Andy Ward, Potter and New Media Consultant
(October 27, 2016)—Yesterday afternoon I drove out onto the Willcox Playa, where I dug down about a foot deep and found a rich layer of greenish clay, and now that clay is soaking in a bucket on my back porch. Over the last couple of weeks I have sampled and tested clays from several locations around the Sulphur Springs Valley in southeast Arizona. As a potter and avocational archaeologist researching how ancient pottery was made, this is one of the things I do to better understand the pottery archaeologists find in this area.
Growing up in southeast Arizona, I often saw artifacts in some of the places we would camp and hike. My natural curiosity about these objects combined with my interest in art led me to start trying to reproduce ancient pottery while I was still in high school. That was many years ago, and while I have not made pottery non-stop during that entire time, over the years I have successfully reproduced many styles of pottery. Some have proved relatively easy to recreate, while others have proved very difficult.
Maverick Mountain and Tucson Polychromes, for which I am currently teaching a reproduction workshop for Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, were fairly easy to figure out, with their red clay slip and manganese black paint. Babocomari Polychrome has been one of my pet projects for decades (because “Babo” and I are both natives of Sierra Vista); the paint and slip colors were easy to achieve, but the light-colored paste has proved extremely difficult to track down.
By far the most difficult type to recreate has been Salado polychromes (Gila Polychrome, Tonto Polychrome, and other related types known as Roosevelt Red Ware). The difficulty stems from the organic paint that these pottery types use to achieve the black designs. Organic paint is tricky—other potters have struggled with using organic paint to reproduce ancient pottery types, too; for example, Mesa Verde Black-on-white pottery took Clint Swink nearly 200 firings to get right, and Joshua Madalena of Jemez Pueblo recently rediscovered how to make Jemez Black-on-white pottery after 10 years of experimentation and research.
The secret to organic black paint is having just the right clay slip and just the right firing atmosphere. If either one of these elements is not right, then your paint is going to fail. I wasted years trying different paint and slip recipes before I realized that I had the firing environment wrong, and without that element all my experiments would fail. Salado polychromes are different than most of the other handmade potteries that use organic paint because they have oxidized red areas on them, which creates a challenge—keep oxygen away from the organic paint so that it does not burn out but provide oxygen to turn the red areas bright.
Using historic Pueblo pottery techniques, archaeological data, information from other potters, and lots of trial and error I have come up with a firing technique that works to successfully reproduce “oxidized organic paint pottery” such as Salado polychromes. This leaves just one missing part of the equation: the correct white slip that will hold onto the organic black paint.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have been trying to recreate Salado polychromes for well over 20 years, and in that time the one thing I have spent the most time trying to find is a good white slip that will hold organic paint. Many times my family has been upset by my sudden stops to examine some white deposit near a roadway while they waited impatiently in the car. The Salado heartland was not blessed with an abundance of white clay, and most of what there is either has enough mineral contamination to cause it to fire to a tan color, or is not the right material to turn organic paint black. I have some good white clays from the Colorado Plateau that do the trick, but definitely are not what Salado potters were using. I have one good candidate from the Aravaipa Valley, and my search continues…
Recently, I have begun using Google Earth to locate white mineral deposits near known Salado polychrome production areas. Using this method, I have put together a long list of white mineral deposits that I am exploring one by one as I have time. Many of these require a good deal of hiking to get to.
In between my clay hunting expeditions and test firings, I also find time to teach a few pottery workshops every year. For the past two years I have been privileged to teach pottery to the students at the Preservation Archaeology Field School, which fits in perfectly with my own research into Salado polychromes. I have also been able to teach workshops in the last year at Besh Ba Gowah and Q Ranch Pueblo, and I am currently organizing a workshop for next spring at Mesa Grande. Every year I participate in the Southwest Kiln Conference, a gathering of potters and archaeologists that focuses on replicating pottery, and last year I was the organizer of this event. I was pleased to bring it to the southern Southwest for the first time, in Safford, Arizona.
I sometimes tell students that if a degree could be earned in this type of pottery, it would require study in many different disciplines. It is little wonder that self-directed learning has taken me over 20 years to get where I am, and there is still much to learn. To truly master this art, you would need to know something about archaeology, art, geology, chemistry, fire science, and much more. I’m beginning to process the clay I collected from the lakebed near Willcox now, removing salts, silt, and a surprising amount of organic material. When this is done, I will temper it with ground granite from the Huachuca Mountains. Then I will form a small bowl and fire it in an outdoor mesquite fire. Finally, I will compare the fired clay to sherds from that area.
It is a long process that I have repeated many times, but the satisfaction that comes from learning the secrets of the ancient potters makes it all worthwhile to me.