THE COW PASTURE’S RAIN-DAMPENED soil bucks and falls in irregular patterns, evidence of past archaeological digs on the NAN Ranch, near Silver City.

Chest-high sacaton grass, interspersed with native mesquite, alter the path as our group—an archaeologist, a photographer, a historian, and two writers—walk and pause, eyes scanning the ground. Here, promises Betty Lang, one of the ranch owners, we’ll spy broken pieces of Mimbres pottery with the intricate lines and fantastical beasts that enthrall collectors.

Almost immediately, archaeologist Danielle Romero, director of the Western New Mexico University Museum, in Silver City, bends toward what the rest of us failed to see: a palm-size shard with a series of perfectly spaced hair-thin lines painted on its smooth, white surface.

“There were cultural sites up and down this river,” Lang says, one hand waving toward the nearby Mimbres, a capricious waterway whose name (Spanish for “little willow”) also refers to the people who found homes here in AD 600 and flourished from AD 1000 to 1130. “If you try to picture an Iowa farm valley, that’s what it was like, little towns and farms.”

Read more: In addition to the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture and the Indian Arts Research Center, several other New Mexico museums hold impressive Native pottery collections.

“There’s hundreds of sites out here,” Romero adds.

Thousands more sites stretch north into the Gila National Forest. Archaeologists want to study them. Pothunters hope to profit off them. Descendants want them left alone. Burrowing animals disrupt the sites, as do the monsoonal rains that erode villages and gravesites—an affront to preservationists and an open door to looters.

Romero, a California native who initially wanted to study Egyptian archaeology, was lured to the Southwest by a former professor. It changed the course of her research. This year, she assumed leadership of the museum, which holds impressive Mimbres materials found on the NAN Ranch and other, often unknown, sites. “I liked the pottery,” she says. “It’s one of those things where, ‘Oh, the Mimbres have been studied forever,’ but every site we excavate changes the story.”

Betty Lang (far left) leads a group to an archaeological site on the NAN Ranch, near Silver City.

The Mimbres were a branch of the Ancestral Mogollon people, whose lands  stretched north of the Gila forest, west into Arizona, and south into northern Mexico. Among the Mogollon—even among contemporary Native artists—Mimbres pottery represents the best of the best. It varies from utilitarian smudge ware to decorative pieces that include M.C. Escher–like geometrics, straightforward birds, fish, and bats, and the hybrid beasts that invite endless musings.

Who were the Mimbres and where did they go? DNA evidence ties them to contemporary Mexican tribes, but those tribes’ members disavow a relationship that Zuni, Hopi, and Acoma people claim.

“We know they survived bad droughts, but their depopulation goes along with a major drought,” Romero says, laying out some of the puzzles awaiting a solution. “We should be able to see disease in their bones. But at the NAN, a good amount of the people were in their sixties.”

The NAN Ranch Ruin upended many perceptions of Mimbres people. Texas A&M University archaeologist Harry J. Shafer oversaw excavations from 1978 to 1996, uncovering a span of history that began with AD 600 pit houses and ran through the site’s growth into a large pueblo that was abandoned in 1140.

Read more: Inspired by the landscape around her, artist Cynthia McDowell creates unique wood-fired pottery at her northwest New Mexico workshop.

Ten years ago, Margaret Hinton, the late owner of the ranch, chose the WNMU Museum to permanently house the collection—the largest and most complete array of Mimbres materials in the world.

Often, answers provided by the NAN site only deepen the questions. Shafer proved that some cremations occurred. Does that mean evidence of disease or famine was destroyed? Pit houses were burned in what seemed to be a ritual. But maybe, Romero says, they were merely infested. “They burned kivas, too,” she says. “We don’t know why.”

The Western New Mexico University Museum was built in 1917 as a basketball court.

Even the pottery defies answers. Pieces from the contemporaneous Chaco culture followed specific patterns, Romero says. “At Mimbres, they’re kind of like hippies—like, whatever.”

Romero’s in-the-works doctoral dissertation uses neutron activation analysis to pinpoint where Mimbres potters found their clays. She has focused on one potter at a site in the national forest whom she suspects protected a specific type of clay. So far, neither she nor any other archaeologist has found evidence of a brush fine enough to paint Mimbreño lines, or a kiln to identify how it was fired.

