Sunday, July 31, 2011

Turquoise Beads at Pueblo Bonito

                                 Pueblo Bonito, built in 1200 AD at Chaco Canyon, NM
                                 Until modern times, it was the largest apartment complex
                                  in the world.

The most treasured turquoise beads ever unearthed at Pueblo Bonito were discovered by accident.  Disarticulated skeletons, baskets and pottery had been located in a room when archeologist Neil Judd joined two Zuni Indians working there.  The floor was partially cleared and they were beginning to remove some baskets when Judd had a powerful urge to turn once more towards the north end.  The second stroke of his trowel brought several beads to light.  In a few seconds his awl and brush revealed a carefully coiled turquoise necklace and two pairs of perfect blue turquoise eardrops:

            “I cannot adequately describe the thrill of that discovery.   It was so unexpected, so unforeseen.  A casual scrape of a trowel across the ash-strewn floor, a stroke as mechanical as a thousand other strokes made every day, exposed the long-hidden treasure.  The room had been paved with flagstones, and it is my impression that a hollow between two flags had been deliberately chosen as a hiding place; that the necklace had been coiled and laid within and the whole concealed by a handful of sandy mud that was spread out, and packed down, and then disguised with ashes until the patch was indistinguishable in the room’s darkness.”*

                                      The legendary turquoise necklace and earrings found at
                                      Bonito, now on view at the National Geographic Society

            This was one of the very few complete turquoise necklaces ever unearthed in a pueblo ruin.  Undoubtedly, there were many more but grave robbers in the southwest favored turquoise above baskets or pottery, so little remains of this ancient wealth.
            The remarkable thing, Judd recounts, is that within minutes of the find, with no word or signal, every Zuni and Navajo workman was peering over the wall at this spectacular find.  Judd says that he can only attribute this to native intuition or mental telepathy as he and the two Zunis were completely absorbed in the task of blowing sand away from the beads and had not sounded a warning of this incredible find.
            No needle in the camp was fine enough to pierce these small and perfect beads.  Finally, they used a tenor banjo string to restring them.  Only unidentifiable traces of the original stringing material remained, but they were clearly arranged in four strands that had been tied together.  Judd believes it was hidden under the flagstones by its original owner.  A room nearby exhibited evidence of prehistoric looting and vandalism.  Eight out of ten skulls had been kicked aside and the remainder of the skeletons were dragged about and overturned.  Undoubtedly many turquoise beads buried with their owners were stolen during these raids.  The room yielded only six rectangular turquoise beads, 126 discoidal turquoise beads, seven miscellaneous pendants and a handful of shell and stone beads, a very small amount for ten Bonito burials.  
            The prehistoric bead maker required infinite patience.  Each tiny disc was individually constructed; crudely shaped, ground thin, and then drilled for the initial stringing and final polishing.  All stages of bead making are visible through unfinished turquoise beads found in the burials, family rooms and trash heaps at Bonito.
            After a piece of turquoise had been worked to the right size, the edges were broken off to reveal a discoidal blank prepared for drilling.  A sandstone abrader with a grove was used for rounding and smoothing the beads.  Prehistoric beads indicate that many were worked with stone-tipped drills until the opposite side was just pierced and then the bead was reversed and the hole enlarged and rounded out.  Most of the tools used by the bead makers are lost.  It’s still a mystery how they were able to produce beads with holes too small to be pierced by a modern beading needle.  The smallest turquoise bead found at Bonito measured 1.8mm in diameter (barely 1/16th of an inch) with a hole about .75mm perfectly symmetrical in microscopic detail.  It’s been suggested that dry tubular grass stem or cactus spine was used with fine sand providing a cutting medium.
            Emil Haury, who made a study of minute beads in the prehistoric pueblos, experimented with a basic shaft drill capped with a thorn from the barrel cactus.  Using damp sand as an abrasive, he rotated the drill between his hands and in less than fifteen minutes, bored a hole .94mm in diameter through a rock 1.47mm thick.  In Chaco Canyon where Pueblo Bonito is located, myriad native species abound with tough spines like the barrel cactus.
            Turquoise pendants and eardrops found at Bonito are all variations of a basic keystone shape, drilled at the narrower end for suspension.  “They range in length from 3/16th of an inch to 2 and 3/4th of an inch.  Their thickness goes from 1/16th to 1/4th of an inch.  Matched pairs of turquoise pendants were worn as eardrops, but smaller pendants occasionally were interspersed with discoidal beads in a necklace.  One necklace located in the burial of an elderly woman had eight turquoise pendants from 3/16th to 3/8th of an inch long and was used as a three coiled bracelet.

