When I was working at Chaco, people would ask me a lot of questions. I usually knew the answers, but when I didn’t I was quite upfront about saying so. I would often try to find out the answers to questions that had stumped me, but I didn’t always succeed, and many of those questions are the ones that I remember best, even now.
One of those questions had to do with the black-on-white pottery that is a hallmark of Chaco. A guy once asked me what they had used as a fixative to get the paint to adhere to the pottery, and I didn’t know. I didn’t really make much of an effort to find out then, as I didn’t really have any idea where to look. Recently, though, I’ve read two papers that shed interesting light on this question. Understanding them, though, requires some background on Pueblo pottery in general.
Basically, there are three main types of paint that were used in the prehistoric Pueblo Southwest. Two of these were in use during the period when Chaco was occupied: mineral and carbon. (The third, lead glaze, wasn’t used until later.) Both were used to produce a black color. Other colors were occasionally produced by a variety of means, but for this period black was the overwhelmingly dominant color of painted ceramics. It’s generally possible for experienced archaeologists to tell mineral and carbon paint apart by sight. Although they both tend to look black on a well-fired pot, there are various subtle differences between the two.
Carbon paint is basically just plant material, usually Rocky Mountain beeweed or tansy mustard, boiled down into an extract and applied to the pot. Mineral paint is made of ground iron-rich minerals, usually hematite, mixed with either water or an organic extract similar to those used alone as carbon paint, and sometimes with clay as well. Both types have been used both in prehistory and among the modern Pueblos. However, there were some marked patterns to usage of the different types of paint both geographically and temporally. Overall, the trend was of increasing use of carbon rather than mineral paint over time, spreading from west to east. Chaco ceramics at the height of the Chaco phenomenon in the eleventh century AD were overwhelmingly mineral-painted, while Chuska and Mesa Verde ceramics, while very similar in decoration and imported to Chaco in large numbers, were generally carbon-painted. Around AD 1100 there was a marked shift, and even Chaco pottery began to be primarily carbon-painted. By the 1200s use of mineral paint only continued in areas on the eastern and southern fringes of the Pueblo world. Distinguishing between carbon and mineral paint is thus quite useful for making inferences about culture history during this period. (In subsequent periods things became much more complicated with extensive long-distance migration and the introduction of glaze paints.)
Both of the papers I mentioned above are about using more formal means than visual criteria to tell mineral and carbon paint apart. One, by Joe Stewart and Karen Adams, used a scanning electron microscope-energy dispersive X-ray spectrometer (SEM-EDS) system to differentiate the two based on the amount of iron detected in the pigment. The other, by Robert Speakman and Hector Neff, used laser ablaction-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS), a simpler and potentially less expensive method to distinguish between the two types of paint based on the concentrations of various elements. Both found that the methods they used came up with similar results to traditional visual methods, and were superior for certain sherds with unusual mixes of characteristics that made them visually ambiguous. Speakman and Neff also found a surprising amount of variety in elemental composition even within the “carbon” and “mineral” groups, suggesting that there were multiple “recipes” used to mix paint in prehistory, not just the two broad categories. This isn’t all that surprising given that this is clearly the case in modern times based on ethnographic data, but it’s still interesting.
That’s all well and good, but one thing that occurred to me in reading these papers was that it’s not at all clear why there would be multiple paint recipes, since they all ended up with pretty much the same result and some were definitely more complicated than others. This is particularly the case when considering mineral paint, since in many cases it appears that it was actually mixed with the plant concoctions that were in other places used independently as carbon paint. If boiling down beeweed produced a perfectly suitable black paint, why bother adding hematite? This might well explain why the trend over time was from mineral to carbon paint, but it’s still unclear why mineral paint originated in the first place. It does not appear to have predated carbon paint overall, at least at Chaco, where both carbon and mineral types are present as early as Basketmaker III.
The lack of obvious functional reasons for preferring mineral to carbon paint suggests that the choice may have been more a matter of cultural tradition, which is interesting and implies that some sort of cultural differentiation may have been present quite early in the prehistory of the northern Southwest. This isn’t really surprising, as there is plenty of other evidence for this, but teasing out the implications of all these different lines of evidence pointing to differentiation in material culture is a task that archaeologists have only recently begun to take on. It should be interesting to see what more we have to learn from these differences.
Speakman, RJ, & Neff, H (2002). Evaluation of Painted Pottery from the Mesa Verde Region Using Laser Ablation-Inductively Coupled Plasma-Mass Spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) American Antiquity, 67, 137-144 DOI: 10.2307/2694882
Stewart, JD, & Adams, KR (1999). Evaluating Visual Criteria for Identifying Carbon- and Iron-Based Pottery Paints from the Four Corners Region Using SEM-EDS American Antiquity, 64, 675-696 DOI: 10.2307/2694212