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
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
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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