                                                   Shell finger rings, turquoise pendants and  
                                                   necklace worn as bracelet at Pueblo Bonito

             This was probably the type of bracelet described by Mexican Indians to Melchoir Diaz in 1540 as a typical ornament of pueblo country Indians.  They described the women as wearing a hairstyle that left the ear exposed, from which they hung many turquoises, as well as about their necks and wrists.
            One of the most significant caches of prehistoric turquoise was discovered in 1896 at Bonito.  Mosaics, carvings, beads, and pendants adorned the skeletons in burial rooms.  A breast pectorial of polished jet with its four corners set with turquoise was among the most remarkable of the thousands of ornaments found.  A turquoise jewel basket, cylindrical in shape and six inches long with a diameter of three inches, rested near one of the skeletons.  It was made of thin splints over which a mosaic of turquoise had been cemented with pinion gum.  The basketwork had long ago decayed but the mosaic was held in position by the sand in which it had been buried.  1214 pieces of turquoise were used in the construction and it contained 2150 disc-shaped turquoise, 152 small turquoise pendants, and 22 large turquoise pendants, some carved to represent birds.  A basket with turquoise and shell beads strung along its edge in parallel rows lay near other remains.  Several skeletons wore turquoise beads, numbering more than three thousand, about their neck, breast, waist, wrists and ankles.  The chamber is thought to contain the remains of priests, medicine men or other significant personages because of the excellence and abundance of burial goods. 
            Another turquoise fetish bead from Bonito was a bird figure which must be regarded as a ritual object.  It was drilled through the chest at an angle that caused the bird to fall backwards and lie horizontally if suspended from a cord.  Archeologists surmise that the bird was bound to a staff or other ritual object as part of some ancient ceremony.  Five examples of this sort of bird were eventually unearthed by two separate expeditions that worked at Pueblo Bonito.              
 *The Material Culture Of Pueblo Bonito by Neil Judd

Next post: August 14: Shell beads found at Bonito

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pueblo Bonito, Part I: Master Bead-Makers of Prehistoric New Mexico

                                                Beads and frog fetish found at Pueblo Bonito

“Turquoise beads and pendants are the diamonds, the radium, the manna from heaven for the Southwestern Indian.  I cannot think of anything that is as precious to the white man as good, sky-blue turquoise is to an Indian.  And the stones from ancient ruins exceed in beauty and quality any of those in circulation today…Bonito abounded in turquoise.  In this respect it is the richest Southwestern site ever excavated.”*

