Posts Tagged: Nahuatl

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.

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

5 April 2014 Comments (0)

I’m honored to present a guest post from , Spanish Bilingual Interpreter at American Translators Association, an expert on Mesoamerica and its various pre-contact nations and cultures.

The Aztecs and the Atlatl

As they fought their way across Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, Cortez and his Spaniards were harassed by showers of arrows and light spears. So heavy was the hail of weapons that one of the chronicles says “…the Mexicas furiously hurled their javelins. It was as if a layer of yellow cane was spread over the Spaniards…”

What the chronicle described as “javelins” were actually light spears thrown with a weapon new to the Europeans. A stick the length of a man’s arm, with a grip at one end and a hook to engage the spear at the other, these spear throwers were called atlatl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs and their neighbors.

Most of our understanding of Aztec warfare comes from the chronicles of the Spanish and the documents written by the Aztec and their neighbors after they had been conquered. Like any other expanding power, the Aztec Empire engaged in wars of conquest, supported an elite class of noble warriors, and sent expeditions against neighboring states.

War was aimed at expansion, but at the same time it was also full of high drama and religious ritual. Elite warriors gained glory by capturing opponents for sacrifice, so hand weapons and close combat were emphasized.

The atlatl was an ancient and important weapon in the Americas when the Spanish arrived. Although different forms of atlatl were invented sometime in the Upper Paleolithic Ice Ages in both the Old and New Worlds, they had been replaced by bows and arrows in most places.

In modern times atlatl survived in a few places such as Australia, where the bow never arrived, and alongside the bow and arrow in the Arctic and parts of Latin America. In Europe and much of North America we know them only through archaeological finds.

The leverage of the long atlatl allowed a thrower to fling a light spear much farther and faster than by hand alone. Tipped with a sharp point of obsidian, bone, or hardened wood, these spears (usually called darts by atlatlists today) were dangerous weapons. It is frequently claimed that they would have penetrated metal armor.

This is not true, but most of the Spaniards would have worn lighter chain mail or leather and padded cotton armor similar to that of the Aztecs, and Garcilaso de la Vega, a veteran of Indian fights in Peru and Florida, complained that atlatl darts would pass clear through a man.

Nevertheless, we know a lot about atlatl, or spear throwers as they are also called. In a few recent societies, atlatl remained in use long enough to be observed by modern anthropologists.

The best known examples are some of the Inuit (Eskimo) groups in the Arctic, and the native peoples of Australia. Since modern guns have become available everywhere, there are now very few people who continue to use atlatls for hunting or because they wish to hold onto traditional ways.

The deity entwined with a snake on the British Museum atlatl could be Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, or Mixcoatl, a hunter god from the north, or one of several other gods in the complicated Aztec religion.

Although the Spanish explorers who met Aztecs and others using atlatls mentioned the weapons in their chronicles, their accounts of these unfamiliar weapons are brief and often unclear.

The atlatl itself was also an important symbol of warfare and magical power. Most of the important Aztec gods were sometimes shown holding atlatls or darts. Zelia Nuttall, who wrote the first important study of Mesoamerican atlatls, noted that atlatls are often shown with snake designs or associated with serpents.

Atlatls were also elaborately decorated with feathers, and associated with birds of prey, not too surprising for a weapon that threw a deadly feathered dart.

In any case, the few atlatls that survive from the Aztec and their neighbors are highly decorated.

The British Museum specimen is probably one of the gifts sent back to the king of Spain by Cortez, which then were passed around the royal houses of Europe. It is elaborately carved, and gorgeously gilded, a work of art fit for tribute to a king, or the weapon of a noble warrior. It is, however, perfectly usable, and we should not be surprised that fine weapons, symbols of power and religious war, were richly decorated. It seems likely that simpler models were used by most warriors, but we don’t know.

Major battles had apparently begun with a barrage of arrows and atlatl darts, before the warriors closed with macuahuitls – wooden swords edged with razor-sharp obsidian. It is quite likely that Aztec warfare was rather similar to the medieval warfare of contemporary Europe where noble knights fought hand to hand with swords and won glory and ransom, but peasant archers with bows and cross bows did most of the damage and actually decided the outcome of battles.

For the original post and more information, you are invited to visit Andres Michel Amezcua’s Facebook page

Invited to the royal feast in the Mexica Palace?

12 June 2013 Comments (1)

A guest post from , an artist, painter, and web designer, a man who knows way too much about anything Mexica-Aztec related, a man who would not miss a single archaeological conference in the Temple Mayor museum.

Enrique is also one of the founders of In Tlilli In Tlapalli – pre-hispanic blog where you can read many more fascinating articles by him, and other knowledgeable, well-versed in history people.

