Not much has been written about the white slip used on Salado Polychromes (Roosevelt Red Ware), or at least not as much as deserves to be written. The usual consideration goes something like “a white clay slip with organic black paint” with very little else added to describe what is, in actuality, a very complicated and distinctive technology. That is not to say that Salado Polychromes in general have been highly studied, they have not and could really use some more attention. So in this post I plan to dig deep into Salado white slip and black organic paint.
I have been experimenting with Salado polychromes since I was about 19 years old and have tried various minerals from all over Arizona, most attempts to reproduce it have not been successful, so I am aware that the correct material is not at all common but extremely rare and unique. Some years after I began my quest to recreate Salado Polychromes I was informed by a potter who had successfully recreated Salado Polychromes, about a slip source which achieved the desired results but after some consideration I do not believe that material is the correct material, mainly because it did not come from the Salado heartland. Location is an important consideration in the search for the correct material. When the technology of organic paint on white slip in an oxidizing firing atmosphere was invented it was a novel idea, as it was probably discovered by a Salado (or Kayenta migrant) woman, the requisite materials were likely those found locally to her village. Because Pinto Polychrome was the first to exhibit this style, if we could just pinpoint where Pinto originated we would probably be very close to the original source of the white slip.
Some studies [Kayenta Diaspora, Perforated Plate Distribution] have indicated that Kayenta Anazazi immigrants developed the Salado phenomenon in the area of the Upper Gila and Lower San Pedro River Valleys, it follows that this is most likely the area where the correct and original white slip is located.
Yes it is organic, but what was it? We will probably never know exactly what was used for paint on Salado Polychromes but we can learn a few things by looking at tribal traditions passed down to our time and the way paint was applied to prehistoric pieces.
Experiments have indicated that almost any plant extract with the right sticky texture can be used to paint organic designs on the right slip, but what material did the Salado use? While nobody knows for sure who the modern day descendants of the Salado are, it has been speculated that when they left Southern and Central Arizona in the 1400s that they immigrated to live with the Hopi and Zuni. Potters from these pueblos historically used Tansy Mustard, Bee Plant and Yucca Fruit juice in pottery paint, and either of these substances would probably work great and are available in the Salado homeland. The Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham, who may be descendants of the Salado, or at the very least may have been influenced by them, use Mesquite sap, which would also work. In fact the O’odham use of a purely organic paint is the closest to Salado technology of modern Arizona indian pottery. Although their technology differs in that Salado pottery was decorated pre-firing and O’odham pottery is decorated post-firing, this has more to do with the slip than with the paint, and O’odham potters may have adapted Salado pottery technology to this method because they did not have access to the same volcanic slips.
Much can be determined about the texture and quality of the paint used by examining ancient pottery shards. Some Salado painting is quite crisp, indicating a firmer, less watery paint, but much of it is quite watery, indicating that the paint was liquidy when applied. Take for example the two shards below, the rounded corners in the stepping and on the ends of the triangles indicates a very wet paint texture, yet this wet application does not seem to have effected the quality of the black achieved. If you aren’t familiar with this material (organic paint), think of something like maple syrup, a thin, watery syrup painted onto green ware would form little pools or drops that would create rounded corners on your designs. If on the other hand your syrup were thinker in consistency, then it would allow the painting of crisper designs and square corners.
Now let’s look at the white slip itself, this is the magic material that made Salado Polychrome possible, the discovery of this material in the late 1200s led to a cultural and artistic explosion that spread across the Southwest like wildfire and lasted nearly 200 years. I speculate that all Salado white slip came from one or a very few locations that were sacred to these people, it is conceivable that the exhaustion of the sacred white slip quarries may have led to the great migration away from this region in the 15th century.
It is interesting to note that the Zuni, who are often named as a potential heir to Salado culture, had a unique process for handling white slip, could this have been a cultural artifact from Salado ancestors to whom the handling and processing of white slip would have been very important?
A white clay is dissolved in water and then made into cones which are dried in the sun. When required for use these cones are rubbed to powder on a stone, again mixed with water, and applied in the liquid state to the object with a rabbit-skin mop.
While Shepard suggests that this form of processing had as its goal the purification of clay similar to levigation, it seems more probable to me that the goal was ease of storage, transportation and trade, a clear connection to Salado times when white slip trade was common and likely ritually important. These white clay cones may very well be the form used to trade white clay around the Salado sphere.
It is often mentioned that Salado white slip is crackled and while this is sometimes true, it is not always true. It seems to me that crackles are more common on Pinto Polychrome and less common on the later Salado Polychromes, if this is true it would indicate that the switch from the thin slips of Pinto to the thicker slips of Gila was stimulated by a change in the slip material, either in the source of these materials or in how they were processed.
I have often made the comparison between Salado white slip and Cochiti slip used by modern pueblo potters, but that comparison goes only so far. Cochiti slip is applied in multiple, thin layers while Salado slip appears to be frequently applied in one think layer. My evidence for this is the texture of the slip found on ancient pottery. Slip applied in thin layers would not leave deep striations in the texture, nor would thin layers of slip leave bubbles in the slip, both of which are commonly found in the later Salado Polychromes. Given the swipe marks and ridges left in much of this pottery, I would speculate that the Zuni technique of applying slip with a rabbit-skin mop was exactly what was going on.
Lately I have been experimenting with a white volcanic ash clay from Benson, Arizona and having some good success, although I am not yet satisfied that I have succeeded in recreating the Salado technology. My latest firing produced dark grey designs which although within the range of colors seen on Salado Polychromes, are not as dark as I would like or what would be considered typical of that found on Salado Polychrome. Still, I believe the color and texture is spot on, my location, while not perfect, is much better than that of other proposed slip sources and most importantly the slip does retain organic paint admirably. Below are a few close ups of this slip for your consideration.
Keep in mind that all the above photographs have been digitally altered to show texture, so the colors are not true on any of them. Below is a photo of the pots from my latest firing. I am working on the pots for my next firing right now and focusing on my paint texture and the temperature and duration of my firing.