The ancient Mimbres potters made some of the finest pottery in ancient North America, looking at examples of their pottery in books or museums only raises more questions in my mind than it answers. How did the Mimbres potters make such exquisite pottery using only primitive tools? I went searching for the answers to these questions, I asked archaeologists and modern Native American potters and compiled the information here to answer the question of how to make Mimbres pottery.
Mimbres pottery was made using grey to tan colored clays local to southwest New Mexico that were built up using the coil and scrape pottery making technique. Once the pots were formed, they were slipped with a white clay and then painted on with a red iron oxide paint using a brush constructed from a yucca leaf. Finally the pots were heated to over 900° Celsius in an open outdoor fire fueled with local wood which the potters collected and heaped over the pottery.
Where Did the Mimbres Get Clay?
Most Mimbres villages were near one of two rivers, the Mimbres River or the Gila River, both in southwest New Mexico. Most river valleys naturally accumulate alluvial clays and these two are no different. The clays that the Mimbres potters used to make pottery were within a few miles of their villages so the clay could easily be collected and returned to the village in the same day.
Most clay will come out of the fire a different color than it went in. So just because Mimbres pottery we see 8n museums today is usually grey or tan in color that does not mean that the wild clay used by the ancient Mimbres was that color. In fact alluvial clay (clay that was deposited by a river) often has organic matter in it which will give it a dark grey color, this organic matter will burn out in the firing leaving the clay a completely different color.
I have collected clay in the Mimbres homeland myself in my quest to learn how to make Mimbres pottery and I can attest that this area is rich in clays. The clays in this area have a wide range of working properties, some are very good for hand building and others not so much. No doubt the ancient potters sampled many sources local to their villages and had their favorites. Chemical analysis would be required to determine exactly which clay source a particular Mimbres village was using and according to my research has never been done in this area.
How Did the Mimbres Make Coil Pottery?
Mimbres pottery was formed using the coil and scrape technique, an ancient method that was used for centuries before the Mimbres and is still used to make Pueblo pottery in New Mexico today.
A Mimbres potter started with a lump of wet clay, a puki, a gourd scraper, a smooth stone, and possibly a work surface to roll coils out on such as a stone tablet or a reed mat. The pot was begun by rolling out a thin rope or coil of clay either between the potter’s hands or on the work surface, the clay was then coiled around itself starting in the center and spiraling around and around. Once a small dish was formed in this manner it could be set into the puki, which is just a shallow bowl of fired clay that will hold the pot as it is formed allowing it to be made with a round bottom.
The pot then continues to grow as coils are rolled and continuously added. Each coil is attached to the pot wall through a series of pinches then scraped smooth using a gourd rib or scraper. This process, deftly performed by the skilled hands of the Mimbres potters resulted in strong, thin-walled pottery. These amazing women probably learned how to make Mimbres pottery starting at a very early age from their mothers or grandmothers.
When the pot is complete it is scraped down and then rubbed with a damp, smooth stone which produces a satisfyingly smooth texture on the natural clay body. Mimbres pottery that will be decorated is now covered in a thin layer of white clay called a slip to give the pot a white color ready for the paint to be applied. Undecorated Mimbres pots are left plain which will produce a warm brown or red color after it is fired. The white slip will also be rubbed with a smooth stone before it dries fully.
How was Mimbres pottery painted?
Although Mimbres pottery was skillfully made, it was their painting rather than their forming that has made them famous in our time. Most Native American pottery of that time was painted with geometric designs but the Mimbres started doing something different, they painted animals and people, everyday scenes and mythological events on the inside of bowls. These amazing designs tell us a little bit about what life was like for the Mimbres and what was important to them, like ceramic postcards from the twelfth century.
Mimbres paint brushes were made from the leaves of a desert plant called yucca, these leaves were chewed or pounded to remove all pulp, leaving only straight, strong fibers. The fine line work on Mimbres pottery is among the finest in the prehistoric Southwest, from this we can surmise that some of their brushes must have consisted of very few strands, perhaps only 3 or 4!
The paint used for executing the designs on Mimbres pottery was made from hematite, a soft red type of iron ore. This was probably mixed with an organic binder, a material that will make the paint stick to the pot well and not easily rub off. Modern day Pueblo Indian potters often use a syrup made from boiling down certain leafy green plants, either Rocky Mountain Bee Plant or Tansy Mustard. Because this binder would burn away during the firing, we have no way of knowing what binder the ancient Mimbres potters used.
This red paint was then skillfully applied to the surface of the pot using yucca brushes. Bowls were only painted on the insides and jars were sometimes painted over the upper two-thirds of the outside. The paintings of people and animals seems to be confined to only Mimbres bowls, while the jars and many of the bowls have only geometric designs. After the designs were painted the pot would be ready to fire as soon as it was completely dry.
How Was Mimbres Pottery Fired?
Although they know a great deal about how Mimbres pottery was made, archaeologists have never identified a Mimbres kiln or firing area which limits what they know about how the pottery was fired.
They do know that Mimbres pottery was fired in a very hot environment, around 900° Celsius or 1650° Fahrenheit which is pretty hot by local standards. Although modern kilns get much hotter than this, most of the Mimbres’ neighbors fired closer to 750° C.
They also know that the atmosphere in a Mimbres firing was oxygen deprived or “reduced”. The paint on Mimbres pottery is usually black but if these sherds are refired in an electric kiln the paint turns bright red. So we know that this is an red iron paint that has been reduced (lost oxygen at high heat) to make it turn black.
There are two conflicting facts that collide here. Since there have been no firing pits or kilns of any sort found in Mimbres country we can assume that they fired on top of the ground like all other Mogollon potters. And we know that the pottery was deprived of oxygen making the iron paint turn black. So the unanswered question is “how did the Mimbres deprive their pottery of oxygen while firing on top of the ground?” It was probably smothered with dirt or something like that but nobody knows and no experiments have been done on that subject. The question will probably require experimental archaeology to find the answer. (Experimental archaeology is a field of study which attempts to generate and test archaeological hypotheses, usually by replicating or approximating the feasibility of ancient cultures performing various tasks or feats.)
More Information About How to Make Mimbres Pottery
Mimbres pottery is fascinating to study and even more interesting when you know how it was made. You can learn more about how to make coil pottery like the ancient Mimbres in my coil and scrape workshop linked here. We also have some other classes with subjects like how to find clay, how to fire pottery outdoors and how to make a puki which are relevant to making Mimbres pottery, you can see what course we offer at this link. Amazon has some great books about Mimbres pottery you can see them here.
If you have questions that I did not answer in this article please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and I will answer you.