Andy Ward Pottery
traditional SW pottery

Recreating An Authentic Salado Pottery Firing Environment

In my previous post I discussed evidence from archaeology and from modern Pueblo pottery, indicating the type of firing environment needed to successfully fire Salado polychrome pottery. In this post I will show how I have successfully reproduced that firing environment using authentic materials available to the Salado potters.

Until an actual Salado pottery kiln is located we will never know for sure what a Salado pottery firing entailed, but we can work to duplicate the atmosphere and temperatures of a Salado firing as closely as possible. Here is how I have done that.

  1. On top of the ground (no pit) build a “primary fire” to build up a bed of coals and pre-heat pottery. (Figure 1) Since no Salado kilns have been found I am assuming that pits were not used. Also firing above ground helps me achieve my goals of low temperature and fast cool down.
  2. Stack pottery upside down above coals using pre-heated stones of a type that will not pop in the firing. (Figure 2) The study of fire clouds on Salado pottery indicates that pots were usually stacked upside down with the fuel resting on the pot bottoms.
  3. Use a few pot sherds to shield the painted areas of the pots from direct flame contact.
  4. Use dirt to cover any coals from the primary fire that are around the perimeter of the pottery, this will keep the fuel from the secondary fire from lighting prematurely when it is being placed.
  5. Begin by placing light fuel like grass and dry twigs around the base of the pottery. (Figure 3)
  6. Stack wood teepee style over the pottery. Use small diameter wood in a range of sizes
    from pencil size to arm size. (Figure 4)
  7. Light fuel from the bottom, all the way around at the same time. The light fuel you stacked
    inside the teepee in step 5 should make this easy.
  8. Watch the fire closely, if any areas begin burning to coals earlier than other areas, add more
    wood there. You want the whole fire to reach the oxidization stage at the same time.
  9. Once the fire begins to burn to coals (watch carefully, this may be earlier than you think)
    peek in at the pottery, if it appears clear, that is to say that all carbon is burned away, begin carefully pulling the remaining wood and coals away from the pots. Remove cover sherds and as many hot coals as you can without disturbing the pots to allow them to cool rapidly. (Figure 5)
Figure 7. Done right this method results in a good dark carbon core just like real Salado pottery. (Photo by the author)

Figure 7. Done right this method results in a good dark carbon core just like real Salado pottery. (Photo by the author)


There is still much to be learned about the Salado phenomenon, coming to a better understanding of the technology used to create Salado polychrome pottery will help provide a better understanding of Salado as a whole. Experimental archaeology is useful in providing that understanding since some aspects of pottery may not become obvious until one tries to replicate it. For the archaeologist looking to get inside the head of a prehistoric potter and come to a fuller understanding of that pottery, I would recommend that making that pottery may provide insights that could not be achieved with thousands of hours of lab time.

Salado pottery kilns, however elusive, are out there, the problem is that nobody knows what to look for or where to look for them. This is an area where experimental archaeologists have an advantage because they may know better than anyone what subtle clues to look for. It is clear that the Salado were making a lot of pottery and outdoor pottery firings are by nature delicate, resulting at least occasionally in broken pots so that even a small above ground firings can leave ash, charcoal, stones and sherds in a unique arrangement that can be detected.



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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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