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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 25 Feb 2017/10 Deer
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Clay printing stamps

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Using clay stamps to print patterns and figures onto pieces of clothing or parts of the body is really ancient in Mexico.
Everyone did it! A bit like face-painting today, at festival time people decorated their bodies - usually cheeks, arms and legs - with snazzy designs.
Popular designs included geometric patterns, interlaced flowers, animals, serpents, eagle heads, and... dancing monkeys!
The largest clay stamp yet found is 23 cm in length; the smallest - just one square centimetre!
Why not try designing your own...?
emoticon Aztec kids collected stamps - of the face-painting kind...

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Article suitable for older students

HOT TIP
Aztec clay stamp in Exeter
Aztec clay stamp in Exeter
Study it online or see it for real in the World Cultures Gallery of The Royal Albert Memorial Museum...
‘Aztec clay stamp’
Mexica (Aztec) clay stamp

Clay stamps

The Mexica (Aztecs) generally only used clay moulds when making ‘cheap-and-cheerful’ figurines for what we would call the ‘mass market’: small, unpainted knicknacks shaped like temples, gods and human beings that even the poorest could afford to have in their homes. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

This clay stamp mould in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City is 17 cms long.
This clay stamp mould in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City is 17 cms long. (Click on image to enlarge)

’More lively are the designs on the terracotta stamps used to print patterns on something (perhaps cloth or the human body) which has not been preserved in the archaeological record. There are geometric and abstract motives, monkeys and eagles, stylized versions of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent, and of other strange figures who may be gods or heroes’ (Warwick Bray). These would have been hand made, in a tradition going back some two millennia (2,000 years) before the Aztecs.

Examples of Aztec clay stamps in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology; can you spot the little monkey!
Examples of Aztec clay stamps in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology; can you spot the little monkey! (Click on image to enlarge)

Evidence from finds at Tlatilco, a large pre-Hispanic village in the Valley of Mexico, shows that even the earliest (roller-shaped) baked clay stamps (occasional stone, copper and bone ones have been found) were used by common folk as well as the better-off, to apply ink or paint to clothing, paper, or to the body. Roller-shaped stamps - that sometimes had two ingenious parallel lines running lengthwise to act as margin guides for printing onto sashes and belts!) - gave way to simpler, flatter models hundreds of years before the Aztecs came on the scene. Printing with stamps was - among ancient Mexicans - and remains today - all over the world - very much a folk art. It must have been common for people to decorate their cheeks, arms and legs during major festivals, a bit like the modern-day fad for face-painting and the use of stick-on temporary tattoos at big events.

A modern inking stamp with a pre-Hispanic look and feel to it...
A modern inking stamp with a pre-Hispanic look and feel to it... (Click on image to enlarge)

Museums contain some examples of rounded stamps, ideal for printing onto human limbs. The stamping process was also used for decorating pottery pieces, being applied to the surface of the vessel when the clay was still pliable.
Colour dyes were made from charcoal and pine (for black), chalk (white!), cinnabar (bright scarlet mercury ore), cochineal, indigo and other materials.
Popular designs - which tended to be strongly stylized - included geometric patterns, interlaced flowers, animals, serpents, eagle heads, and (one often reproduced in books of ancient Mexican motifs today) ‘monkeys dancing in pairs to some irresistible rhythm’...

The classic work of Jorge Enciso who died in 1969 remains the best source on pre-Hispanic stamp designs: (L) Dover Publications edition (1953) based on the author’s own original edition (1947)
The classic work of Jorge Enciso who died in 1969 remains the best source on pre-Hispanic stamp designs: (L) Dover Publications edition (1953) based on the author’s own original edition (1947) (Click on image to enlarge)

For decades we have been recommending as the best source book on ancient Mexican (stamp) designs, the books by Jorge Enciso, widely available thanks to the Dover Publications edition (look how well thumbed our copy is in the photo!) In Enciso’s own words ‘their variety and ingenuity interested me intensely’. He collected, studied - and traced! - hundreds of original stamps, in museums and private collections. The smallest he found measured just one square centimetre; the largest (from Tlatilco) was 23 cms in length.

 (Click on image to enlarge)

NOTE ON TATTOOS:-
We consulted a world expert on tattooing traditions around the world, Lars Krutak, on tattooing in ancient Mexico. He told us -
There really is no firm evidence of a tattooing tradition among the Olmec, Maya or Aztec. It is speculative at best and I am more inclined that these groups either body painted or practiced scarification in antiquity. In short, they may have tattooed prisoners from the ethnic groups they conquered, but there just isn’t enough data out there. The firmest evidence we have of true tattooing in Mexico is of Uto-Aztecan peoples like the Tarahumara, Pima, and others of the Northwest who certainly tattooed – as we have learned from early missionary accounts. - learn more of Lars’ work as a tattoo anthropologist from his website, below...

Info from:-
Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico by Jorge Enciso, Dover Publications, New York, 1953
Aztecs Royal Academy of Arts exhibition catalogue, London, 2002
Aztec Art by Esther Pasztory, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1983
Ancient Mexico & Central America by Susan Toby Evans, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004
Every Life of the Aztecs by Warwick Bray, Dorset Press, New York, 1968

Image sources:-
• Museum object photos by Ana Laura Landa and Xavier M. Miró/Mexicolore
• Modern inking stamp photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore

NOTE 2012:-
The last link below takes you to a small Polish photogallery collected by Boguchwala Tuszynska during her travels. As the text is in Polish, here is some of the introductory text in English:-
During excavations all over Mesoamerica, archaeologists often find small objects with various patterns on them. They are a kind of stamps with residues of pigments, especially red, blue, yellow and black. These items are usually small in size - from a few to a dozen centimeters and have flat, cylindrical or conical shapes. Most of them were made of clay, and only a few of stone. The flat stamps have small handles that make using them easier, and the cylindrical ones have holes through which a stick can be put to facilitate applying the pattern by rolling the stamp. The most common designs include flowers, lizards, snakes, birds, butterflies and other animals, but also fantastic beasts. Sometimes these are just geometric patterns, zigzags, spirals and circles, occasionally there are also glyphs. Stamps have been found in different areas, such as Tlatilco, Teotihuacan, Colima, Chiapa de Corzo, Calakmul, in the vicinity of San Luís Potosí, on the Olmec site of San Andrés, in Veracruz and the Mexica areas, which indicates that they were quite commonly used from the pre-Classic to post-Classic period
(With thanks to Agnieszka Hamann).

See a ‘fire serpent’ clay stamp

See some small clay stamps for decorating the cheeks during festivals

Lay out 3 ancient Mesoamerican roller stamp designs!

Lars Krutak’s tattooing website

Boguchwala Tuszynska’s photo archive of 47 pre-Columbian stamps (text in Polish)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: (We’ve asked Denise to supply more details, which we hope to post in our ‘Can You Help?’ section...)
Mexicolore replies: Sounds great, Gerardo - but you haven’t supplied an email address! We’d love to hear/see more about your stamp...
Mexicolore replies: Cheers, JG, keep in touch and let us know how you get on - we’d love to see/share any photos you can get...