Posts Tagged ‘Toltecs’


Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Ancient petroglyphs decorate a basalt boulder at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center in Phoenix, Arizona.

  Take take a look at the boulder in the picture above. You will notice that it is literally covered with markings and drawings. We call these “petroglyphs”, and they were created by pecking through the layer of desert varnish that coats many rocks in arid climates (as opposed to “pictographs”, which are painted onto rocks). Research has shown that petroglyphs in central Arizona were created between about 10,000 and 700 years ago, by peoples we now refer to as Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and Hohokam.

  But, as those of you who read my GeoStories know by now, there is more than that about them that would interest me. What really arouses my curiosity is why they are there.

  They are found in various places around the Valley of the Sun. But why in one place and not another? There are plenty of rock faces and walls scattered around our area. Some have no markings, and others, like the boulders at the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, just off I-17, north of Phoenix, have hundreds or more. Operated by Arizona State University’s Department of Anthropology, this place alone preserves over 1500 such works of art.

  Here, a trail approximately .25 mile long, leads along the base of outcrops of Tertiary age basalt on the edge of the Hedgpeth Hills. This is some of the youngest rock in our area — only about 15 million years old.

  I first visited this place on a beautiful, warm, autumn day, and it seemed that I had it all to myself. The sweet, dry smell of the desert surrounded me with comfort. I was walking along this peaceful trail, looking up at the cascade of dark rocks from above, when I was startled by an abrupt, booming voice from the chaparral around.

  “Hello, sir! May I be of help to you?”

  Totally surprised, I quickly turned around, and saw a man wearing a ranger’s uniform coming towards me from out of the bushes. He was Native American, or Indian (which is the designation he later told me he preferred), stocky, strong looking, with graying hair and chiseled features, and somehow he just “beamed”.

  He introduced himself, and I could see he was “official” by the badge on his uniform.

  In a very amiable manner, he immediately started dispensing information about the Rock Art Center, its history, and of course, the petroglyphs. But I was still trying to figure out why I had not seen him at first, how I had missed noticing him as I walked along that trail. After all, the chaparral there is not that thick or tall. And it seemed that he just “didn’t fit”; as if he had just materialized on the spot. I even had the thought that he was just posing as a ranger! I liked him at once.

  We stood in or near that same place for quite some time, talking about all sorts of things — his background, American Indians, history, artwork on stone that he produces on the side — it was fascinating. I never even made it to the end of the trail! I had to leave, as it was getting late, and I had another appointment. I apologized for having to end our enlightening conversation.

  Then one thing occurred to me strongly. I felt that I had finally met someone who really knew what the petroglyphs there, and elsewhere, were really about. I mean, what were those Indians really up to with all these drawings? I know, I’ve read all the ideas posited by present-day researchers about the markings being religious art, communication symbols, or maybe just plain graffiti.

  But why, in places like this? Why, in some places and not others? What was it about this rubbly, remote (in ancient times), harsh location that inspired people for thousands of years to spend a huge amount of energy creating all these drawings?

  Finally, here was someone who knew.

  So, before turning back along the trail, I explained to my guide my quandary. Those of you familiar with my other writings know where I am going with this: what is it about the rocks that energized the ancients here?

  “I am searching for that answer,” I pleaded, “and maybe you, being a knowledgeable Indian, and an artist, can tell me.”

  His answer was, to say the least, totally unexpected, and it came without hesitation: “Perhaps, sir, what you are really searching for is your own spirituality.”


  If you want to do some “searching” along your own path, this is one place to begin. Go out there, and see what you feel in this special place. Take the Deer Valley Road Exit off I-17, and follow the signs, going west for several miles. The Center is closed on Mondays, and hours during the rest of the week vary with the season and day. You can get more information by calling 623-582-8007.

Turquoise Traders

Friday, October 14th, 2011

Mt. Chalchihuitl, in New Mexico.

  The drive through New Mexico had been long and tedious, and though I was tired, I was also excited to reach my goal. Just a few more miles, I thought to myself, and I’ll be there. This was to be the first of several places I had wanted to visit that are now known to be intimately tied to the history of turquoise in the New World.

