A Word on ‘Kill Holes’

The Mimbres were pre-Columbian native Americans who flourished in the southern part of what is today Arizona and New Mexico from the 11th to 13th centuries CE. They were part of the larger Mogollon culture, and are recognized primarily for the wonderful examples of pottery which they left as their legacy.

Interestingly, Mimbres archaeological sites, though known to exist since the 1880s, were unnamed until the turn of the 20th century, and even then were largely ignored by academics who had greater interest in reaching more impressive Pueblo sites not far distant. [The name ‘Mimbres,’ by the way, is from the Spanish for ‘willow tree,’ many of which apparently grew alongside nearby creeks – we do not know what these people actually called themselves].

Mimbres pottery employs designs of both a geometric and figural nature. The figures, animals and humans, range from the realistic to the whimsical. And from examining extant grave sites, it is postulated that the pottery was created by female artisans, and was initially fabricated with utilitarian, as opposed to ceremonial, uses in mind.

In 1914, Professor Walter Fewkes of the Smithsonian Institute visited New Mexico and was shown a number of pots and fragments by locals which he immediately recognized as artistically different from other recognized native works from the Southwest. When taken to the sources, all that Fewkes found at first were potsherds and skeletal remains strewn across the ground from clumsy amateur diggings.

Sadly, Professor Fewkes’ subsequent scholarly articles on his discoveries had an unintended consequence. His documentation of the Mimbres pottery tradition spurred further interest from grave robbers. That interest, coupled with the Great Depression and lack of government resources to protect and professionally examine the sites, lead to wholesale commercial desecration of Mimbres burial plots, including the bulldozing of sites with heavy machinery to access pots as quickly as possible.

The plundering of some Mimbres sites falls into a decidedly legal grey zone. Looting on national lands is now uniformly prohibited under the Federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and states have enacted their own proscriptions. However, digging on private lands is far less regulated, if for no other reasons than that it is harder to monitor those tracts, and more difficult to prove criminal intent if a private land owner gave ‘permission.’

The Quarrells’ case is one on point. In February 2000, officers from the USDA Forest Service detected a disturbance at a Mimbres site inside New Mexico’s Gila National Forest. There they found brothers James and Mike Quarrells, and nephew Aaron Sera, digging with picks and shovels. Sera pled guilty to misdemeanor trespassing; the Quarrells faced felony charges stemming from destruction of the site under ARPA and NAGPRA. The Quarrells claimed that the damage at the site was caused by other looters and that they had actually just arrived before being apprehended by the Feds. The court did not buy this argument, and the Quarrells were found guilty in 2002 and given 366 days of incarceration and a fine of close to $20,000.

The Quarrells appealed, saying that they were not permitted at trial in U.S. District Court to present a defense based on a then-stated belief that they were excavating on private land. While the government agreed that such a defense would speak to the presence or absence of criminal intent vis a vis Federal statutes, the evidence suggested that this was not applicable in the case at hand, in no small part because the Quarrells already had been convicted of looting a Mimbres site nearby in the Gila 27 years earlier!

There is one final point of interest, pertinent to the Alienist’s decidedly macabre bent, that should be mentioned:

Mimbres inhumations were performed such that the deceased was placed in the grave in an upright crouching position with a pottery bowl placed over the head.

If you Google ‘kill hole,’ you will find numerous hits for the 2012 film directed by Mischa Webley about a troubled Iraq War veteran who pursues a sociopath in the Pacific Northwest. You have to go a bit further down the results to learn that the Mimbres intentionally broke a hole – a ‘kill hole’ as we call it today – in their funereal pottery in order, it is suspected, for the spirit of the dead to escape to the next world.

Mimbres Pot with 'Repaired' Kill Hole

Mimbres Pot with ‘Repaired’ Kill Hole (courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

Typical Kill Hole

Typical Kill Hole (courtesy GreatGatsbys.com)

Gila Salado Polychrome (not Mimbres) Pot with Kill Hole

Gila Salado Polychrome Pot (not Mimbres) with Kill Hole (courtesy of The Alienist)

Later Mimbres burials appear to have ceased exclusively placing pots over the heads of the deceased in favor of merely placing pots with kill holes in the graves alongside the corpses. Some neighboring native societies later adopted and adapted this ritual as well. Accordingly, curators find Mimbres and other native pots that are too small to fit over a head but that still contain period kill holes.

Not realizing the symbolic meaning of the kill holes, many collectors in years past had the holes in their pots’ bases ‘repaired.’ These misguided restorations can still be seen in museums and private collections to this day.

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[Copyright 2013 @ The Alienist’s Compendium]

One thought on “A Word on ‘Kill Holes’

  1. Gee… I’ve looked at that pot on the shelf in the living room for years and just thought someone clumsy had dropped it! This gives it a bit more meaning!

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