Among the most intriguing objects in Turquoise, Water, Sky: The Stone and Its Meaning, a new exhibition at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, is a small group of artifacts discovered at U-Bar Cave in southwestern New Mexico. The 700-year-old wooden pendants are painted, probably with malachite or azurite pigment, to resemble turquoise. Although this kind of simulacrum, ersatz turquoise, is not very common in Southwestern archaeology, other examples are known, including a large number of wooden objects discovered at various Chaco Canyon sites over the past century. How are we supposed to view these objects? Was turquoise so scarce that the ancients had to make their own fakes or costume jewelry? Exhibition curator Maxine McBrinn argues instead that the wooden pendants are not fakes in the modern Western sense of objects created with the intent to deceive; rather, they were painted blue to evoke turquoise. Anthropological and ethnological accounts of Pueblo Indians, including Elsie Clews Parsons’ Pueblo Indian Religion (1939), stress the role of painting in ritually activating objects such as kachina masks. So perhaps the wooden turquoises were magical simulacra rather than evidence of deception. Their blue-green color mattered more than their material.
Turquoise is a hydrous copper and aluminum phosphate that forms from the interaction of minerals with water — either meteoric (that is, rain) or hydrothermal — in the fissures of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks. The mineral is found in many parts of the world, primarily in arid regions. Its color varies with its chemical composition: more copper yields a bluer stone, while more iron shifts the hue to green. While many varieties of turquoise have a distinctive color — Sleeping Beauty from Arizona is sky blue — color can vary widely, even in the same deposit. Turquoise from Cerrillos varies from blue to green, depending on the mine. The turquoise family of stones also includes the closely related minerals of chalcosiderite, aheylite, fausite, and planerite. These minerals can frequently be found in proximity to true turquoise and are often difficult to distinguish from turquoise without chemical assay. Other blue minerals, such as malachite, azurite, and chrysocolla, might be thought of as cultural or social turquoise, since many peoples have used them historically when they needed a blue or green stone.