  I was expecting the place I had been seeking to just jump out at me. But no, it turned out that it wasn’t that noticeable. Had I not been looking for it, I would have just driven on by, like the thousands of cars and trucks a day that zoom north and south between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, oblivious to the little group of small hills just east of the Interstate — another of those redundantly named places in the Southwest — the Cerrillos Hills. (Cerrillos means “little hills”, in Spanish.)

  Probably not one person in a thousand moving along that asphalt ribbon could have told you that in those barren looking hills is the oldest continuously mined site in North America. Like so many other places in our modern world where remnants of past greatness lie within reach of our everyday lives and yet go easily unnoticed and unconsidered, the Cerrillos Hills and their rich mines once shaped empires.

  The Indians of the Southwest, the Aztecs of Mexico, and later the Spaniards, would all come to know of this place and the treasure it once offered – the mineral we call turquoise.

  The world of gemstones is not just science. It also incorporates economics, psychology, art, and history. Especially history, since without tradition, there would be no real value to what otherwise would be just pretty little rocks. They’d be pretty, sure. But to have value, you have to have agreed upon tradition.

  Sometimes, as with diamonds, that tradition has simply been manufactured. Through intense advertising, for example, De Beers has created a tradition associating engagement, marriage, love, and eternity with diamonds. That very profitable tradition didn’t really exist before the twentieth century. I was searching for something much older, something not created by a marketing department somewhere.

  Turquoise is probably the oldest gemstone known. Its use in ornamentation goes back at least 7000 years. In the Americas, its place in history is vague, but, oh so intriguing. For with the continued evolution of our understanding of the extraordinary civilizations of North America, the history of turquoise is integral.

  That these hills are so unobtrusive serves as a kind of metaphor for the history of turquoise itself in the New World. When people in the Southwest think of turquoise jewelry, what undoubtedly comes to mind are large, clunky, elaborate pieces in which a multitude of blue stones are set into hand-worked silver necklaces, belts, and bracelets. The tourist shops and galleries of Scottsdale, Santa Fe, and Taos are loaded with them — some nice; lots of them junk.

  Most don’t realize that this style of turquoise jewelry is really a creation of the last one hundred and fifty years or so. Capitalizing on metal working skills learned from Spanish and Mexican artisans, Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi craftsmen started incorporating turquoise (from all over the Southwest, and now even Asia and labs in France where it is man-made) into silver jewelry. Railroads opened up the West in the late 1800’s, and the silversmiths’ creations found a ready market in the blossoming tourism business.

  Turquoise has one of those complicated chemical formulas that I was glad I didn’t have to memorize in college — a lengthy notation for hydrated, copper aluminum phosphate. We think of it as a blue stone, but green turquoise does occur also. Its composition is not nearly as interesting as its history, though, which goes way back beyond that of the 19th century Indians. Way, way back.

  By the way, our name for this gem, turquoise, is derived from a French phrase meaning “Turkish stone” — probably a reference to the fact that it was first imported into Europe by way of Turkey — its source in that case being mines in Persia, now Iran. Ancient Native Americans had their own name for certain highly sought-after green and bluish-green stones, turquoise among them. It is thought that also included with these gems were those we now call jade, and even poor quality emerald (remember, no one knew the difference between some mineral species until later science understood that they were different and had developed ways to tell them apart).

  For the most part, the earliest Americans apparently did not distinguish between blue and green hues. Both colors signified the same things: coolness, water, fertility. Within the Aztec pantheon of gods and goddesses, which of course evolved out of more ancient Indian beliefs, Chalchiuhtlicue was the deity of rivers and lakes, springs, and the sea. Her name translates as “She of the Jade Skirt”. Blue-green stones became known as Chalchihuitl, and from the association with water and life, they became symbolic, valuable, and objects of power within the shaman’s realm.

  Sources of the cyan-colored gems were varied, but through time one source became preeminent over all. We know it now as Mt. Chalchihuitl, somewhat centrally located in the Cerrillos Hills, and it is there that extensive prehistoric workings are found.

  For over a thousand years, turquoise mined there was carried vast distances by traders ranging over what became the Aztec empire and the outlying homelands of the Anasazi and the Hohokam. It became a basis for trade throughout the evolving cultures of the New World. Before the Spanish conquest, trade in Chalchihuitl would unite those native cultures in ways we are only beginning to understand.

