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Turquoise Mining in North America: Mt. Chalchihuitl

Mt. Chalchihuitl is the largest known prehistoric turquoise mine in North America, with turquoise artifacts found from the site dating from around 1000 AD. Native miners excavated thousands of tons of waste rock at Mt. Chalchihuitl before Spanish invasion in the 16th century. Archeologists have recovered cultural materials at the site that confirm that this prehistoric mining occurred, including grooved stone axes, mauls, picks, hand-held hammers, anvils, and lapidary stones, mostly made of igneous rock. Pieces of pottery found at the side indicate that the greatest periods of activity at the mine were 1000-1150 and 1300-1600 AD. The name “Chalchihuitl” is a Nahua word derived from the word “xui,” meaning blue. Nahuatl is a group of related languages that was spoken by the Aztecs, and has been spoken in central Mexico since the 7th century AD. The word “chalchihuitl” is used to refer to other green stones such as emeralds and jade, and has a connotation of preciousness. Southwestern peoples have valued opaque, blue-green turquoise stones for trade, ornamentation, and ceremonial use for thousands of years. These stones appear in Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi creation myths.

Native turquoise mining continued into the seventeenth century at Mt. Chalchihuitl despite Spanish mining activity and other effects of colonization in the area. Little record exists of Spanish and Mexican turquoise mining at Mt. Chalchihuitl. A decrease in potsherds from pre-1600 styles to post-1600 styles suggests a decline in Cerrillos area mining after Spanish colonization (Milford 1995).
The first American geologist to visit Mt. Chalchihuitl was W. P. Blake, who mentioned the mines in his writings in 1858. He noticed that Navajo and Pueblo Indians used and wore turquoise but did not mine it, and was informed of the source at Mt. Chalchihuitl. Blake’s is the first mention of the turquoise mines in U. S. Period records. A renewed interest in the Mt. Chalchihuitl turquoise deposits occurred later in the U.S. Period, during the mining boom in the Cerrillos area. D.C. Hyde conducted the only excavation of Mt. Chalchihuitl during the U. S. Period, from 1880-1881. Although this mining occurred in a place with only turquoise deposits, Hyde was attempting to mine for gold and silver, which he believed would be found with the turquoise. There are no records of any gold or silver found at Mt. Chalchihuitl, and the turquoise veins mined by Hyde were too thin to have any marketable value.

Mt. Chalchihuitl became included in the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties on January 20, 1978.

Sources:

Levine, Daisy, and Linda J. Goodman. An Archaeological and Ethnographic Survey Within the Cerrillos Mining District, Santa Fe County, NM. Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico Offic of Archaeological Studies, 1990. Print.

Mathien, Frances Joan. "Tri-Cultural Use of the Cerrillos Mines." Cultural Resource Management 7(1998).

Milford, Homer. "Turquoise Mining History." New Mexico Abandoned Mine Land Bureau Reports (1995).

Simmons, Mark. Turquoise and Six-Guns: The Story of Cerrillos, New Mexico. Sunstone Press, 1975. Print.

Stanley, Father. The Cerrillos, New Mexico Story. Pep, Texas: 1964. Print