            Situated in the northwestern corner of New Mexico, Pueblo Bonito is an excellent example of the heights achieved in art and architecture during the Pueblo III period.  Beneath its foundations rest the ruins of Pueblo I and II cultures.  Basket Maker III ruins are also found in the immediate vicinity.
            The construction of Pueblo Bonito began in the ninth or early part of the tenth century on the original site of a Pueblo I pit village.  In the beginning it was merely a cluster of primitively built masonry houses.  As the population increased, the buildings expanded crescentically to the right and left.  Probably in the second quarter of the eleventh century, a new group of wandering clans arrived at Bonito.  Their original migration patterns, though unproved as yet, seemed to come from the north.
            The new people were more sophisticated than the original Bonitans and probably came in greater numbers.  Almost immediately their cultural ethic began to dominate.  They built dwellings around the core of the old village.  Later, they made changes, even to the point of razing their own houses to clear the way for architecturally advanced homes.  They twice enlarged the pueblo and greatly increased its internal and external security against marauding bands of nomadic Indians.  These newcomers (referred to by archeologists as ‘Late Bonitans’) are considered to be dynamic and progressive, while ‘Old Bonitans’ are remembered as unyielding and old-fashioned.  It was the Late Bonitans who took the pueblo to its pinnacle of material culture, making it a legend in its own time as far south as the beaches of Southern California and in the steamy jungles of Vera Cruz.
            Neil Judd, the principal excavator of Pueblo Bonito theorizes that the Old Bonitans continued in residence longer than the Late Bonitans because all of the cultural materials recovered came from Old Bonitan rooms.  Some were clearly used for living while others were obviously storerooms.  Finally, eight of them, dwellings and storerooms, were appropriated for burials by the last to inhabit this pueblo.  Both religious and secular objects stored at the time were abandoned when the first interior burials occurred.  In its heyday Bonito could have housed at least 1500 people, and undoubtedly buried its dead with a bounty of beads, pottery and baskets in a cemetery outside the village proper.  But successive generations of accumulation, blowing sand, and flooding of the dangerous Chaco arroyo that leaves tons of silt on the floor of the canyon, have combined to protect the burial treasures of these ancient ones.
Late Bonitan houses seem to have been cleared of their contents by the dwellers themselves and suggest an unhurried departure from the pueblo.  None of their rooms were used for burials, but a number came to be used as dumps for household sweepings and refuse.  These dumps, both at Bonito and elsewhere in pueblo country, have provided archeologists with a wealth of information about daily life. 
They yield up pot shards, beads, and utensils that help define the culture.  The trash heaps at Bonito tell a story of families moving around the pueblo and a gradual drifting away of much of the population.  It seems that the departure of the Late Bonitans was voluntary, as opposed to flight under enemy attack.  A population evacuated under forced circumstances leaves much of their material culture behind. Late Bonitan rooms were emptied of all their contents suggesting a leisurely departure.
The most plausible theory of this migration is a great reduction in the amount of fertile land.  Hunger spurs discontent and has continually influenced the migrations of clans in the southwest.  Several factors seem to come into play here:
1.      Late Bonitan homes stripped of all furnishings.
2.      Old Bonitans crowded into a small corner of their original village.
3.      Old Bonitan rooms transformed into tombs for one hundred dead that could not be buried outside the walled pueblo.
4.      Old Bonitan abandonment at a later date of utensils, blankets, pottery and ceremonial equipment suggests a population decimated by famine and migration, then enemy attack.

                                                Ariel view of the remains of Pueblo Bonito
*Ann Axtell Morris: Digging In The Southwest

Coming Next Week: The Beads of  Pueblo Bonito

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Anasazi Ghosts and Esoteric Burials


            There is a moral dilemma inherent in the act of exhuming historic burials, whether you are an archeologist or a grave robber.  Does anyone have the right to disturb the sleep of the ancient ones?  So much went wrong for people associated with the excavation of King Tut’s tomb that it's plausible to consider you might be enraging spirits that linger near hallowed ground.
            The Navajos will tell you that the Anasazi do not like their graves robbed.  No Navajo or Zuni workman will dig at a prehistoric site unless they have a personal charm or medicine beads that can protect them from the wrath of ghosts.  Many will flatly refuse to dig up the graves of their ancestors.
            Ann Axtell Morris, one of the first archeologists to excavate and write about the prehistoric civilizations of the southwest tells an interesting story about a supernatural occurrence that serves as warning to all who disrupt the burials of Native Americans:
Archeologist Ted Kidder and a friend were having lunch in a remote cave at Mesa Verde.  A cool spring and sheltering shade in one of the Cliff Dweller rooms made it ideal for a picnic on a sweltering day.  Out of the blue an irate voice began to harangue them from close at hand.  Yet they were alone and had scaled a treacherous narrow path to reach this remote place.  The voice kept up for almost a minute in some unknown language.  When they searched for the source, they found none. 
            “He seemed very angry about something, and carried such an air of righteous indignation that my first instinct was to apologize for whatever it was that was displeasing him,” Kidder said.*
            They ran to the entrance of the cave but the sheer slope was bare and far beneath the canyon was vacant.  No people were visible on the rim above or across the ravine.  They called loudly to no avail.  Then they searched ever nook and cranny of the cave but there was nothing, only an eerie emptiness and the echo of the wind.  Reluctantly, for rational men of science, they were forced to conclude that they had been visited by an Anasazi ghost and heard the extinct Anasazi language.

