The Chalchihuitl (Turquoise) Question

         This is the title of Chapter VI in the seminal book Turquoisby Joseph E. Pogue [who left the e off the end], published in 1915 by The National Academy of Sciences.  More than 100 years later it is still a question.

         Chalchihuitl is an Aztec word referring to a very valuable greenish stone.  The invading Spanish assumed it meant turquoise, which they found in some quantity; carved, inlayed, made into beads and masks, gifted to the gods and high ranking dead men.

         One nagging question is how the pre-Columbian Southwest has kept the secret of its extensive turquoise mines pretty well hidden all these years.  At this point more than two hundred ancient mines are known.

         There is a much greater mystery that nobody seems to address at all.  1. Turquoise artifacts have been found in Mexico that date back almost two thousand years B. C.  2. Much of this stone is identified as coming from the Cerillos mining district. 3.  Archaeologists have not found evidence of mining at that site before about 900 A. D.  At least one of those statements must be false, and it is probably not #1.

         The Spanish followed the trail of turquoise, always to the North.  It was one of the excuses for “discovering” and conquering the Seven Cities of Gold, the mythical Cibola.  The Spaniards didn’t think much of the blue rock, but they were always hungry for the yellow metal.

The name chalchihuitl stuck to the blue stone for several centuries.  In the end the Europeans were not sure which rock it referred to.  For a while they thought it was jade, but that gemstone is not found in the New World either.  The jade artifacts found in tombs are really a kind of jadeite.

The mystery part is that this precious mineral was not found in what became Mexico.  This belief has been stated in print for many years and Joseph Pogue says quite emphatically, “No important deposits of turquoise are known in Mexico.”

Joe Dan Lowry’s encyclopedic work, Turquoise(2010), explodes this notion.  “There are numerous turquoise mines that are located in what is now modern-day Mexico.”  Either these mines were unknown to archaeologists or they were simply dismissed, for reasons known only to the academics, who tend to stick together.

cerrillos turquoise

Lowry discusses pre-Colombian mines from Sonora to Baja California.  He states that turquoise mining began in Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico as early as 500 BC.  Adding that people don’t know that Mexico  is “currently one of the larger producers of Turquoise in the world.”

         The first great chroniclers of the Aztec world all mentioned chalchihuitl; like Bernal Diaz, who wrote that the Aztecs thought it more valuable than emeralds.  There are many such descriptions.  Now we are told that the Aztec word applies to any green or greenish stone.

         Part of the problem comes from how different languages define blue and green.  In Aztec the valuable stone was “green” but much of the turquoise found in Mexico is clearly what we call “blue.”   Only a few kinds of turquoise would be described as green.

Navajo, for example, has only one word for both colors and the shade is indicated by other elements in the sentence.  Like robin egg blue, sky blue, grass green and so on.  Clearly the leaves of a cottonwood tree are not the same color as the needles of a juniper.  English terms them both as “green”.

The Franciscan Fathers at St. Michaels, Arizona, compiled an Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navajo Language.  In it, the color green is “like water scum.”  A vivid image, pretty descriptive, though I don’t see a lot of pond scum around here.

It seems appropriate that the oldest, largest and most valuable prehistoric diggings in North America, generally known as Cerillos, are named after the central, unimpressive hill known as Mt. Chalchihuitl.  At one time it was believed that most of the stone found in Mexico has its source here, not far from Santa Fe, NM.

Likewise it was assumed that all, or most, of the turquoise found at Chaco Canyon was from these mines.  As our detection abilities grow, so does our knowledge and apparently there were extensive trade routes east and west across the desert southwest and turquoise travelled both directions, not just north and south into Latin America.

The Cerillos mining district covers an area of several square miles and a number of prehistoric diggings.  The more northerly area was first called the Castilian and later Turquoise Hill.  One deposit has gone by many names, including the Tiffany, which never had anything to do with the jewelry store of that name.

In 1892 it was reported that a single stone from the Castilian sold for an astonishing $4,000.

Early in the last century the Tiffany was owned by the father of Brice Sewell, an artist, Indian art expert and trader who was close to C. G. Wallace, which suggests that Wallace had access to that stone.  Unfortunately the mine was pretty well played out by the Thirties.

I recently found this interesting item.

On January 20, 1978, Mt. Chalchihuitl was enrolled into the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. 

There is a second Tchalchihutl in New Mexico, yet another source of turquoise, in Cíbola County near the town of Bluewater.  These Tchalchihutl Mines are also on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties.


This raises the ghost of an old treasure tale.  Rumors of an ancient turquoise mine in the Zuni Mountains fascinated Frank Cushing, who foolishly trekked into the mountains in the winter, lost his mule, and nearly died in a blizzard.  All he found was an old Mexican copper digging.  But copper and turquoise are intertwined.

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