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Mexicolore contributor Marco A. Cervera Obregón

The chimalli or shield: defensive weapon par excellence in the Mesoamerican world

This introductory article on the chimalli, a classic defensive weapon employed throughout ancient Mesoamerica, has generously been written specially for us by a world expert on the subject, Dr. Marco Antonio Cervera Obregón. Dr. Cervera is Professor of History and full-time researcher at the Centro de Investigación en Culturas de la Antigüedad, Universidad Anáhuac México. The author of several books on Mexica (Aztec) weaponry, he received his doctorate in archaeology from the Instituto Catalán de Arqueología Clásica y la Universidad Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona, Spain.

Pic 1: One of the very few original feather shields still in existence - used for ceremonial purposes rather than on the battlefield. Landesmuseum Wúrttemberg, Stuttgart
Pic 1: One of the very few original feather shields still in existence - used for ceremonial purposes rather than on the battlefield. Landesmuseum Wúrttemberg, Stuttgart (Click on image to enlarge)

Introduction
Perhaps one of the most emblematic weapons in the history of Mesoamerica is the chimalli or Mexica (Aztec) shield, probably followed in popularity as military icons by the macuahuitl and atlatl. Whether due to its elaborate design or the colourful feathers that adorned it, the Aztec chimalli has passed into history as an artefact not only associated with war but also with the preciousness of featherwork art, now practically extinct as a craft in Mexico today.

Pic 2: The god Mixcoatl bearing shield and arrows; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on Codex Borgia pl. 25
Pic 2: The god Mixcoatl bearing shield and arrows; illustration by Miguel Covarrubias, based on Codex Borgia pl. 25 (Click on image to enlarge)

Despite this, it has only been very recently that researchers have begun undertaking serious and detailed scientific investigation of this object. Beginning with classic works published towards the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th by scholars such as Eduard Seler, Zelia Nuttall or Antonio Peñafiel, followed some time later by other authors, the chimalli has begun to take its rightful place in studies of codices that focus not just on war but on iconography, the attributes of certain Mesoamerican deities (pic 2), tribute and the economy.

Pic 3: Artist’s impression (L) of a Mexica warrior, showing straps on the shield’s ‘inside’; detail (R) from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing an indigenous warrior appearing to use the entire arm to hold his shield
Pic 3: Artist’s impression (L) of a Mexica warrior, showing straps on the shield’s ‘inside’; detail (R) from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing an indigenous warrior appearing to use the entire arm to hold his shield (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks to new work by Dr. María Olvido Moreno Guzmán, Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal and Emmanuel Lara Barrera, our knowledge and understanding of the chimalli has moved forward in leaps and bounds, and today we study it equally as a jewel of featherwork art, as a symbol, and as a war weapon, beginning with the raw materials and techniques used in its construction.

Definition, form and structure
From the point of view of ancient military technology, the shield is categorised as an active weapon of defense, due to the defensive manoeuvres achievable with it using a warrior’s or soldier’s arms on the battlefield.

Pic 4: Images from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing indigenous warriors in action with their shields;: both hand-grip and full-arm-grip versions are depicted
Pic 4: Images from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala showing indigenous warriors in action with their shields;: both hand-grip and full-arm-grip versions are depicted (Click on image to enlarge)

Shields generally have straps (technically called ‘enarmes’) on the inside allowing the entire arm to grip the shield in such a way as to block or reflect any external blow. Not all shields have this characteristic feature – some simply have a leather handle with which to hold the shield (pic 3).
Shields of antiquity are often classified according to their form and the way in which they are held, to distinguish between hand-grip and full-arm-grip-versions (pic 4). Whichever type is used can have a major impact on the shield’s functionality on the battlefield, allowing or restricting its use as a defensive or offensive weapon.

Pic 5: Mesoamerican warfare - part of a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City
Pic 5: Mesoamerican warfare - part of a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

The word chimalli comes from the Nahuatl language and simply means ‘shield’ in its generic sense. Being a Nahuatl word used in the Postclassic period by inhabitants of the Central Basin of Mexico, researchers tend to limit references to chimalli to a simple circular shield or roundel. We know, however, that this wasn’t the only type of shield used in Mesoamerica. As we will see, other shields were developed by other cultures such as the Maya, who gave their own terms to what the Aztecs would simply have labelled chimalli.
I consider it important, then, to emphasise that Mesoamerican shields were not restricted to the circular roundel type preferred by the Mexica, even though we generally label them chimalli.

Pic 6: Representation of a Teotihuacano jaguar warrior, bearing a characteristic rectangular feathered shield. Detail from a mural from the gate of Zacuala, Teotihuacan
Pic 6: Representation of a Teotihuacano jaguar warrior, bearing a characteristic rectangular feathered shield. Detail from a mural from the gate of Zacuala, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Origin and distribution in Mesoamerica
Given that shields from the Formative period remain largely undocumented, the first for which we have solid evidence date from the early Classic, when their use becomes widespread among the leading societies of Mesoamerica, albeit varying in shape. Thanks to representations in mural paintings and ceramic figurines we know that Teotihuacano shields were often square or rectangular (pic 6), usually decorated with feathers of young birds, and used in conjunction with the attack weapon most characteristic of the Teotihuacanos, the atlatl or spear-thrower. Figurines also show us that they used smaller circular shields.

