Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mexico City Part 4: Artisans of the Aztec Empire

Skulls inlaid with tuquoise mosaic were among the more macabre forms of Mexica art. The Mexica (Aztec) Empire was far-flung and could demand tribute from many different parts of Mesoamerica. The Mixtecs of Oaxaca were especially skilled at this type of art, and the tribute lists of Mexica Emperor Moctezuma II included demands that the Mixtecs deliver 10 turquoise mosaic skull masks each year. The presence of turquoise in Oaxaca testifies to the extensive trade networks operating at the time, since it could only be obtained from the people of the Pueblo Culture in what is now the Southwestern United States. Hundreds of turquoise mosaic masks have also been found in Teotihuacan, a trading empire that fell 600 years before the Mexica arrived on the scene. Its ruins are located not far from the Mexica capital of Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City). Wanting to obscure their humble Chichimeca ancestry, the Mexica often adopted the styles and practices of the great Toltec Empire that had preceded them. They may have developed a taste for turquoise inlaid skulls when they looted the ruins of Teotihuacan, which they mistakenly thought was a Toltec site. The existence of turquiose mosaic masks at Teotihuacan indicates that Mesoamerian trade networks were not only broad geographically, but were also very ancient. In this posting, we will take a look at various examples of artisanship during the Mexica Empire (1325 AD-1521 AD) that dominated the Late Post-Classic Era. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Mexica ideals of male and female beauty

This Mexica face exudes strength and confidence. The sculptor carved the head from volcanic rock, while he fashioned the eyes and teeth from bone and shell. At the time the Spanish arrived, the Mexica were at the height of their power and influence. The face above illustrates their ideal of male strength. The Mexica revived the concept of sculpture-in-the-round, which had not been widely practiced by Mesoamerican artisans since the Olmec period (1500 BC-400 BC), eighteen hundred years before the Mexica founded Tenochtitlán. The various civilizations that existed between them in time practiced relief sculpture almost exclusively. The Mexica did not even know the long-vanished Olmec had onced existed. It is unlikely that any Olmec artifacts, long-buried in the swamps of the Gulf Coast, would have been available to use as models. The use of sculpture-in-the-round resulted from the Mexica re-discovery of a very ancient artistic concept. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

The Mexica sense of female beauty is expressed in this lovely bust. The lower part of the face is painted black, which was often done on real-life ceremonial occasions. The face above is more graceful and sensual than the male bust in the previous photo. Her eyes are partially closed with her lips forming a faint Mona Lisa smile. Completing the pose, she tilts her head slightly back. I thought the whole effect created was a classic "come hither" look. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Personal decoration

Beautiful jade necklaces like this were worn by the nobility almost exclusively. Various ancient murals, wall reliefs, and sculptures show the upper classes well-adorned with just this sort of finery. In all the ancient Mesoamerican cultures, jade was considered one of the most valuable of all substances, even more valuable than gold or silver. Wars were sometimes fought for control over deposits of this extremely hard green rock. Jade was used to create objects for personal decoration, as well as for sacred purposes, since Olmec times. Tenochtitlán was home to many jade carvers, as well as a vast population of other artists and craftsmen. People who engaged in these various crafts were grouped in their own neighborhoods, with their own customs and rituals. They even had their own goddess, Xochiquetzal ("Quetzal Bird Flower") who was the patroness of artisans who produced luxury items. Many of these craftsmen were native Mexica, but many others migrated to Tenochtitlán from all corners of the empire in order to be close to their wealthy customers. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Copper was sometimes used in making jewelry. The copper was imported to the Mexica empire from Western Mexico, where there are extensive deposits of copper ore. Archaeologists now believe that there was an ancient maritime trade connection between Ecuador and Western Mexico which brought metal working technology to the area that now comprises Jalisco, Colima, and Nayarit States. Trade with Ecuador also resulted in the production of certain styles of pottery and the use of shaft tombs for burials. The flat copper pieces above were probably produced by the technique of cold hammering and annealing. Once the metal was extracted from the ore and flattened, it could be cut into various shapes. Sometimes tin was melted into the copper through the annealing process. Mesoamericans never used this process to produce bronze on a large scale, which would have transformed Mesoamerican society, much as it did the ancient civilizations of the Old World. Instead, the tin was used to enhance the color of the copper. In addition to copper, gold and silver were used for jewelry. A small number of copper tools such as tweezers, fish hooks, and small axes have been found, but metal tools never really supplanted the stone, bone, and wood tools that had been used since Paleolithic times. Metals such as copper, gold, and silver were not more widely used as tools because, although they were easier to work than stone, they were also much softer. In addition, obsidian blades could be easily produced with a far greater sharpness than is possible even with surgical steel. Finished metal objects were imported by the Mexica until the later period of their empire when artisans began to flock to Tenochtitlán and produce finished goods there. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Artisans also used shells to produce necklaces and other forms of jewelry. People have been using shells to make jewelry for at least 75,000 years. Shells from ocean creatures were another material that had to be imported from the far reaches of the Mexica empire: the Gulf and Pacific coasts. They are particularly useful in making necklaces because they don't need much pre-shaping. They naturally occur in the same size and shape, according to species. All the artisan needs to do is make holes where the shells can be attached in a row to a cord of some sort. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Conch shells were particularly prized in the ancient world. Often they were turned into trumpets, but in the examples shows above, conch shells were used to produce rings, skull pendants and the finely crafted piece on the top, known as a scapular (a large pendant worn on the chest), with a delicately carved scene. (Photograph taken at the National Museum of Anthropology)

