in June, 2020, Dr. Steve Lekson gave an online lecture entitled “Mimbres: Dimples, Slip-Slop, and Clapboard – What They Are and Why They Matter” through the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. He mentioned the outstanding collection of Mimbres pottery held by the Western New Mexico University Museum (“WNMU Museum”).
Unable to travel in person during these times, I reached out to the Museum to ask them about their collection. They connected me with the director of the WNMU Museum, Dr. Cynthia Ann Bettison, who answered a few questions and provided photographs of some Museum pieces.
JW: Will you please describe the WNMU Museum collection of Mimbres pottery and tell us how this pottery came to the Museum?
Western New Mexico University Museum has a number of collections of prehistoric Southwest pottery that include prehistoric Mimbres Mogollon pottery. The museum’s two major collections containing Mimbres pottery are the Eisele Collection of Prehistoric Pottery and Artifacts, and the NAN Ranch Collection.
The Richard C. Eisele Collection of Prehistoric Pottery and Artifacts was gifted to Western New Mexico University in January 1973 by the Grant County Museum, Inc. The Grant County Museum, Inc., purchased the Eisele Collection in the early 1940s from the collector, Richard C. Eisele, who actively collected and traded with other Southwest New Mexico collectors in the mid 1920s to early 1930s. The Richard C. Eisele Collection at WNMU Museum includes more than 600 whole and partial vessels — Mimbres, Salado, Jornada, and Upland Mogollon pottery — along with a large number of perishable artifacts (basketry, sandals, mats), chipped and ground stone tools, and other artifacts. The gift of the Eisele Collection is an interesting story in itself; the terms of the donation created the WNMU Museum, which opened to the public in historic Fleming Hall in November 1974.
The NAN Ranch Collection — the largest and most complete collection of Mimbres materials in existence from a single prehistoric Mimbres site — was donated in November 2011 by Margaret Ross Hinton, the private landowner. The collection is the product of more than 36 years of excavation and research
at sites located on the NAN Ranch by Texas A&M University directed by Dr. Harry J. Shafer, and of surveys, excavation, and research conducted by various scholars, and undergraduate and graduate students. The NAN Ranch Collection consists of more than 1,000 boxes containing bulk artifacts, samples, basketry and textile fragments; more than 400 whole and partial vessels; and all documentation, including plan maps, various forms, all field notes, master’s theses and dissertations (including raw data if provided), class papers, published reports, and other extensive documentation.
JW: I was told this collection is one of the finest in the world. What about the collection makes it so important?
The NAN Ranch Collection is of particular importance because it is the largest and most complete scientifically excavated and documented collection of Mimbres materials in existence from a single prehistoric Mimbres site. The research completed at the NAN Ranch Ruin expanded our understanding of the Mimbres people, their culture, and their way of life, and it also enabled archaeologists to reexamine and reevaluate assemblages collected (i.e., the Eisele Collection) or excavated (i.e., Paul H. Nesbitt’s research at the Mattocks Ruin) in the early 20th century to further our knowledge of prehistoric lifeways and technologies.
More than four decades after the first field season in 1978, new and exciting research continues to be conducted. For example, analyses of the artifact assemblage from NAN Ranch Ruin Room 74 indicate that this room may have been used specifically to prepare and brew maize beer. The large group of artifacts left in situ on the floor included 25 hand-grinding stones, fragmented baskets and mats, and 13 to 15 ceramic vessels that included locally made Style III Mimbres Classic Black-on-white water jars (ollas) and very large corrugated ollas, and several very large ollas that are of non-local origin.
All of the very large ollas have interior pitting indicating fermentation, and are among the largest vessels ever reported for a Classic Mimbres site. The estimated volume of the largest olla, a non-locally produced vessel, is 147 liters! What is also interesting is that the two very large ollas of non-local origin were made in Northern Chihuahua, Mexico, and brought to NAN Ranch Ruin.
Their presence at the site and in Room 74 suggests that maize beer brewing and consumption played a pivotal role in the NAN Ranch Ruin inhabitants’ social life and that the population of the site was part of an extensive social network that included neighboring and distant groups into northwestern Mexico.
A comprehensive source of information about the prehistoric Mimbres people of the NAN Ranch Ruin is Mimbres Archaeology at the NAN Ranch Ruin authored by Harry J. Shafer (2003), who led the excavations.
