General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Mexicolore discovers an ancient metate stored in the V&A Museum!

Ancient metate at the V&A

At the very beginning of 2010 the Mexicolore team discovered that the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum here in London has had in store, for 130 years, an ancient metate. What’s more, their store ‘room’ (it’s a vast warehouse) is in Battersea, near the famous Dogs’ Home - and very near to our base! We were determined to find out more... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

 (Click on image to enlarge)

We were helped admirably by Dr. Amy Mechowski, the Assistant Curator of the Sculpture Collection in the Sculpture, Metalwork, Ceramic and Glass Department (pictured). However Amy and we were faced by a veritable dearth of information: it is listed in the V&A files only as -
Corn grinder (roller missing): green stone, rectangular, the top curved. It rests on three feet and is carved at one end with the head of a conventional monster.
Its measurements are clear: length almost 3 ft 2 ins, width 17.5 ins., but it had never before been photographed. Amy gave us permission to accompany her to the warehouse one day in April to study - and take reference pictures of - the ‘monster’.

 (Click on image to enlarge)

Our first thoughts were: this is not an every-day domestic tool and not Mexican but Central American. The very presence of a figurehead on the front - though now popular on modern Mexican market metates - was a feature far more widely seen in pre-Hispanic times south of what is today Mexico. We showed the photos to several experts on our Panel (Dr. Colin McEwan, Dr. Ele Wake, Dr. Manuel Aguilar-Moreno) as well as to Dr. Matthew McDavitt, and all concurred with us. Dr. McDavitt noted that ‘the reptilian head with the strange, twisting, short “horns”’ was very similar to a Honduran example at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (follow link below), and that ‘the MET documentation speculates that this is a transitional style between Mesoamerican and Central American forms’.**

‘A Mexican Metate’ in ‘The Food of the Gods’
‘A Mexican Metate’ in ‘The Food of the Gods’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Curiously (thanks to Matthew McDavitt for bringing this to our attention), there is a b/w line drawing of ‘A Mexican Metate or Grinding Stone’ in an appendix on the ancient manufacture of cocoa in The Food of the Gods by Brandon Head (London, 1903). His book was published some thirty years after the metate was gifted to the V&A by one James Bateman, in 1871. Bateman was, as Amy informed us later, ‘a horticulturist who collected rhododendrons, azaleas, and especially orchids. He made several expeditions to Mexico and South America in the search for specimens, which is when, it would seem, he acquired the
metate.’ It’s entirely possible that his metate was drawn to illustrate Head’s book.

 (Click on image to enlarge)

What happened to the roller, you might ask? Amy is sure it’s been spotted in the Museum somewhere, but it has long since become separated from its stone mother...
By the way, we were doubly fortunate to see the metate in April: after decades lying uncrated on a high shelf in Battersea, the entire collection in store is being moved down to Wiltshire any day now! Adiós, metatito...

**NOTE: Dr. Ursula Jones, in her extensive study of nearly 650 metates (doctoral thesis, UCL, London, 1992) found that ‘decorated metates are virtually unknown from areas north of eastern Honduras or east of the Panama Canal... belonging to an essentially Lower Central American tradition in precolumbian times.’ She concluded her survey:-
In Lower Central America the metate was - and still is - an important part of every household. Volcanic rock is available abundantly and, undoubtedly, inspired some people with time on their hands to sculpt and ornament their implements. It is understandable that, in a particularly lush area as, for instance, in Atlantic Watershed Costa Rica, people were inspired by their surroundings. But the splendid representations of tropical birds, jaguars, coyotes and alligators are clearly not simply reflections of the environment; in the iconography people expressed their beliefs in the power manifested in this animal world. We can speculate that they intended, through the use of effigy metates and metates with complex animal imagery, to invoke avian, feline or reptilian behaviour, with a desire to acquire for themselves the capability to use those powers for their own purposes. (pp 210-211).

Special thanks to Dr. Amy Mechowski, Assistant Curator of the Sculpture Collection, and to Revinder Chahal, Academic Image Rights Department, V&A Museum, London.

Pottery metate with the form of a jaguar, 800-1500 CE and volcanic stone metate, Guanacanasta-Nicoya region, 200 BCE - 400 CE, both from Costa Rica, Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Precolombí, Barcelona
Pottery metate with the form of a jaguar, 800-1500 CE and volcanic stone metate, Guanacanasta-Nicoya region, 200 BCE - 400 CE, both from Costa Rica, Museu Barbier-Mueller D’Art Precolombí, Barcelona (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Photos of the V&A metate courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2010 [V&A Museum No: 42-1871]
• Illustration of ‘A Mexican Metate’ scanned from our copy of The Food of the Gods by Brandon Head, London, R. Brimley Johnson, 1903, p. 104
• Photo of metates at the Barbier-Mueller Museum in Barcelona by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Our earlier feature on the metate

See a similar ‘ceremonial’ metate from Honduras at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
V & A Museum website
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