Daily Life

Take a stroll around Tenochtitlan Zoo

30 June 2017 Comments (0)

If you happened to wander the grand island-capital of the Mexicas for more than a few days, touring magnificent plazas and squares, endless alleys of marketplace and portable bridges stretching across intricately paved canals leading toward industrial and less glamorous parts of the city, you might play with ideas of talking your way across the central canal and into the walled enclosure of the ceremonial center. Here in the heart of the city, the Great Pyramid towered allegedly to the sky, and along with other temples and courts, warriors’ halls, armories and noble children’s school, it hosted the imperial palace and the famous royal zoo.

According to conquistadors such as Bernal Diaz, Tenochtitlan was a breathtaking sight even from the distance of the causeways that connected the famous island-city to the mainland “…gazing on such wonderful sights, we did not know what to say, or whether what appeared before us was real, for on one side, on the land, there were great cities, and in the lake ever so many more, and the lake itself was crowded with canoes, and in the Causeway were many bridges at intervals, and in front of us stood the great City of Mexico, and we,—we did not even number four hundred soldiers!…”

However little could rival the ceremonial center and the palace’s grounds sprawling next to the Great Pyramid, presenting several different buildings, a whole maze of such. Diaz goes into a great detail filling pages upon pages with descriptions of incredible riches and fits of architecture the Spanish invaders had witnessed or the intricately ceremonious meals they had been invited to partake at, honored to dine in the company of the great ruler.

But this, an ordinary visitor of Tenochtitlan wasn’t likely to experience unless of a royal blood himself, arriving in great pomp and with considerable following. And yet, the famous aviary and menagerie might have been opened to the visitors at times.

The famous ‘place of animals’ spread on considerable territory in itself, taking much room with the vastness of its ponds for exotic water creatures and wooden cages and fenced enclosures for the variety of wild animals to roam; a collection that impressed the Spanish invaders so much that, aside from Diaz, famous for his detailed if not very accurate chronicles, at least two more conquistadors of the original expedition wrote about the wondrous ‘garden of beasts and birds.’

It’s hard to tell what exact animals were kept in Tenochtitlan zoo for the imperial family to enjoy and the visitors to behold. When the great capital was conquered in 1521, it has been destroyed thoroughly until nothing was left, not even the Great Pyramid, let alone vulnerable places like markets and palaces. So all we have to go by today is the words of the original conquerors whose acquaintance with the Mesoamerican flora and fauna was minimal, to say the least. When Diaz goes into great detail describing “…many kinds of carnivorous beasts of prey, tigers and two kinds of lions, and animals something like wolves which in this country they call jackals and foxes…” we can assume that he meant jaguars and pumas; and that jackals must have been coyotes, native to this continent but not to others.

According to fragmented descriptions of other conquistadors, one of Cortes’s famous letters among those, as well as parts of surviving diary from an unnamed soldier now known to us as “Anonymous Conqueror” who mentioned the famous zoo in passing, there must have also been monkeys on display, armadillos, a mysterious “mexican bull” (probably a bison according to another Spanish monk’s description), various other mountain felines such as ocelots, along with bears, wolves and coyotes, opossums and such.

A great variety of local birds is also hard to recognize from the invaders’ descriptions, but according to Diaz a separate aviary was maintained on another vast ground, presenting “… every kind of bird that was there and its peculiarity, for there was everything from the Royal Eagle and other smaller eagles, and many other birds of great size, down to tiny birds of many-coloured plumage, also birds from which they take the rich plumage which they use in their green feather work. The birds which have these feathers are about the size of the magpies in Spain, they are called in this country Quezales, and there are other birds which have feathers of five colours—green, red, white, yellow and blue… not to mention the beautifully marked ducks and other larger ones like them… All the birds that I have spoken about breed in these houses, and in the setting season certain Indian men and women who look after the birds, place the eggs under them and clean the nests and feed them, so that each kind of bird has its proper food. In this house that I have spoken of there is a great tank of fresh water and in it there are other sorts of birds with long stilted legs, with body, wings and tail all red; I don’t know their names, but in the Island of Cuba they are called Ypiris, and there are others something like them, and there are also in that tank many other kinds of birds which always live in the water…”

His intake on alligators, various turtles, lizards and snakes was as confusing at times, as those were also most likely unknown to the newcomers from another continent. He goes into some detail describing separate ponds of freshwater and holds in an obvious horror “…many vipers and poisonous snakes which carry on their tails things that sound like bells. These are the worst vipers of all, and they keep them in jars and great pottery vessels with many feathers, and there they lay their eggs and rear their young…”

Modern day historians and scholars are struggling to recognize every mentioned animal for what it might have been in fact according to Central Mexico’s pre-contact flora and fauna, while archaeologists work hard in order to find any remnants of Tenochtitlan under the present day Mexico City, including the royal palace or at least fragments of it.

According to Diaz up to 300 keepers were employed in the imperial zoo alone and an enormous amount of turkeys and dogs that people of Tenochtitlan bred for their own daily consumption was delivered to the royal zoo premises in order to feed the dwellers of those cages. One of the other two conquistadors also claimed that the famous Moctezuma II was fond of strolling through his zoo, feeding jaguars, and even petting them.

For the beginning of 16th century, the concept of caged animals kept for the pleasure of watching them seemed to be largely unknown around the world, besides Kublai Khan’s impressive animal collection mentioned by Marco Polo. This Chinese-Mongolian zoo seems to be the only possible rival to Tenochtitlan’s pleasure gardens dotted with caged animals, even though in Central Mexico itself the custom was not unknown and Texcoco, Tenochtitlan’s partner in Triple Alliance and beautiful city in itself, is reported to have pleasure gardens with caged animals as well.

An excerpt from “Warrior Beast”, The Aztec Chronicles, book four

The smell grew worse as they progressed, half creeping half running, following their forceful new leader’s example. The Texcocan was sliding along, half bent and as silent and sure-footed as a predator on a trail. A hair-raising sight. The low rumbling and snarling all around didn’t help against the illusion. Was this man a shape-shifter, the mysterious nahual one heard about only in stories? And what was this place?