  The Spaniards later laughed at the Indians’ love of the stone, for they were after what they considered to be treasures of much greater value: gold and silver. For those metals, the sacred mountain was a disappointment.


Ruins at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

  Not more than several days walk from New Mexico’s Mt. Chalchihuitl lies an obscure canyon carved into brown, marine sands from the Cretaceous period. Wandering through the warm, tropical woods of those ancient times would have been the most famous of “terrible lizards”. Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops fought bloody battles to the death there, while above nearby beaches soared evil-looking, winged reptiles — their narrow eyes fixated on the surf below, lest some tasty morsel go unnoticed. None of those creatures would recognize the area now.

  As you approach the canyon, its presence is not apparent. The view is one of flat table-lands — a desert of brush and scrub where struggling cattle simply maintain life from one day to the next. Only in the last few moments do you drop down and arrive among towering sandstone cliffs, and only in those last minutes does the feeling of the place supersede what the map portrays in such a dry manner.

  As I drew near the day’s objective, it took me by surprise, and it was another of those moments in life when I “got it”. This place is known now as Chaco Canyon. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. I had seen pictures of it before, but they obviously hadn’t done it justice (just like my photo accompanying this article will not).

  I had read of its amazing ruins, and the dominance of its role in the Anasazi world of the time. And I couldn’t believe that I had waited so many years to come see it. It had just rained. A late afternoon thunderstorm had rolled through — thunder, lightning, and all — dropping the temperature by at least twenty degrees, and the desert smelled lush, lush. That only added sensuality to the scene, and as the low sun came out, and as the temperature rose again, I stood in awe of the setting spread out in front of me.

  What had possessed the old occupants of the enormous, walled, stone structures now lying there in ruin to build on that spot we will never know for sure. But it is one of those places where I am convinced that the power of the setting itself played a key role. We will also never understand what the residents of those massive buildings intended by living there, or what they called the place.

  But one thing we do know now is that the people of Chaco Canyon dominated the turquoise trade of their time. In fact, they may have been instrumental in developing it, and we also know now that the extent of their turquoise trade reached far into Aztec Mexico, and even to the heartland of the Hohokam civilization in what is now south-central Arizona.

  Present-day research shows us that the Chacoan Anasazi exploited the turquoise deposits at Mt. Chalchihuitl to a very great degree, and by way of a process called neutron activation analysis, we know that the sky-blue and cool green gemstones from the Cerrillos Hills made their way all over the American Southwest.

  Evidence uncovered during excavations at Chaco reveals that turquoise was likely traded for exotic birds from Central America, copper bells, and other treasures. Beginning at around 900 CE (Current Era), turquoise usage among the cultures of the region mushroomed, and this corresponds nicely with the rise and dominance of Chacoan culture. A vast system of engineered roadways radiates outward from Chaco Canyon, and it appears that it became the hub of a widespread turquoise trading network — its political influence even possibly based on the precious mineral.

  In diggings so far, over 200,000 pieces of turquoise have been recovered from the ruins of the “Great Houses” of Chaco Canyon. The Chacoans’ monopoly was not to last forever, though, and by 1300 CE turquoise had become common throughout the Indian communities of the Southwest.

  Was it just that major sources other than Mt. Chalchihuitl had been discovered? Had the Chacoans lost their edge in the trade? Maybe their power in the region had “gone to their heads”, and they had become self-centered and aggressive.

  Whatever the case, something sinister had started to happen. All you have to do is look around the region, even around the Valley of the Sun in south-central Arizona, and take note of where ancient settlements were being constructed — on steep, stark hilltops, on boulder-strewn and cacti-covered ridges, in places where no one in their right mind would build for the view alone.

  If you ever visit such now-crumbling ruins, one descriptive word will instantly pop into your mind: defensive. Were ripples of disintegration throughout Chaco culture being felt far and wide?

  Around 1300 CE the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon were abandoned. The turquoise mines of the Cerrillos Hills were quiet. And the deities of the blue gems of Mt. Chalchihuitl would have to wait for other servants.


