Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Artifact: Mimbres Bowl Volume 61 Number 3, May/June 2008
by Amalia Kenward, archaeologist with SWCA Environmental Consultants
and the Cave Archaeology Research and Survey Team
Mimbres bowl depicting a bat in flight with ritual kill hole in the center

About A.D. 1050-1150

Mimbres Polychrome, Style III

Cameron Creek Ruin, Southwestern New Mexico


10.4 x 4 inches


After a 60-foot belly crawl through porcupine quills and powdery dust, I emerged with two other members of the Feather Cave archaeological mapping team into a prehistoric ceremonial chamber, where we were greeted by a colony of Townsend's long-eared bats. I already felt like I knew the distinctive species, which populates the limestone caves of southern New Mexico and the Mimbres River Basin. I was sure I had seen them before on bowls excavated nearly a century ago in southwestern New Mexico. Scholars had previously assumed depictions like this one were stylized composite renditions, borrowing characteristics from other animals such as rabbits. The elongated ears in particular led to this erroneous view. But the Mimbres, inhabitants of this area between A.D. 1000 and 1250, were more observant of their environment than are modern scholars. [image] In their paintings they demonstrated knowledge of the unique anatomical details of this species--such as the thumb (wing barb), feet, teeth, and elongated ears. Bat images like this are unparalleled in the prehistoric American Southwest, where the sandstone bedrock does not easily support the formation of caves. The Mimbrenos' rare close-up encounters with bats were likely tied to ritual activity carried out in the ceremonial chambers like the one we were exploring.

Collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Transfer, Department of Anthropology, University of Minnesota, (bowl), Joe Scott Altenbach (bat)