Prehispanic Mexican Food

This article is published because of the great interest that aroused around this data on pre-hispanic food on Twitter some time ago. Many were surprised to discover what our ancestors were feeding on in the Mexican Valley. One or two even mentioned the magic words “It seemed to me ..”. Well, after this brief but fanciful explanation, we can begin with the article.

The four main crops in the valley of Mexico were always of an equal importance: maize (centli), amaranth (huauhtli), beans (etl) and finally the chia. It is noteworthy to mention that the Spanish, due to the religious importance amaranth held – Amaranth statues were being made for the main deities, some mixed with blood, others with honey – tried to prevent its cultivation and use, lest this food would stimulate the original Mexican religions. The amaranth that was particularly appreciated by our grandparents was called wild amaranth (quilitl). Even the mother of the forth Mexica tlatoani Itzcoatl (who was not a woman of noble birth) was selling amaranth-quilitl on Azcapotzalco market.

An important aspect related to the Mexican food were the times when one had one’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. Having no clocks, people were helped to determined the meal-time with the assistance of conch-shells or drums, which were played from the top of the different teocalli (temples), as also by the position of the sun.

The time of any Mexican breakfast was around 10 in the morning. For ordinary people, this was a frugal meal, consisted of a couple of tortillas with beans and salsa, although on one’s way to work or back home one could buy himself a tamalli. In some families after the end of the day, around the 6-8, a light supper was served, usually a gruel accompanied by lake fish or poultry and tortillas.

But the well-invested, royal dinners in the Palace could have started at midnight and lasted until dawn, taking many courses of food and dessert. Such evening would usually end with an invigorating chocolate drink xocolatl (for the journey back home) and a clay pipe filled with vanilla flavored snuff or scented woods. In some banquet, the dessert consisted of the digestives, including peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms as teonanacatl (mushroom gods) or covered nanacatl miel.

A banquet like that would demand a huge amount of supplies, plenty of beans, corn, 80 to 100 turkeys, a dozen dogs and about 20 loads of cocoa. Only a few rich nobles or unusually rich merchants of pochteca-traders guild could afford such expense.

The only two domesticated animals found in these lands were dark hairless dogs called acutalmente xoloitscuintli and turkeys (uexolotl). The fowl’s meat was usually more appreciated that that of a dog, due to its taste and smoothness. So much so that, when a host had to put up the dish, the parts of turkey were laid prettily above the main bulk of a dog meat. Or so claimed Sahagun.

Some anthropologists have sought the origin of the alleged Aztec cannibalism in the lack of protein in their diet. Nothing of the sort! Prehispanic Mexican food was the most diverse in the world, and filled with all variety of proteins. Our ancestors ate frogs, reptiles such as iguanas, ants and their eggs (escamoles), maguey worms that even today are considered a delicacy. A water shrimp, salamanders, flies and aquatic larvae (aneneztli) added to that diet.

Poor people and peasants were gathering a substance floating in the lake, known tecuitlatl, which were told by the chronicles to be cheesy. This was pressed between the mass of the tortillas to give a bitter and stronger taste. Many interesting foods roamed the swamps of Lake Texcoco at pre-hispanic times.

Among the most appreciated delicacies, the nobility most appreciated tamales stuffed with meat, snails and fruit (the latter served with poultry broth); frogs with chili sauce, white fish from the west of the country with chilli and tomato. Also the axolotl seasoned with ground pepper and yellow nugget was a treat for those times. The old recipe of maguey worms was savored by everyone, from leaders to high priests and common people of the whole Mexican Valley.

Back in pre-hispanic days the lands of central Mexico were very rich in hunting. Deer, rabbits, hares, wild pigs or peccaries, birds like pheasants, doves and various waterfowl species abounded everywhere. But people inclined to favor vegetarian food did not suffer, either. Tlacoyo, green mass, and the traditional red for these foods, accompanied with beans, insects, and the typical cactus salsa provided rich diversion to meat. Just as tamales, atole and pozole those were enjoyed by Chichimeca, Mexica, Acolhuas, Tepaneca matlazincas, Otomi, Nahua and many other nations of ancient Mexico.

In pre-Hispanic times, like in our days, the months of June and July were the period of anxiety and scarcity: “So there was a hunger, when grain of maize was very expensive and had great need of sources, they tell us.” The Mexican government tried to remedy this situation by distributing seeds and foods from the royal granaries, which Tlatoani administered directly with the dignitaries. “The emperor showed his goodwill towards the poor, making tamales and they were given gruel.”

I hope you have enjoyed this brief overview of Hispanic food. In many remote villages in the mountains you can taste these dishes, or even in the heart of the city on Saturdays. This is just one of the great legacies of civilizations that inhabited the territory we now call Mexico. Let’s not forget them or their heirs who still live in our times.