  With the demise of the Chacoan Anasazi seems to have come a general unraveling of cultures all over the northern highlands of the Southwest. Those traders of old had lost their political and social control of the region, as well as domination of the turquoise trade. The mines at Mt. Chalchihuitl would never again flood Mesoamerica with the blue-green gem of life.

  The high plateaus and mountains of New Mexico are not the end of the story, though, and I made my way towards home.

  In the 14th century, in the sprawling desert valleys of what is now south-central Arizona another civilization was just coming into its own. We now call these ancient people the Hohokam, which is a modern day Piman (Akimel O’odham) word meaning something like “those who have gone” or “all used up”. (Everyone who lives in the Phoenix area should at least be marginally familiar with their legacy. The city’s name owes its existence to early American settlers who realized the extent of the vanished society, and chose to rebuild on its ruins. Like the mythical Phoenix bird did after death, civilization there resurrected itself.)

  There is a lot that remains unknown about the Hohokam. However, many archaeologists do agree that they had more in common with the advanced civilizations of central Mexico (Toltec and Aztec) than any other Indian culture located in the geographic confines of what is the present-day United States. And the Valley of the Sun had likewise been home to one of the greatest centers of prehistoric civilization in North America, in terms of population.

  By some estimates there were fifty or sixty thousand people living in the area where Phoenix, Tempe, and Chandler now sit. They had devised and built a canal system which utilized around one thousand miles of canals to irrigate a body of land encompassing approximately a hundred thousand acres. That is about forty percent of what Arizona’s modern day Salt River Project now irrigates.

  From around 1300 CE, until their collapse at around 1450 CE, there is no question that the Hohokam dominated the Southwest — in cultural influence, food production, and trade. By some accounts, Hohokam-based traders may have ranged as far as Illinois, the California coast, the Yucatan Peninsula, and the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, now Mexico City.

  Agricultural goods, textiles, seashell jewelry, and turquoise would have been among their wares. Turquoise jewelry and carvings, once under the control of the Chacoans, had by this time become widespread throughout the Southwest. New mineral deposits of the gemstone had been found, too. Evidence now shows that turquoise was also imported into the Hohokam heartland from the Chalchihuites area, in Zacatecas State, Mexico (not to be confused with Mt. Chalchihuitl, in New Mexico). Other Hohokam turquoise artifacts have been determined to have originated from mines in what is now southern California, not far from Barstow.

  For decades, archaeologists have pondered the relative lack of turquoise objects among Hohokam ruins, and wondered why no evidence has been found of turquoise production facilities, or mining activity. Given the ancients’ propensity for trading, the sky-colored gem should be more ubiquitous in archaeological collections. What was lacking was the so-called “smoking gun” of Hohokam turquoise trade.

  Within the last decade, a site has been found in southern Arizona that just might be that “smoking gun”. On a remote hilltop, near modern day Tucson, sits the ruins of a place known in present-day Indian language as Na’Naksha’lKihhim — the “Village of the Scorpions”. Here are ruins of above-ground houses, a plaza, and a platform-type mound.

  Here, too, has been found evidence of turquoise processing and finishing, and now-spent mines. Although this particular site seems to have been abandoned while Chaco Canyon still dominated the turquoise trade to the northeast, it shows a clear connection to lands further south and is proof of the Hohokam presence in the turquoise trade. If all is as it appears here, the fusion of the civilizations of central Mexico with the Hohokam comes alive through turquoise.

  It was near sunset, and I stood there next to my idling car in the flat wastes, momentarily stopped on the shoulder of yet another roaring modern-day artery of trade. Wheeled vehicles whizzed straight from one horizon to the other. With every one that passed, a blast and thud of wind shook me and pushed me off towards the chaparral.

  Diesel fumes and automotive exhaust overpowered the nearby sweet smell of warm creosote — fading, then returning after each pulse of traffic. I could see purplish ridges and volcanic rock spires in the distance to the west, the landscape of the Village of the Scorpions, and momentarily, I daydreamed about life in the way-station on a trade route now vanished.

  I’ve noted above that what most people think of, when turquoise jewelry is mentioned, are the big, somewhat geometrical, multi-stoned silver ornamentations of the Navajos and Zunis, and that this style is only a recent invention.

Tesserae-style turquoise and shell jewelry.