“Oh gods, it’s where the Emperor keeps his jaguars and pumas,” breathed Tlemilli into Miztli’s ear when a sudden roar had them jumping aside, even the fearless Texcocan. “I can’t believe it!”

“Keep quiet and talk only in whispers,” was the Texcocan’s laconic response. “We don’t have much time.” Pausing well away from the dark forms of the sheds on both sides of the path they were walking, the man shook his head, his chuckle soft, caressing the night. “Don’t lean against anything and don’t come close to these bars and screens. Stay in the middle of this path and if we are forced to run or walk away, keep to the middle of the pathways until the stench lessens.”

“Why?” asked Tlemilli, pressing against Miztli in force like back in Tlatelolco, but at the same time sounding curious and unconcerned.

“Think for yourself, girl,” grunted the Texcocan. It was easy to see the outline of his wide shoulders lifting in a brief shrug. “Exploratory paws can squeeze through those bars, always ready to pounce. Or just to explore. Neither will be pleasant to you, I can promise you that. They see perfectly well in the darkness, those magnificent creatures. And they are watching, believe me on that.”

In the faint illumination of the moonlight that sneaked here as though reluctantly, Miztli watched the man’s hand coming up, touching the scarred side of his face lightly, contemplatively, the fingers running alongside the invisible-now sight, outlining it. Could it be? he wondered, his mind painting vivid pictures of those “exploratory paws,” massive, sinewy, crowned with terrible claws, striking fast, retreating before finishing their work.

“I didn’t mean that,” protested Tlemilli without her usual passion and force. “I meant, the stench. Why did you say we can wander around freely when the stench goes away?”

“Because then you have obviously wandered far enough from those cages and ponds.” The man snorted loudly, then shook his head again. “Enough silly chattering. Tell me what your emperor wanted you to do. Why did he send you to wander around his southern guests’ windows? And do it fast, boy. Do not anger me into deciding not to help you out any longer.”

Behind his back, something was sniffing the air noisily, spreading more stench. Miztli forced his body into stillness, his instincts screaming, urging him to break into a wild run, no matter where or how. “The Emperor did not tell me to wander under those people’s wall openings,” he said slowly, trying to gain time.

Was there a way to avoid telling it all? Could he try to do that? This man was so mysterious, so obviously set on the course no one seemed to know or understand. Even Necalli admitted that his admired hero must have plenty of hidden goals and purposes, something he wasn’t ready to share with any of them. Should have seen his worshipped veteran now, slinking around Tenochtitlan Palace like a jaguar on a hunting path, spying after spies, knowing where and when and maybe even why, asking questions to missing answers, not even trying to camouflage those with made-up excuses. And why would he? How many people dared to say “no” to such a person?

“I tell what I remember, and I don’t—” he began hotly, but a low growl cut his heated tirade short. Coming from behind their backs, it made his body throw itself away and toward the opposite bushes as the icy wave cascaded down his spine and his arms shot forward, grabbing her on their way, his mind seeking routes of escape.

In the now-generous moonlight, the bear looked monstrous, rearing on its hind legs, huge paws propped against the wooden beams, leaning on those heavily, making them tremble. The grotesquely wide nostrils were sniffing the air, spewing foul odor. Or maybe it was the dreadfully dark mouth, such a fetid crevice, a putrid abyss. Tlemilli let out a strangled cry and he pressed her tighter, his mind amok, calculating their way out, finding none.

“They say those cages are mighty strong.” The Texcocan was still out there, standing in the same pose as before, in the middle of the pathway, seemingly unperturbed. His hand rested easily on the hilt of his knife, drawn already, yes, but not thrust forward; just ready. As though a knife would help against such a monster. “Like I told you two before, you better stay in the middle of the alley. There is no telling what is observing you from those bushes you are trying to dive into, carefully caged or not.”

That brought Tlemilli out of the panic-stricken stupor faster than he, his mind momentarily refusing to cooperate, resisting her pull back toward the well-swept ground but only for a moment.

The grunting, quieter but as vicious, was indeed coming from the other side of the shrubs, where a lower construction spread into the darkness, enlivened with several glowing dots, more than one pair, as though ready to back the warning.

School with no Summer Break

31 March 2017 Comments (0)

If you happened to be a teenager in one of the Central Mexico’s prominent altepetls/city-states such as Tenochtitlan, the famous island-capital of the Mexica Aztecs, or their partners of the mainland, Texcoco or Tlacopan, you would be excused from counting on enjoying your life free of schooling.

Unlike most of their contemporary world beyond the oceans, Central Mexico had very strict ideas concerning state education for every youth in each city, if not in smaller towns and villages. Not only various schools, or what we would probably consider today as ‘highschool’, were available and ready to make the youths between the ages 14 and 18 work hard, expanding their knowledge and in the way the state had seen fit, but one’s attendance at such institutions of education was mandatory, not a voluntary decision of a youth or a parent to make.

Tenochtitlan, being one of the largest Mesoamerican cities of the 15th century – one of the largest urban centers for their times worldwide as well – had two types of schools. Divided into twelve large calpulli-districts, the city was reported to provide a school per-district, for local teens to attend upon reaching their 15th year of life. Until then it was the parents’ responsibility to teach the child basic manners and crafts, but from the youth’s mid-teens the state was taking over.

The numerous district schools were called telpochcalli – a house/calli of youth/telpochtli – and, like stated above, they catered for youths between ages of 15 and 18, teaching crafts and martial skills along with instructions in basic manners expected from a future good citizen and certain aspects of ceremonial life. No sources claim that those more ‘common’ youths were taught reading and writing, or mathematics and science, but some references suggests that they might have been educated at basic reading of calendar and do basic math in order to run their future workshops and other small businesses.

