Object: Turquoise Mosaic Armband
Date: A.D. 1000-1400
Context: Western Trans Pecos, Hueco Mountains, Ceremonial Cave
The brilliant blue, polished turquoise stones pressed into the resin-coated exterior of this yucca-fiber woven basketry armband make this object as striking as it is unusual. The mosaic armband was in the front of a cave in far west Texas in 1926 or 1927. Also found in the cave were hafted bifaces, sundry Pacific shell ornaments, obsidian cruciforms, a headdress fragment, and approximately 2000 or more discarded woven sandals, among other unusual objects. The cave is thought to have served as a shrine, repeatedly visited by Ancestral Puebloan people over hundreds of years. Today it is called Ceremonial Cave. Ceremonial Cave is located in the Hueco Mountains, east of El Paso (see Hueco Tanks for more information about the area). The location and context of the turquoise armband within the cave was not recorded—a great loss to our understanding of the artifact. Despite this lacuna, a common and tragic affliction of looted archeological sites in the Southwest, part of the story of the armband can be told.
Robert P. Anderson, the president of the El Paso Archaeological Society, and R. W. Stafford were the individuals responsible for bringing the attention of Ceremonial Cave to the wider public. The two found the cave on a 1926 hunting trip when seeking shelter from a storm. In the following months, they conducted “rampant unsystematic looting” of the site and alerted the local news to their find. This turquoise-encrusted band was one of many objects they removed from the site. In 1927, the Ceremonial Cave artifact collection amassed by Anderson and Stafford was purchased by passionate amateur archeologists Eileen and Burrow Alves of El Paso, who by purchasing the collection prevented it from being sold piecemeal. The Alves also enlisted Southwestern archeologists Cornelius Burton Cosgrove and Harriet Silliman Cosgrove to excavate a portion of the site. The collection remained with the Alves until after the death of Eileen in 1935, when it was moved to the Gila Pueblo in Arizona and subsequently transferred to the Arizona State Museum.
In 1990, the collection was transferred to the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory (TARL) at the University of Texas at Austin. At the time this was written, the armband was on loan to the Bullock Museum in Austin for public exhibition. Other Ceremonial Cave objects collected during professional excavations undertaken at the site are scattered across a few other curation facilities in the US. Likely, some artifacts removed during the looting bonanza that befell Ceremonial Cave after its publicization by Anderson and Stafford remain in private collections.
Only two other similar basketry bands, sometimes termed bottomless or cylindrical baskets, have been documented at Ancestral Puebloan sites in the Southwest. One of these was excavated at Pueblo Bonito in northern New Mexico, 300 miles northwest of Ceremonial Cave, and the other was excavated at the Ridge Ruin site near Flagstaff, Arizona. These two bands share more similarities with each other than they do with the Ceremonial Cave band. Both the Pueblo Bonito and Ridge Ruin bands were found as grave offerings in association with two of the most elaborate burials known in the Southwest. The Pueblo Bonito specimen is 15 cm high and 7.5 cm diameter, covered in 1214 tightly fit, polished turquoise stones pressed into pitch or resin. When found, it was filled with over 5600 loose turquoise and shell beads and pendants.
The Ridge Ruin band was even more finely crafted, covered in approximately 1500 rectangular turquoise pieces, red argillite, black stone, and modified rodent teeth which would have been bright orange when the band was made. The stones and teeth were precisely shaped and fit together in a tight mosaic. The Ridge Ruin band measures 12 cm high and 8.5 cm diameter. To compare, the Ceremonial Cave band measures approximately 5 cm high and 10.5 cm in diameter and is covered in approximately 180 roughly shaped turquoise pieces. Unlike the other bands, many of the pieces on the Ceremonial Cave band have small holes drilled in them, suggesting they may have once been strung as pendants. It is widely believed that these three bands were worn as arm adornments (armbands), though neither the Pueblo Bonito nor Ridge Ruin bands were found on the arm of the deceased. There is no evidence that the Ceremonial Cave band was associated with a grave.
At present, there is no direct date on the Ceremonial Cave armband, though it is estimated to date to between A.D. 1000-1400. The Ridge Ruin band is estimated to date to the early 1300s and the Pueblo Bonito burial was recently radiocarbon dated to between cal A.D. 690-873.
Much remains to be understood about the Ceremonial Cave armband and how it relates to the site assemblage and the greater Ancestral Puebloan sphere and cosmology. Future research avenues include radiocarbon dating of a small sample of the basketry fiber, compositional analysis of the resin affixing the turquoise, and sourcing of the turquoise to determine the distance the material was carried or traded from the quarry. Ceremonial Cave is compelling for its location at the eastern edge of the Ancestral Puebloan cultural area and is unique in Texas—we still have much to learn.
Written by TBH Editorial Assistant Emily McCuistion.
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