  The real styles of the native, older occupants of the Southwest include beads, pendants, carved animal and bird motifs, and pieces composed of turquoise and shell tesserae. Tesserae are like little tiles, and were glued with pine resin to shells or wood pieces. This mosaic type is present in Aztec art as well.

  Pictured here is an ancient piece of turquoise jewelry, in the tesserae-style. This piece is a pendant with a small, reddish, center tile of shell, and measures about 9 centimeters (about 3.5 inches) across. While the pictured pendant is not Hohokam in origin (it is from the White River area in eastern Arizona), it is the closest thing I could find to photograph to show the style. It does date from approximately 1200 to 1400 CE.

  Trade routes shift, civilizations come and go, the world becomes ever more complicated and fast. But concepts of life, fertility, and coolness (especially in Arizona) linger — they remain, as does the stone that has come to symbolize them.

  True tradition never dies. It just changes hands, that’s all.


Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Chimney Rocks

  Rocks are my passion. Anyone who looks at my website will realize that.

  But they will also see that my world of rocks spans everything from little ones, like gemstones, to really big ones, like the moon and planets in the sky above. Rock types that cover that whole spectrum are right up my alley.

  And the aspects of rocks that intrigue me the most are not their chemical characteristics, or their economic values, but their relationships with us. It is the “bridge”, so to speak, between rocks and other forms of life, that continuously presents new terrain to explore, and new material for thought.

  This may sound a little strange at first, but when you start to realize how much of your everyday life somehow involves rocks, those seemingly inanimate, cold, hard substances that form our world become a lot more meaningful.

  I was driving south through the Four Corners area a month or so ago, in that part of Colorado where the high peaks of the Rockies just start to open up down into and out onto the Colorado Plateau.

  Golden aspens and land that is more vertical than horizontal gives way there to red rocks and wide open spaces, punctuated by spires and pinnacles of stone, each one with an individual personality. It is where the rivers cease their tumbling and roaring, where they begin to broaden and slow, and where cattle now come to their banks for liquid refreshment. Even the smell in the air changes from cold, mountain, and evergreen, to warm, organic, grasses and desert.

  It is also where you become aware that these are more habitable lands. And they have been that way for quite some time. When you start looking around, you realize, too, that there are ruins everywhere – ancient ruins of homes and structures and temples that mystify us, for you have entered a part of the world where very little is known about the former occupants and why they came and went.

  One such set of ruins towered above me along that road: Chimney Rocks. I had read about it and studied what is known about it before I had started out on that venture, of course. But, as I’ve found is usual with such locales, its countenance and its setting was again more striking than I had expected. And here, too, not only were the ruins of the prehistoric village amazing, their placement was really integral with the rocks. They were put here because of the rocks, and not just the scenic view of them, either.

  Native Americans considered the land inseparable from culture. Temples and sacred spots were not sited in places of convenience, but in places with spiritual connection to the Earth. It’s as if such places “grew out of the Earth”.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is one such site if I ever saw one. Alongside the rushing Rio Piedra (“stone river”), it sits along a high, steep, constricted ridge of gray and tan Cretaceous-age sandstone, and there is not much room for anything else. To its east are two great pinnacles of rock, looking like two big smokestacks might have looked jutting up from one of those old, long, Titanic-era steamships, when viewed from the side. No smoke emanating, here, however.

  And when seen from the distance below, the village is unnoticeable. It’s only when you get up to it, and walk among its crumbling stone walls and kivas, does the perspective shift. The two towers then look nearly side-by-side, and because there is a gap in the ridge between them and the pueblo, they seem to “float” above the ruins.

Chimney Rock Pueblo

  “Why here?” you might ask yourself. “Why, when all the water is a thousand feet below, would they choose to live here?” Many people and scholars have asked that very same question. There are countless archaeological remains all over the Southwest that puzzle academicians equally. Some such locations appear to be defensive. Some appear to be sited where they were for communications purposes. Some were maybe even situated for upland farming.

  But here, the latest thinking is that besides possibly having elements of the above-mentioned reasons, Chimney Rock Pueblo (or whatever they called it) was, and still is, for that matter, a monumental celestial observatory. It was a means to chart movements of heavenly bodies within the sky, and hence determine the pulse of the seasons.