JW: What happens with the collection at the WNMU Museum (e.g., research activities, curation of exhibits, lending programs, etc.)?
Western New Mexico University Museum celebrated its 45th Anniversary and Grand Reopening in July 2019 after completing a stunning transformation funded by a 2016 Higher Education General Obligation Bond approved by New Mexico voters. The result is an open, light secure and climate-controlled environment that highlights our National Register of Historic places building and enhances the visitor experience.
All of the contents of Fleming Hall were carefully packed, removed, and securely stored for the duration of the project causing standard museum operations such as research, curation of exhibitions, and loans to be curtailed. The museum’s collections remain closed to research as we continue to focus on unpacking and organizing collections and creating, developing, and installing exhibitions, interpretative panels, and signage in our newly transformed space.
Our forward movement temporarily ceased as a result of the pandemic. Now open in a limited capacity, WNMU Museum is following COVID-Safe Practices issued by the State of New Mexico Department of Health, CDC, and our parent institution, Western New Mexico University. The safety of WNMU Museum staff, student workers and visitors is paramount.
JW: How much of the collection is on exhibit at any one time? Does the Museum rotate which pieces it puts on display?
We display as much of the WNMU Museum various prehistoric and historic pottery collections and also collections on loan to the museum. While the focus is on displaying partial and whole vessels, our renovation enabled us to expand our visible collection rooms to put more of the museum’s collections on view.
The Main Floor Permanent Exhibitions include a number of displays and interpretative panels and signs about Mimbres pottery types, the Mimbres Pottery Sequence, and Room 74 as well as non-ceramic Mimbres materials, and several cases of non-Mimbres prehistoric and historic pottery, and campus memorabilia, including Colonel John Fleming’s 1920-1930 Doctor’s Buggy (Colonel Fleming was one of WNMU’s founders.). All artifacts and materials on exhibition in the Grand Exhibition Hall are individually labeled.
The West and East Visible Collection Rooms are located on our second floor. While the majority of the cases, both historic and modern, display prehistoric and historic collections of pottery, all of the items are grouped first by collection name and second by archaeological site or collection site, if known. Individual vessels are not labeled in the Visible Collection Rooms. We are currently expanding our Visible Collection Rooms into a third room on the second floor. The collections in this room will be a combination of collections on loan to the WNMU Museum and newly acquired collections.
JW: Does the WNMU Museum lend Mimbres pots to other museums?
The WNMU Museum has loaned prehistoric ceramics and other artifacts, including Mimbres artifacts, to a number of institutions over the years, including the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES), the Museum of Indian Art & Culture in Santa Fe, and the Silver City Museum here in southwest New Mexico.
JW: Does the WNMU Museum have photographs of the collection available online (perhaps on the Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD)?
The long-term goal of the WNMU Museum is to have photographs of our collections and artifacts available on our website. Some of the Eisele Collection is available to view on the MimPIDD as is potentially some of the NAN Ranch Collection. The use and publication (in any format/media) of WNMU Museum collection images housed in the MimPIDD and WNMU Museum copyrighted professional images must be requested through WNMU Museum.
JW: Are there theories as to why the Mimbres culture developed such striking, distinctive pottery designs?
No one really knows what was in the minds of prehistoric Mimbres potters when they painted the geometric and naturalistic designs on their vessels although there is a considerable amount of literature on the subject. WNMU students explored a few of their own theories through a recent interdisciplinary project that you can check out at museum.wnmu.edu/applied-is-the-keyword-exhibit.
JW: I’ve seen many images of Mimbres painted pots. But I think the Mimbres potters also created corrugated pots with distinctive surface patterns. Was this a common type of Mimbres pottery that is perhaps overshadowed by painted pots?
Mimbres potters made a wide variety of textured vessels and plainwares as did other prehistoric Southwestern groups. I personally find textured and plainware vessels very beautiful and a testament to the skill of the potter who made them.
For example, each one of the large maize beer brewing vessels I mention in answer to Question #2 was hand built by coiling and scraping. Obtaining the correct degree of “wetness” and perfectly sizing each clay coil—whether the potter was obliterating or retaining the coils as the vessel is built—was key so the vessel wouldn’t collapse inward while being made (clay is too wet) or crack during firing (clay was too dry).