Ornament inlaid with turquoise and other polished stones. This piece is about the size of a coffee table coaster. Its use is unclear, but it may have been part of a scapular. The people of the Pueblo Culture of Southwestern US mined turquoise for their own use and for trade since very ancient times. Turquoise has been produced from the Cerrillos mine in New Mexico for at least 2000 years and some of it has been recovered from the ruins of Tenochtitlán, 1400 miles to the south. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)


Fragmentary remains of a cotton tilmantli, a toga-like cloak. Because of the climate of Central Mexico, few textiles have survived into the modern era. The ones that did have usually been found in dry caves. Even so, we have the pictures in the Mexica codicies, sculptural depictions of clothing, and the descriptions of the Spanish from shortly after the Conquest.The tilmantli fragment above shows some of the typical styles used by the Mexica, including a fringed edge and a spiral conch design indicating the garment may have originated in a coastal area. During the humble, early years of the Mexica era, the styles and materials of clothing were simple and fairly uniform. This is what might be expected of an egalitarian, hunter-gatherer culture in the process of a migration in which simplicity of lifestyle reflected necessity. After they finally settled in Tenochtitlán and began to acquire wealth and power, a class separation between commoners (farmers, and artisans) and the nobility (warriors, priests, administrators) began to emerge. Clothing styles came to reflect these changes. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Workers produce dye for coloring cloth. The great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted large panels on the walls of Mexico City's Palacio National to illustrate the long history of what ultimately became the Mexican Republic. A detail of one of these is shown above. Dyes for cloth came from a number of sources. For example, coastal mollusks were used to produce a purple color. Crushing the tiny cochineal insect found on the nopal cactus produced a very popular crimson. As seen above, male commoners generally wore only a loin cloth called a maxtlatli, with a tilmantli for cooler weather. The tilmantli was basically a rectangular piece of cloth worn with the two corners of a short end knotted over one shoulder. The maxtlatli and tilmantli that commoners wore were both made of coarse maguey fibre. They generally went barefoot, since sandals were reserved for the "better classes." However, even the nobility had to remove their sandals when entering temples. With the development of trade routes to the Gulf Coast, raw cotton and cotton cloth made its way to Tenochitlán. Cotton could only be grown in the hot country and therefore was an expensive import, available only to the nobility. Some commoners were traveling merchants, called pochtecas. They became quite wealthy and acquired beautifully woven cotton clothing for their own use. However, they only wore it in private so as not to attract the hostile attention of the nobility. As time went on, laws of increasing severity began to regulate the sort of clothing allowed for the many gradations within each of the classes. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Fashionable Mexica ladies show off their finery. The usual female attire consisted of a sleeveless, or short-sleeved, blouse called a huipil, and an ankle length skirt. The higher the social status, the better the material, and the more it was decorated by dyeing, and by embroidering it with colored thread, feathers, shells, or other materials. Beautifully woven cloth and complete sets of clothing were staples on the Emperor's tribute lists. Various localities throughout the empire provided their own designs, such as the spiral conch shell design seen in the tilmantli fragment. Spinning thread and weaving it into cloth were crafts designated for women, and generally done in the home. The cloth produced was used to create clothing for family use and sometimes for trade or tribute purposes. The two women above wear elaborate hairstyles decorated with feathers and cloth. Their huipils and skirts show the geometric patterns popular among the Mexica. The one on the right also wears a multi-strand necklace, probably of jade, with a large round scapular on her chest. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Musical instruments themselves were often works of art