The telpochcalli pupils were required to sleep in school, after attending midnight ceremonies, but they were free to visit their homes during afternoons unless punished to stay and work due to various transgressions. As a rule, they were required to contribute to public works by occasionally participating in those on a voluntary basis.

Generally, their lives seemed to be rewarding, offering opportunities to those who were ready to invest in their studies or displayed higher abilities and gifts. Outstandingly talented youths could have hoped to be recommended for transfer to calmecac, the noble school, the only one in the entire city, a very exclusive establishment.

Located in the heart of Tenochtitlan’s ceremonial center, surrounding the city’s most magnificent temples, royal palace, ball court, Great Pyramid and so on, the exclusive calmecac catered to nobility and royal children, preparing the next generation of ruling class – governors, judges, leading warriors, priests, tribute collectors and scribes, artists of higher order, scientists and so on. Gifted commoners sent from various telpochcalli were examined and if found fit admitted into this special institution, then made to work hard acquiring higher education.

The children of the nobility were reported to be admitted to calmecac earlier than their commoner telpochcalli peers. Between the ages of 12 to 14 minor nobility offsprings would be sent to pursue their formal education, with the royal family children starting their school lives as early as seven or eight years old.

Like telpochcalli students, calmecac pupils were sleeping in school, allowed to visit their families through certain afternoon hours, required to return for evening or midnight rites. Here the study was more vigorous and demanding: mathematics, history, astronomy, extensive reading and comprehending of written material, religious and otherwise, calendars, history books, maps, traders’ accounts.

It wasn’t easy to read or write in original Nahuatl that was composed of glyphs rather than letters or characters. It demanded special training which calmecac students were enjoying, or suffering depending on the point of view, on a daily basis. Most students of telpochcalli schools did not train to read beyond basics, even though traders certainly used plenty of reading and writing materials, and so did tribute collectors and probably other commoners.

Yet, the nobility was expected to read properly whatever their occupation was. So it is excusable to assume that the noble children with no special talents might have had it tougher than their fellow telpochcalli contemporaries. On the other hand, the calmecac students were not reported to participate in manual labor of public works, even though, like other school youth, they made their daily trips to the mainland in order to bring firewood and other required necessities.

Also even the calmecac highborn youths were expected to clean their classes and sleeping halls, and even cook for themselves, or so some sources state. According to various codices, Tenochtitlan schools made sure no install measure of humbleness in all students and future full time citizens of the great city.

So Tenochtitlan youth were required to attend public schools, every source agree on that, even if they don’t agree on details. But what about the girls?

Some sources state that most girls learned from their mothers, being their sole responsibility; like boys were the responsibility of their fathers until the age of the mandatory schooling. Yet, there are sources who hint that Tenochtitlan girls were provided with the opportunity to attend their local district schools as well, for at least a period of one year. A priestess of the local temple that would be usually adjacent to the district schools as well as to the exclusive calmecac – this one had several temples surrounding it – would teach the girls skills needed in their future marital lives. Creating cotton and maguey cloths was first and foremost job expected of every woman, commoner and lady alike, their skills at their looms praised and required. More intricate crafts of delicate embroidery might have been taught in both schools, or maybe in noble calmecac alone. Cooking and sewing might have been a prerogative of the commoner telpochcalli female students.

Again unlike their telpochcalli peers, the calmecac girls might also have been taught reading and writing, and basics of mathematics. Expected to run households of their rich husbands they had to deal with complex economics of management plentitude of slaves and supplies. A girl that did well in the ceremonial studies might have counted on staying in school in order to become a priestess, responsible for certain deities and their ceremonies – a highly respectable position that would not require a life commitment. Priestesses often got married, leaving their offices to their younger fellow women to take, their status assured for their entire lives as a respectable woman, a minor nobility maybe, liable for a good marriage, even with noblemen.

An excerpt from “Heart of the Battle”, The Aztec Chronicles, book three

Embarrassed, Chantli turned back toward the wooden platter. “Are there any other commoners in calmecac?”

“Of course. There are always a few of them in this school.” Squinting, the girl turned to study the newcomers, who in the meanwhile began progressing in their direction, clearly heading for one of the curtained niches, about to make an offering. “Gifted commoners, you know. Enough of those flooding the calmecac halls, at all times. My brother says they should open a school for all this gifted scum, because it’s—” Abruptly, the girl turned back, her eyes brushing past Chantli, gauging. “Well, I didn’t mean it that way. That is, he didn’t mean it, I think. It’s just that there are plenty of students in this school and, you know, not enough room, you see?”

Chantli hid her resentment as best as she could. “I haven’t seen much of the school yet.”

“Oh, you won’t see much of it anyway. We are not allowed outside our hall. Too many boys out there, you know.” Her companion’s wink held a clear measure of relief and for some reason, it touched her. That girl, while silly and terribly snobbish, didn’t wish to offend her and wave her humble origins before her face.

“My cousin was examined by calmecac authorities,” she related, arranging the cups with thorns while noticing one of the visiting men disappearing behind the curtain of the niche, his bearing forceful, warrior-like, his cloak flowing self-assuredly down his shoulders, sporting rich patterns and unfamiliar insignia.

“Was he accepted? Is he gifted, your cousin?”

She put her attention back to the tools of offering. “My cousin, yes, he is very gifted. He can read at a glance, without taking time to think before interpreting what is written. And he is always correct, always!”

“Oh, then he’ll be put to study the priestly duties, or maybe the trade of the imperial scribes.” The girl was glancing toward the niche that concealed the newcomer as well. “Not like that new boy whom the Emperor himself put in our calmecac.” Her gaze returned to Chantli, flickering with excitement. “Imagine that! A real commoner. Not like you, pillis from traders’ families, but truly a commoner. They say he is put to train with weaponry and such, but not in any other classes. I saw him a few dawns ago, bringing fir branches to the main temple. He does look like a commoner, so very broad in his limbs and face. Good looking too. But really, you can see that he is a commoner. Acoatl says he can’t even read or write or do any ceremonial stuff. Only to fight, they say. But the Emperor put him in our calmecac, so they can’t kick him out. Imagine!”

