The 2008 New Mexico State Quarter

Zia Sun Symbol Defines the New Mexico Coin's Design

2008 New Mexico 50 State Quarter Obverse
The 2008 New Mexico State Quarter. Image Courtesy of: The United States Mint,

The New Mexico State Quarter is the 47th coin in the 50 State Quarters Program, and was issued as the 2nd coin in the 10th year of the program on April 7, 2008. New Mexico was admitted to the Union, (thus becoming a U.S. state) on January 6, 1912. This fact is noted on the reverse of the New Mexico State Quarter, where the date 1912 appears near the top. The main design of the New Mexico Quarter is an outline of the state's map, with the Zia Sun Symbol centered on the state capital, Santa Fe.

New Mexico's Zia Sun Symbol

The Zia Sun Symbol has an interesting background. Although most New Mexico residents seem to have the impression that this was a well-known, commonly-seen, and easily understood Native American symbol, research into the origins of this symbol seem to indicate otherwise. The Zia Sun Symbol, as we know it today, is a variation of a design drawn by Dr. Harry Mera. Mera got the idea for his design from a Pueblo water pot that was on display in the Museum of Anthropology in Santa Fe. The pot itself had been made by an unknown Zia Pueblo artisan about 40 years earlier, and included facial features in the center of the Sun Symbol design in the form of triangular eyes and mouth. Mera left this detail out of his rendering, which was adopted in 1925 as the design for the New Mexico State Flag.

Once the incorrectly-rendered Zia Symbol made it to the state flag, the legend continued to grow.

Suddenly it seems that everyone began to believe that this symbol was some sort of mystical device to the Pueblo, rather than simply art on a water vase. The Symbol was given attributes which were, to some extent, based on Pueblo mythology. According to the New Mexico Office of the State Historian, which is the source for this background information, the meaning of the Symbol has come to be understood as follows:

The design represents a circular sun with linear rays extending in four directions. To the Zia people and other cultures, four is a significant number. It is embodied in the four directions of the earth, the four seasons of the year, the four times of the day: sunrise, noon, evening and night, and in life’s four divisions of childhood, youth, adulthood and old age. Everything is bound together in a circle of life, without beginning, without end. The Zia also believe that in this Great Brotherhood of all things, humans have four sacred obligations: they must develop a strong body, a clear mind, a pure spirit and a devotion to the welfare of their people.

Before the Zia Sun Symbol reached the version New Mexico residents recognize today, it went through another corruption from the original - the color was changed to a shade of burgundy from the bright red of the original (incorrect) rendering from the pot. (Still no sign of the eyes and mouth of the original!) The Zia Sun Symbol, and what it has come to stand for to New Mexico residents, is so much a part of the state's culture that all four final designs for the New Mexico Quarter included the symbol as a major device!

New Mexico State Quarter Design

As far as how the Zia Sun Symbol appears on the New Mexico State Quarter, it is quite striking!

The "arms" of the symbol are deeply incused into the map, making the symbol stand out almost in 3D. One of the New Mexico State Nicknames, Land of Enchantment, appears to the lower left of the Sun Symbol on the coin.

The shape of the map of New Mexico was influenced by an interesting historical event. When Union Pacific was laying the track for the Transcontinental Railroad, land surveyors and engineers found that they would have a much easier time of laying the track if they could go south of the Gila River, so they negotiated a purchase of land south of the then-current border. The acquisition from Mexico, which included mostly desert "wasteland," was called the Gadsden Purchase, and it included the land that now forms the "boot-heel" of New Mexico and portions of southern Arizona.

New Mexico Trivia

Some interesting facts about New Mexico include:

  • The vast deserts of New Mexico were home to the "Manhattan Project," America's World War II era nuclear bomb research conducted at the Los Alamos labs.
  • The first atomic explosion in history took place in White Sands on July 16, 1945.
  • The state has three indigenous Native American tribal groups: the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache. All three share the very rare distinction among Native Americans of still being permitted to live on their ancestral lands.
  • Roswell, New Mexico was the site of one of the most famous supposed alien or UFO incidents, touching off the UFO frenzy in the USA that began in the late 1940s.
  • New Mexico enjoys the highest return in the nation for its federal tax dollars. For every $1 paid in federal tax revenue by New Mexico residents and businesses, they get $2 back from the federal government in the form of federal spending in their state.
  • New Mexico may soon be to home to the first major spaceport built expressly for that purpose on Earth! Virgin Galactic will base its home office and mission control functions in the town of Upham.
  • New Mexico is the only U.S. state to have an official State Question, "Red or Green?" Patrons of restaurants in the state are used to being asked this question, which refers to their preference for the color of chili sauce that should accompany their meal.

Collecting the 50 State Quarters

The 50 State Quarters Program from The United States Mint ended in 2008. These modern issue coins are ready available in uncirculated and Proof specimens from your local coin dealer or on the Internet. There are no rare or scarce issues, so putting together nice looking collection of 50 State Quarters will be relatively inexpensive.


New Mexico Office of the State Historian, U.S. History Encyclopedia (via,) Virgin Galactic, Wikipedia article on New Mexico, and the U.S. Mint.

Edited by: James Bucki