Activity 9: Mineral Use


(Ancient Puebloan Style)


Ancient Puebloans survived by using the resources available to them, including in the construction of their homes. Students will construct a house in the same way ancient pueblo people did using resources according to their availability and specific properties.

Instructional Method:



Present to students the importance of knowing rock and mineral properties in order to determine usefulness.

Students will be able to:

  • Use determined properties to construct a house
  • List the value of different resources by their abundance and usefulness


Preparation: 40 min
Activity: 1 hour
Discussion: 30 min

Materials Needed:

  • 15-20 different rocks and minerals samples (quartz, coal, sandstone, turquoise, etc.)
  • 5-10 other resources (wood, plants, animal skins, water, etc.)
  • Paper bags or containers to hold strips of paper
  • Strips of paper with the resource, rock and mineral name in varying amounts
  • Sheets of blank paper and lined paper
  • Pencils and crayons
  • A rock and minerals properties kit (glass, streak plate, penny, nail, acid)
  • PDF Mineral ID chart




From USGS: Did you know that in Pre-Columbian times, indigenous people in North America mined turquoise, jet, opal, copper, silver, coal, obsidian, asbestos, salt, and sodium sulfate, as well as other minerals and igneous rocks? Turquoise, jet, opal, copper, and silver were mined mostly for decorative use. Coal was extracted for use as fuel. Obsidian and other igneous rocks were mined to make tools including projectile points, mortars and pestles, grinding stones, and stone axes. Clay and asbestos were mined to make pottery; salt was used as a preservative and for flavoring; and sodium sulfate was used as a purgative.

The ancient peoples of the southwest used the resources around them to build houses, supply food, make clothing and jewelry, and to supply warmth. The people of Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and Canyon de Chelly survived off the land in this way. They used what was available and quickly learned the potential uses and resulting importance of different rocks and minerals.

The southwest is very dry. Plants grow abundantly in wet years but are sparse in dry years. Animal Populations respond in the same manner. Therefore, it is very difficult to rely on specific plants and animals for specific uses. The idea of using skins and wood for housing structures was thought of as wasteful when these resources could be used for the more important purpose of keeping the people warm. One thing Native Americans in the southwest could rely on to build houses was an abundant supply of strong rock. This commonly available resource provided material for construction of walls, grinding utensils, weapons and decoration.

A list of things used to construct buildings at Hovenweep National Monument illustrates this common use of rock in construction:

Facts about the masonry in the buildings at Hovenweep.

  1. Wall stones are thick blocks taken from sandstone containing calcium carbonate. One flat rectangular side forms the visible wall face, while the other stones within the walls are irregular.
  2. Wall faces were dimpled with a pecking stone to appear flat.
  3. Coursing was incidental to the use of rectangular faced stones.
  4. Mud mortar was sometimes used to fill spaces between stones.
  5. Spalls were used to support stones in place. Spalls were also used to fill in spaces between stones after the walls were constructed.

If a useful rock or mineral was difficult to find, it became more valuable to the group of people. People would trade between communities to attain these resources that might be scarce in their area. For instance, obsidian is very good for constructing arrowheads. If you live in a location with little to no obsidian and your neighbors 50 miles (80.5 km) away have abundant obsidian, you will travel long distances to trade for the rock. Because you had to travel so far, it became more valuable.

In this activity, students will be provided with different amounts of various rocks, minerals and other resources. They will be asked to construct (draw) a house needed for survival using the resources available. If there is a limited amount of one resource, it becomes more valuable and more precious. If the resource is abundant, it is less precious and is available for more uses. The resource's usefulness is based on its properties. If turquoise is available but in small supply, it's beauty would lead to the making of jewelry instead of decorating walls or pots. Sandstone is abundant and available for house building where animal skins are not. Pliable and soft metals would be more useful for jewelry than for tools, etc.

Instructional Procedures:

  1. Gather the rocks and mineral samples along with the other 'resource' materials and place them on a table for display.
  2. Determine the amount of a resource you want available to students for their use by making strips of paper with the resource name on it. These paper strips will represent the items and will illustrate the diminishing supply of the resource as children take the strips.
  3. Determine the amount of each resource needed to build a house, and list them on the board so that each student can see them. You might have different sized houses that will require different amounts of materials. You might have each student build a house big enough for their family. Common rocks such as limestone and sandstone in the southwest would have 100 to 200 strips of paper. Other harder to find items like obsidian, turquoise, silver etc. have less papers available. Divide the papers into different bags and place behind the provided sample.
  4. Allow students to touch and feel each sample and to perform each of the various rock and mineral tests on each sample. Have students write down the different properties of each rock, mineral and other resource.
  5. With their Mineral ID charts and drawing paper have them construct a house. Marking off each item for which they were able to collect resources and thus able to construct (draw).
  6. To draw an item they must first chose the item and then go to the table with all the resources available and pick the amount of papers needed for their house, out of the bag. Bring back the papers and paste them on the side of the drawing paper.
  7. If a resource runs out, students must determine which other resource they can use for the same purpose or if they will have to modify the size of the structure.
  8. On the list of items they must construct, have them mark which was well built with which resource and which could have been built better if a particular resource was available.


Who was able to build their house? Was everyone build the house needed for their family to survive? What would they do if they could not? Would they raid others or would they move?


It may be good to divide students into teams or families, so that they may construct items together.


Have students write a short story describing how difficult it would have been to live during the ancient pueblo times where knowing different resource properties was important in survival. What they would do if a necessary resource was not available?

Included National Parks and other sites:

Canyon de Chelly National Monument
Chaco Culture National Historic Park
Grand Canyon National Park
Hovenweep National Monument
Mesa Verde National Park


Canyon de Chelly Ruins
Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde
Grand Canyon Ruins
Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon

Utah Science Core:

2nd Grade Standard 6 Objective 1,2
4th Grade Standard 3 Objective 1,2


Last updated: February 24, 2015

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