“Who is Acoatl?” asked Chantli, not truly curious but wishing to conceal her thoughts. It was clear that the chatty thing was talking about Miztli, who indeed, even with his pretty school cloak and his newly gained spells of confidence, did carry himself like the villager he was, someone out of the fields, fit to carry heavy loads, lacking that forceful elegance of a warrior that Necalli displayed in abundance. A pity the snotty nobles could see it as well, and much too easily. Poor Miztli!

“Oh, Acoatl is a cousin of mine. A nice boy and the best ball player in the entire school. So handsome too. You should look at him. I’ll show him to you tomorrow when they train out there. There is this place where one can peek into the courtyard when they are training.” The girl giggled. “He can barely read either. So he can’t really complain about the illiterate commoner, can he?” A conspiratorial wink. “But his bloodline is impeccable. His father is related to the royal family through his aunt, who has been given to the fifth emperor as his second wife. Not so very shabby, to be a second wife of the emperor, eh? Not a poor concubine or some minor unimportant wife.”

Absently, Chantli nodded, stretching her back in relief. It had been a long day. “We can go back now, I suppose.”

“About time!” The girl beamed. “Come, let us hurry. If they aren’t waiting for me with their litter out there, we may linger at the temple until the boys come out. Then I’ll show you my cousin. Or maybe we’ll run into our good looking YoloNecalli, eh?” The long-lashed eye winked again. “You talked to him yesterday. We saw you, Cuicatl and I. Beneath the temple’s stairs.”

Metallurgy in pre-columbian Central Mexico

28 October 2016 Comments (2)

If dazzling jewelry was your weakness, then you might have found it hard to pass through a marketplace or workshop areas of Tenochtitlan or any other major Mesoamerican altepetl/city-state without spending much of your hard earned goods or local currency – cocoa beans and cotton cloths – on too many beautiful trinkets. Glittering bracelets, earring and anklets of copper and gold or brilliantly polished precious stones were always in high demand, and the canny Mesoamerican traders knew how to tempt a customer with most charming, intricate, lavish designs, causing jewelers and other artisans work long and hard to supply the demand.

Pre-Columbian metalworkers toiled in their workshops, located usually in the less prestigious parts of the city, along with other craftsmen and their shops – feather-makers, stone-workers, weapon-makers and such, organized into guilds, represented well in their districts, taxed but respected, the heart of the middle class and the spine of it. Unlike their fellow other craftsmen and artisans, the metal-smiths’ working areas required special facilities – powerful braziers, specialized tools, considerable supply of fuel. Braziers were typically made out of stone, with special openings for pipes crowned with clay tips to be inserted into the raging fire in order to make it rage fiercer, reach desirable temperatures by blowing into it constantly.

Copper, for one, needed to be heated to over six hundred degrees (Celsius) in order to separate it from the most obvious excess of other minerals it was extracted with from the earth, then reach 1250C in order to make it into a workable material for smelting. Blowing reed pipes with clay tips achieved that, but to maintain such long standing fires plenty of firewood was required. A problem for the big cities where most of the metal smiths’ workshop were located; less so for the miners out there in the country, those who didn’t produce the finished products but still needed to do the first round of heating in order to separate copper and silver from other minerals those raw materials were mixed with.

In Nahuatl, the lingua franca of Central Mexico, the term for mining was ‘in tepetl auh in ozototl’ which means ‘the mountain and the cave’, indicating typical location of precious stones and minerals. The term for digging up a mine was ‘tlallan oztotataca’‘to dig caves in the earth’. The word for copper was ‘tepoztli’ and ‘tepoztli iohui’ meant the ‘copper vein’. In Western Mexico, where metallurgy was even more wide-spread the dominant Pu’repecha language is full of appropriate terms.

The easiest and most wide-spread technique of mining was surface collection, where the ore was simply available on the surface, either in streambeds or on the ground. The erosive power of streams would break the ore and the heavier metals would settle on the bottom in areas of slower flow. Those were also the easiest to recognize because the deposits of cooper that are naturally dull gray in coloring, when exposed to the weather conditions of the surface brighten into vivid green or blue. A wonderful lead for the miners to follow, to collect what’s on the surface and dig short tunnels in order to reach the hidden treasures in the correct places. This technique is called ‘open-pit mining’.

The Underground Mining was also used when the deposit occurred deep below the surface in the form of a vein in a hard rock – the term tepoztli iohui means copper vein. In this case, tunnels were excavated in the rock to remove the ore, narrow vertical shafts driven through the rock, widening out to horizontal galleries where the ore was found. Pre-Columbian miners preferred to drive adits – nearly horizontal entrances to a mine – or tunnels into rocky slopes over digging shafts, which made drainage and haulage much easier.

In Mesoamerica, evidence of underground mining, including sizeable adits, shafts and galleries dug with hafted hammer-stones dates back to the beginning of AD, not only in order to extract metals but of course in order to haul out precious stones as well – cinnabar, turquoise and obsidian mines, even though the obsidian mines did not required digging adits.

Evidence indicates that the tools used to excavate mines and extract the ores were varying, consisted of stone hammers, large stone mortars, either portable or fixed on the walls of the mine, pestles upon which minerals were probably ground, bone scrapers, and digging sticks, ceramic ladles, obsidian blades, and wooden wedges. Remains of ocote-torches, and vegetal fibers impregnated with resin, baskets, ropes and ceramic pots, have also been recorded often.

As mentioned before, to separate metals was crucial, so the miners would work the found treasures on the spot, using what we call today pyrometallurgy when the ore was ground, mixed with charcoal and heated in a crucible or brazier. At the right temperature, up to 1300C, copper would separate from other components and merge into droplets. Adding ash or sand helped to melt the slag, so the copper would sink while the rest of the liquid would float, ready to be picked off while still hot, or broken off while cooled.

