Turquoise Mosaics from Northern Mexico

By: J. Alden Mason

Originally Published in 1929

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GEMS and semi-precious stones of rich colours or delicate translucency have forever attracted the esthetic sense of man; their use is one of the human ties which bind the stock-broker with the stock-tender, the Parisian with the Persian, Queen Wilhelmina with Queen Shub-ad. Rarely does a land contain precious or beautiful stones which are not utilized by the natives for their adornment.

The prehistoric inhabitants of America utilized to the full the wealth of precious stones which bountiful nature set before them. In addition to the metals such as gold, silver, platinum and copper, —pearls, emeralds, opals, jadeite and nephrite, turquoise, lapis lazuli, amethyst, agate, quartzite and quartz crystal, beryl, carnelian, chalcedony, jasper, pyrite, chloromelanite, amazon stone, catlinite, obsidian, amber, shell, slate, and practically all other gems and stones which occur in America, with the exception of the diamond, were employed and worn by the ancient, and even by some of the modern, aboriginal peoples of America.

So ancient is the use of gems that a great body of folklore1 has grown up around them. Probably no other class of objects is so bound up with superstition and magic. In former days almost every gem was considered to have an intimate relationship with some part of the body and to be a specific against ailments of this part, if either worn as a charm or eaten in pulverized form. Thus jade was considered a remedy against maladies of the kidneys, sapphire against apoplexy, moonstone against epilepsy, lodestone against headaches and convulsions, amber against a multitude of complaints, heliotrope against snake-bite and hemorrhages. Even more potent was the magical power of gems for good or evil, to bring good or bad luck, fortune, position, or love, to prevent insanity and in many ways to influence the life of the owner. So deeply rooted was this belief that its influence remains even today among ourselves. Few of us would give an opal as a gift; even if we doubted its maleficent influence we would not risk the possible superstition of the recipient.

Among the stones most admired and treasured in America, especially by the highly cultured peoples of the Valley of Mexico, the home of the Toltecs and the Aztecs, were jade and turquoise. Jade in particular was revered and prized even above gold. The use of jade in Mexico has been considered in an earlier number of THE MUSEUM JOURNAL.2 It is probable that the belief in the therapeutic effect of jade upon the kidneys and consequently the word jade itself, from Spanish ijada, were originally brought from Mexico. Jade was apparently unknown to the average Spaniard of the sixteenth century. One of the extraordinary facts in connection with Mexican jade is that, although it is of a chemical composition different and distinguishable from oriental jade, and although we know the localities from which jade was demanded as tribute by the Aztecs, yet no occurrence of native jade in situ has ever been verified in Mexico. A short while ago a newspaper report was received of the discovery of a jade boulder, but this has not yet been substantiated. The rareness of jade obviously increased its value and this value probably intensified the search for it to such a point that the veins and boulders are now probably practically exhausted.

The story of turquoise in Mexico is similar to that of jade. The former stone was, however, already known to the Conquistadores who identified it in Mexico with no difficulty. The name, as may be guessed, comes from “Turkey” through the French, for before the days of Columbus the finest stones came from Persia by way of Turkey. It was considered a lucky stone and believed to change colour with the condition of the owner’s health or in sympathy with his affections. ” It has the virtue of soothing the sense of vision and the mind, and of guarding against all external dangers and accidents; it brings happiness and prosperity to the wearer. Suspended in a glass it sounds the hour. When worn by the immodest, it loses all its power and colour.” Thus wrote the credulous philosopher Mylius in 1618. The last sentence, of course, afforded the loophole which prevented a critical test of the earlier statements, very much like the exquisite magic garments of the Emperor in the fairy tale, the cloth of which could not be seen by anyone unworthy of his office.

Matter-of-fact mineralogists state that turquoise is a hydrous aluminium phosphate and support their claims with a terrifying chemical formula, or rather with two rival formulas for the place. Our interest lying entirely on the aesthetic side, we shall not attempt to arbitrate the question, but shall be content with admiring the beautiful sky blue colour which tends in many examples towards green. It frequently occurs in thin plates like mica, a formation ideal for its employment in mosaics.

Turquoise was greatly prized in Mexico, although not so highly as jade; it was the stone of second value. The distinction made by the Aztecs between jade and turquoise is not quite clear and it has been thought by some that the Aztec word chalchihuitl may have been applied to any stone of blue or green colour which was worked for ornamental purposes. It would thus include jade, turquoise, quartzite, chloromelanite and other similar stones. It seems almost certain that in northern Mexico the term chalchihuitl was applied to turquoise, but it is now generally believed that in southern Mexico the word referred to jade, while turquoise was designated by another term xiuitl.

