Tracing the Turquoise Road

The history of many gemstones reveals they were often one of the earliest forms of wealth in many prehistoric societies. Turquoise is an excellent example of how such stones can become not only prized possessions, but a window into past cultures. Archaeologists today are looking at the remnants of those early civilizations and piecing together the way ancient societies functioned and what they valued. The story of turquoise and the way it was traded among neighboring peoples is helping us understand the world of prehistoric North America.G5

turquoise juanita

Juanita. Navajo (Diné). 1874. Photo by C.M. Bell.

The story that has been pieced together appears to show that in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society, turquoise functioned as a status symbol for the elite. Its use was confined to the top strata of the society, to kings and priests and other noble families. The stone was associated with the sky, with deities and with life itself, therefore only the most powerful, the most noble could be allowed to wear it. This concept, along with the value placed on turquoise, has enabled archaeologists to understand the widespread connections between those living in the southwestern part of what is now the United States and those in areas of Central and South America.

chaco canyon

Pueblo Bonito Chaco Culture National Historic Park, NM.

Since turquoise was restricted to the use of the elite, it became a valuable trade item between the nobility of the different settlements. Archaeologists have uncovered a large number of turquoise artifacts in the area of Chaco Canyon in what is now New Mexico. Many have long believed there were cultural connections between the settlement at Chaco Canyon and the civilizations in Mexico and further down in South America.
In the early years, archaeologists believed that because of the large amount of turquoise found in Chaco Canyon, the area must have been a major producer of turquoise. Now, thanks to the technique of neutron-activation analysis, which is used to find the spot of origin of items such as stones, it is known that turquoise was not found in the vicinity of Chaco. Instead archaeologists believe the turquoise found in Pueblo Bonito and the other dwellings at Chaco likely came from the mine at Los Cerillos near Santa Fe, a distance of almost two hundred miles. This would mean that Chaco was an importer of turquoise rather than a producer.S1

Adding to this belief is the fact that the turquoise found in Chaco was located with burials or stored in caches at random spots. There is no indication of a spot set aside where the turquoise was worked and prepared for trade nor any caches of unworked stones. This appears to bolster the belief of some that Chaco itself was a major cultural center and turquoise was as valued there as it was elsewhere. Some archaeologists believe that the settlement at Chaco Canyon was used largely as a ceremonial center rather than a year-round living spot, which would explain the presence of so many turquoise artifacts.

turquoies up the acoma canyon

Up the Acoma trail. Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. ca. 1904. Photo by Carl Moon. Source – Huntington Digital Library

If Chaco Canyon was indeed a cultural center, then the trade between that area and the civilizations in Mexico and South America shows that these societies shared a connection. This connection was made stronger by the impressive system of roads surrounding Chaco. These roads extend to other sites considered Chacoan outlier settlements, such as the Chaco style great house at Aztec to the north.N8

Due to the value placed on turquoise within these early societies, it appears that the trade of these artifacts between the elite and the powerful members of each group left a “turquoise road” that indicates the connections that existed between them. That value would remain even up to today, as turquoise is still highly prized for jewelry. Its use is no longer restricted to the few but its power is still treasured for the making of objects of amazing beauty.