The Salado Culture

Salado pueblo in the Sierra Ancha's
A Salado pueblo in the Sierra Ancha Mountains
View of a Salado Polychrome bowl found at Tonto National Monument
A Salado Polychrome bowl

The Salado built many constructions in the Tonto Basin but a significant number of them have been drowned beneath Roosevelt Lake. Some are preserved at Tonto National Monument but there are others throughout the valley and in the nearby mountains.

The design and construction of Salado settlements points to a large Hohokam influence, especially with the construction of largely ceremonial adobe mounds in the larger centers. Over time the functions of the mounds changed and while they were still being built in later settlements, their size shrank.

The Salado diet consisted of beans, pumpkins, maize, squash, amaranth, whatever berries were in season and whatever their hunters could bring in. They built simple irrigation systems and grew cotton to supply a primitive textile industry. The Salado were settled long enough to evolve intricate woven patterns in shirts and such. Sadly, unprotected cotton doesn't survive long in the Southwest climate. Textiles are a whole section in the history that we see extremely little of. It has been speculated that textiles carried more of the spiritual story of the Southwest than pottery, pottery has just been able to carry that story for longer. Textiles, though, were more easily transported cross-country and, used in masked rituals, spread the stories far wider. Sadly, there are very few left who can interpret the stories on the old pottery and tell the fullness of them: the depth of meaning has been lost.

Map showing the locations of the main cultures in the Southwest around 1350 CE
Cultures of the Southwest
1350 CE

The Tonto Basin is watered by the Salt River (hence the "Salado" name) and the earliest settlements were built in the open valley. As the population increased, the Salado spread out and built higher and higher in the mountains.

Around 1330 the climate began to change: drought set in over the next few decades and the water table dropped. That pushed the people further into the mountains, up the water flows to their sources until eventually, by the mid-1400's, the whole area was abandoned. Some of the people went north, some east, some south.

What they left behind were many masonry constructions, sandals and baskets woven of yucca and agave (any woven cottons didn't survive the passage through time). They left bone tools and Salado Polychrome pottery, both decorative and functional. They also left macaw feathers (from central Mexico) and seashells (from the Gulf of California), testaments to the trade they enjoyed with far-off cultures.

The Salado figure prominently in this story because of their Salado Polychrome pottery. While many ancient Salado Polychrome pot sherds have been found in the Tonto Basin, close versions have also been found spread from northern Arizona to northern Mexico and from the Salt River basin in central Arizona to the Tularosa basin in central New Mexico.

The Salado style came into its own around 1280 CE and remained in use across the southwest until about 1450 CE. By then, the Great Drought had changed everything.

Map showing the routes of migration taken by Kayenta potters as they left the Kayenta-Tusayan area in the late 1200's
Routes of the Kayenta-Tusayan
migration in the late 1200's CE

Archaeologists feel the design styles had evolved earlier in northeastern Arizona (Kayenta) and migrated southward from there with the migration out of the Kayenta pueblos in the late 1200's.

The late 1300's CE was a time of major turmoil in the southwest and the vast majority of residents abandoned the Tonto Basin as the deeper effects of the Great Drought set in. By 1500 the Apache had moved in and were well settled before the first Spaniards came through.

All types of Salado Polychrome share a number of broad categorical similarities. However, there was significant variation over the roughly 170 year time span of its production. The base paste was generally brown to reddish-brown in color and was tempered with sand. Usually a red and/or white slip were used to cover both the interior and exterior of the vessel. Black paint was used on one or both surfaces, usually surrounded by a white slip. The black paint used was most commonly organic but a mix of organic and mineral paints appears on some vessels.

Studies have shown that Salado Polychrome was produced across the full range of territory in which it has been found. It didn't emanate from a single production area and spread through trade. It more likely spread as knowledge, as individual potters migrated cross-country and produced new vessels using the new clays and pigments available wherever they settled.

Map of the distribution of Salado Polychromes
Map showing the distribution of found Salado Polychrome pottery
One of the Salado dwellings at Tonto National Monument
One of the Salado pueblos at Tonto National Monument
Upper photo courtesy of the US Forest Service
Other photos courtesy of the National Park Service