Three drawings of glyphs

  1. Glyph representing a bowl of turquoises, from the Tribute Roll of Montezuma.
  2. Glyphs interpreted as signifying ten masks of turquoise and a bag of turquoises.
  3. Aztec glyphs designating turquoise mosaic disks.

The source of the turquoise used by the Aztecs and their predecessors, the Toltecs, has, like the source of jade, created much discussion among students of Mexican archæology. As in the case of jade, its rarity contributed towards its value and vice versa, and the uncertainty of its identification with its specific Aztec term conduces to confuse the problem. Only in recent years has any mine of turquoise been discovered in Mexico, and no evidence of prehistoric mining was reported at this place. As in the case of jade, however, the “Tribute Roll of Montezuma” affords some clue. This is a pre-Columbian Aztec book in which were painted representations of the quantity and quality of tribute collected by the Aztecs from conquered vassal tribes and towns. The Aztecs had no true system of writing, hieroglyphic or alphabetic, however, and the symbols used for various objects are open to misinterpretation. In three places in this Roll objects which are interpreted as turquoises are found.3 A representation of a bowl filled with angular objects as shown in figure 1 is interpreted as a small vessel of turquoises, and the six accompanying glyphs as the six towns from which this tribute was demanded. Another symbol, shown in the upper part of figure 2, is interpreted as meaning ten masks of turquoise. This and another tribute represented by the lower part of the same figure, which is interpreted as representing a bag of turquoises, were exacted of the six towns whose glyphs are shown on the same page. Of seven other towns was required the tribute shown in figure 3 which obviously represents two plaques of mosaic, presumably of turquoise. No one has ever attempted the task which Mrs. Nuttall did so well in the case of jade, that of identifying and locating these towns, some of them long since deserted, others probably still existing under new names of Christian origin. From the meaning of their names it is certain only that they were in the warm parts of Mexico.

From the histories of Mexico we have one definite allusion to turquoise. In 1497 when the Aztec war chief Ahuitzotl was engaged in conquering the district around Tehuantepec, after the final battle in which the defenders lost their independence, the few survivors, consisting mainly of women, old men, and boys, sued for peace. ” Valiant lords of Mexico, cease your fury . . . let us speak!” the chronicler4 reports that the elders cried. “We will pay you tribute of all that is produced and yielded on these coasts, which will be chalchihuitl (jade) of all kinds and shades, other small precious stones named teoxihuitl for inlaying in precious objects, and much gold . . . .” The reference to inlaying can hardly be applicable to anything but turquoise, especially as we have other translations of xihuitl as turquoise. Teoxihuitl means ” divine turquoise”, apparently, and may refer to a variant form of the stone. It would seem, therefore, that turquoise was found in the district of Tehuantepec, but no mines are known today in that region.

The one place in which turquoise is known to occur in large quantities and to have been mined in ancient days is at the famous mine at Los Cerrillos near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The old workings are in a hill known as Mount Chalchihuitl. Here the Navaho, the Zuñi, the Hopi, and the other Pueblo Indians procure the turquoise for their ornaments and jewelry, just as their forefathers did for centuries. The standard theory is that all the turquoise used in southern Mexico was brought from this place either by trading from tribe to tribe or by long expeditions. It is quite possible that future years will disclose in Mexico itself the source of the turquoise of Aztec days, but for the present there is slight evidence of that and slight reason for discrediting the existence of a trade route from New Mexico to Mexico City; there are other indubitable examples of aboriginal trade for distances as great.

Sahagun speaks very clearly upon this point, saying,5 “The Toltecs had discovered the mine of precious stones in Mexico, called xiuitl, which are turquoises, which mine, according to the ancients, was in a hill called Xiuhtzone, close to the town of Tepotzotlan.” He says further,6 “The turquoise occurs in mines. There are some mines whence more or less fine stones are obtained. Some are bright, clear, and transparent ; while others are not. . . . Teoxiuitl is called turquoise of the gods. No one has a right to possess or use it, but always it must be offered or devoted to a deity. It is a fine stone without any blemish and quite brilliant. It is rare and comes from a distance. There are some that are round and resemble a hazelnut cut in two. These are called xiuhtomolii. . . .7 There is another stone, used medicinally, called xiuhtomoltetl, which is green and white like chalchiuitl. Its moistened scrapings are good for feebleness and nausea. It is brought from Guatemala and Soconusco (State of Chiapas). They make beads strung in necklaces for hanging around the neck. . . . There are other stones, called xixitl; these are low-grade turquoises, flawed and spotted, and are not hard. Some of them are square, and others are of various shapes, and they work with them the mosaic, making crosses, images, and other pieces.”

