Andy Ward Pottery
traditional SW pottery

Firing Salado Polychromes is a Tricky Business

Salado polychromes require the right mix of the correct clay slip, the correct organic paint and the right firing atmosphere. Looking at prehistoric Salado pottery helps us to understand what kind of atmosphere we need.

Almost 100% of Salado polychrome sherds in this area have a very dark carbon core.

Salado polychrome pottery firings must…

  • Get hot enough to completely fire the clay and to oxidize the red
  • Maintain a reducing, carbon-rich atmosphere until the very end in order to create a dark carbon streak in the clay body.
  • Have a very short time in an oxidizing atmosphere at the end of the firing to oxidize the rind.
  • Be removed from the fire as soon as possible, while still hot, but not so hot as to crack the vessel. This will prevent over-oxidizing the pottery.
  • Not be dependent on a particular species for fuel. This pottery was manufactured across a wide range of biomes, from the low desert of Phoenix and Tucson to the high pines of the Mogollon Rim and everything in between.
  • Not be difficult or very complicated, this technology rapidly spread across a broad area and examples of misfires are rare so it must have been relatively easy to teach and to accomplish.


  • Firing pits are unknown in this area. Does this mean they weren’t used or have just not been identified? If Anasazi firing pits were not lined with rocks, would we recognize them?
  • The pottery must cool quickly, to keep from oxidizing the organic paint. Firing pits tend to work against this by holding heat. Can I fire above ground while maintaining my oxygen-poor atmosphere?
  • Grass gets hot and cools quickly but is too dense so does not burn efficiently enough to oxidize properly and leaves a black sooty mess. Is there a way to get grass to burn to white ash?
  • Mesquite tends to make good coals, almost too good. These coals, even from small diameter fuel (< 1″) tends to over-oxidize the pottery. The fire must cool quickly after the peak so that only a thin outer rind on the pottery oxidizes. What fuel is widely available across the southern SW that will provide these results?

My attempts, while good, tend to be over-oxidized and too hot. My pottery comes out fired harder than the prehistoric Salado vessels. I assume this means that my firings need to be cooler and shorter.

Time of year may make a difference. In the peak of summer heat and dryness, grass or other light fuels may more readily burn to ash.

The ceremonies of the summer solstice include pilgrimages to shrines and elaborate dances, and this is also the season when it is especially lucky to fire pottery, so that all the kilns are smoking. An instructive feature is the igniting of dried grass and trees and bonfires generally; for the Zuni believed clouds to be akin to smoke, and by means of the smoke of their fires they seek to encourage the Uwannami to bring rain.

The Mythology of All Races

It has been noted by Crown and others that Salado polychrome decorations tend towards rain and fertility symbols. Creating plumes of smoke in the early phase of firing would create the dark carbon streak seen in most of this pottery. Perhaps a summer solstice firing would provide the right climate to produce the desired firing atmosphere.


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About Andy Ward

I am an independent researcher, writer and artist interested in all things Southwestern. Southeast Arizona is my home and area of primary interest.

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