Building these pots was an exercise in experience and knowledge. Clearly the Mimbres potters knew their clay.
In answer to your question about the painted vessels over shadowing the textured and plainwares, I would have to agree that for many people they do. I think that this stems from turn of 19th century and earlier collectors’ focusing on the painted vessels. Many of the textured and plainware vessels are found in domestic contexts and were unknown to these collectors or seemed to be “unassuming.” I have found that once an individual learns about and understands the extraordinary craftsmanship and skills involved in making a large or small textured or plainware vessel, the more they appreciate the potter and these vessels.
JW: Was Mimbres pottery traded extensively in earlier times? Are examples of Mimbres pots found in other archeological sites in a wide area?
It depends on what you mean by “trading” in prehistory. Mimbres pottery was exchanged within the Mimbres Mogollon region as shown by INAA (Instrumental Neutron Activation Analysis). INAA analysis of the vessel’s clay body will pinpoint the source of the clay. Based on the premise that a vessel is made near it’s clay source, comparing the clay source location with the location in which the vessel was found suggests exchange if the clay source is up near the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument near the headwaters of the Gila River and the vessel was found at NAN Ranch Ruin in the lower Mimbres River Valley.
In general, Mimbres painted pottery is not found extensively exchanged or traded beyond the larger Mimbres cultural area. However, there are some exceptions. Single, whole, Late Style III Classic Mimbres Black-on-white vessels have been found in situ in Jornada Mogollon archaeological sites (around the Las Cruces, New Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, areas). The vessels appear to have been “curated” or placed on display by the prehistoric inhabitants, possibly as items of prestige, since the vessels are not found in contexts or being used as they would have been in a Mimbres Mogollon room.
It has been suggested that Mimbres painted pottery vessels were obtained during prestigious public events like ceremonies and feasting where Mimbres vessels and perishable foods were exchanged. Dr. Harry J. Shafer and others continue to use the extensive NAN Ranch dataset and other archaeological site information to research prehistoric Mimbres prehistoric feasting, including maize beer brewing, and exchange practices within the Mimbres area and their greater social network that included neighboring and distant groups into southern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico.
JW: How is the Coronavirus affecting the WNMU Museum and other museums around the country? Are these dire times for museums? If a museum were to go under, what would happen to its collection?
The pandemic literally stopped our progress resettling into the newly transformed Fleming Hall, also halting standard, day-to-day museum operations due to closures, furloughs, and reduced spending. Like other institutions, the WNMU is focused right now on ensuring the safety of our staff, student workers and our visitors.
Even outside the context of the pandemic, WNMU Museum is continually rethinking how to connect and engage with visitors. We’re using social media more heavily right now, and we also turned what was supposed to be physical exhibition into a virtual exhibition, which is still “hanging” at museum.wnmu.edu/applied-is-the-keyword-exhibit. As our staff returns from the summer furlough and student workers return to campus, the #AppliedistheKeyWord: Anthropology Museum as Art Studio exhibition will be installed, social media programming will continue, and staff will develop creative strategies to reach those who are unable to visit the WNMU Museum in person.
Most museums have policies and procedures in place to protect the public trust if they or their parent institutions close permanently.
JW: Does your Museum have other collections of ceramics that are noteworthy?
Yes. For an institution of our size, WNMU Museum has an outstanding collection of Maria and Julian Martinez and other historic Pueblo pottery in the Geneva Smithson Bishop Back and Seymour Back Collection of Historic Pueblo Pottery.
Other collections of ceramics include the Bentley Collection of Prehistoric Pueblo Pottery, the Ballmer Collection of Mimbres and Upland Mogollon Pottery, the recently acquired McNay/Waddel Collection featuring prehistoric Rio Grande whitewares and stone tools, and the Himes Collection of Historic Pueblo Pottery. On loan to WNMU are several important collections, include the Metcalfe-Foster Collection focusing on prehistoric Salado and Casas Grandes series pottery made in the Gila River Valley, the Ike Smalley Collection of Prehistoric Casas Grandes Pottery, and the GEHLM Collection of Prehistoric Pottery from Southern New Mexico.
The WNMU Museum is currently open. The Museum only allows a limited number of visitors at one time, and access to collections for research isn’t yet available. Information can be found on their website.