This funerary bowl from Mimbres (1000-1150 AD) once served a ceremonial function to guide a member of an ancient culture to the mystery of death. The bowl is part of a permanent collection on display at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, Laboratory of Anthropology, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He is originally from the Cameron Creek Village of the Mimbres Valley in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, home to the larger Mogollon culture of which the Mimbres Pueblo people were a part. Before contact with Europeans, the prehistoric Native American culture, also known as the Ancestral Puebloans, was believed to descend from three main cultures: the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi; and were known for their distinctive pottery and house building styles.
The image within the bowl is described as “rabbit-man with cargo basket,” a stylized, hard-edged black painting of a human-animal figure formed with curves, straight lines, and solid black on a spacious background of white. On the inner edge, two sets of thin, finely painted bands circumscribe the nearly perfect circular shape, while a more graphic set of triangular geometric patterns radiates upwards from the back of the figure towards the lower rung of bands. No value shading is apparent, as the figure is dominated by solid black with the exception of four white bands dissecting her body, head, and ears, with her single eye looking directly at the viewer from a face in profile. The black band across his face looks like a mask, which could indicate something hidden.
Tiny black fingers and toes protrude from the stump’s simple arms and legs. The arms or front legs hang unnaturally, or the front legs could be walking on air. His hind legs have a more graceful, plant-like stance, and they don’t seem like they can hold up the figure. A tiny raised tail follows the flat, stylized design of the rabbit-man along with the small protruding lips, nose and two rabbit ears that also look like feathers. The black triangular tips of the ears/feathers relate to the shape of the charge. His body is hunched over perhaps due to the load, represented by the radiating geometric shape that seems to support the figure, or possibly the rabbit-man is being pushed up by the shape of the load that seems to be connected to the edge bands. . The bands could also symbolize heaven or after life.
At first glance, the roughly drilled hole in the center of the bowl was the obvious sign that it had a use other than simply holding something. Already in the year 750 d. C., these pictorial Mimbres bowls were used solely for ceremonial and ritual burial functions where the dead were buried under their floors in individual pits. This illustration shows how the dead were buried in an upright fetal position inside a closed pit with the bowl on their heads. Before placing the bowl in the hole, it was ritually “killed” by making a hole in the center with a sharp object before placing it upside down on the head. This ‘death hole’ had the purpose of releasing the spirits of the deceased from the body. Then the well was filled or covered with a stone slab.
Many of the images on these funerary bowls suggest familiarity and relationships with cultures in northern and central Mexico. The images used represented the clan’s totem animal or a celestial body, such as the rabbit, which is a common symbol of the moon found among many indigenous peoples of the Southwest and Central America. Rabbits were also a food source for the people of Mimbres, but the rabbit-man’s bowl seems to relate more to the moon than to a hunting scene. There is probably a narrative to this illustration that connects personally with the deceased, and I’m guessing certain clan icons are represented here as well. Perhaps the number of rays in the ‘charge form’ represents a certain phase of the moon when the deceased left his body.
The large amount of white negative space around the rabbit-man makes it appear as if he is floating, which could indicate outer space, or perhaps the deceased’s transition to another world. It is speculated that the intention behind these images within these funerary bowls was to illuminate the deceased, so perhaps the rabbit could be the clan totem that descends to enter the deceased in order to lift their burdens from this life during an auspicious phase of the moon. before his death trip. The illustration of the man-rabbit does not appear dark, frightening, or very emotional, leading one to believe that death was not something the Mimbres feared, but was rather a highly ceremonial event.
The expression on her face is trance-like and her body posture is both graceful and awkward, yet there is balance between the upper anchor of the ‘carry form’ and the lower feet, both touching the rim risers. The ‘charging form’ figures prominently in the composition giving it meaning. From its rear where its tail is, this larger white space looks pretty empty, which could represent the life it’s leaving behind, and the white area where its head and front legs are is possibly where it’s headed. The outward gaze of her single eye gives the impression that she is between the two worlds, or that she is in the unknown mystery of it all and has no choice but to accept it.
The rabbit-man’s bowl is painted in Classic Mimbres Black-on-White (Style III). Around the year 1000 AD. C., Mimbres artists perfected a black-on-white technique in their ceramics, similar to the Anasazi black-on-white technique to the north. Snow-white slip was used beneath closely rendered geometric and figurative designs created in a black mineral paint. The reason for using only black paint is unclear, when other color pigments were available. Perhaps the realm of death was seen only as a journey in black and white, or perhaps when preparing the bowl for the deceased they thought that other colors would distract from the meanings of the narrative images. Many of the bowls were believed to be used ritually before burials. Due to the importance and exclusivity of these bowls among the Mimbres people, they were never traded outside of the Mimbres Valley, unlike other ceramics, such as their polychrome White Mountain Red Ware.
The rabbit-man’s bowl appears very lightweight and measures approximately 12″ in diameter and approximately 8″ deep. Most of the potters in the village families were women, who ritually prayed and thanked the ‘source’ for their materials and inspirations at every stage of pottery making: from collecting the clay to processing, then elaboration of the ‘paste’, forming a clay tortilla and rolls to make the body of the vessel, for painting, cooking and decoration. Clays are present throughout the Mimbres Valley, including occasional kaolin deposits, and the brushes used were made from yucca leaves. “The people of Pueblo believe that the clay has life. A sacred relationship between the potter and the clay begins when the clay is removed from the earth. Before removing the clay, the potter prays and asks the Old Lady of Clay to Land that is considerate of her family’s needs, ‘Just as they will eat us, feed us and clothe us, so please don’t hide.” -Tessie Naranjo, Town of Santa Clara. (“Here, now and always” community exhibition of the town, Museum of Indigenous Art and Culture, Laboratory of Anthropology, Santa Fe,
The sanctity of the materials used, as well as the pictorial content, evolved with ancient peoples long before the word “art” appeared, inspiring one to wonder whether their works can be called art or not. These funerary bowl paintings are often considered art today, but I wonder if this is disrespectful to the spiritual boundaries of these ancient peoples, as similar artifacts from other cultures seem to fall into the same gray area. On display at the Museum of Indian Art and Culture, I found this captivating quote that describes how these creations of the Pueblo people were not separate from their soul, body, and everyday life, but had an inherent existence to them.
“Art is not found in our language. But, what do we call a work created by the hands of my family? What shall we call this piece that embodies the life of its creator? What will it be like if it has life and a soul, while its maker sings and prays for it? In my house we call it painted pottery with designs to tell us a story. In my mother’s house, we call it a wedding basket to store blue cornmeal for the groom’s family. At my grandmother’s house, we call it a kachina doll, a carved image of a life force that holds the Hopi world in place. We make pieces of life to see, touch and feel. Should we call it art? I hope not. lose your soul. His life. His people.” -Michael Lacapa, Apache/Hopi/Iewa
As in most cultures, with the evolution of the independent artist grew the weakening of these traditions and the dissolution of this symbiotic relationship between a people, its craft and its spirit. The end of Mimbres pottery production occurred around 1130-1150 AD. C. and was equated to the “disappearance” of the people who made it, although later it was discovered that some remains of the population remained in the Mimbres Valley.