Carved wooden drums like this teponaztli were used to accompany Mexica singing and dancing. The reclining figure on the drum is a warrior of Tlaxcala, a traditional enemy of the Mexica. It  probably ended up in Mexica possession through capture in war or as a tribute item. A teponaztli was a hollow hardwood log with two parallel slits cut lengthwise and one across in the shape of an "H", as seen above. The instrument was played by one or more drummers equipped with mallets made of rubber balls attached to deer antler handles. The musicians played either in a kneeling position with the instrument laid on pegs just above the ground, or standing as it rested on a trestle about waist high. Smaller versions, called teponaztontli, were carried by the musicians by means of a strap and played as they marched in processions. Another popular percussion instrument was the huehuetl, an upright wooden drum made from a hollow tree trunk. The bottom was open and supported by three legs, while the top opening was covered by tightly stretched leather. There were usually beautiful carvings on the sides. Smaller drums were created using multiple turtle shells, with different sizes for different tones. The musicians also used rattles (yoyotl) made from dried seed pods attached to the ankles of dancers. Other rattles were hand-held and were made of ceramics, gourds, or bone. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

A variety of wind instruments were played. Flutes like this tlapitzalli were ceramic and were made with four finger holes. Other flutes were made of stone such as jadeite and green marble, bone, or reeds. Some instruments used multiple pipes, similar to pan pipes. Still other wind instruments included conch shells, used as trumpets, and various whistles, often shaped like turtles or other small animals. Music made with instruments and song, and the dancing that accompanied them, were considered to be religious acts. They were sacrificial gifts to the gods. Interestingly, there was no word in Nahuatl (the Mexica language) for music, which is referred to as the "art of song", while playing instruments was called "singing with the instrument" and dancing was "singing with the feet". (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

Copper bells were attached to the wrists and ankles and to clothing. The beautiful set above includes the bracelet (or anklet) in the center to which bells were attached. Bells such as these were called oyoalli. The music and singing of the priests during religious ceremonies was considered to be the actual voices of the gods and the priests were simply the media through which the gods communicated to the people. Another important occasion for the use of music and musical instruments was during war. The Eagle and Jaguar warrior societies used drums, whistles, conch trumpets and other instruments to communicate with their troops during battle and to frighten the enemy. (Photograph taken at the Templo Mayor Museum)

The Production of Paper was essential to the empire.

Mexica women manufacture paper from amate bark. Another Diego Rivera mural detail from the Palacio National shows how bark from the amate tree was pounded into shape with a grooved stone held in a flexible twig handle. The amate tree grows in many areas of Mexico, including the part where I live. This wide range was fortunate for the Mexica because a steady supply of bark was needed for the huge amount of paper required by the empire. There were laws and regulations, religious documents, land ownership papers, contracts, histories, messages and many other purposes for which the paper was used. Some of these documents survive in the various Codicies scattered in museums in North America and Europe. Much of our sense of day to day Mexica life comes from the pictures in these documents. Notice the woman in the center foreground who is peering over the shoulder of the woman pounding the bark. The face of the watching woman is that of Diego Rivera himself. The artist often put his own face on figures in his work, as well as the face of his wife Frida Kahlo and those of many of his friends or acquaintances. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Sellos were used in an early form of printing. The Spanish word sello means seal or stamp. Devices like those above were used to imprint images on amate paper, textiles, and even on the human body. Ink was spread on the carved surfaces and then the sello was pressed on the surface being imprinted. Sellos used both abstract designs, like the sello on the upper left, and designs of animals or plants, like the rattlesnake in the foreground. They were generally ceramic and some sellos were fashioned in the form of cylindrical rollers. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Under close supervision, two workers prepare a document. One man stands above them, comparing their work to a design he holds. Another man directs the work of the two men doing the actual inscription. Notice the turquoise scapular worn by the man holding the design paper. It appears similar to the turquoise piece in the last photo of the Personal Decoration section above. Diego Rivera included many such details in his murals that demonstrate a deep knowledge of pre-hispanic archaeology. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

Detail from the Codex Azcatitlán showing part of the Mexica migratory journey. The Codex was inscribed on amate paper sometime in the late 16th Century. It relates the history of the Mexica beginning with their departure from Aztlan, through their migratory wanderings, to the rise of Tenochtitlán and the Mexica Empire, and ends with the beginning of the Spanish Conquest. In the scene above, two warriors grasp prisoners by locks of their hair (a common way of illustrating subjugation) as they lead them to the tlatoani (chief) who is seated on the throne surmounted by an eagle, a symbol of great power. The curved symbol in front of the tlatoani's face indicates speech and is probably a welcome. Both warriors carry the typical round Mexica shield, and the one in front also carries the fearsome macuahuitli, an obsidian-edged broadsword. Neither of the warriors wears the costume of an eagle or a jaguar, so these figures may reflect a period before those soldier societies were created. However, they seem to be high status individuals, because they wear the sandals which were forbidden to the commoners. The prisoners, a man and a woman by their dress, appear dejected. The man is shown with a speech symbol, probably saying something to the effect of "oh, crap!" The interesting symbols above the heads of the prisoners may represent towns that the Mexica conquered at this stage of their journey. The fate of the prisoners was very likely sacrifice to Huitzilpochitli, the Mexica god of war and the sun who led them on their journey. The footprints that move from left to right at the bottom show the progression of the story as they lead the reader from panel to panel and scene to scene. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