Pic 7: Maya warriors fighting; note the rectangular and flexible shields. Polychrome ceramic vase (K2036)
Pic 7: Maya warriors fighting; note the rectangular and flexible shields. Polychrome ceramic vase (K2036) (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Maya area, writers such as Carlos Brokmann and Gabriela Rivero have identified other types of shield, some of which are uniquely Maya and the subject of considerable debate, as in the case of the flexible shield (pic 7), found in both rectangular and circular versions. At the same time it is important to note that some writers, such as Claudia García Des-Lauriers, claim that the Teotihuacanos also used flexible shields.

Pic 8: Toltec warrior ‘atlante’ figures from Tula (L); shield depicted on the rear (copy) (R)
Pic 8: Toltec warrior ‘atlante’ figures from Tula (L); shield depicted on the rear (copy) (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

As far as Western Mexico is concerned, Marco Cervera has been able to identify another type again, evidenced in the warrior figurines from Tumbas de Tiro, also known as the Teuchitlán tradition. Here we find rectangular shields which protect a large part of the body as well as some smaller shields, used in conjunction with obsidian-bladed knives. In terms of the iconography from this culture the most commonly found repertoire of weapons is the shield-and-lance combination.
Moving forward rapidly in time, in the early Postclassic Toltec world we find a circular shield usually located on the back (pic 8) of the well-known atlantes (giant human-shaped stone columns); some stone tablets depict warriors holding curved weapons alongside circular shields.

Pic 9: Illustration of a mural painting from Malinalco (no longer existing), depicting a group of deified warriors in Toltec style. They carry a dart and shield decorated with feathers and banner
Pic 9: Illustration of a mural painting from Malinalco (no longer existing), depicting a group of deified warriors in Toltec style. They carry a dart and shield decorated with feathers and banner (Click on image to enlarge)

For reasons of space we cannot consider other Mesoamerican examples here – suffice to say that it is likely that the immediate precursor of the classic round Mexica shield was of Toltec (pic 9) origin.

Mexica shields from the archaeological record
As mentioned at the start of this article, published studies of Mesoamerican shields are limited to those traditional works from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Most writers dealing with the theme of war and weaponry among the Mexica have touched on the subject of the Aztec shield. Amongst others we should mention Ross Hassig, Isabel Bueno, Alfonso Garduño and Marco Cervera. Prior to its restoration a single study was undertaken of the only original chimalli known to be in Mexico (see a replica, pic 10), located in the Museo Nacional de Historia, published by Emmanuel Lara Barrera. More recently, a report has been published of a major study undertaken by Dr. María Olvido Moreno Guzmán, Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal and a team of foreign researchers, which focuses on the conservation, manufacture and material composition of the four surviving Mexica shields.

Pic 10: Replica of the only remaining original Mexica shield known to be in Mexico; Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 10: Replica of the only remaining original Mexica shield known to be in Mexico; Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Of extant examples in museums around the world we really only know of four documented pieces: three in Europe and one in Mexico. Mexica shields appear to follow a ‘standard’ pattern, measuring 65-75 cms in diameter, based on evidence from artworks and codices. This is at variance with examples from other cultures. Their classification therefore tends to be based today more according to their function and decoration – the latter being of particular interest to modern scholars.
I would like to propose introducing a state-based level of standardisation, identifying objects by the processes and materials in their manufacture in workshops, as well as in measurements that followed an established template.

Pic 11: Aztec ‘coat of arms’? Shield-and-arrows symbol of Mexica imperial power; it appears in front of each of the 9 Aztec rulers in turn in the first (history) part of the Codex Mendoza
Pic 11: Aztec ‘coat of arms’? Shield-and-arrows symbol of Mexica imperial power; it appears in front of each of the 9 Aztec rulers in turn in the first (history) part of the Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

In terms of function we have the Yaochimalli (war shield) and the Mahuzyochimalli (ceremonial shield): not all shields were deployed simply on the battlefield. As it happens the few that have survived all belong to the second category. Restorers confirm that by rigorous examination of the constituent materials we can help to clarify their function. Military shields were obviously made with the object of personal protection uppermost, incorporating – and this is confirmed by written sources - resistant materials such as reed-grass and sometimes cotton padding.
The most recent studies of original shields show the frames were made of a very light wood that has yet to be identified, and decorated with bird feathers. Indeed, actual body parts of birds were incorporated, indicating that hundreds of birds reared in Tenochtitlan went into their manufacture. In some cases feathers from different species of birds were used, as well as gold leaf. The straps or handles were made of hide and vegetable fibres.

