture dates to A.D. 200-1450, and these prehistoric people are named after the Mogollon Mountains by archaeologists. The Mogollon culture created the first pottery in the southwest, which was thought to be imported from Mexico. The Mimbres people lived in the southwest corner of New Mexico along the Mimbres River Valley and Gila River. Mimbres is the name given to the culture by archaeologists based largely on the style of pottery. We do not know what they called themselves. The Mimbres people lived during A.D. 1000-1130, also known as the Classic Mimbres Period when pottery making was at it’s height. They relied on small irrigation systems for agriculture, while living in grand pueblo villages. After the dissipation of the Mimbres people and the overall Mogollon culture, the Apache moved in on the land from the north around 1200-1500 A.D. However the Apache are unrelated to the Mogollon peoples. The most likely descendants of the Mimbres are the modern pueblo people. The Hopi and Zuni tribes, along with the Acoma, are connected to the Mimbres people through oral and ceramics traditions.
The black-on-white is the most recognized pottery style in the Mimbres culture. These pieces of pottery are bowls with elaborately painted with figures and animals of myth and daily life. They date to A.D. 950-1350. These types of pottery are mostly found in burials where the bowl had been pierced through the center and then placed over the face of the deceased person . Because they were used in burial rituals in this way, these bowls were likely individualized, personal possessions.. The black-on-white pottery does show signs of wear, so they are thought to have been used before being placed in the burials.
The second form of Mimbres pottery is corrugated. Archaeologists have identified around fourteen different styles of the brown corrugated pottery made by the Mimbres people. The NJSM jar is most similar to reserve indented corrugated style. This particular style is characterized by thin coils with patterned indentations on the exterior of the vessel that date to A.D. 1050-1250. These corrugated styles of the southwest were created using the coil-and-scrape technique to produce the corrugated effect. This technique is “the creation of long, narrow coils which were spiraled upward and outward to form the basic shape of the vessel. This rough form was then scraped and smoothed to give an even finish and to help weld the coils together” (Logan Museum of Anthropology). The function of the corrugations have been pondered by archaeologists for years. There have several theories about why these people used corrugated pottery. Some think the increased surface area increased effectiveness of heating for cooking, however this hypothesis has been disproved along with the theory that they were also used for effective cooling by systematic testing. Some believe that the corrugations allow the pot to expand, instead of bursting, during cooking, improving durability. Another theory is that the corrugations were for gripping jars filled with water that were slippery. It is also possible that corrugations are just a decorative element.
Women are thought to be the creators of pottery in the Mimbres culture, due to the fact that women were buried with pottery and pottery equipment. The indented corrugated style seen in the Mimbres tradition is thought to have been an imitation of the northern style brought by women bringing the style to the homeland of their husbands in the Mimbres region (Hegmon 236). The temper of the corrugated pottery of the Mimbres people commonly included volcanic rock and sand to create the clay used (Wilson 1999).
These two types of Mimbres pottery were not only differentiated by their appearance but their uses and styles as well. The black-on-white style was primarily used on bowls with painted with figures, animals, or geometric designs. They were polished with a white slip, and as stated previously, they were found in burials. Bowls as a vessel type, are used for serving. Pots, as a vessel type, are more generally used for cooking and storage. Though the domestic pots were not as personal as the black-on-white pottery, some were still decorated nicely, such as the NJSM pot, which has well executed corrugations, incised lines and was well polished. The brown ware was not known to be used in burials; thus they were more utilitarian and not as important as the black-on-white pottery in rituals.
In addition to the Mimbres, other southwest cultures created corrugated pottery as well. The Anasazi is also another southwest culture that created corrugated pottery like the Mimbres people. The Anasazi were from the Southern Colorado Plateau area where they produced corrugated cooking and utilitarian pottery during the same time as the Mimbres. Like the Mimbres pottery, the Anasazi had many different styles of pottery including numerous types of corrugated styles that also used the coil-and-scrape technique.
Some comparison can provide us with some more answers about this jar. For example the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s collection also contains a Mimbres corrugated jar that resemble the New Jersey State Museum jar. The Penn Museum jar shares some features with NJSM one; they both are made from clay, they are both coiled, and they both have similar measurements. The Penn Museum state that their jar is from the Mimbres Valley in New Mexico, but does not have indentations. The problem is that corrugated pottery is common throughout the American southwest thus it may be difficult pinpointing the exact origins of the NJSM jar.
So as a result from comparisons, investigation, and research, assumptions can be made about the date, makers, origins, use and style of the New Jersey State Museum Mimbres jar. We can assume the jar is most likely from the Mimbres River Valley area from around the suspected date of A.D. 1100 and was likely produced by a woman for storage. She cared enough to decorate and polish the jar. Just by looking at something as simple as piece of pottery like this Mimbres jar, we can expand our knowledge about the people who were here before us.
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