Andy Ward
traditional SW pottery

Harold Gladwin, who coined the term “Salado” in 1930, used it to describe a culture, since that time archaeologists have fought over the definition of Salado, a culture, an ideology a phenomenon or something else. The true definition may be any or all of these, consider for a moment another point of view on this argument, that Salado is a technology.

Patricia Crown in her book Ceramics and Ideology: Salado Polychrome Pottery argues that Salado is a regional cult, she makes that argument based almost entirely on the pottery produced across a broad swath of the Southern Southwest. Archaeology Southwest, in their fact-sheet entitled Who or What is Salado? calls Salado an ideology but uses pottery to track the spread of this ideology, it states: “based on the widespread distribution of Salado pottery, it seems that many Southwestern peoples participated in Salado in some way”. One reason archaeologists are uncomfortable calling Salado a culture is because there is a great deal of cultural difference between Salado pueblos across the region for example some bury their dead while others cremate, it seems the one thing that links all these pueblos together is a particular group of pottery types known as Roosevelt Red Wares. This style of pottery is unique and unlike anything made in this region before, studies have proven that it was produced all across the region at almost every Salado pueblo. It was consistent across the region with similar design motifs, construction and firing methods and vessel forms found everywhere from Phoenix, Arizona to Silver City, New Mexico. When we look at Salado as a group of pueblos across a broad region with different cultural traits who are all making the same pottery, it is easy to see that while Salado may be a phenomenon, an ideology and a regional cult, it is almost certainly also a technology.

Organic Paint Pottery

Mesa Verde mug made with reduced organic paint technology

Mesa Verde mug made with reduced organic paint technology

Organic paint was not a new technology when Salado polychromes were first developed but it was new to the region the Salado inhabited. Organic paint pottery first appeared in the four corners region among the Ancestral Puebloans around 700 C.E. and was commonly used for the black paint on Anasazi Black on White pottery. Firing organic paint pottery is a difficult technology to get right with many potential failure points. In order for organic paint to become black designs on pottery the firing atmosphere must be controlled to reduce the amount of oxygen available, too much oxidation late in the firing and the organic paint burns away leaving a grey shadow image, too little oxidation and the pottery is left dark with carbon deposits marring the surface. Many modern day potters have spent years trying to perfect the ancient Anasazi art of black on white organic paint pottery, take for example Clint Swink and Joshua Magdala. Given the complexity of the organic paint pottery firing regime it is hard to imagine that this technology was developed independently in multiple places or that it was simply copied, more likely this technology spread from its point of origin as it was taught to other villages and groups. It follows then that organic paint pottery technology arrived in the southern Southwest by one of two possible routes; either it was taught to them by a neighboring group or it arrived with immigrants.

Oxidized Organic Paint Pottery

Wingate Black on Red, a predecessor of Pinto Polychrome uses "Oxidized Organic Paint" technology.

Wingate Black on Red, a predecessor of Pinto Polychrome uses “Oxidized Organic Paint” technology.

Around 1030 C.E., while the Ancestral Pueblo in the four corners region were producing the beautiful black on white organic paint pottery you can see today at places like Mesa Verde National Park, their cousins in the White Mountains were giving organic paint pottery a new twist. Black on white organic paint pottery is produced by smothering, keeping the oxygen away from the hot pottery, this results in a reducing or oxygen poor atmosphere that keeps the organic paint from burning out of the pots. The hottest new style in pottery around 1000 C.E. was red ware pottery, but in a reducing firing atmosphere the iron rich clays would not mature to the desired bright red color, so some innovative potter in the White Mountains invented a new way to fire organic paint pottery in an oxidizing atmosphere.

Because the firing regime is so different, oxidized organic paint pottery was really a new technology, related to the old reduced organic paint pottery technology but with an entirely different process. While reduced organic paint pottery is smothered to keep the paint from burning out, oxidized organic paint pottery is cooled rapidly to prevent the paint from burning out. So while the old way results in a long firing procedure that takes many hours, the new results in a very short firing that can be over in less than an hour. This technology existed in the White Mountains for over 200 years before Salado polychrome showed up.

Smectite Clay Slip

Two things are needed to create organic paint pottery, the correct firing technique and the correct clay slip that will hold onto the organic paint. The specific type of clay required to hold organic paint is called smectite clay, it is made from eroded volcanic ash deposits and has unbelievable absorptive properties (they make kitty litter out of this type of clay). The original organic paint pottery, Anasazi black on white pottery, used a white smectite clay slip, in the White Mountains they were using a red or orange smectite clay slip to produce their oxidized organic paint pottery. In order for oxidized organic paint pottery technology to spread beyond the White Mountains a smectite clay slip would need to be available to the potters in a neighboring region.