The ancient mine near Tepotzotlan, presumed to be in the State of Hidalgo, has never been discovered, and, despite Sahagun’s definite statement, its existence is doubted by those who believe that all turquoises were brought from New Mexico. The xiuhtomoltetl may have been a kind of turquoise, but more than likely it was one of the other greenish stones. Its medicinal use indicates that the ancient Mexicans had beliefs similar to those of Europeans in regard to the therapeutic value of precious stones.

That there was an intimate relationship between the Valley of Mexico and the state of New Mexico in regard to the use of turquoise is proved by several means. That the Zuñi and other peoples in the neighbourhood of Santa Fe possessed quantities of turquoises was well known in the Mexican state of Sonora at the time of the Conquest, and many natives of this region traveled north and exchanged labour and goods for these valued stones. The first traveler through this region, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca who, in the eight years between 1528 and 1536 made one of the most extraordinary journeys known to the history of exploration, wandering from Louisiana to Mexico City, found the knowledge of turquoises general in Sonora and was presented by the natives with “many good turquoises, which they get from the north.”8 Fray Marcos de Niza who, stirred by the glowing accounts of Nuñez—for that is his proper surname, though he will always be known to history as Cabeza de Vaca, just as Vasco Nuñez will always be known as Balboa—journeyed in 1539 to the fabled wealthy seven cities of Cibola, really the seven insignificant Zuñi pueblos, also heard of the wealth of turquoises when he was still in Sonora, a month’s journey from Cibola. There he met Indians who had traveled to Cibola for turquoises. “I enquired of them”, wrote the good father, “wherefore they travelled so farre from their houses? They said that they went for Turqueses, and Hides of kine (bison), and other things; and that of all these there was great abundance in this Countrey. Likewise I enquired how, and by what means they obteined these things? They tolde me, by their service, and by the sweat of their browes.”9 The fabulous stories of the quantity of turquoise and of gold to be found in Cibola need not detain us here; we may be certain that considerable amounts of turquoise were brought from the region of Santa Fe to northern Mexico, and probably a brisk trade in them was carried on with the Valley of Mexico, to Teotihuacan, the sacred city of the Toltecs, and to Tenochtitlan, the centre of the Aztec empire.

The Indians of the American Southwest still do much work in turquoise, and the stone plays a large part in their religious ceremonialism and mythology, indicating that its role has been important among them for centuries. The turquoises in Navaho silverwork, in rings and bracelets, are well known to tourists through the Southwest. Turquoise beads in necklaces and earrings are in quite common use throughout the Southwest, especially by the Pueblo peoples.

In addition to these methods of utilizing turquoise, it is some-times employed in the form of mosaics, and this is the real tie which closely binds the American Southwest with southern Mexico of the time of the Conquest. Small and rather poor ornaments of turquoise mosaics are made today, or were made in modern times, by certain of the Pueblo peoples. Thus Hodge10 says that “Ear-pendants practically identical in character [with the ancient turquoise-mosaic ear-ornaments] are sometimes worn by Zuñi women on gala occasions at the present time, although they have been superseded largely by silver earrings, often studded with turquoise . . . cemented to bases of wood with piñon gum . . . the workmanship is decidedly inferior to that of the ancient Zuñi of Hawikuh, the settings being placed without regard to regularity and without attempt to grind them to shape, while to meet the paucity of turquois, small trade beads of blue glass are used in each of the three specimens mentioned.”

Ear-pendants of turquoise mosaic, apparently identical with those from Zuñi just mentioned, are also still worn by Hopi women, or were in recent years. These are, like the Zuñi specimens mentioned by Hodge, simple, plain and rectangular, the pieces of turquoise irregularly placed with relatively wide irregular interstices. J. W. Fewkes,11 speaking of turquoise ear-pendants which he found at Chaves Pass, Arizona, says, “Hopi women at the present day wear ear-pendants made of square wooden plates upon which are cemented rude mosaics of turquoise. The modern work of this kind is comparatively coarse, and evidently is made of old turquoises, some of which are perforated and were formerly used as beads. The turquoise stones employed are not accurately fitted, and the black gum in which they are embedded shows between the stones. The ancient work is much finer and more beautiful than the modern.” Further information on this point is given by Curtis,12 who writes: “In dances, and especially in Kachina dances, unmarried girls wore earrings made by smearing piñon-gum on a thin piece of wood about an inch and a half square, and setting bits of turquois in the gum.” Dr. Walter Hough13 gives an illustration of one of these Hopi mosaic earrings and says of it: “Turquoise mosaic earrings, constructed by imbedding small plates of the stone in gum covering a rectangular wooden tablet and finished by grinding and polishing, appear to be still made by the Hopi in perpetuation of the ancient art.”

