Basically polychrome is three or more colors – however, when archaeologists describe polychrome pottery, they are describing decorated pottery, and usually only the decorated design field(s) of the pot. To decorate a pot is to beautify it, and certainly painting a design, smudging, or applying a colored slip, beautifies the otherwise plain pot with decorative colors. An argument could be made that some vessels are intentionally “fire clouded”, giving the vessel several colors as a form of polychrome decoration (see vessel #H3Y of the Hohokam Gila Red Classic Period section). However, as previously stated, archaeologists are usually only describing the painted portions of the vessels, so the general definition of polychrome must be expanded to comply with most archaeologist’s descriptions of polychrome pottery.


What definition of polychrome could be written that would generally describe all of the recognized southwestern polychrome types? The general definition of polychrome; three or more colors, will not work, because several named “bichrome” types are actually Polychrome. Such as Mimbres Black-on-White slipped interior with a brown unslipped exterior, San Carlos Red-on-White slipped exterior with a black smudged interior (See vessel #'s S1Y and S2Y of the Salado San Carlos Red-on-White section). Not to mention many other black-on-white types, several have black-on-white slipped interiors with gray unslipped exteriors, the list goes on and on.


When archaeologists classify polychromes, the natural color of the pottery may or may not be counted, it is only counted if it is painted in a way so that the natural color is intended to be shown within the design field, or as a background color. The natural color of the pottery may actually be several colors due to firing and/or fire clouds, but may only be counted as one color. However, if the natural color is not within a decorated design field, then it is not counted (such as the bottom unslipped portion of slipped vessels, the undecorated interiors of exterior decorated vessels, etc.). All different colors of slips are counted. Slips may have fire clouds or fire different colors, but may only be counted as the one color it was intended to be. All different colors of paints are counted. Paints may fire different colors on the same piece of pottery, but may only count as the one color it was intended to be. Many archaeologists do not count smudging as a color, unless a primary design is painted on the smudged surface. Smudging, like applying a slip, is an intentional form of decoration to produce a desired grey to black color in the overall design scheme of the vessel. A smudged surface after firing can come out “blotchy” and result in two colors (black and brown) but is only counted as one color, black or brown (whichever is greater).


So how about using a definition like – Polychrome: Pottery decorated with three or more colors? This definition will not work, because it takes only two colors to decorate a third natural background color to classify a vessel as a polychrome. Such as Jeddito, Bidahochi, Matsaki, Tanque Verde, and other recognized polychromes. For example, Tanque Verde Polychrome is red and black paints decorated on a natural brown background color.

Well then how about – Polychrome: Pottery decorated with two or more colors? This will not work because this definition describes many bichrome types that do not have a natural background color, thereby having only two colors and not three. For example, Puerco Black-on-Red vessels are decorated with two colors, red slip (the red slip being the background color) and black paint used to make the design.

What about – Polychrome: Pottery that has three or more colors on the same design field? This definition will not work because many Wingate, Saint John’s, and other recognized polychrome bowls have separate bichrome design fields. For example, Saint John’s polychrome has a black-on-red interior primary design field, and a secondary white-on-red exterior design field.

O.K., how about, Polychrome: Pottery that is three or more colors and two paint colors used in design? This definition will not work either because Pinto, Gila, and other recognized polychrome bowls have only one paint used in design. For example, most Pinto and Gila Polychrome (Salado Culture) bowls have a black painted design on a white slipped interior, and a red slipped exterior.

There simply may not be a correct definition for polychrome to be used as an universal guide without reclassifying and/or renaming several known pottery types. To use a definition that may suit most types at this time may be:

POLYCHROME POTTERY: Pottery with a design scheme utilizing three or more different colors. All different paint and slip colors are counted. Natural or smudged background colors are counted only if utilized in the design scheme.

This definition should adequately fit most polychrome types described to date. However, there are many named bichrome types that are by definition polychrome. For example, many Tanque Verde Red-on-White bowls have Red-on-White exteriors, and Red-on-Black smudged interiors (see the Hohokam Tanque Verde Red-on-White section). These and other Tanque Verde variants or types having two separate background colors decorated with red paint., have three intentional distinct colors, yet they are not classified as polychromes. There are also several northern, Black-on-White types that have Black-on-White slipped interiors and White-on-Grey unslipped exteriors, another example would be Mimbres Black-on-White interior, with White-on-Brown exterior, the list goes on and on. I like to call these unrecognized polychromes “polytechs”, because they are polychromes technically, even by most definitions archaeologists use today.


This page last revised: 05/04/2012

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