Comments, suggestions or questions by twitter account

Thanks you

Enrique Ortiz Garcia

Tlahcuilo – the one who writes painting

7 January 2013 Comments (3)

I’m honored to present a guest post by Rosalina Cantú Guzmán, an artist, writer, poet and philosopher. Rosalina’s poems are beautiful and her paintings are inspiring.

Rosalina seeks “…to learn, to share and to understand…” “…Through my writing,” she says. “I share my questions about life, through my poems I get to touch the soul and the universe around us and through my art I go beyond thoughts, ideas, colors and lines…”

Originally coming from Mexico-city, Rosalina loves to learn about history of her homeland as much as she can, and most kindly she agreed to share some of her knowledge. I hope you’ll enjoy her article concerning the role of Tlahcuilo, the Scribe and the Artist in the Aztec’ society.

Tlahcuilo – the one who writes paintings

Tlahcuilo is a word derived from Nahuatl.

Tlacuihcuilō or tlahcuilō means ‘the one who works in stone or wood’, and who later came to refer to what we now call – scribe, painter, writer or scholar.

The tlahcuilos were Aztec men and women who excelled in drawing, who were trained with the knowledge of their language and culture from childhood. The work of tlahcuilo is associated with different activities, not only the pictograph. The tlahcuilos painted murals and codices in Mesoamerica. He knew the various forms of representation and mythology. He or she could work in markets and temples, depending on the type of activity that they needed to perform.

The codices were elaborated on bark paper called amatl. In Spanish it is called paper amate. It is a form of paper that is made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genus Fics). The resulted fibrous material then is pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper that’s very characteristic being light brown with corrugated lines. The amate paper is still in use in Mexico in artisan paintings.

Tlahcuilos would also use deerskin, or cotton cloth woven like a belt, and black and red ink for paintings and glyphs; and in some cases, maguey paper. To make the colors they would use vegetables, insects, shells, and minerals to create colors, then oil could be added to make colors brighter. The codices were kept, folded by way of screens, or homes in amoxcallis codices. The tlahcuilos were under the protection of the goddess Xochiquétzal.

The next poem will help to explain the importance of the tlahcuilo and their connection with the gods. This poem is of the Dual God Ometeotl where its depicted as a divine artist who sings and paints human life into existence in his/her divine book. The world is created by the flowers and songs (In Xochitl In Cuicatl) of the gods.

The Tlacuilo With flowers You write, O Giver of life; With songs You give color With songs You shade; Those who live here on the Earth; Later you will erase eagles and jaguars, We live only in your book of paintings, Here, on the Earth.

So the humans create their own flowers and songs, imitating the divine and communicating with the gods. And the tlahcuilo, the human painter, was the artist closest to the god.

They were trained in priestly schools. To be a true painter, a person had to develop an inward sense of feeling and understanding about the nature and intention of the god. This was called conversing with one’s heart, which resulted in the painter’s becoming a yolteotl, or heart rooted in the divine. So the person who had taken the god into his heart was then honored to transfer the images and purpose of the divine realty into paintings, codices, and murals so important for the Aztecs.

This Nahuatl poem found in the Codex Matritense, depicts what a good painter should be:

In tlahcuilo In tlahcuilo: tlilli tlapalli, tlilatl yalvil toltecatl, tlachichiuhqui… In qualli tlahcuilo: mihmati, yolteutl, tlayolteuiani, moyolnonotzani. Tlatlapalpoani, tlatlapalaquiani, tlacevallotiani, tlacxitiani, tlaxayacatiani, tlatzontiani. Xochitlahcuiloa, tlaxochiicuiloa toltecati.

The good painter is a Toltec, an artist; He creates with black and white ink, He prepares the black, he grounds it and apply it, Creator of things in black water; The good painter, understanding, has god in his heart He brings divinity to things with his heart, He communicates with his own heart He knows the colors, he applies, he shades; He draws the feet, the faces; He draws the shades, achieving perfection; He applies color to everything; He paints the colors of all the flowers; As if he was a Toltec.

A note worth mentioning is that they always refer to the Toltecs as perfection, because they believed the Toltecs were descendants of the gods. To be an artist, a Tlahcuilo, you had to be born to be one, you had to have the intuitive skills. Nevertheless, to become Tlahcuilo you had to undergo an extensive training in the local calmecac.

Generally this profession was passed from father to son. The Tlahcuilos were highly regarded in the Aztec society. Their work was intentionally cryptic, only the priest and nobles could interpret them. They weren’t interested in drawing nature as it is observed; the tlahcuilo’s work was a conceptual art. They didn’t sign the codexes or their works; their works belonged to society. And their work still remains with us in murals and codexes, where their unique union and understanding with the gods made them messengers of the flowers and songs of the Aztec society.