Archæological work in this region amply supports the evidence that the mosaic work of today is but the degenerate survivor of the almost forgotten art of the ancients. Apparently turquoise was much rarer in earlier days than at present, and on that account was more highly prized and carefully worked. The specimens found by F. W. Hodge14 at Hawikuh, one of the seven ancient “Cities of Cibola”, comprise objects in greater variety and of greater merit than the mosaics of today, and verify some of the statements of Fray Marcos concerning the extent of work in turquoise at Zuñi (Cibola). Other scattered finds of turquoise ornaments have been made throughout the Pueblo region, but the most remarkable of all was made by G. H. Pepper at Pueblo Bonito in northwestern New Mexico, one of the largest and best preserved ancient ruins in the Southwest. Here, in one ceremonial chamber and in conjunction with several burials, probably of priests, were found more than fifty thousand beads, pendants and other worked objects of turquoise, and among them several mosaics.15

Jet was frequently associated with the turquoise in these mosaics which were set in piñon gum on, or in, the surface of bone, jet, shell, hematite, and basketry. The work is exquisite, in many cases the bits of turquoise were cut to uniform triangular or rectangular shape so that they matched perfectly, and in practically every case the pieces were fitted close together so that no interstices are visible or at any rate obvious.

Having considered the nature of turquoise mosaic work in the American Southwest in present and in ancient days, let us turn once more to southern Mexico.

The ancient artisans of Mexico were famed for a number of crafts, but for none more than the art of making mosaics. Mosaic work in feathers especially impressed the Spanish conquerors and many specimens of this art were sent by them to Spain as proof of the consummate craftsmanship of the Mexican artisan. Glowing descriptions of the beauty of these objects and the marvel of their workmanship have come down to us, but as for the objects themselves, the few that have survived the ravages of moths, dust, and time are so bedraggled as to be of interest only to the technician. However the art of feather working, in a very rude and degenerate form, although of great interest to the tourist, still survives in Mexico.

The art of working in turquoise mosaic also impressed the Conquistadores who sent many such objects back to Europe where they created much comment on account of their rich colouring, careful workmanship, and exotic form. In this case we need not depend on
descriptions for our impression of these objects, for a number of them still exist in the museums of Europe, and a large number which were recently found in Mexico are now in the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York City.16 One of the most perfect of all such mosaics, a plaque, was discovered within the last year at the ruin of Chichen Itza in Yucatan by the expedition of the Carnegie Institution. It now rests in the Museo Nacional in Mexico City. These are by far the most beautiful and striking objects which remain from the time of Montezuma. About forty-six pieces of major importance are now known, about equally divided between the museums of Europe and North America. Practically all of them are on a wooden base and the larger number comprise shields, masks, heads, figures, and knife-handles.

The native historians of the time of the Conquest relate that the Toltecs perfected the art of making turquoise mosaics, and this tradition is now verified by the discovery of the mosaic plaque at Chichen Itza, a city captured and rebuilt by the Toltecs, and presumably abandoned before the Aztecs had risen to power. Indeed, the invention of most of the fine arts was ascribed to the Toltecs, and, at the time of the Conquest, Toltec artisans were considered the masters in practically every art except that of warfare. We may therefore ascribe turquoise mosaic work to the Toltec horizon and field of influence.

In the account of the presents sent by Montezuma to Cortes when the latter made his first landing on the Mexican coast, the first gift listed was ” a mask wrought in a mosaic of turquoise; this mask had wrought in the same stones a doubled and twisted snake, the fold of which was the beak of the nose; then the tail was parted from the head, and the head with part of the body came over one eye so that it formed an eyebrow, and the tail with a part of the body went over the other eye, to form the other eyebrow. This mask was inserted on a high and big crown full of rich feathers, long and very beautiful, so that on placing the crown on the head, the mask was placed over the face; it had for a jewel a medallion of gold, round and wide; it was tied with nine strings of precious stones, which, placed around the neck, covered the shoulders and the whole breast.”17

One of the contemporary historians,18 in speaking of some of the ornaments which Cortes sent to Spain in 1522, writes: ” We also admire the artistically made masks. The superstructure is of wood, covered over with stones, so artistically and perfectly joined together that it is impossible to detect their lines of junction with the fingernail. They seem to the naked eye to be one single stone, of the kind used in making their mirrors. The ears of the mask are of gold, and from one temple to another extend two green lines of emeralds; two other saffron colored lines start from the half-opened mouth, in which bone teeth are visible; in each jaw two natural teeth protrude between the lips. These masks are placed upon the faces of the gods, whenever the sovereign is ill, not to be removed until he either recovers or dies.”