Sites in this region that are dated at the beginning or just before the appearance of Salado polychromes often contain a large percentage of White Mountain Red Wares. St. Johns Polychrome, a type that was frequently produced using oxidized organic paint technology, was in many ways the forerunner of Salado polychrome, it was widely traded across the Southwest just like Salado polychromes, it exists primary on bowls just like early Salado polychromes, it is common in many sites in the Salado heartland that date to the period just prior to the advent of Salado polychromes and oddly it stopped being produced around 1300 just as Salado polychromes were taking the Southwest by storm. As I mentioned above, in order for oxidized organic paint technology to spread it either had to be taught to a new group of people or arrive with immigrants, in 1275 the southern Southwest was primed for the Salado phenomenon, they had access to neighbors with the expertise in this technology and they had a local demand for this type of pottery, all they needed now was access to the right type of slip.

What about the Kayenta immigrants who are frequently cited as the source of organic paint technology used in Salado polychromes? It is true that the Kayenta made organic paint pottery in their homeland, but they did not make oxidized organic paint pottery, so it is probable that the Kayenta method of firing organic paint pottery would have been insufficient to produce Salado polychromes. Although it is obvious that the Kayenta had a hand in the development and spread of Salado polychromes and were familiar with organic paint pottery, oxidized organic paint pottery technology seems to have originated in the Cibola region and did not arrive in the southern Southwest with the immigrants unless they learned it during their sojourn through the White Mountains.

The Spark

Pinto Polychrome bowl, a Salado Polychrome

Pinto Polychrome was in some ways a copy of St Johns with a different slip color.

Up to now all oxidized organic paint pottery was made with a red smectite clay slip, but that didn’t stop the creator of Pinto Polychrome from experimenting with other colors. There is an early Salado type called Pinto Black on Red that copied St. Johns Black on Red very closely, but it was the new idea of putting white slip on the inside of the bowl while leaving the outside red that really wowed them. It is clear that Pinto Polychrome and Pinto Black on Red were direct imitations of St Johns Polychrome and St Johns Black on Red, the designs on Pinto are similar to those on St Johns, and some Pinto bowls even have crude white designs painted on the outside of the bowl just like St Johns Polychrome. While Pinto Polychrome was the first Salado Polychrome and set the precedent of using a white slip on oxidized organic paint pottery, it only existed for about 25 years and didn’t spread as widely as its successor.

The Inferno

Gila Polychrome came on the scene around 1300 and quickly displaced Pinto entirely. Visually it is obvious that Gila uses a different white slip than Pinto does, and it is possible that this slip had as much to do with the rapid and wide spread of Salado as any regional cult did. The hot-spot for Pinto Polychrome production seems to have been in the mountains north of the Salt River, perhaps its remote location far from the major trade routes limited the availability of the Pinto slip to other villages, or maybe it was a small pocket of clay that was used up after 25 years of production and trade. Whatever the case, after 1300 the white slip used to make Pinto Polychrome quickly became an anachronism and the rather grittier, less polished slip used for Gila became the thing that propelled Salado across the southern Southwest like a wildfire.

Gila Polychrome bowl, a Salado Polychrome

Gila Polychrome bowl

Patrick Lyons had this to say about the relationship between Pinto and Gila Polychromes, “banding lines and line-breaks are another interesting topic. Their absence on Pinto Black-on-Red and Pinto Polychrome and their appearance on Gila Polychrome and Tonto Polychrome seem problematic at first, perhaps indicating different origins for these types.” (Ancestral Hopi Migrations) Although he goes on to argue that this is not the case, I contend that the evidence for Gila being of a different source than Pinto is strong. Because Gila Polychrome is made with different materials, different painting style and different design motifs, it seems logical to conclude that it originated in a different location with different cultural roots. While Pinto Polychrome was obviously imitating St. Johns with locally available materials, Gila was imitating Pinto, combining the technology and colors of Pinto with design motifs, painting styles and materials from a different area. This group that originated Gila was obviously more connected to the trade routes which allowed the slip material, the pots, the technology and ideas associated with them to spread quickly and far. The type termed “Pinto-Gila Polychrome” rather than being a missing link of evolution between the two types, is more likely the result of people combining elements from the two popular types during that brief period when both types were being made. Gila Polychrome was the perfect storm of supply and demand, Pinto Polychrome had invented the type and created a market for this type of pottery but had been unable to fulfill that demand for whatever reason, then Gila came along and fulfilled that demand with a near limitless supply of white slip and this technology spread across the southern Southwest where people where bored of red on brown pottery and eager for polychrome.

Although Salado may have been affiliated with an ideology, a phenomenon or even a culture, it was as much about a new technology as anything else and market demand and trade routes helped to propelled it across this region.




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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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