  Given that, its rulers and inhabitants would have had some pretty valuable information, indeed. With apparently no paper at the time with which to do some figuring, and no timekeeping machines, they nevertheless had developed a system by which they could predict cycles of time – a chart within and of the rocks, so to speak, and their understanding of the skies was far ahead of what most people on the street today could tell you.

  As I write this, we are approaching the Winter Solstice. We also have a Summer Solstice every year, and it usually makes the news or weather report, too. Astronomical terms such as solstice, equinox, and standstill get thrown around a lot. But how many of you actually know what they mean?

  We have so little exposure to the cycles of nature in today’s world that people have lost an appreciation of what is in the sky above. Most of us live in large cities now, and those that even bother to look up at night usually see only a few stars. I get the feeling that many think of them as little lights on a domed ceiling high above – like the sparkles overhead in some kind of giant, worldly discotheque.

  While he was attending one of my stargazing sessions one time, I actually had a surgeon (after I had made a comment about where some star was in the sky at that moment, as if we could see it below the horizon) ask me, in all seriousness, “You mean that the stars go all the way around the world?”

  After all of the science, chemistry, and physics classes, and rigors of medical school that he must have gone through, he had apparently not grasped until that moment, that Earth is indeed a planet in space, and the stars lie in every direction. Only the blue haze of the daytime sky prevents us from seeing them all of the time.

  The ancient peoples of the world, especially their priests and shamans, knew all about the placement of the stars. They lived their lives with a constant knowledge of the heavens, and the solstices, equinoxes, and standstills ruled their calendars.

  Chimney Rock Pueblo is a place (and there are probably many in the Southwest) that was almost certainly sited because of astronomical events. The twin rock pinnacles form an ideal, gigantic “notch”, through which at various times, the risings of the sun and the moon could be observed from the pueblo.


  Like at its man-made, older counterpart, Stonehenge (in England), only on certain days of the year would such events happen. By careful observation over many years, the Puebloans noted that such risings could be used to predict when the seasons would change, when to plant crops, and when to start getting ready for winter.

  As for the terms I mentioned above, following are some brief explanations (and my discussion here pertains only to the Northern Hemisphere). First of all, the beginning of Winter has nothing to do with the fact that it starts to get cold out, per se.

  Because the Earth is tilted on its axis of rotation, relative to its plane of orbit around the Sun, it sometimes is fully tilted away from the Sun, and sometimes fully tilted towards it. When it is tilted fully away, the Sun appears as far south as it can in the sky, and this occurs actually at a precise moment, time-wise.

  Then Earth starts to rock back the other way. That furthest south position can most easily be noted by observing where the Sun rises on the horizon from day to day. If you watched every morning, you would see that on one particular day of the year, it would stop rising farther south than on the previous day, and that on the day following that, it would start rising to the north again.

  That position, and its corresponding time, would be called a standstill, as the Sun’s march would appear to “stand still” for a day, on the horizon, before reversing its direction. In Latin, “solstice” means “stand still”. “Winter” is the name we give to the one-fourth of the year following that astronomical moment. The beginning of “Summer” has a similar, but reversed instant, when the Sun is farthest north.

  The equinoxes are the positions exactly in between the solstice positions (as there are only two solstice positions during the year, there are also only two equinox positions). They have the names Vernal and Autumnal, and mark the beginnings of Spring and Fall, respectively. On those days, the Sun rises directly in the East, and sets directly in the West, and day and night are of equal length (hence “equinox”). The points where the Sun rises and sets on those days are also points on the horizon, likewise marked and noted by megaliths and rocks of the ancients.

  The term “standstill”, when used as such, apart from my explanations here, usually applies to the movements (risings and settings) of the Moon, which goes through similar rhythms.

  Observing celestial events from day to day, and night to night, makes the heavens come alive. For everything is moving, and some of the patterns repeat – predictably so. Watch, and you can see it too. Appreciating the sky will make you appreciate the Earth and the rocks beneath your feet. It’s almost as if the path of the stars ultimately leads one home.

  The Winter Solstice, or December Solstice (to be fair and PC to those in the Southern Hemisphere), occurs on or about December 21, every year. From that moment on, Summer is on its way.