In keeping with what seems to be the recent pattern around here, my previous post led to some interesting discussion in the comments. Frequent commenter marcaeolog provided a link to a pdf version of Anna Shepard’s Ceramics for the Archaeologist, a classic work that challenges some of Florence Hawley’s theories that I discussed in the post. Andy Ward, who has done extensive experimental work attempting to recreate prehistoric pottery-making techniques, then chimed in with some information on his own efforts, focusing specifically on the question of what keeps carbon-based pigments from burning off during firing. Here’s part of his comment:
I have been doing research in just this area by collecting clays and firing them in open mesquite fires. While it is easier to keep carbon based paint on a pot in a reducing atmosphere this doesn’t account for polychromes. To make polychrome with a carbon based paint, like the ubiquitous Gila Polychrome, requires an oxidizing atmosphere. Certain kinds of clays have the ability to hold these carbon paints through a firing, bentonite clay in particular. Modern pueblo potters have used a slip called Cochiti slip which has these properties, ancient potters in cultures such as the Salado had access to similar slips.
As it turns out, Shepard had the same theory, based on her own experiments, which also provided solid evidence against Hawley’s theory, based on experiments with hydrofluoric acid, that it was compounds in the ash of the organic material that reacted with silica in the clay to protect the pigment from burning away. She acknowledged that this was a reasonable conclusion based on the information available to Hawley at the time, but Shepard’s own experiments comparing organic material with and without this sort of ash showed no substantial difference. Instead the biggest factor was clay type:
The most striking fact brought out by these tests is the effect of the type of clay on the permanence of the carbon. Bentonitic and other highly adsorptive clays retained a good black under firing conditions that completely oxidized the carbon on unnadsorptive, sedimentary clays. All of the clays that held the paint well required a high percentage of wafer to bring them to the plastic state and they had high shrinkage. These clays take up much more of the paint solution than the less adsorptive clays, and on drying, the clay plates are drawn tightly together, protecting the film of paint that surrounds them. The effectiveness of hydrofluoric acid in facilitating oxidation of carbon paints is explained by the fact that it attacks the clay, opening the surface and loosening the bond and thus exposing the carbon to air.
The upshot of this in cultural terms is that, contrary to what I said in an earlier post, it seems like the difference between mineral- and carbon-based black pigments is actually technological rather than cultural. Here’s Shepard again:
The relation of the type of clay to the depth of color of carbon paint from a plant extract is not a matter of merely theoretic interest to the technologist. It has a bearing on the distribution of this class of paint because it could not be produced in regions lacking adsorptive clays unless such clays could be obtained in trade. The use of plant extracts is not open to free choice or established merely by custom; it is limited by ceramic resources.
This is particularly interesting given the well-documented expansion of carbon-based pigments at the expense of mineral ones over the course of the late prehistoric period. If special clays were required to make this work, and those clays had restricted distributions, what accounts for the change? In areas that switched from mineral to carbon paint, such as Chaco, was this the result of a change in clay sources? The discovery, perhaps due to increased contact with other areas that had long used carbon, of which local clay sources worked for this? Importation of clay? Importation of finished pots? This raises a lot of questions, which to my knowledge have not received much attention in the archaeology of these areas, despite the fact that it’s now been several decades since Shepard’s research.