The Historical Significance of Turquoise
By Nancy L. Attaway

Turquoise brought together many diverse cultures that shared a passion for the sky blue stone. Mined from many locales, turquoise affected trade and culture. Persian merchants first introduced turquoise to the trade in Western Europe from their travels through Turkey. A French interpretation developed a name for this “Turkish stone” that evolved into the word “turquoise”. The Moors of Spain obtained the popular blue stone from the mines in North Africa. The Spanish called the stone “turquesa”.

Turquoise held a special place in the many cultures of North, Central, and South America. The stone forged alliances and established relationships between the many and diverse groups. The mines in North America extended from the desert regions of California to Colorado, including Arizona and New Mexico. The turquoise mines in New Mexico attained a particular historical importance.

The most extensive prehistoric mining venture in America occurred in the hills near Cerrillos, New Mexico. Working with stone axes, mauls, picks, and chisels, turquoise miners dug many tunnels in the hills. Miners carried out tons of overburden in leather buckets to reach the turquoise. Wood hauled to the mine sites fueled the fires for heating the rocks. Buckets of water, also transported on the shoulders of the workers, quenched the heated rocks to break up the chunks.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society fueled a great demand for turquoise. The stone evolved into a prestigious symbol equated with life itself. Words of wisdom compared precious turquoise to individual worth, representing it as important as water. Turquoise commanded a powerful place in religious ceremonies and social functions.

A highly structured and formal trade system for turquoise developed between the cultural regions of Southwestern America and the cultural centers of Central and South America. Turquoise provided the means for contact between the various societies in these cultural regions, who considered turquoise an extremely important trade item. The channels of communication opened by this trade encouraged intercultural exchanges between the many different societies. The religious meaning of turquoise spread among these societies, who adopted this belief into their own cultures.

Turquoise preserves well and lends itself to archaeological dating. Archaeologists recovered more than a million pieces of turquoise throughout Southwestern America and Mesoamerica for study. Chemical analysis allows investigators to discover whether one turquoise specimen relates to another. This applies to items found at locations separated by great distances, as well as for items that represent different time periods or cultural periods.
Two scientists proved that turquoise mined from one region was identical to the turquoise used in another region. Dr. Garman Harbottle and Dr. Phil C. Weigand studied the artifactual use of turquoise for over twenty years. Combining nuclear science with archaeological disciplines, they applied a fingerprinting technique to turquoise known as neutron-activation analysis. Used on pottery and other archaeological artifacts, this method is nondestructive.

To implement the neutron-activation analysis, a beam of neutrons hits a turquoise sample in a nuclear reactor to create the many isotopes of the trace elements found in turquoise. Each chemical element in the stone becomes radioactive and emits its characteristic gamma rays. Certain definite quantities of these elements identify turquoise from specific mines. Compositional patterns or profiles of these quantities indicate a common origin. Dr. Harbottle and Dr. Weigand published their extensive research and conclusions in the February 1992 Issue of Scientific American.

Much of the turquoise used originated from the mines near Cerrillos. Well documented trade routes existed to the south, and turquoise from Cerrillos traveled south to Mexico and South America. Archaeological sites in Central and South America yielded turquoise identified from the mines near Cerrillos.

Chaco Canyon contained many of the most substantial archaeological finds of turquoise ever produced. The trading hub at Chaco Canyon seemed to control the distribution of turquoise much like DeBeers controls the diamond distribution. Dr. David Snow of the Museum of New Mexico deduced how turquoise became concentrated at Chaco Canyon. Neutron-activation analysis revealed a direct link between the turquoise trade at Chaco Canyon and turquoise excavated from other sites in Southwestern America. Turquoise in artifacts from sites in Mexico matched the turquoise from Chaco Canyon, mined in Cerrillos.

What people regarded as turquoise treasures then remains treasured today. Modern artisans combine turquoise with gold, silver, coral, opal, and many different colored gemstones to create an updated appreciation for the ever popular sky blue gem. Holding a turquoise nugget in the palm of the hand feels like clasping a piece of ancient American history. Whether worn for protection, enlightenment, or beauty, turquoise continues to be a cherished gemstone today.

Further reading recommended: “Turquoise in Pre-Columbian America” from the February 1992 Issue of Scientific American; “Roots of the Turquoise Trade” from the June 1996 Issue of Lapidary Journal; and the special feature spread on turquoise from the February 1995 Issue of New Mexico Magazine.