The lapidary’s art, like that of the goldsmith, is traditionally supposed to have been taught to the Toltecs by their god and culture-hero Quetzalcoatl. At the time of the Conquest the Aztec and Toltec workmen were organized into guilds which had their protecting deities, their ceremonial rites and observances, and their civil duties and privileges. Usually, the father taught his trade to his son, and the craft thus became hereditary.

The historian from whose careful work we derive most of our knowledge of old Mexico, Sahagun, devotes much space to recounting the practices of the lapidaries and goes into far more detail than we have space to copy here. They had four special protective deities which they worshipped in the form of idols. Sahagun describes at considerable length how these figures were carved and ornamented for the annual festival of the lapidaries.19 “They said that these gods had invented it [work in precious stones], and for this reason they were honored as gods, and to them the elder artisans of this craft and all the other lapidaries made a festival. By night they intoned their hymns and set the captives who were to die, on watch in their honor, and they did not work during the festival. This (festival) was celebrated in Xochimilco, because they said that the forefathers and ancestors of the lapidaries had come from that town, and there was the place of origin of these artisans.”

The forty-six finest known pieces of Mexican turquoise mosaic differ considerably in quality, though all are larger and more ornate than anything known from the American Southwest. In some of them the workmanship is exquisite, plates of turquoise of several shades, of lignite, shell and other materials being arranged to form figures and designs. The thin plates, moreover, are cut in rectangular or other rectilinear shapes so that, as the ancient historians report, the joints are close and the interstices practically invisible. The specimens of this fine type are relatively few, however; the greater number consist of polygonal plates of very varied sizes except for the outer line which forms the edge of the figures. The poorer grades are composed of plates of turquoise of very irregular and often curvilinear outlines, the interstices therefore being relatively large and the aesthetic effect poor. Although Sahagun devotes much space to describing the lapidary’s method of work, only a few sentences of this refer to turquoise. These are20 “The stone that they call round turquoise is not very hard, so they have no need of emery to scrape, facet, smoothe, or polish, for they apply to it the bamboo, then it receives its radiant luster and brilliancy. The fine turquoise is not very hard either. They polish it likewise with fine sand and they give to it a very brilliant luster and radiance by the method of another polisher, called the polisher of turquoise.”

This MUSEUM possesses but two specimens, or rather one pair of specimens, of turquoise mosaic work, but objects of this technique are so rare, and this pair of such unusual provenience as to render them of special interest.

Two earrings in the shape of a rectangle with a half circle on top with rays, inlaid with small pieces of turquoise in mosaic
Ear Pendants of Turquoise Mosaic from Jalisco, Mexico
Museum Object Numbers: NA5194A / NA5194B
Image Number: 20099

These objects were secured by the writer in the little village of Azqueltan in the northern part of the state of Jalisco, Mexico, in 1912. I was at that time the student delegate from the University of Pennsylvania to the International School of Mexican Archæology and Ethnology in Mexico City. The School had recently been founded, in the last year of the Diaz regime, and, after a few pre-carious years of existence under various revolutionary administrations, died a lingering death of malnutrition, but not without hopes of a more glorious resurrection under more stable conditions.

The aldea of Azqueltan, an Aztec word meaning “the place of the ants”, shelters the remnants of the Tepecano tribe of Indians. At the time of the Conquest they were a large group and occupied much territory in this general region, but the inevitable fate of Indian tribes has been theirs. They have retreated gradually until today they occupy but this sole village and a few square miles of surrounding territory in the barranca or canyon of the Rio de Bolaños. Their language, however, proves them to be closely related to the Tepehuane tribe farther north, and to the Papago and Pima of the Arizona-Mexican border. They are related also to the Yaqui, Tarahumare and to certain other tribes of northern Mexico, and more distantly to the Aztecs and Toltecs of southern Mexico and the Utes, Paiutes, Comanche, Hopi and certain other Indian groups of the western United States. Their customs, likewise, show connections with all these groups, very close to some, very slight to others.21

Today the Tepecano Indian of Azqueltan differs very slightly in external appearance from his ” civilized ” neighbors. A foreigner, passing through the village, would see nothing unusual in the people or their surroundings. For the Tepecanos have adopted the dress and customs of the average Mexican peon, and the latter is, almost everywhere in Mexico, of pure, or nearly pure, Indian blood. The language is seldom used and almost forgotten and the ancient religion is cherished only by the most conservative of the elders.