However to created refined, beautiful or useful items, the purified metal would have to be sent to the cities and into the hands of the urban craftsmen, the metal-workers. Styles of fashioning final products were many and diverse: hard-hammering or cold-hammering (working the metal when its cold), annealing (heating the metal after cold-work reduced its plasticity), casting (shaping metal when in its liquid state). Decorating techniques included gilding, embossing, soldering;lost-wax casting, gilding, low-relief decorations (created by hammering from the reverse side of the object), sheathing and so on.

Cold-working involved changing the form of a metal object by bending, shaping, rolling and hammering. As the metal being shaped internal stress serves to harden the part. Heat also serves to harden the material. Bells, needles, tweezers, rings, awls, axes, ornaments were usually made by cold-working from an ingot cast with occasional round of annealing. However if concentration of tin or arsenic was high enough to cause brittleness, hot working or forging was employed.

Small open rings for earrings or hair ornaments were very popular. Cold-hammered, then annealed through several sequences, those would fetch good prices on the marketplaces of big cities. After 1200 AD such rings were forged in high-tin bronze. Silvery rings were made by silver-copper alloy.

Tweezers were as popular, made by two symmetrical blades joined by hinge that was fashioned from a continued piece of metal. In earlier times they were hammered out from a solid piece, then bent over a wood piece or other solid material in a shape of a hinge, then cold-worked into a final shape and the excess metal cut. Later tweezers were made out of alloys and have been of a high quality, hot-worked into shape. Tweezers made of gold were saved for leaders and foreign offerings alone.

Sheet-metal ornaments were made of extremely thin cold-worked sheet of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-silver-gold or silver-gold mixes. Those were used to ornate breastplates, shields, headbands, pendants, earrings, disks and bracelets. Copper-silver alloy was the most popular for such ornamenting purposes.

Axes were made from copper or bronze, mostly for symbolic use as it seems. Those were cold-worked, annealed, then cold-worked again. Copper (like silver and gold) is not an optional metal for cutting wood, but naturally occurring copper, due to its metallic impurity, can be relatively hard, useful for splitting wood. However, even such axes lost their edge quickly and needed to be reshaped. Bronze alloy axes became wide spread in Post Classic period (after 1200 AD). Tin-bronze, copper-arsenic and copper-arsenic-tin were added to enhance the tool. Those were three times thinner at the edge and harder, made by pouring molten alloy and into the mold (Florentine Codex), then shaped by hammering and annealed and cold-worked again to harden them.

Needles and awls, hoes, fishhooks, digging stick-points, thin leaf-like objects were made out of arsenical copper, usually cold-worked and annealed, sometimes used as tribute payment. Copper bells and later on bronze bells were created for decorative purposes, their shapes vary from round, to oval, to cylindrical, with suspended ring at the top and a narrow slit opening at the base, with loose clapper made of metal, ceramic or pebble. Such bells sported beautiful, elaborated designs. Some were made from coiled threads of wire, forming complex vertical and horizontal patterns. The original models for these belts were made entirely out of wax, winding piece of wax thread around a clay core.

Mesoamerican smiths experimented lavishly, producing alloys of copper-silver, copper-gold, copper-arsenic, copper-tin, as well as more complicated mixes of copper-silver-gold, copper-silver-arsenic, copper-arsenic-antimony, copper-arsenic-tin. Copper-silver alloys were reached by smelting copper and silver ores separately, then melting the two together (as there are no ores to contain both metals in satisfactory amounts together, such alloys could be nothing but intentional product). Copper-arsenic alloys could be achieved from the same ore and the same smelting (in West Mexico it was probably achieved by smelting chalcopyrite and arsenopyrite together). Copper-tin alloys were produced either by cassiterite in order to win metallic tin then adding tin to the molten copper, or by smelting cassiterate together with copper ore minerals. Such bronze was manufactured only in two areas in Americas – Andean highlands and West Mexico. In West Mexico it dates back to 1200 AD. Copper-gold alloys usually contained plenty of copper and much less gold, mainly to give the product a shiny appearance.

So while strolling around the better parts of Tenochtitlan or other important city-states of the 14th-15th century Central Mexico, one was likely to have one’s vision assaulted by fierce glint of the noble people’s jewelry or the glittering of the ornamented walls and temples. Then it would be a high time to visit the most sought out jeweler oneself, or to look for his mat on the marketplace.

An excerpt from the upcoming novel “Obsidian Puma”

There was no room for mistakes in this trade, his benefactor would repeat over and over. With the sort of the fire they maintained and the sort of the metallic liquid they dealt with, one single mistake could cost a person his life or, at least, his ability to live properly. Still, there were times when he didn’t care one way or another, not heedful of the warning of his employer, or rather a slaver. There was a limit to a person’s ability to crouch next to the blazing braziers, blowing to make them rage fiercer. One couldn’t do it all day long for many days in a row.

The other workers, both sons of the owner and one disinterested nephew named Patli, did other things, hammered and scraped to refine the half ready products, worked with blades and ceramic ladles on the less delicate ornaments, rushed around with bee-wax and pottery. Learned the trade! While all he, Miztli, did was to slave in the melting room, tending the fire and not letting it go down the insanely high heat, allowed to pour melted goods into various clay and stone utensils sometimes, starting his day earlier than anyone and finishing way after the others were well away at the main house or wherever, loitering and having a good time.

He wasn’t a son or a nephew, or any other sort of a family member, but his father wanted him to learn how to work the precious metals and not only how to extract those from the earth, and so here he was, living in misery for more than three moons, blowing into the fire to make it rage fiercer. Some learning!

