Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Mogollon culture; American, southwestern New Mexico, Mimbres River Valley
Mimbres classic black-on-white style II, painted earthenware
Height: 4 3/4 in. (12.1 cm); diameter: 11 1/4 in. (28.6 cm)
Seth K. Sweetser Fund No. 1 and Gift of the Supporters of the Department of American Decorative Arts and Sculpture
Acquired in 1990
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced with permission. © 2000 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. All Rights Reserved.
The Mogollon people took their name from the Mogollon Mountains in New Mexico. From 200 B.C. until about A.D. 1300 their culture flourished. During the Mimbres period (A.D. 1050- c. 1300), the fifth and final period of their short history, they built apartment buildings and drainage systems, and also created what is considered the most important and beautiful pottery from the American Southwest. While their disappearance remains a mystery, their pottery offers great insight into the Mogollon belief system.
A quintessential Mimbres piece, this bowl is decorated with geometric designs rendered in the classic black-on-white style. The shapes represent the Mogollons' six perceived directions of movement, and the shamanistic figure of the quail seen here is typical of the Mogollons' realistic art. Just as often, Mogollon artisans painted fantastic images -- mammals with fishtails, for example, or wings. Many bowls featured scenes of animal-to-human transformation, an indication that the pots were used during religious events. Some archaeologists surmise that the swirling geometric patterns and more fantastic illustrations were inspired by hallucinations; like other prehistoric American cultures, the Mogollons were known to use psychoactive plants for spiritual, medicinal, and recreational purposes.
Mimbres pottery was a crucial element of the Mogollon death ritual. Custom dictated that Mogollons be buried under their homes, curled in a fetal position. Prior to burial, a bowl to be placed on the head of the deceased was ceremonially and symbolically killed, the hole in the center of the bowl representing the fatal wound. The killing of the bowl freed the potter's spirit to accompany the dead person into the afterlife. In this way the Mogollons are not considered disappeared, but are believed to live on in their contemporary descendants.
Over the centuries, much Mogollon pottery has been destroyed by looters, but a 1989 law passed in New Mexico prohibiting the disturbance of unmarked human graves has helped to reverse this trend.
The Mimbres bowl has been a part of the Museum of Fine Arts' American Decorative Arts and Sculpture collection since 1990.
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