The making of alcoholic beverages

Diego Rivera mural detail showing the making of neutle, the Nahuatl word for pulque. In the center of the painting are a couple of large, broad-leaved maguey plants, one of the most useful of all the plants in the Mexica world. They used the spines on the leaf tips as sewing needles and for piercing tongues and genitals to produce blood for self-sacrifice rituals. From the leaves, called pencas, comes ixtle a fibre from which clothing, rope, sandals and any number of other useful goods could be made. Edible worms live inside the plant that are still considered a delicacy to this day. The heart of the maguey, called the piña, or pineapple, is edible, but the Mexica also used it to produce pulque, an alcoholic beverage with a history many thousands of years old but still enjoyed in today's Mexico. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced the distilling process and used the maguey to produce mezcal, a hard liquor. Blue agave is a relative of maguey, and is used to produce the internationally popular tequila. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

This stone rabbit was a symbol of drunkenness. The maguey plant was important enough to have its own goddess, Mayahuel. According to Mexica cosmology, she was once the companion of Quezalcoatl. At one point, while the two of them were fleeing from the tzitzimime (star demons), they tried to hide in the branches of a tree. Unfortunately, Mayahuel was discovered and torn to bits. After Quetzalcoatl buried her pieces, each of her 400 breasts grew up as a maguey plant, and that's how the Mexica got neutle, their alcoholic drink, now called pulque. This drink, in turn, got its own god, Ome Tochtle ("Two Rabbit"), hence the rabbit above. Ome Tochtle was only one of the innumerable Centzontotochtin (rabbit gods of drunkenness) who each nursed at one of Mayahuel's 400 maguey "breasts." The Mexica used the number 400 to represent anything that was countless. Each of the rabbit gods represented one of the many foolish behaviors of drunkards. As a highly disciplined and militarized society, the Mexica felt they couldn't afford the social breakdowns associated with drunkenness. They were a very abstemious society and viewed the overindulgence in alcohol, especially in public, as a serious offense requiring serious punishment. They abhorred the drunkard's loss of control and aggressive and violent behavior. Only the elderly were allowed the privilege of drinking to excess, and then usually only on ritual occasions. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

Featherwork was a luxury item

Feather workers were among the most elite artisans of the Mexica Empire. Above, a group of them sort feathers and cut them to size while others attach them to skulls and head dresses according to the design shown them by the tall man standing over them, probably a master craftsman. Feather craftsmen were called amanteca and they were organized into guilds not unlike those of Europe's Middle Ages. Several of these guilds worked directly in the Emperor's palace, making head dresses and costumes for him to wear and to give as gifts to his noble supporters. Brilliantly colorful feathers from rare birds were among the most valuable commodities in Mesoamerica. The pochteca liked to trade in them because they were compact and extremely light, as well as very profitable. Feathers and feather-decorated items were regularly listed on the Emperor's tribute list, especially for tributary cities in the jungles of the hot country where the most colorful birds abounded. Within the households of the amanteca, the whole family participated in the enterprise, and the occupation was hereditary. Feather worker families all lived in the same neighborhoods called calpultin. The most famous of these was Amanthan, located in the great market center of  Tlatelloloco. Amanthan gave the amanteca their name. The feather workers had their own apprenticeship programs and neighborhood temples where they worshiped their patron god, Coyolinahual, whose animal representation was the coyote. Ironically, Mexica laws regulated who could wear the amantecas' beautiful creations, and the list did not include them. No doubt some kept special pieces for themselves, but they could never wear them in public. (Photo taken at the Palacio National)

A hand-held fan was a status symbol among rulers and their nobility. This fan is one of the few examples of Mexica feather work that has survived over the centuries. It was found in the Tlaloc temple atop the Templo Mayor. The bottom of the handle represents the head of a warrior ready for battle. Other important uses for feathers were headdresses, the most famous of which is the one Moctezuma II gave to Hernán Cortés. Such head dresses were meant to associate the person wearing it with the Plumed Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. Other headdresses were worn by military leaders so that their troops could identify them in the dust and confusion of battle. Feathers were also used to decorate the surfaces of shields in elaborate designs. They were glued onto a leather surface, the less valuable feathers first, then the more colorful (and expensive) ones on the outer surface. Additional feathers would be attached along the edge of the shield, to flutter impressively in the wind. A Mexica army in full regalia must have been gorgeous, as well as terrifying, to view. (Photograph taken in the National Museum of Anthropology)

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