Grimly, he blinked the sweat away from his eyelids, watching the greenish powder that he was made to scrape from a solid piece of copper earlier in the day, in the blissful coolness of the outer room. There was another pile of powdered stone poured to mix in the pot this time, not gold but a duller looking mineral. It created better results, a stronger metal that was easier to work with, sturdier but more flexible at the same time. Magic. It was a beautiful sight, those simmering liquids of various colors, a pretty show to watch. In the beginning, it thrilled him to no end, the ability to turn something solid into a workable flow to be shaped to one’s desire, any form, any size, a jewel or a brick, or just an impossibly thin sheet of metallic wonder to create detailed reliefs for noble establishments upon their request.

These days, it bored him to death.

The outer screen screeched, announcing newcomers, quite a few of them, judging by the voices and the draft that managed to sneak in through the cracks in the wooden screen. Miztli ground his teeth and let his fingers crush the straw he worked with. To throw the remnants of his tool into the raging fire made him feel better. In less than a heartbeat, it was consumed, ceasing to exist – one moment there, the other gone.

Twisting his lips contemptuously, he reached for another pipe, a whole pile of those, reed straws being as plentiful as the mud upon the shores of the Great Lake, but old Tlaquitoc would grimace all the same, scolding his apprentice for carelessness and lack of concentration. If only there was a way to feed this entire establishment to the fire.

The draft made his work momentarily easier, igniting the flames in both braziers, as the screen shielding the entrance to his backroom moved, letting a thin surge of the fresher air in.

“Niltze!” Instead of the squat, wide-shouldered figure of his stocky employer, the lithe form of Chantli slipped in, thousand-folds more welcome. “Still working on that copper from the morning pile?”

Pleased to notice her moving into the corner of his eye, Miztli smiled with the free side of his mouth, nodding ever so slightly. When busy with such fiercely raging flames, one could take his attention off of it up to a very small limit.

Throwing Spears

2 November 2015 Comments (0)

With the Cold Moons safely gone and the spring taking over for good, the women of the longhouses were hurrying out to start preparations for the new planting season. The winter time of the dried-meat-and-fruit diet would have everyone starving for fresh, juicy treats, from sweet maple syrup to fresh strawberries and anything else the generous earth was willing to offer at this time of the year, until people managed to make their crops grow anew. So the Maple Moon, the first moon of the spring, would be spent on collecting wonderfully sweet, highly nutritious maple sap, to celebrate, gorge and store for the year-round use.

However, before this moon’s activities were done with and the next Thundering Moon took over, the men would be hastened out there, lazy males that they were – or so some Clans Mothers would have claimed – to engage in the fields-clearing activities. Fallen trees, broken bushes, stones and other hurdles, the remainders of the fierceness of the winter moons, would require a male strength to be removed. This was the only part where women had shown tolerance to the male intervention in their business, the agriculture being solely female task in the Longhouse People’s society, their duty and their responsibility, the equality of genders those people knew centuries before other cultures were to discover such thing.

But politics aside, when the old fields were cleared or maybe a new one reclaimed from the surrounding forest, the men would not miss the opportunity to use the newly flattened ground for their own entertainment before the women got around planting their crops through the following Planting Moon. A spear-throwing contest required a perfectly flattened ground, just the one the newly cleared field was offering.

The game would start with the players dividing into two teams of various sizes, depending on the amount of the willing to participate. From a small group of men, or youths, or even just kids armed with sharpened sticks, playing in pairs, to teams as large as fifteen to thirty warriors displaying their skill on the Thunder Ceremony through the moon that bore the same name, preceding the Planting Moon, spear throwing contest was a popular way to display one’s expertise and skill.

The players goal was to fit one’s spear through a hoop that was rolled over the flat ground at a fairly removed distance from the thrower. As with teams, those came in various forms and sizes. Some hoops were simple, made out of a branch bent as a circle, tied at its edges with a leather strip. Others were invested devices, made out of bundled cornhusks wrapped in a rawhide. Those would usually sport a web of leather strips inside the ring, to assist in determining the score in the way the spear went through it.

The spears were varying in their appearance as well. From sharpened sticks to exclusive javelins to professional gaming spears with forked ends to catch the hoop so the spear wouldn’t go all the way through, the spears would pierce the hoops in their perfect middle, or anywhere near it, or maybe just push until it feel, cutting its flight over the field short – anything that made the hoop fall was declared a good throw. Only the clear miss would cause the player lose his pride together with his spear that was to be handed to his contester as his rightful spoil. Otherwise the teams would go on, hurling their spears until reaching the agreed amount of points, or until all spears changed their hands, sometimes accumulating in the possession of one good player or several.

Either way no onlooker would be left feeling as though they had wasted their time watching the game and cheering, or sometimes even betting on the possible winners, adding more items to the spears that were destined to change hands.

Sometimes the contesting team would throw their javelins all at once, displaying their superior skill and organization. More often though, the players would hurl their missiles in pairs, each representing the rival team, trying to pierce the hoop in his turn.

The player who pierced the hoop while his rival missed, would be declared the winner and the new owner of the loser’s spear. However if both players managed to make their spears go through, they would go on throwing again for an agreed-upon amount of tries, then the contest would be transferred to the next teams’ representatives.

The Thunder Ceremony was held in April, a Thunder Moon, celebrating the return of the Thunderers, who would come from “where the sun sets”, bringing back rains and replenishing the water life. According to the Creation Story, during the time when everything was new and the Celestial Twins were still struggling, Heno the Thunderer helped to drive many of the Evil Twin’s creations back into the earth with his mighty lightening, frightening and suppressing ferocious animals with it to these very days “… it’s been told that if the Thunderer were to cease, these animals would emerge and cause a lot of suffering… so, whenever we hear them, we are to make an offering to them of the real tobacco so that they will continue with their responsibilities…”

The War Dance, performed on this ceremony by men alone, was followed by the hoop and spear game, the spear throwing contest, played as the part of the ritual – not just a wonderful entertainment, but also the representation of the symbolic contests between the good and dark sides of the human nature, the Good Right-Handed and the Evil Left Handed Twin Brothers and their eternal struggle. This was the most official contest, played by large teams, owners of professional hoops and spears.

