Researchers Unveil The True Origin Of The Famous Turquoise Mosaic Used In Aztec And Mixtec Artwork

Dan KitwoodGetty Images

The ancient Aztec and Mixtec civilizations that lived in what is now modern-day Mexico were renowned for many fearsome and awe-inspiring things, including their almost otherworldly artwork.

Some of these prized works of art have endured until today and are preserved in museum collections. While all are beautifully ornate and adorned with mosaic tiles of many colors, the dominant color found in these ancient objects of art is turquoise.

That’s because the Aztecs and the Mixtecs “revered the precious, blue-green mineral,” notes Science Daily.

In fact, according to Mexico Lore, “turquoise and jade stones were the equivalent of gold and silver for the Spanish,” and the Aztecs saw in them the “light and radiance of the sun and the moon.”

Prof. Cecilia Rossell, a specialist in pre-Columbian Aztec and Mixtec codices from the Center for Research and Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico (CIESAS), explains that “blue turquoise mirrored the water of rivers, lakes and seas, and the daytime sky.”

“In Náhuatl (the Aztec language still spoken by some 8-10 million Mexicans) the word for turquoise is ‘xihuitl’ and it’s also used to refer to a herb, comets, the year, and to anything precious.”

For more than a century, researchers believed that the Aztecs and Mixtecs imported their famous turquoise mosaic from the Southwestern United States and from nearby locations in northern Mexico.

But a team of scientists from three American universities — the Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the University of Arizona in Tucson, and the California State University at San Bernardino — and the Museo del Templo Mayor in Mexico City have finally figured out where the ancient turquoise actually came from.

It turns out that the true origin of the antique turquoise mosaic is Mesoamerica, the vast region that stretches from Central Mexico to Central America.

Their conclusions, based on extensive geochemical analyses, are revealed in a study published this week in the journal Science Advances.

According to a news release by the Dickinson College, the research team investigated the geologic origin of dozens of turquoise mosaic tiles belonging to both the Aztec and the Mixtec culture.

Aztec turquoise mosaic mask.
A rare turquoise mosaic mask of Aztec origin, displayed at The British Museum in London.Featured image credit: Dan KitwoodGetty Images

The scientists studied 43 Mesoamerican turquoise artifacts, which included 38 mosaic tiles of Aztec provenance. The precious artifacts were excavated from offerings within the Templo Mayor, which was the ceremonial and ritual center of the Aztec empire.

In addition, the team looked at five mosaic tiles retrieved from Mixteca-style objects and which had been stored by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The scientists analyzed the lead and strontium isotopes on the turquoise mosaic and discovered that it had come from Mesoamerica, and not the American Southwest as previously thought.

“This work revises our understanding of these relatively rare objects and provides a new perspective on the availability of turquoise, which was a highly valued luxury resource in ancient Mesoamerica,” said study lead author Alyson Thibodeau, a geochemist at the Dickinson College.

As Thibodeau explains, this discovery has the potential to make us rethink “the nature and extent of long-distance contacts between Mesoamerican and Southwestern societies.”