My primary task while in Azqueltan was to study the language, and this occupied most of my time, but, as opportunity offered, data were collected on religion, folklore, customs, and on the archæology of the region.

Now the native of Azqueltan is a devout Christian, can recite his “Ave María Purísima” and his “Padre Nuestro” with considerable confidence, and never misses the service on those rare occasions when the reverend padre from the nearest town girds up his and his riding-mule’s loins for the jolts of the long downward trail into the barranca.

Nevertheless the conservative native sees no confusion in aiding the powers of Heaven to avert evil with the help of his old pagan ceremonies, and of many powerful little objects or magical fetishes. Each native man has a collection of these sacrosanct objects which he formerly guarded with tender care. The most potent collection, naturally, belongs to the High Priest or Cantador Mayor (Chief Singer) as he is called, and these are solicitously handled and placed on the native altar during the pagan ceremonies, where they exercise a powerful influence for the good of the tribe and aid the gods to prevent, or influence them not to send, evil and misfortune.

These sacred objects consist of anything which the native may find which to him is peculiar or inexplicable, and which may seem to him to represent some natural phenomenon or object. Thus they fall into three classes: natural stones or other objects of peculiar form or color, such as concretions; manufactured objects or fragments of them which some traveler—such as myself—may have lost and which are not recognized by the native as such; and archæological objects. The second class may consist of such objects as glass marbles, cruet-stoppers, and similar relics. The archæological objects are probably recognized by the native as belonging to the “antiguos”, but as they belonged to the mythical age of the Gods, they are the more potent. Each of these charms is identified with whatever natural object or phenomenon it may suggest to the eye of the native, such as the rain, the sun, moon, or morning star, the cardinal points, the altar, the sacred gourds, the fire, the seats, the rainbow.

Under the influence of the Church and of modern life the belief in the powers of these objects has waned among the more sophisticated of the Tepecanos and most of them were ready to dispose of their charms and take their chances of the ire of the ancient deities —for a sufficient compensation; and in a country where a chicken could be secured for ten cents and a day’s labour for twenty-five, even the high cost of silencing the qualms of conscience was not utterly beyond the limits of an archæologist’s exchequer. And even should an old conservative native’s wants be so few that he could not be induced to part with his treasure, he not infrequently had younger relations who would risk the chance of his ire and his excommunicatory powers by quietly appropriating and disposing of his fetishes. It was in this latter way, let me confess with slight contrition, that I secured the turquoise mosaics that are the topics of this discussion.

They were brought to me by a young native, the grandson of one of the patriarchs of the village whose office of mayordomo or sexton of the little church apparently did not conflict in the least, in his mind, with that of ” Guardian of the Fire ” at the native pagan ceremonies. I bought them, of course, but he could tell nothing of their finding or purpose. A few days later I was looking over my collection and found them missing. The only man I could suspect was old Francisco who, as mayordomo of the church, had the entree to the pastor’s curatorio which I occupied. Inquiries availed nothing and I decided that the objects really belonged to the old man and that he had but reclaimed his property. I had to leave without them.

The following winter I returned for further studies and kept in mind the recovery of these specimens. Casually I remarked to Francisco’s son my regret at the loss of them and, naming some of the village rowdies as possible suspects, suggested that he get them back for me. Then I quoted a price which I knew would be irresistible to him, something like a dollar each, and the next day they were brought to me. I asked no questions.

These mosaics, which are shown in full size and exact colours on page 171, are of a workmanship inferior to the Mexican pieces and even to most of the ancient pieces from Arizona and New Mexico, probably resembling most the modern or recent turquoise mosaic ear-ornaments from the Hopi and Zuñi. In form, however, the latter are rectangular, while these are less simple in outline. They may not have been used together, since one is three-sixteenths of an inch longer and of better workmanship than the other. This larger specimen measures two and eleven-sixteenths inches (6.9 cm.) by two and three-sixteenths inches (5.5 cm.) in height, and averages five thirty-seconds of an inch (4 mm.) in thickness. The pendants are thus extremely light, the larger one weighing only 166 grains or about three-eighths of an ounce. In shape, general appearance and in most details, however, they are identical.

No wood was employed, the entire matrix being apparently of a brown resin, probably from the pine tree. In this region the pine is known as ocote, from its Aztec name ocotl, but it is probably very similar to the piñon of Arizona, the gum of which is used in that region for turquoise mosaics.