Weapons in the Mexica period

29 December 2012 Comments (1)

A guest post from , an artist, painter, and web designer, a man who knows way too much about anything Mexica-Aztec related, a man who would not miss a single archeological conference in the Temple Mayor museum.

Enrique is a talented painter and I promise to link to his works later on, when his beautifully detailed and historrically accurate paintings will be properly water-marked and protected (soon, as he promised). He is also one of the founders of In Tlilli In Tlapalli – pre-hispanic blog where you can read many more fascinating articles by him, and other knowledgeable, well-versed in history people.

Weapons in the Mexica period

We all know about the military reach of the powerful Aztec civilization, whose armies dominated more than 500 different cities in the states of Tabasco, Veracruz, Guerrero, Oaxaca, Edo, just to name a few, reaching out beyond even the current Mexican borders, colonizing parts of Guatemala.

But if you wondered how those Aztec legions were armed and what weapons they used, you will find your answers in this article because today I will write about the weaponry used by the Mexica warriors.

The instruments of war are always divided into offensive and defensive.

This article will talk mainly about the offensive weapons, although I would like to mention the defensive weapons such as chimalli – a shield, which was made out of wood, reinforced with reeds, sisal fiber, then covered with leather. Also ichcahuipilli, a padded cotton armor, hardened with salt water, or made out of sisal.

Among the offensive weapons of combat first comes the ever popular macuahuitl – the obsidian sword, which consisted of a pine stick inlaid with razor-sharp obsidian. It is said that macuahuitl could cut an arm or a head without a problem, but if it was the first blow, as, colliding with a shield or another wooden item, the obsidian blade could broke or became damaged. Even by accounts of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, we know that there was a version of this weapon used to be handled with two hands (the Hispanic version of the European bastard sword). A couple of photographs taken in the late nineteenth century confirm this observation, showing a very long macuahuitl located in the Royal Armoury of Madrid which was destroyed with many other pieces when a fire occurred inside the compound previously mentioned.

Spears/javelins were also quite popular weapons used by the Aztec warriors. A great diversity of those weapons ranged from javelins, favored by light troop and called teputzopilli, to heavy lances. These were very characteristic to various Mexican civilizations, because the tip of the spear had also been inlaid with obsidian slabs. No doubt those weapons was used mainly in close combat. If in America had been existed contingents of pikemen or spearmen, Europe would certainly have used a Mexican teputzopilli.

Closely related to spears was atlatl. This weapon consisted of a piece of wood with two handles for fingers, which worked as an extension of the warrior’s arm. Using the atlatl, its owner would achieve more accuracy and cover greater distance (current experiments establish that had a range of 100 to 150 m with the ability to impale a man). The wood it was made of, was pine, due to its durability and lightness.

Atlatl and spear were linked with the ruling class of Tenochtitlan, as well as with the gods. There were numerous representations of Tezcatlipoca and Huitzilopochtli handling atlatl in one hand, and the other holding the darts to use. Ceremonial atlatls were primarily decorative, not intended to use in battle. They were inlaid with turquoise, jade, bone, gold and endless precious materials.

Another, but a less popular weapon, were a bow and arrows (made of one piece and not as the Mongolian composite bows, made out of different materials for the added strength and propulsion shooting). The arrowheads could be made from obsidian, bone, or charred wood. It is noteworthy that the primary function of this weapon was the hunt, like the blowpipe, therefore its use in a battle was not as extensive as this of atlatl or macuahuitl. Bow and arrows were valued differently among peoples of ancient Mexico. For example, the Tarascan were famous archers, inflicting heavy defeats on other nations with their use of metallurgy and their mastery of archery. For Chichimeca nomadic groups, living mainly by hunting, the bow was essential in their lifestyle.

A basic part of the arsenal of a commoner warrior would be a sling, woven from sisal or other plant fibers. In chronicles of anonymous conquistadors, the Spanish squadrons referred to groups of slingers among the Mexica forces. The ammunition was usually river rocks or slabs of stone, carved with angles to increase the impact, and the damage. Today in some populations of Mexico there are still people who know how to make these slings with one sisal cord, using it for hunting, although this traditional craft is getting closer to extinction with each passing day.

I hope this brief overview of the Mexican weaponry was of an interest. Although there is not quite enough information on this subject, it is logical that there is much more than reflected in this limited space. For example, it is interesting to note (albeit briefly) that wooden mallets barbed some obsidian were used, along with axes and copper weapons (the latter probably brought from faraway kingdom of Michoacán). Just look and you are invited to begin your own investigation into the rich culture of the people who had inhabited this country called Mexico before the Spanish arrived.

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Cheers and good night

Enrique Ortiz

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