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The Turquoise Trail Volume 58 Number 1, January/February 2005
by Eric A. Powell

Did an extensive trade network link the American Southwest with Mesoamerica?

When he was eight or nine years old, archaeologist Phillip Weigand remembers his grandfather, a German immigrant, giving him a piece of turquoise. "I don't know how he got it," says Weigand. "But it was about the size of a nickel, and twice as thick. It had obviously been worked. He gave it to me and said it was the sky-stone of the Indians of the Southwest and it represented all the good things in life. I still have it."

Weigand is hardly unique in cherishing his gift of turquoise. The peoples of the ancient Southwest and Mesoamerica also had a passion for the opaque blue-green stone, which they valued as a mark of high status and prized for its ritual significance. Called xiuitl by the Nahuatl speakers of central Mexico, turquoise seems to have symbolized fertility and agriculture, particularly the cultivation of maize. Mesoamerican artisans created spectacular mosaics with turquoise tesserae, decorating everything from skulls to shields with the treasured mineral. Gifts of these turquoise artifacts were routinely traded by nobility--it's thought that Montezuma sent a mosaic turquoise mask to Cortez as the conquistador made his way to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1519.

The stone held a special allure in the Southwest, where it was also linked to maize and status. Turquoise beads and pendants are found in elite burials in towns built by Southwestern agriculturalists like New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. Turquoise-inlaid frog figurines and turquoise-encrusted bird effigies seem to have played an important role in prehistoric ceremonies.

For much of the past 20 years, scholarly opinion has held that the Southwest was relatively isolated from Mesoamerican peoples. But that may be changing, thanks in part to Weigand's contention that Southwestern people like the Hohokham, Mogollon, and the Anasazi had exclusive access to one commodity that would have been of keen interest to the high cultures of central Mexico: xiuitl.

Turquoise, chemically a combination of copper and aluminum, can form only in the presence of nonacidic copper. Isolated patches of such copper exist in north-central Mexico, but great belts of the green metal are found in the American Southwest--major sources of turquoise lie in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. North-central Mexican turquoise deposits are of relatively poor quality, and the minerals they produce are very soft and prone to losing their color once exposed to the air. Harder, high-quality turquoise is found in far northern Mexico and the Southwest, and archaeology shows Southwestern peoples mined these deposits extensively (there are also historical accounts of Native American turquoise mining). Turquoise seems to have been especially important to the Anasazi of Chaco Canyon. Some 200,000 pieces have been discovered at the site, from tiny chips to exquisitely worked pendants and beads, despite the fact that Chaco is five days' journey from the nearest known source. Conservative estimates of the number of turquoise pieces discovered in ancient Mesoamerica run to around one million. With no suitable sources in central Mexico, the mineral must have been imported, perhaps from areas in far northern Mexico or even as distant as Nevada.

Eric A. Powell is managing editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America