Pic 12: Artist’s impression of the chimalli in use in hand-to-hand combat between two Huaxtec warriors; note how pieces of obsidian blade have splintered off on impact with the shield
Pic 12: Artist’s impression of the chimalli in use in hand-to-hand combat between two Huaxtec warriors; note how pieces of obsidian blade have splintered off on impact with the shield (Click on image to enlarge)

The extent and quality of the shield’s decor was linked to seniority, to the costumes worn and to an accompanying iconographic language that has been studied but not entirely decoded. These symbols were especially used in ceremonies and festivals in which the shields doubled as badges of honour and status. We should remember that Mexica gods also appear bearing shields, with appropriate iconographic elements.

Uses on the battlefield
As has been mentioned, most studies of the chimalli have focused more on iconography and less on raw materials, compared with studies of featherwork art which have emphasised the participation of amantecas (specialist Aztec featherwork artists) in the manufacture of shields. Relatively little research has gone into battlefield use. One of the first questions that comes to mind is the effectiveness of the chimalli to shield against offensive weaponry – a subject at the heart of experimental archaeology. First, though, we should emphasise that the chimalli was just one piece in a linked and varied chain of weaponry.

Pic 13: Battlefield use: shield with bow-and-arrow; examples from the Codex Mendoza (L) and Lienzo de Tlaxcala (R)
Pic 13: Battlefield use: shield with bow-and-arrow; examples from the Codex Mendoza (L) and Lienzo de Tlaxcala (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s well known that the chimalli, combined with offensive weapons delivering blows such as the macuahuitl, the teputzopilli and the ququololli featured frequently in hand-to-hand combat. What appears strange, though, is the use of the chimalli alongside long-distance weapons – above all, the bow-and-arrow, which requires the use of both hands: surely impossible if the warrior bears a shield at the same time?
Written sources, as well as iconography, show archers carrying shields in the ‘other’ hand (pic 13); in all likelihood, as some documents suggest, they would have carried the shield on the back while in action deploying their long-distance weapons.

Pic 14: Artist’s impression of the chimalli in use defending a Mexica warrior on the battlefield; note how a good number of arrows have become embedded in the shield
Pic 14: Artist’s impression of the chimalli in use defending a Mexica warrior on the battlefield; note how a good number of arrows have become embedded in the shield (Click on image to enlarge)

Another question relates to how feasible it was to repair these shields after a day’s combat. Sources indicate that whilst arrows could easily become embedded in the shield, they might not actually pass through and wound the bearer (pic 14). The best way to test all this would be through experimental studies, well researched, carefully conducted and the results published. What is hard to believe is that such an elaborately constructed artefact could end up being destroyed on the battlefield.

Pic 15: Maya warfare; note the different shaped shields. Part of Mural 2, Structure 1 (reconstructed painting) from Bonampak
Pic 15: Maya warfare; note the different shaped shields. Part of Mural 2, Structure 1 (reconstructed painting) from Bonampak  (Click on image to enlarge)

Experimental studies
To date no scientific experimental archaeology studies have yet been undertaken on Mesoamerican shields. Certainly some extraordinary reproductions have been created by teams such as that of Antonio Casanova under the name Átlatl México, with some interesting attempts at testing the reproductions, but no results have been published that follow established methodological criteria, in terms of tests on shield manufacture. Some preliminary results have been shown in video documentaries, demonstrating the defensive efficacy of these shields; one of these clearly shows that projectile points hurled from an atlatl can embed themselves in shields but not always penetrate right through them. Forthcoming publication of recent studies by shield restorers will shed new light and will finally lead to more promising scientific research based on experimentation.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: Image supplied by Marco Cervera; taken from Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N Abrams, 1983, p. 285
• Pic 2: Image scanned from The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso (illustrations by Miguel Covarrubias), University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1958
• Pic 3: Illustration by Adam Hook courtesy of Osprey Publishing (L); image (R) scanned from our own copy of ‘Lienzo de Tlaxcala’ (Alfredo Chavero edition, 1892), Artes de México no. 51/52, Vol XI, 1964
• Pic 4 (both) and pic 13 (R): images from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala (see pic 3 [R] above)
• Pic 5: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: Image supplied by Marco Cervera; taken from Cervera Obregón, Marco Antonio, El armamento entre los mexicas, CSIC, Polifemo, Anejos de Gladius 11, 2007, p. 48
• Pic 7: Image by © and courtesy Justin Kerr (www.mayavase.com)
• Pic 8: Photo ((L) by Luidger, Wikipedia (Toltec); photo (R) by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 9: Image supplied by Marco Cervera; taken from Jorge García Payón. Los monumentos arqueológicos de Malinalco. Edición preparada por Mario Colín. México, Biblioteca Enciclopédica del Estado de México, 1974, p. 20
• Pic 10: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 11 & 13 (L): Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Pix 12 & 14: Illustrations by Lucía Paola Payá
• Pic 15: Image scanned from Ancient Maya Paintings of Bonampak, Mexico, Supplementary Publication no. 46, Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955.

Bibliography: see version in Spanish.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 22nd 2018

Dr. Cervera’s article for Mexicolore on Mexica (Aztec) weaponry

Our early introductory feature on the chimalli

Learn more about the shield in picture 10...

Vienna’s Mesoamerican Featherworks

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