An excerpt from “The Warpath”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #4.

“Are you ready, mysterious non-Onondaga man?” The Flint was back in his good humor, balancing his precious javelin in his hand, playing with it, displaying his skill.

“Who throws first?”

“You. The host has the honor.”

“My pleasure.” Swinging his spear in his turn, Ogteah strolled toward the nearest spot that had less chances of the sun glowing directly in his eyes. The Flint man, he noticed, skipped quite a few tens of paces away, his limp again barely noticeable. Was he pretending to have this liability?

Ogtaeh pushed a new wave of misgivings away, sensing the eyes of the woman, the lively chatter of her companions distracting.

“Ready?”

The shout came from far enough, making him wish to grind his teeth. From what distance was this man intending to have them aiming? With this smaller hoop, and now from farther than customary, was he planning to have them both missing the target?

“Go on.”

Deciding to brazen it out rather than spend his time worrying over something he could not prevent at this point, Ogteah focused, measuring the distance, guessing the possible path of the ring with his eyes. There was no need to concentrate on the starting point. A veteran of many such contests, he knew that a brief glance in the hoop-thrower’s direction was more than enough. Those who studied the man, trying to predict his movements, missed half of their chances to hit the target before the ring rolled its course.

The deepening silence of those who watched warned him, heightened his awareness, made his muscles tense, his body tilting, the hand holding the spear only a part of the effort. As did the swish that his ears didn’t miss.

The hoop shot forward, like a pouncing predator, pushed with enough force to make it almost fly. At the same moment, Ogteah’s entire body came to life, his instincts deciding for him, as they always did.

Another swish, this of his spear, was louder, resonating in his ears. He could feel the force of the throw, the unerring path of the lethal weapon. It wouldn’t miss, he knew. It couldn’t. Indeed, the hum of the air released from quite a few chests at once told him that the target was down, before his eyes confirmed that. The women behind his back giggled as one of them shouted too loudly, not quick enough to hide her admiration.

“Not bad.” The Flint man didn’t bother to retrieve the fallen hoop, letting one of his friends rush along the tramped-on grass. “Impressive, really.”

But there was no real appreciation in the warrior’s voice. Or maybe there was, but his eyes flickered amusedly, unconcerned. It took the edge off Ogteah’s sense of victory.

“No sweat,” he said lightly, heading toward the man with the hoop and his own spear. “Show us what the Flint can do from such distance.”

“Quite a lot, mysterious local. Quite a lot.”

Rolling the ring was never his favorite part of the competition. He did not do it well, not like some others, who could send the hoop practically flying. Like the annoyingly self-assured Flint.

“Ready?”

He just shoved it forward, in no showy manner, not surprised when the colorful spear pushed it violently, made it fall before it reached the middle of its journey, losing no momentum. Worried a little, he rushed forward, to see that the missile did not go through the perfect middle.

“Not bad as well,” he called out, relieved. The spear didn’t even stick in the web, but was lying quite a distance away, having probably hit the outer ring. A near miss, he thought, smirking. Why did he let stupid misgivings bother him at all?

Never leave in hunger

14 October 2015 Comments (0)

One of the sturdiest pillars of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) society was the tradition of hospitality, the warmest welcoming a visitor was to receive, whether a friend, a clan/family member or a total stranger, even an enemy or a captive, it didn’t matter. The law of hospitality was as firm as the frame of the longhouse, and as unwavering.

Not that it was as simple as knocking on a door and asking if anyone was in, of course. That would be terribly bad manners on the part of the visitor to display, unacceptable really.

What a person would do while approaching a town or village, or just a cabin in the woods, is to halt his steps and pause, choosing a good spot to rest his limbs, because the waiting might be a long one. The invitation to come in would arrive inevitably, but one was to let it be ensued. So usually a visitor would find a prominent, easily observed spot, arrange a fire, staff his pipe and make himself comfortable, while leaving it to his prospecting hosts to make the next move. Which would eventually be made, always. The hosts knew the protocol as well as their guests.

The hospitality of the Longhouse People was exceptional, as was their cooking. No one left a longhouse hungry, or even just unsatisfied with the meal. Even the captured warriors expecting their ceremony of execution would be spoiled rotten by good meals and warmest accommodations until the time of their trial came. Let alone peaceful visitors.

Anyone was at liberty to enter a house at any time, if the occupants were in, made welcome and offered food. If he was hungry, he would eat heartily, with no reservations. If not, he would sample the food as a compliment to the giver. A refusal to do so would be construed as terrible impoliteness.

Such custom steamed from the firm belief that the Right-Handed Twin and the other creators made the earth and everything it contains for everyone to share and enjoy “… they stocked the country with plenty of game, that was not for the benefit of the few, but for all…” This is reflected in most basic of many Haudenosaunee laws. “… As air and rain were common, so was everything else… whatever liveth on the land, whatsoever groweth out of the earth, and all that is in the rivers and water, was given jointly to all…” Everyone was entitled to their share.

People of the Longhouse had but one regular meal a day that was prepared through the mid morning and eaten somewhere around that time. This of course was not to say that the people were required to do with one single bout of eating. Nothing prevented a person of every age or gender to pass through the communal storage rooms in the back and front of each longhouse, or climb the upper banks of one’s compartment in a hunt after a juicy snack.

The food was always available, readily warmed too; it’s just that the serious cooking was done in the morning only. Haudenosaunee women were not the kind of females to be pushed into slaving inside the house day and night. They had work to do, from keeping their nation’s entire agriculture enterprise alive and kicking to choosing reliable elders to represent their towns and villages in the Great Council to the best of their interests; and yes, to advise the government on an occasion. So no excessive cooking, and only one family meal to start the day with.

The food would be removed from the pot or kettle to bark or wooden dishes and then handed over to the recipients, who would either sit on the floor or remain standing along the walls as was more convenient to them. Men were served first. Then women and children.

