A Colorful Past: Turquoise and Social Identity in the Late Prehispanic Western Pueblo Region, A.D. 1275–1400


Turquoise is synonymous with the U.S. Southwest, occurring naturally in relative abundance and culturally prized for millennia. As color and material, turquoise is fundamental to the worldviews of numerous indigenous groups of the region, with notable links to moisture, sky, and personal and familial vitality. For Pueblo groups in particular, turquoise and other blue-green minerals hold a prominent place in myth, ritual, aesthetics, and cosmology. They continue to be used as important offerings, deposited in shrines and decorating objects like prayer-sticks and adornments. Archaeological occurrences of turquoise in contexts such as caches, structural foundations, and burials demonstrate its important, perhaps ritually oriented role in prehispanic Pueblo practices.

This research examines the myriad uses of turquoise and other blue-green minerals in the late prehispanic Western Pueblo region of the U.S. Southwest (northeastern Arizona and western New Mexico, A.D. 1275–1400). I assess the distribution and depositional patterning of turquoise to explore the role of social valuables in expressing similarities or differences among groups at various social scales.

In recent decades, studies of material culture from late prehispanic contexts (most commonly ceramics) have broadened understandings of settlement-specific demographics, the direction and approximate size of distinct population movements, and the structure and transformation of social networks. Such studies have revealed complex and variable relationships between settlements, even those located within distinct settlement clusters.

While building upon these insights, this study provides a different, yet comparable outlook by focusing on turquoise, its various uses in social or ritual settings, and its involvement in expressing social or ideological connections that may have differed from other material forms. The project employs a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating archaeology, geochemistry, and ethnography in an effort to address a central research question: How did the circulation and consumption of turquoise vary throughout the late prehispanic Western Pueblo region, and what are the implications for understanding interactions and identity expressions within and among aggregating settlements and settlement clusters?

The ancient role of turquoise and other blue-green materials in social identification was explored through several angles, including: 1) spatiotemporal patterns in the stylistic characteristics of ornaments and painted media (e.g., shape and size of beads and pendants or designs on blue-green painted objects); 2) the context and content of archaeological deposits with turquoise (i.e., uses beyond personal and ceremonial adornment, such as ritual offerings); and 3) regional patterns of mineral acquisition and exchange using measurements of heavy stable isotopes. Interviews with Hopi and Zuni consultants—jewelers, artists, and cultural experts—augmented the study by incorporating the participation and perspectives of descendent communities.

Taken together, patterns of use and acquisition provide novel means of assessing social or ideological connections between late prehispanic Pueblo communities, and help to clarify the complex and multifaceted ways past Pueblo groups materially expressed their social identities. Woven with contemporary Pueblo sentiments, these data provide indisputable evidence of a colorful and spiritual past.

Cite this Record

A Colorful Past: Turquoise and Social Identity in the Late Prehispanic Western Pueblo Region, A.D. 1275–1400. ( tDAR id: 439795) ; doi:10.6067/XCV89S1TP5

Temporal Coverage

Calendar Date: 1275 to 1400

Spatial Coverage

min long: -111.259; min lat: 33.761 ; max long: -106.875; max lat: 36.173 ;

Individual & Institutional Roles

Project Director(s): Saul L. Hedquist

Resources Inside this Project (Viewing 1-4 of 4)


  1. A Colorful Past: Turquoise and Social Identity in the Late Prehispanic Western Pueblo Region, A.D. 1275–1400 (2017)


  1. Artifact Attributes: All Analyzed (Non-Mortuary) Specimens (2017)
  2. Associated Materials, Non-Mortuary Deposits: Bailey Ruin, Grasshopper Pueblo, Homol'ovi I, and Rattlesnake Point (2017)
  3. Isotopic Measurement for Analyzed Samples and Inferred Geologic Sources (2017)