            One of the strangest burials to exhibit the esoteric use of beads was unearthed at a prehistoric cave dwelling in New Mexico called ‘Tseahatso’ from the Navajo word for ‘great cave.’  This spot may have been occupied for thousands of years by the Basket Maker cultures which pre-date the legendary Cliff Dweller cities such as Mesa Verde, Aztec or Bonito.  Tseahatso is a cave twelve hundred feet long.  Its floor, from thirty to seventy feet wide, is so deeply entrenched in trash that archeologist still have not reached bedrock, except for a few shallow spots. 
            There, buried almost to the level of bedrock in an area free from any molestation or grave robbing, on a nest of carefully selected grass lay the hands and forearms of an adult, still held together by the dried ligaments.  The rest of the area excavated never yielded any other part of the skeleton and the placement of the hands in bedrock established that the burial was complete as found.  The hands were accompanied by all the traditional burial furnishings, including two pairs of exceptionally well-made red and black woven sandals.  On top of the sandals were three necklaces.  Two of them had abalone pendants.  The third was a unique southwestern creation designed of about eighteen white shell rings, each about three inches in diameter and attached to the neck cord in a way that they overlapped each other.  There was also a basket filled with long crescent-shaped beads and covered with another basket on which was laid a huge stone pipe.  This burial has never been successfully interrupted, but a puzzled archeologist quips, “Shoes without feet, necklaces without a neck, and a pipe without a mouth—truly metaphysical triumphs over physical negation.”**

*Digging In the Southwest by Ann Axtell Morris
** Ibid   

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Turquoise in the Southwest

                                       Navajo matriarch wearing her heirloom turquoise jewelry
            The use of turquoise among the natives of America was originally limited to the area bordered by the Isthmus of Panama on one side and by a line drawn eastwardly from the Pacific Coast through southern Nevada and Colorado, then south across Texas to the Gulf of Mexico.  In prehistoric cultures of the Americas we find no important turquoise deposits outside of these boundaries.  The abundance of turquoise beads in early sites in the Southwest, as opposed to their absence in other parts of North America, indicates that the original pueblo dwellers did not travel east to trade and had little communication with Indians in the northern, southern, or eastern United States.  They tended to trade via routes to South America or California where specimens of New Mexican turquoise have been unearthed.
            Turquoise was extensively used by aboriginal peoples for several reasons:
  1. Turquoise occurred close to the surface so deposits were readily located by the first people.
  2. The mineral is relatively soft and easily worked by primitive methods.
  3. The colors of turquoise range from the blues of sky and water to the greens of plant and tree.  That held a mystical appeal for Native Americans.
There are numerous turquoise sources, both ancient and modern.  While most of them are now mined by outside operations, it is believed that certain tribes have secret localities known only to themselves where turquoise is still found and used for esoteric purposes. Contemporary Indians, however, do not engage in any systemic mining for turquoise and usually acquire it from itinerant traders, trading posts on the reservation or lapidary supply stores in the bordering towns. 
Within the pueblos and among the Dine people (Navajo), turquoise beads and fetishes have been cherished as part of the family’s wealth and history.  Turquoise deposits of any significance show signs of early exploitation.  The best example is Los Cerillos in New Mexico where excavations date back to pre-Spanish times. The sources of turquoise in the Southwest are easy to document, but difficult to trace down the old trade routes to Mexico and Central America.  In ancient times, there was no meaningful supply south of the Mexican border.  It is surmised that the Aztecs traded with pueblos to acquire turquoise that came from the Cerillos hills and other deposits in the Southwest.  Today this has changed and miners are finding excellent turquoise deposits such as Campo Frio and Nacozari in Mexico.  