The greater part of the face of both specimens is composed of this brown resin into which the small, thin plates of turquoise were set while the resin was soft. Relatively few of these pieces of turquoise were artificially shaped and most of them, apparently, are irregular small fragments, possibly refuse from the workshop. Along the edges the best pieces with at least one straight edge were placed, and in the center of the better specimen an attempt to maintain some regularity was made, but for the greater part the turquoise bits were poorly selected and poorly spaced, little attempt having been made to fit the pieces closely together, and the interstices and unfilled spaces being obvious. In some of these bare spaces the piece of turquoise has fallen out, but others were never filled. In several cases, especially in the smaller and poorer specimen, parts of broken drilled beads were utilized. The same feature is noticeable in the ancient mosaic ear-ornaments from Hawikuh, which are not over half the size of the Tepecano specimens in either direction, and mounted upon a wooden base.

The back and thin edges of the pendants are covered with a layer, normally thin but in some places rather thick, of a jet black substance, evidently a pitch of some sort, and resembling the brown resin in everything but colour. It was obviously applied over the brown resin while soft. On the front side it shows on the surface in two places. In the middle line at the bottom edge a rectangular niche was left by the careful placing of three straight-sided plates of turquoise, and in this place a hemispherical nodule of this pitch was placed. This probably has some esoteric ceremonial signification, which will probably remain unknown, at least until the archæology of this region is better known than at present. On the six spurs which project laterally the black pitch also forms the surface, and into this pitch were originally impressed small drilled discoidal turquoise beads. Practically all of these have fallen out but the impressions of most of them on the pitch remain. A suspension hole is seen at the top of each specimen, probably perforated while the resin was soft.

What were these objects used for, what significance had they and whence did they come?

Although I know nothing resembling them in shape, there can be little doubt that they were ear pendants. The suspension holes at the top indicate that they were pendants of some sort, and their closest resemblance is to the smaller rectangular ear pendants of the Hopi and Zuñi. Their light weight made them very suitable for this purpose and, furthermore, the Tepecanos considered them as such.

The shape doubtless has an exact ceremonial significance, but not enough is known of the archæology and religious symbolism of northern Mexico to permit an acceptable explanation. It is quite possible that it is meant to represent or signify the sun appearing above the horizon and casting its first rays abroad. Probably a deep study of the symbolism of the religions of the Pueblo Indians and of the ancient Aztecs would throw some light on the question. The black bead in the bottom at the center also undoubtedly has some definite esoteric meaning.

I feel certain that the colours employed also have definite significance. Colour symbolism is of great importance in the religions of all the peoples of the Southwest from the Navaho and the Pueblo peoples through Mexico down to the Aztecs themselves. Practically every ceremonial object or phenomenon and every god has his appropriate colour, but of especial importance is the relationship between the cardinal points and certain colours. The sacred ceremonial number also has an intimate relationship with these. This is generally four, five, or six, depending on whether the people consider the zenith and the nadir also as cardinal points. The colours, naturally, are always those known in nature which can be reproduced by native dyes. Green or blue, red, yellow or brown, black and white are the most common. The exact colour ascribed to each point differs greatly from tribe to tribe; the system employed by the Tepecanos is green-blue for the east, drab brown or gray for the north, black for the west and white for the south. The exact tints are generally very difficult to determine in those cases when, as in the case of the Tepecanos, they have not sufficient knowledge of Spanish to explain perfectly and have lost the art of making native dyes. Throughout this region the Indians make no distinction between green and blue, including both under one term, and I believe that the tint thus designated is that of the turquoise and of certain types of jade, that the colour was chosen for this reason and turquoise and jade so highly prized largely on account of this connection. The drab colour of the north, most often translated by Spanish pardo, is perfectly represented by the colour of the brown resin and the black of the west by the pitch. The white of the south seems to be unrepresented.

Finally as to their original provenience. Ear ornaments of turquoise mosaic were certainly worn by the Aztecs, for specimens of them, known as guariques, were sent by Cortes to Spain, but none has been preserved and we know nothing of their shape. Judging from the extant specimens of Mexican turquoise mosaic work, however, they must have been of a workmanship superior to that of our specimens. In the Pueblo region, ear ornaments of turquoise mosaic work are known both from ancient sites and from the present peoples, but these are smaller, rectangular, and made upon a wooden base. It is most probable, therefore, that in former days such objects were used throughout the intervening region, the archæology of which is but slightly known. Consequently, the most likely probability in every such case, that an object was made in the region in which it was found, does not conflict with what is known of the distribution of this type of object, and we may reasonably conclude that the mosaics were the product of the handicraft of one of the ancient peoples of the northern Mexican region.


