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Elizabeth Dobbins, Allan Dobbins; A Bistable Figure in a Thousand-Year-Old Bowl. Journal of Vision 2017;17(10):1243. doi: 10.1167/17.10.1243.
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© ARVO (1962-2015); The Authors (2016-present)
The people of the Mimbres river valley in the southwestern United States are noted for their distinctive pottery, which flourished from roughly 1000-1150 CE. Painted pottery is found in sites in contiguous regions of southwestern New Mexico, southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. Although different types of earthenware were fabricated, the most common decorative pieces were bowls, of which well over a thousand survive in museums and private collections. The outside of the bowls were usually unadorned, while the inside contained geometric patterns, animal or human figures, or both. In addition, a variety of chimeric animals and animal-humans are depicted. Curiously, while some insects, animals, and birds are found repeatedly, others, native to the area, and presumably a significant part of the life of these hunting people, such as elk, are rare or absent. Rabbits are one of the most commonly depicted animals and, while they occur in different configurations (isolated rabbit, two opposed rabbits, two rabbits in mirror image configuration), they are generally unambiguously rabbits or hares. In the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico, we discovered one bowl in which two rabbits at opposite sides of the bowl have bodies that merge into one in the center. When one rotates the bowl by a quarter turn, it is likely that one sees two ducks instead of two rabbits. The Mimbres duck-rabbits differ from the modern version in having a body, and the alternative head-body interpretations are rotated, rather than directly opposed. With modern Western observers, we report that the probability of seeing each interpretation varies with the orientation in which a picture of the bowl is presented. While it is impossible to know the artist's intentions, it seems likely that the Mimbres potters and their audience would have been aware of both interpretations.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2017
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