                                            Pueblo Indian cutting and polishing rough turquoise

Cabeza deVaca was the first European to record the use of turquoise among the pueblos of Arizona and New Mexico.  In 1535, with three friends, he made the journey from Texas to Sonora on the Pacific Coast that ultimately led to the discovery of New Mexico by the Spanish.  Traveling near the Pacific Coast he was presented with turquoise beads by the natives.  Among the Sierra Madre Indians, about ninety miles east of the Yaqui River in Sonora, deVaca found Indians in possession of turquoise fetishes and beads.  These Indians explained that it was acquired to the north in exchange for parrot feathers and shells.
In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza in company with Estevan the Black traveled northward as far as present day New Mexico searching for the legendary ‘Seven Cities of Gold,’ also called ‘Seven Cities of Cibola.’  At Rio San Pedro in southern Arizona, the last region of village Indians before the Pueblo of Zuni, he discovered that the Sobaipuris Indians wore great quantities of turquoise beads.  As he neared Cibola (Zuni) he came upon a village at the edge of the desert where the people wore turquoise beads and pendants called ‘cacona’ suspended from their ears and nostrils.  The wearing of these ornaments was called ‘casconados.’  He was told that these beads abounded in Cibola as well as at Marata (the ruined pueblo also called ‘Makyata’ near Zuni), at Acus (the present Pueblo of Acoma), and at Tontonteac (the Tusayan or Hopi lands to the northwest of Zuni).
 The so called ‘Seven Cities of Gold’ were actually a group of adobe pueblos, now in ruins, centered about the present Pueblo of Zuni.  Fray Marcos and Estevan arrived at sunset and the setting sun shining on the adobe created the illusion of gold, so feverishly sought by the early explorers.  They ran crazed into the pueblo, screaming about gold  but there was none.  Instead of gold they were disillusioned to discover the natives valued turquoise above all else and used it as a medium of exchange.  The Indians thought they were crazy.

Coming soon: Coronado in  the Southwest, Pueblo Bonito, Prototype of the Ancient Bead-makers, Plains Indian Medicine Bundles.

                     Inlaid turquoise earrings by Angie Reano Owen of Santo Domingo Pueblo

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Part II: Prehistoric Offerings of Turquoise

                           Turquoise pendant inlaid on shell by Angie Reano Owen

In the construction of ancient Hopi homes, a ceremonial opening was left on the outer surface of the front wall, just to the left of the entrance.  It stands approximately five feet from the ground.  On the day of dedication for the house, a feast was prepared.  But before anyone could sample the delicacies, a small helping had to be placed in the opening, along with shell and turquoise beads.  This insured a peaceful and happy life in the new house.  Then the opening was plastered over to match the rest of the existing wall. 
This tradition of sacrificial deposits in the masonry has existed since time immemorial in the Southwest.  On the upper surface of the roof supports at Pueblo Bonito in New Mexico (circa 1200 A.D.), archeologists discovered a thin layer of adobe that had cracked in places revealing a log embedded in the wall.  It served as a plug to cover ritual deposits of turquoise and shell beads, bits of crude shell and turquoise matrix.  Deposits of this sort were found at critical points in the structure of rooms throughout the great pueblo.  These beads lie where they literally supported the whole roof, exactly under the principle structural members.

                                         Kiva remains at Pueblo Bonito: kivas are underground
                                         ceremonial chambers serving native purposes as churches
                                         serve Christian purposes.

            In discussing turquoise beads as they relate to pre-historic ceremonial offerings, Neil Judd, who worked over twenty-five years on the excavation of Pueblo Bonito, offers this observation:
            “Most of the turquoise mined was discarded because of its unfavorable color.  Sky-blue tones have everywhere been preferred, but the ancient pueblos were not adverse to those of lesser merit.  The Bonitans, for example, often used pale blue or greenish stones for mosaics and beads: less frequently, for pendants.  And, with native canniness, when called upon to make personal offerings they sacrificed their off-color ornaments first.  We note relatively few prize stones in ceremonial offerings.” *
*Page 83, The Material Culture of Pueblo Bonito