1 Cf. the many writings of George F. Kunz, especially “The Folklore of Precious Stones,” Chicago, 1894.

2 “Native American Jades,” XVIII, 1, March, 1927, pp. 46-73.

3 The original Tribute Roll of Montezuma lies in the Museo Nacional of Mexico, except for a few pages which are in the possession of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Several reproductions of it have been published, the figures here illustrated being copied from that of Antonio Peñafiel in ” Monumentos del arte mexicano antiguo,” Berlin, 1890, plate 245, and that of D. G. Brinton in “The Tribute Roll of Montezuma,” vol. XVII, part II, Transac¬tions of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1872.

4 Hernando Alvarado Tezozomoc, “Crónica mexicana,” cap. LXXVI, pp. 543-544, Mexico, 1881.

5 Fr. Bernadino de Sahagun, “Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España,” lib. X, cap. XXIX, I.

6 Id., lib. XI, cap. VIII, 1 and 3.

7 Id., lib. XI, cap. VII, 6.

8 The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1528-1536,” translated by Fanny Bandelier, New York, 1905, pp. 156, 157, 177.

9 The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1528-1536,” translated by Fanny Bandelier, New York, 1905, pp. 156, 157, 177.

10 F. W. Hodge, “Turquoise Work of Hawikuh, New Mexico,” Leaflet 2, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York, 1921, pp. 26, 27.

11 J. W. Fewkes, “Two Summers’ Work in Pueblo Ruins,” 22d Annual Report, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1900-1901, Washington, 1904, p. 86.

12 Edward S. Curtis, ” The North American Indian,” Vol. XII, ” The Hopi,” 1922, p. 24.

13 Walter Hough, “The Hopi Indian Collection in the U. S. National Museum,” Paper no. 2235, Proceedings of the U. S. National Museum, Washington, pp. 235-296. Cf. p. 272 and pl. 27, fig. 2.

14 F. W. Hodge, op. cit.

15 George H. Pepper, “Ceremonial Objects and Ornaments from Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico,” American Anthropologist, new series, VII, pp. 183-197, 1905. “The Exploration of a Burial-Room in Pueblo Bonito, New Mexico,” Putnam Anniversary Volume, pp. 196-252, New York, 1909.

16 Marshall H. Saville, ” Turquois Mosaic Art in Ancient Mexico,” Contributions from the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, vol. VI, New York, 1922. This is the most comprehensive work upon the topic and to it the present writer is indebted for much of the data herein contained.

17 Fr. Bernadino de Sahagun, op. cit., lib. XII, cap. 4.

18 Peter Martyr (Petrus Martyr Anglerius), “De Rebus Oceanicis et Novo Orbe,” 1574.

19 Sahagun, op. cit., lib. IX, cap. 17.

20 Sahagun, op. cit. This section is omitted in most editions of Sahagun but was published by Eduard Seler, “L’Orfèverie des Anciens Méxicains et leur Art de Travailler la Pierre et de Faire des Ornements en Plumes,” Compte rendu de la VIIIème Session du Congrès International des Américanistes, Paris, pp. 401-452.

21 Cf. J. Alden Mason, ” The Tepehuan Indians of Azqueltán,” Proceedings of the XVIII International Congress of Americanists, London, 1912, pp. 344-351; ” The Fiesta of the Pinole at Azqueltán,” THE MUSEUM JOURNAL, III, 3, September, 1912, pp. 44-50; ” Tepecano, a Piman Language of Western Mexico,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. XXV, 1917. pp. 309-416; “Tepecano Prayers,” International Journal of American Linguistics, Vol. I, pp. 91-153, 1918; “The Chief Singer of the Tepecano” in “American Indian Life,” edited by Elsie Clews Parsons, New York, 1922, pp. 203-236; “Four Mexican-Spanish Fairy-tales from Azqueltan, Jalisco,” Journal of American Folklore, XXV, no. 97, July-September, 1912, pp. 191-198; “Folk-Tales of the Tepecanos,” id., XXVII, no. 104, April-June, 1914, pp. 148-210. Aleš Hrdlička: “The Chichimecs and their Ancient Culture with Notes on the Tepecanos and the Ruin of La Quemada,” American Anthropologist, (n. s.) vol. 5, no. 3, July-September, 1903, pp. 385-440. Carl Lumholtz, “Unknown Mexico,” New York, 1902.

Cite This Article

Mason, J. Alden. "Turquoise Mosaics from Northern Mexico." The Museum Journal XX, no. 2 (June, 1929): 157-175. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/9225/


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