Prescott Pottery Designs Explained

The circular designed logo of Primitive Lifeways

How Experimental Archaeology Can Help to Understand the Past

For years some of the most brilliant minds and leading researchers in Arizona archaeology have tried to solve one of the greatest mysteries of prehistory during agricultural settlement. Depending on the time period and cultural affiliation, Southwestern potters expressed their religion, world views, and sociocultural identity through decorated ceramics. While the Hohokam people made oxidized red-on-buff ceramics, much of the pueblo world reduced their decorated pottery to a black-on-white design using organic pigments such as bee weed and sunflower paint. Some of the more unique traditions of reduced wares come from the Mimbres Valley and Central Arizona in the Prescott area. In the Classic period Mimbres potters painted their highly expressive pots using red iron oxide which turned black when reduced but reddish-orange when exposed to an oxygen rich environment. Some Classic period pots are deliberately fired in reduction and oxidation where half of the motifs are black and the other half is red—indeed showing a high complexity but deliberate pattern of firing. In the Prescott area, paint patterns are often sloppy and lack the complexity we see in other cultural spheres. However, I have argued Prescott ceramics might be the most difficult to fire in the American Southwest. Potters were able to reduce the interiors of bowls and jars, while oxidizing the exterior. Thus, the final result becomes black-on-gray on the inside and orange with fire clouds on the exterior. Another local Prescott gray ware displays further complexity where a significant percentage of decorated pots are completely oxidized and painted using the same organic paint as black-on-gray pots. To this date, I am stumped on how black-on-orange pots were fired—the technique must be very specific, as organic paint will burn burn off and turn white when firing in oxidation. One jar I have examined could have been fired by a true specialist where exterior is oxidized, the interior neck is reduced black-on-gray and the interior belly is oxidized.

John Olsen pictured on the right

Unlike the white and gray marine clay bodies from the Pueblo/Anasazi world, Prescott clay types come from residual deposits and require alternative methods of firing when reducing decorated wares. Much of my understanding with reduced ceramics was taught to me by master potter John Olsen, who has been making black-on-white vessels for over 40 years. A number of years ago I decided to travel to Utah and spend time learning from John with the goal of obtaining as much information as I can about reducing marine clay types. One discussion that stuck with me involves the time of year that is best for firing decorated pots in reduction. John explained his best results in black-on-white pots came from very dry sands in the desert environment. Since meeting with John, my goal was to experiment with Prescott clay types and try to achieve consistent results in recreating black-on-gray pottery. As I look back at some of my early attempts, I am humbled at my failures and proud at the same time. 

Prescott Black-on-Gray Sherd With Inner-locking Design

Longer than I have been alive, southwestern archaeologists have tried to understand the iconography behind the geometric designs displayed on Prescott pots. Although we have made bits of progress, to this day we have very little understanding behind the abstract nature of each image. During the later Chino phase (AD 1050 -1300) we see a common theme of chevron inner-locking motifs displayed on Prescott black-on-gray bowls. As I examined hundreds if not thousands of sherds and complete vessels with this motif present, I noticed a consistent pattern of a light cream gray and tan color displayed within the undecorated portions of of the pot’s surface. So what can this tell us and how can experimental archaeology help in answering questions that were not previously known? 

Prescott Black-on-Gray Sherd With Inner-locking Design

Lets first discuss ideal firing conditions on a localized level. With residual Prescott clays including wingfield, granitic, and gabro tempered bodies, firing in reduction is a bit more difficult to achieve ideal results. Unlike the astounding properties of marine clays used in the Pueblo/Anasazi world—which are fired when ground surfaces are dry, Prescott clays are best fired in the beginning of monsoon season when moisture content within the soil is damp. The results are beautiful cream gray pots with a deep black carbon footprint design left over as the organic paint burns off. While I have yet to explain or understand this natural phenomenon in a scientific way, one possibility could be damp soil suffocates the kiln at a greater level when burying the kiln, thus improving the results with a more porous clay type. When soils are dry Prescott back-on-gray pots lack optimal results as they will smudge and turn a dark black on the interior. 

Knowing the best results on Prescott black-on-gray decorated ceramics are achieved when soils are moderately damp, and most pots with interlocking chevron designs have achieved optimal results by exhibiting a cream gray and sometimes tan in color, I can conclude that there is a strong probability that Prescott people during the Chino Phase (AD 1050 – 1300) fired their bowls during the early beginnings of monsoon season when rain started to bring fertility to the landscape. Indeed, the seasonal task of firing pots when monsoon season begins may offer an explanation of what the chevron design could represent. Upon examining the interlocking chevron design on Prescott wares, there are broad and bold diamond shaped elements with small “G” shaped designs inside of each diamond. When associating the production of these pots with a damp environment, I propose this design has a probability of representing fertility to the landscape by depicting the building and formation of clouds. The smaller “G” shapes are early formations, whereas the diamond shapes represent a building of the smaller clouds into larger formations which bring rain and life to the hi-desert environment. Furthermore, these pots do not depict a single geometric element. Rather, multiple layered elements covering a large portion of the interior are present, thus suggesting a significant formation of clouds as we see during monsoon months. 

Two Prescott Culture Bowls with inner-locking designs
Posted in

Primitive Lifeways