Pothunters destroyed evidence of architecture, diet, and clothing. “The biggest hit was the looting of caves, because textiles would have survived in there,” Romero says of the Gila’s craggy cliffs. “The caves probably had altars. [Early archaeologist] R.C. Eisele had boxes of sandals at our museum. We know that leaving one sandal in a cave was symbolic for the afterlife, but we don’t know where and how his sandals were found.”

Even if they did know, would one area’s rituals have mirrored others? “Each site did its own thing,” Romero says. “Every time you think you have a pattern with Mimbres, you don’t.”

from left Museum director Danielle Romero holds a Mimbres pot; Archaeologist Harry J. Shafer at the Western New Mexico University Museum.

THE LARGEST OF THE CONUNDRUMS for Romero and the WNMU Museum rises around us in the main gallery—glass cases filled with cups, figurines, plates, bowls, and even enormous brewing vessels. (One student attempted to re-create a likely recipe for a corn-based ale; it ate through PVC pipes.) Most of the pieces bear the characteristic black-on-white designs of classic Mimbres pottery, although the museum director considers the multicolored ones to be the gems.

Psychedelic imagery abounds: a turkey with a snake’s head curling up and around the curve of a plate; a lizard with a checkerboard pattern on its back; a coatimundi in the bottom of a bowl, surrounded by delicate circles that rise toward the rim, trapping the long-tailed mammal inside.

Many vessels feature a legendary “kill hole” at their center—and that’s another of Romero’s problems. Tied to a funeral practice allowing the deceased person’s spirit to escape, the kill holes could indicate that a pot was taken from a grave. (Researchers have, however, also found pottery with such holes far from graves.) Late-19th-century and early-20th-century archaeologists considered skeletal remains to be scientific tools: They used them to study the sizes of people, their populations, their diets, and their burial practices. Thousands of them were shipped to institutions such as Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, among others.

Read more: Inspired by our land and our past, New Mexico artisans create an enchanting mix of beautiful, useful, and meaningful goods.

Museums began returning remains and other cultural artifacts after passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. But what about remains that had never gone to museums? WNMU history professor Scott Fritz, who joined us on the NAN Ranch tour, recalls the late-1880s popularity of “Indian Corners” in private dwellings.

“There was a fascination with phrenology then, the belief that characteristics of a person could be determined from their skulls,” he says. “In upper-middle-class Manhattan, you would have your Indian Corner with art made by Native Americans and maybe a skull. At the same time, journalist Charles Lummis was arguing that, instead of visiting Europe, people should explore America. The Santa Fe Railway and the Fred Harvey Company picked that up with their Indian Detours and Curio Rooms in the hotels. It makes sense that people didn’t think about skeletons; they were all about art.”

Marilyn Markel at the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site.

Romero has documented pothunting that goes back to the 1880s. Within 40 years, archaeologists were conducting digs that would fail today’s standards, especially in documentation. A dispiriting legend identifies two shelves of the museum’s pots: “Provenience Unknown.”

The looting picked up in the 1960s. Often, hunters searched for pots by jamming a pole into the ground, potentially creating the kill holes themselves. In the 1970s, the pottery vaulted into an art craze. During the pandemic, Romero noticed an uptick in looted sites; she expects a new wave of pots to hit eBay in coming months.

The notion of the pots as “art” has drawn fire in recent years. We can’t know why a potter created the images, Romero says. Defining them as art represents “us putting something on it. They used these in daily life. And it could mean something we’re not supposed to know.”

In 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago indefinitely postponed an exhibit of a collector’s Mimbres pottery after critics charged that Indigenous groups should have been consulted, and that at least some of the pieces came from graves. The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, on the University of New Mexico campus, in Albuquerque, has similarly begun to reconsider its own collection of Mimbres works.

“These are issues that concern us deeply, especially as they pertain to the display of objects that are known to have come from or are likely to have come from burial contexts,” says Carla Sinopoli, the Maxwell’s director. “This is not the case for all Mimbres objects, but many. We are working to take those off display and to be explicit in our displays about why certain objects have been removed. We are also working within the collections area to separate burial and sacred objects from the main collection, so that they can be protected from view and our spaces can be more welcoming to tribal visitors.”

Read more: The community of White Rock collaborated with San Ildefonso Pueblo to create public art loaded with only-in-NM meaning.

Read more: Four tips to preserve your Native pottery.

