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Amazing Aztec Artistry

Aztec Turquoise Mosaic
Turquoise Mask of Xiuhtecuhtli

The Aztec people, who are more properly referred to as the Mexica, lived in the area of modern-day Mexico from the 14th to the 16th century. The Aztec Empire was later formed by an alliance between the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan. The capital city of Tenochtitlan, which was located on an island off the western shore of Lake Texcoco, was the largest city in Pre-Columbian America. It was a sophisticated metropolis, with causeways, paved roads, an aquaduct, floating gardens, temples, palaces, a main plaza and a walled precinct.

Part of the ruins of the city's main temple complex, Templo Mayor, which was formed by a great pyramid topped by two temples, can still be seen in Mexico City today. These were the scene of gruesome human sacrifices, where at some, a high priest would use a special sacrificial knife to cut open the chest of the victim, and then rip out the beating heart with his hand. The heart was held aloft as an offering to the sun. Such sacrifices were carried out with the belief that they would appease the gods.

One of the most famous Aztec artifacts is the Sun Stone, also called the Calendar Stone, which weighs over 20 tons. It is a round rock sculpture bearing sun symbols and divides the time into years and days. The Sun Stone is dedicated to the sun god and is believed to have been used as a sacrificial altar. It was discovered near the location of Templo Mayor and is displayed in the National Anthropology Museum of Mexico.

Aztec Ceremonial Knife with Gemstone Inlay and Chalcedony Blade
Aztec Ceremonial Knife with Gemstone Inlay and Chalcedony Blade

The city of Tenochtitlan was a hub for trade, and it is said that tens of thousands of people flocked to its marketplace daily to trade materials using items such as gold, textiles, cacao beans and copper axes as currency. Some of the materials used by the Aztecs to produce art included silver, turquoise, jade, obsidian, quartz, opal, shells and feathers. The Aztecs used gemstones and precious metals to create treasures such as boxes, sculptures, musical instruments, masks, ceremonial knives and other ornaments.

Aztec masks were made of various materials, including turquoise, obsidian, pyrite, shell and coral. Some masks feature inlay in the eyes and teeth. Aztec mosaics were particularly striking. One of the best-known examples of this is the mask of Xiuhtecuhtli (see, top image). This mask is believed to be an image of a god. It is constructed from hundreds of small pieces of turquoise glued onto cedar wood. The teeth are made from conch shell and the eyes are made from mother-of-pearl. The inside was coated with hematite. The mask was thought to have been used in religious ceremonies. It is from the late Aztec Empire and is currently displayed in the British Museum in London.

Jade and Gold Aztec Lip Plug
Jade and Gold Aztec Lip Plug

Aztec men are said to have worn ear, nose and lip ornaments. These could have indicated rank or served a religious purpose. Earplugs were made from a variety of materials, such as leather, turquoise and jade. In Aztec society, jade signified water. So jade earplugs were thought to have adorned priests or deities who were associated with water. It is believed that precious metals were only worn by members of the noble class.

Mirrors were used by the Aztecs, which were made from pyrite or obsidian. It is thought that these were used for divination rather than vanity. One such Aztec obsidian mirror, known as Dr Dee's mirror is on display in The British Museum. It was used by Dr Dee, who was an Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and magician. The mirror was later owned by Horace Walpole, son of British Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

The Aztecs were known to have had gold artifacts. Gold and silver were used by the Aztecs and were said to have represented the excrement of the gods; gold from the sun gods and silver from the moon gods. This could be an indication of the abundance of precious metals. In fact, turquoise was thought to have been more valuable to the Aztecs than gold, and the sacred meaning of precious metal items rendered the worth of these precious objects greater than the sum of their parts. For the Spanish conquistadors, the opposite was true, and they saw gold objects as potential bullion.

Gold Ring from the Tomb of Aztec Ruler Ahuizotl
Gold Ring from the Tomb of Aztec Ruler Ahuizotl

Precious materials attracted the Spanish to the area, and this, along with smallpox and other European diseases, ultimately led to the downfall of the Aztecs. The Aztec leader, Montezuma offered gold to the Spanish to persuade them to leave. These gifts included gold and silver discs the size of cartwheels, crowns, earrings, armbands, beaded necklaces, turquoise mosaic work and other ornaments. However, these gifts only caused the Spanish invaders to desire more.

The Spaniards claimed the city of Tenochtitlan in 1521. One of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies mentions the legend that the Aztec gold coins given to Hernán Cortés were cursed. Folklore also states that Aztec treasure still exists in the jungles and that it is cursed or protected by ancient guardians. If such legends carry any truth, it is hoped that some of the precious treasures of the Aztec Empire have been preserved. Sadly, many gold Aztec artifacts were taken by the Spanish conquistadors, melted down and lost forever. However, a lucky find was made by Mexican fisherman, Rául Hurtado in 1976. While fishing for octopus in Punta Gorda, he found a treasure trove of pre-Columbian gold items, along with gold bars and ingots. Like the Spanish before him, the fisherman had melted down some of the ancient gold artifacts before they were recovered by the authorities.

  • First Published: March-19-2015
  • Last Updated: February-07-2022
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