Jar (olla) with Geometric Designs, 1000–1150
Earthenware with slip
16 1/2 × 17 1/4 × 17 1/4 in. (41.9 × 43.8 × 43.8 cm)
Museum purchase funded by Meredith J. Long in honor of Fayez Sarofim at "One Great Night in November, 1992"

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Transformations in Math

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Define and recognize translations, reflections, and rotations in math, and find examples of each in the painted designs on pottery.

•  Write mathematical descriptions of shapes.






Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

Subject:  This example of Mimbres pottery is very unusual because of its shape and large size, and because it has survived completely intact.  Large jars decorated with geometric designs were used for carrying and storing water.  On the shoulder of this vessel is a wide band of geometric designs including stepped motifs, squared spirals, zigzags, and triangles painted in a soft golden tan. Many of these bowls have a “kill hole,” a jagged hole in the bottom that was made intentionally as part of a funerary ritual before these creations were interred in burials, but this jar does not have one.


Mimbres pottery typically uses bold contrasts of black and white, so this color scheme of warm browns is unusual.  Two thin bands of color emphasize the area around the opening of the vase.  The complex geometric patterns on the shoulder of the jar rely on the dynamic play of zigzag and diagonal lines.  The artist contrasts areas of cream, brown, and cream-and-brown stripes in rhythmic, alternating patterns.


Native American pottery was made using the coiling method.  An artist built up a vessel from a flat base by placing coils of clay on top of each other and pinching them together.  Using hands, stones, and other tools, the artist then smoothed the surface of the jar.


The Mimbres people lived in the Southwestern corner of present-day New Mexico.  Their ancestors, who had arrived in the region by 10,000 B.C., hunted bison and other large game.  As the large game became extinct, these nomadic people survived by gathering plants and hunting smaller animals.


Around A.D. 200, the Mimbres people formed small settlements and began to rely on agriculture for food.  At the same time they started producing pottery.¹ Between A. D. 750 and 1150, the Mimbres people produced dark-on-light pottery bowls with figures painted on the interior.  The height of artistry was achieved by the Mimbres culture, which in its classic phase (1000-1150) produced some of the most sophisticated, imaginative painting on pottery.


1.  J. J. Brody, Catherine J. Scott, and Steven A. LeBlanc, Mimbres Pottery, Ancient Art of the American Southwest (New York:  Hudson Hills Press, 1983), pp. 23-29.


  • What type of artwork is this? How might it have been made?

  • What shapes can you make out in this artwork? Is it abstract or figurative?

  • How would you describe the color of the object?

  • How are the different parts of the jar emphasized? Look at the body, shoulder and neck.

  • The painted pattern on the shoulder of the jar is sometimes called a running spiral. How do the spirals align with the form of this object?

  • What else do you notice about the jar?


  • Where do you think the artwork was made? Why?

  • Why do you think the color is limited to red? Think about the materials used and how the work was made.

  • What can you say about the contrast between thick lines and thin lines? Talk about how the double thin line at the vase’s neck and at the bottom of the vase’s body are reflected inside the slip. In what way are they different? Are they all geometric or are some more rounded?

  • This pot was made between 1000 and 1150. Do you think it is well preserved? Why might that be?


•  Teach the math concepts of translations, reflections, and rotations.

•  Look at the decoration on the vessel and find examples of reflected, translated, and rotated designs.

•  Draw the designs on graph paper and label them.  Write mathematical descriptions of the shapes.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.