Made from maize alone the variety of food was staggering, but of course the Longhouse meal included many more ingredients besides the precious three sisters – corn, beans and squash. Those three main staples were venerated, grown lovingly and always together, complimenting each other nutritionally while providing helpful support – “…a corn having a natural pole for the bean vines to climb while the bean roots improved the overall fertility of the plot, helping stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind, and shallow-rooted squash vines becoming a living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, improving the overall crops chances of survival in dry years…”

So the corn formed the main part of the menu and was represented in almost every dish and meal. All sorts of bread and pastries, baked, fried and boiled, with nuts or berries, sweetened with maple syrup or flavored with meat and salt; great variety of hominy, pottages and puddings seasoned with everything from sweeteners to grease and meat; endless list of soups offering everything from meat to mushrooms and onions; hot drinks and snakes such as roasted cobs to nibble or even a sort of a pop-corn – all this and more would enliven people’s menu as seasons would change and days passed, along with variety of bean soups and puddings, squash dishes, multitude of different berry treats from drinks to porridge and snacks, nuts’ flavored meals, and so on and on. The menu was endless, rarely repeating itself. The Longhouse women knew how to spoil their families and guests.

In the end of such family meal the diners would say Nyawe which meant the thanks are given, while the hostess would reply Niu which meant it is well. This was the custom, to thank the creators for bestowing this food on the people as much as to appreciate the hostesses’ trouble in preparing it.

When distinguished guests came to the community, a great feast was laid in their honor. Not to mention the days of great ceremonies! Through those celebrations, the ceremonial grounds or the adjacent valleys if the settlement was too heavily populated to conduct their ceremonial activities inside the fence would turn into a large bowl overflowing with food. In such cases Clans Mothers would combine their efforts, having every longhouse contributing from its supplies and manpower, or rather womenpower, in order to prepare and serve everyone.

An excerpt from “The Foreigner”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #2.

She shrugged, shaking the longing off. She could have participated in the dancing even now; she was not that old. For the duration of the opening Feather Dance, wearing only a few rattles or no rattles at all, she might have managed but for her duties as the Clan Mother. Those were what kept her from dancing.

“The food would be served after the second Thanksgiving Address and the Women Song,” one of her fellow Wolf Clan Mothers was saying. “I suggest we start organizing it once they finish the Feather Dance.” She was a stocky woman, good-natured and prone to laughter, unless pressed with work. Too anxious to get everything done, when too many matters attacked at once, this peer of hers was losing much of her good humor.

“It might be too early for that, Sister,” said another woman, the head of the third and the smaller Wolf longhouse of the town.

“It won’t. We need time to make fires and spread the ware. Also to send for the missing items and foodstuff when we spot their lack. The girls would be useless, busy dancing or staring, so it’ll leave us with less women to work and still hordes of hungry people to face. So many visitors this time. And the Long Tails foreigners!” The round face turned to Seketa, glaring with unhealthy red. “Tell her!”

“Calm down, Sister.” The arm she placed on her companion’s shoulder was supposed to soften the amused quality of her smile. She was such a worrier, that peer of hers. “It is going to be well. I checked and rechecked all our supplies that were brought here, and they are enough. Didn’t you see me counting all those people, then spending half the morning around our piles? There would be no missing items, no need to send reluctant girls in their festive attire. We have all we need here.” The wink of the third woman made her smile widen. “We received the honor of hosting the first day of the ceremony, and we will not make the Wolf Clan look bad. Trust us on that.”

A dubious head shake was her answer. “If you say so, Sister. But let us hope you are not mistaken. It would be embarrassing to run out of food or utensils. Our clan will be a laughingstock for many moons to come.”

“It won’t be.”

Turning around, she watched the dancers and the fire, this vantage point even better than her previous one. The girls of the Wolf Clan were easy to pick out, the decorations of their festive attire different than those of the Turtle, Heron, or Bear Clans, or any of the others. Without noticing, her eyes checked their motions and regalia again, making sure all was done as it should be.

“In need of some help, girls?” The Turtle Clan’s head woman neared with some of her fellow elderly friends in tow, all smiles. “Think we will be eating well this first day of the ceremony? Must impress the foreigners, mustn’t we?”

“I think our guests are suitably impressed as it is,” said Seketa, seeking her husband with her gaze, his tall, broad-shouldered figure easy to pick out and not because of the magnificent headdress he wore for the occasion.

Such an imposing man, even when surrounded by his fellow dignitaries and other prominent people of the town, faith-keepers and members of the council—a very colorful group, their headdresses and regalia shining brilliantly in the early afternoon light. Some of the foreigners were near him too, as expected, decidedly different and strange in their long-sleeved shirts, the fashion her former people followed these days, she had heard. Her former people!

She suppressed a grunt. He was heard speaking about the possibility of opening the negotiations again, claiming that it must be the time to do it now, when the Crooked Tongues were united and easier to communicate with. There had been a heated argument, she had been told, on the evening before. Not many people were prepared to go against him. Still there were such, some of them growing more vocal, gathering courage now that the foreign delegation brought unsettling news of the enemy’s unification.

Her heart squeezing with worry, she didn’t dare to ask him about it when they had retired to sleep on the night before, not wishing to bring up the subject she knew they would not agree upon. He had had enough as it was, without her turning against him as well.

So she had just hugged him and snuggled against him, instead, and when he enveloped her in his arms and whispered that he missed her and that if the accursed politics came between them once again, he would be terribly put out, she listened to the silence and the even breathing of their numerous guests, then let her hands wander, reassured. Lovemaking inside a longhouse was usually a quiet, careful affair, strangled under the furs and the blankets, unlike the beautiful playing around the couples engaged in out there in the woods. Even respectable Clan Mothers. Or maybe not. Maybe it was only her. Living with such a man, how could she not?

“What is the meaning of that smile, Sister?” The Turtle woman’s voice brought her from her pleasant memories, made her aware of her twisting lips.

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