Mining Turquoise, the Sky Stone

Crouched in dark tunnels, toiling while mining turquoise in sun scorched open pits or laboring in 100 foot shafts, prehistoric miners of the southwest swung heavy stone hammers into rock walls. They pried with picks made from antler and hefted shovels of bone and tortoise shell. They crushed and chiseled, extracting seams of turquoise from hard, country rock.

Living in primitive shelters and cave recesses, often far from the security of Great House communities or Ancestral Pueblo villages, the men worked at sites such as Cerrillos Hills, NM, Mineral Park, AZ, Montezuma, NV, or King's Mannassa, CO, mining the desert for blue gold. Archaeological evidence shows that the mining turquoise required miners to work in small groups, wielding ax against stone, or fracturing the host rock by heating it with charcoal then cooling it rapidly with water.

The miners' sledges tell the story, “...of the laborious extraction of the bits of stone from the compact matrix, and nothing short of a most profound and persistent motive could bring about the results observed. The love of ornament and the fancy for this particular gem doubtless played their part, but... the abundance of the particular stone among ancient remains makes clear its use not only for ornament but as a gem to which was attached supernatural attributes of deep significance.” (Holmes: 1919)

Turquoise – “the stone that stole its color from the sky” – the gem that insures prosperity, rain, increase and good fortune. To the Navajo it is Turquoise Boy in the blaze of the sun and the infant Changing Woman with her power of creation. For Pueblo people it is abundance, wealth and protection. Societally it is the stone that functioned throughout the American southwest as a standard of exchange, its procurement a reflection of “the economic, organizational, and social structure of the ancient cultures involved.” (Hull et al: 2008)

After being quarried in the mines, the rough cut stone was brought back to waiting artisans, those in small workshops who smoothed, rounded, drilled, polished and fashioned the blue-green gem into beads, pendants, mosaics, fetishes and other ceremonial items. The stone also passed into the hands of those traveling on ancient trade routes from south, east and west, those transporting shells from the Gulf of California, buffalo hides and flint from the Plains and copper bells and scarlet macaws from Mexico. Turquoise beads have been noted as far east as Arkansas and “a necklace of tiny turquoise disk beads” was found in the grave of a child at Oliver Mound in Coahoma County, Mississippi.In the early days of southwest archaeological study it was thought that much of the turquoise found at prehistoric ruins came from the ancient pits in the Cerrillos Hills District, twenty five miles southwest of Santa Fe. In 1858 geologist W. P. Blake was the first to describe this site.

“On reaching the locality I was struck with astonishment at the extent of the excavation. It is an immense pit with precipitous sides of angular rock...From the top of the cliff the excavation appears to be 200 feet in depth and 300 or more in width...tens of thousands of tons of rock have been broken out.”


From 1897-99, archaeologist George Pepper excavated at the Great House ruin of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, recovering more than 50,000 pieces of turquoise in the form of beads, pendants, mosaics and fetishes. He concluded that because of its proximity to Chaco (125 miles), the Cerrillos Mine was the main source of the gem.

Today researchers know of “at least 28 prehistoric turquoise source areas in the western United States.” From the recent work of Sharon Hull of the University of Manitoba and her colleagues, using hydrogen and copper isotopes to determine the provenance of turquoise artifacts, it is known that “of eleven samples from Chaco Canyon sites, dating from AD 550 to 1050, only two could be attributed to the Cerrillos source. Two others came from Orogrande in southern New Mexico, three from the No 8 Mine in northern Nevada, and one from the Montezuma source in southern Nevada.”

There is no conclusive data to support the long held assumption that the vast stores of turquoise found at Chaco came solely from Cerrillos or that the Chacoan people controlled the Cerrillos Mines. As more and more turquoise from the American southwest is analyzed, and research extends even further into southern Mexico, new knowledge of the acquisition, trade and importance of this sacred stone will be revealed.

In the present day we find beauty and pleasure in the myriad items of turquoise jewelry offered at trading posts and galleries across the southwest. Whether you are drawn to a vintage necklace of rare Lander Blue, a ring of deep green from the Hachita Mine or a contemporary bracelet of sky blue Lone Mountain stone, know that you are purchasing a gem with a thousand year history of cultural significance, spiritual meaning and economic exchange.

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