Working in prehistoric southwestern North America the issue of looting and illicit antiquities is not easily avoided. The surface of many sites are pockmarked by looter pits. I studied a Native American people, now referred to as the Mimbres, who lived in southwestern New Mexico more than a thousand years ago. The Mimbres are famous for their black-on-white painted pottery, covered with beautiful and finely drawn geometric and naturalistic images. These bowls became very popular among artcollectors beginning in the early to mid twentieth-century, which explains a significant portion of the looting.
In addition to the beautifully painted bowls, skeletal remains from at least 21 exotic Mesoamerican birds, including scarlet macaws, military macaws, and thick-billed parrots, have been recovered from Mimbres sites. These birds indicate interaction between the Mimbres and people in Mesoamerica, but specifically that people were transporting live birds a distance of at least 775 miles (1250 kilometers) one way more than a thousand years ago – an incredible effort! These fantastically colored birds were brought to the Mimbres Valley where they were raised then sacrificed (possibly on the vernal equinox) after their tail feathers had grown. If the Mimbres were traveling to obtain these birds themselves, as the image depicted on one bowl suggests, then we can double the distance traveled.
Though scant in contrast with the hundreds that would later be sacrificed and interred (and probably bred and raised) at Paquime in Chihuahua Mexico, macaws and parrots in the Mimbres are among the earliest found in the North American Southwest. As such they have the potential to help us consider many questions: what was the function of these birds in Mesoamerica? Why were they sacrificed in the Mimbres Valley? How did aspects of the associated religion or particular rituals change as they were adopted by this outside group?
The images painted on the Mimbres’ black-on-white pottery could do much to help answer these questions. Connections to stories from the Popol Vuh, a Mayan creation myth, are plentiful: the Mimbres painted the Hero Twins, macaws, parrots, monsters, fish and more, but not as the Maya had done. These were painted in a Mimbres style. Contextual information for these bowls could reveal so much about the interaction between the Mimbres and their Mesoamerican contacts. Do the macaw and parrot bowls come from sites with actual macaws and parrots? And are these the same sites with the Mesoamerican imagery? Do bowls with these images come from particular areas of the sites in which they were found? From particular burials? And if so, could these burials have anything else in common that might help us to explain their presence? Are these images and the birds themselves reflective of a hierarchy among the Mimbres, generally accepted to have been an egalitarian society?
Unfortunately, very few of these bowls have provenience. Of the bowls with macaw and parrot images, fewer than half (16/35) can even be tied to a particular site.
So much information – so much potential – lost to us all for the monetary benefit of a few individuals.
It would be unfair to judge early pot hunters and their corresponding collectors by our standards, but today we should know better.
Archaeology has advanced significantly, and so has pot hunting. Now in addition to shovels we have backhoes to deal with. Where a skilled individual can use a backhoe to scrape off a fine layer of soil and expose hidden features, large sections of sites can also be completely destroyed so that an individual can dredge any artifacts with perceived value from the soil – completely devoid of any useful archaeological context.
Even if every artifact could belong to just one individual, treasure hunter or museum, still, the story of each artifact – our collective past – should belong to us all. Looting may appear to benefit a few individuals in the short term, but in truth we all lose.