Earth Notes: Pipestone—Red Argillite

Jul 24, 2019

For centuries, Native Americans have cherished a compact, fine-grained clay called pipestone. Its common name comes from their use of larger pieces of it to carve ceremonial pipes. 

Carved red argillite bowl
Credit Museum of Northern Arizona

There are several varieties of pipestone in different parts of the country. On the Colorado Plateau, it’s known as mudstone, siltstone, or argillite—a hardened mixture of quartz and clay in a gorgeous shade of red. 

This particular stone is soft and smooth to the touch, and can be carved into many beautiful objects. Around Flagstaff, excavations at several ancient pueblos uncovered a wide array of pipestone pieces—including pendants, nose plugs, and small pots.

The source of the local red argillite was a mystery—until the Museum of Northern Arizona’s Katharine Bartlett first published findings in the 1939 Museum Notes. She reported on the discovery of several pits near Del Rio Springs in Chino Valley north of Prescott. Crude hand-held picks were used to scrape the argillite out of the ground.

A 27-room pueblo near the mines was the place where the argillite was probably transformed into beads, pendants, and other desirable trade objects.

Some pipestone from these mines was traded as far as 75 miles north, at Wupatki. The greatest variety of argillite items has come from sites at Winona Village east of Flagstaff.

Today the Del Rio spring and mines are played out, but we have those precious pipestone objects that display this fine ancient craft. And today, Zuni carvers still produce pipestone objects.