In Silver City, the sheer size of the museum’s Mimbres holdings compounds Romero’s problems. “We were built on a looted collection,” she says, referring to excavations that predated those at the NAN Ranch. And all of the collections raise questions of cultural sensitivity. “In five years, we might not display some of these artifacts. You want to respect tribal wishes. We’re looking into whether we can push into 3D printing so that it’s not the actual piece but a 100 percent replica. And can we move things off as we get replicas?”

The random shards that visitors try to give her have lost their archaeological meaning. But among tribal people, a deeper issue attaches to them. Kenny Bowekaty, a Zuni Pueblo archaeologist, says that if the pottery was left for a deceased person, it was so they could use it in the afterlife. “Even if it’s broken and on the ground doesn’t mean it’s not being used in the spirit world,” he says.

Melvin Juanico, operations manager at the Sky City Cultural Center and Haak’u Museum, in Acoma Pueblo, underscores the importance of Mimbres pottery to his tribe today. “Their designs are in our pottery,” he says. “Ones that were used back then are still used by Acoma people. Every pattern, every design has a specific meaning that ties back to life in general. There’s a reason why our ancestors put them in those places, for generations to come to identify what is sacred to us.”

from left WNMU Museum volunteer Deb Shatzkin repairs a pot; Director of the Western New Mexico University Museum Danielle Romero.

THE MIMBRES CULTURE HERITAGE SITE, just off NM 35 northeast of Silver City, strives to find a middle road. Trailside signs explain what can no longer be seen—the pit houses, and the later one-story dwellings, homes to Mimbres people for nearly eight centuries. Run by volunteers, the site educates visitors, welcomes archaeological digs, and bats away at the myths and exploitation of Mimbres culture.

“No one except the Mimbres put images on pots like they did,” says education coordinator Marilyn Markel. “When we excavate, we find deer bones, and then on the pots you see a hunter stalking deer. You see men catching and impaling locusts for food.”

The site operates a gift shop and a museum that tells of Mimbres people, the later Apaches, and Anglo homesteaders. It includes a display of still-popular Mimbreño dishware that architect Mary Colter designed for the Fred Harvey Company.

For schoolchildren, the volunteers scatter orphaned shards off the interpretive trail and ask them to put a small flag near each one. By satisfying the kids’ very human desire to touch the shards and wonder about their makers, they hope to inspire a future generation of site stewards to protect cultural places.

The implications of not doing so have grown immense. Skeletal remains and cultural items taken from public land cannot return there if managers feel they’ve already disrupted enough ground with reburials. If they came from private land, those property owners—many of whom came decades after the desecrations—balk at proposals to dig up their yards. Those materials’ spirits are locked in limbo—but might also inspire a new phase of archaeology, where researchers field-analyze artifacts and simply rebury them.

“Museums are out of room,” Romero says. “Besides, these were people. They’re somebody’s grandmother. We could learn from them. They dealt with drought—how?”

“They were incredible people,” Markel adds. “They deserve all the respect we can give them.”

Read more: An exhibition of Pueblo pottery celebrates a remarkable collection’s centennial—by revolutionizing the way museums tell stories.

Between the Lines

The Western New Mexico University Museum, inside Fleming Hall, is open Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The museum hosts the Southwest Kiln Conference October 7–9, which includes archaeologists, ceramicists, and artists, along with two surface firings and a trench firing. 

Trails at the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site are available daily; the museum and research center are open Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. On October 15, the site celebrates National Archaeology Day with tours, demonstrations, and hands-on education, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument features a site occupied in the late 1200s by a branch of Mogollon people. Plan on at least a half-day to drive to and explore it. The 1.1-mile Cliff Dweller Trail is moderately difficult; access to the caves requires scrambling. Open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

The NAN Ranch Ruin is not open to the public, but the ranch offers a variety of lodgings, from bunkhouse cabins to a gracious ranch house. 

Look and Leave

If you come upon pottery shards or other archaeological evidence, what should you do? There’s nothing necessarily wrong with picking up a shard to study or photograph it, but you shouldn’t move it to a different location. That includes “gathers”—what archaeologists call collections of shards left atop rocks. Even if you think the site is endangered by people or nature, leave it alone. When you’re on public land, try to get GPS coordinates of it, take a picture, and report it to the agency in charge of that area. In the Gila National Forest, you can also contact Western New Mexico University Museum. No matter who owns the land, disturbing a grave violates the law.