General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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The humble Aztec digging stick called coa or uictli

Study the... DIGGING STICK

There was no more basic, down-to-earth, essential piece of kit for the Aztecs than the humble digging stick. But its use as a simple farming tool is the just the ‘tip of the mountain’: its importance as a symbol goes deep into the earth itself... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The digging stick at the centre of a mural by Diego Rivera on the theme of pre-Hispanic agriculture
Pic 1: The digging stick at the centre of a mural by Diego Rivera on the theme of pre-Hispanic agriculture (Click on image to enlarge)

The digging stick’s common name in Náhuatl was uictli; after the Conquest it took on the name coa - some have claimed that coa could be a Spanish corruption of the Náhuatl word cuahuitl meaning pole, though there are no known references to it in Náhuatl other
than as a borrow word from the Spanish.
There was more than one type of digging stick - you can learn more about these in our in-depth feature on the uictli (follow link below, or right). And the uictli wasn’t just used for farming: it could also represent construction and repair work of all kinds.

Pic 2: A bride-to-be eyes her future husband; ‘Is that all you’ve got to offer?’ she seems to be thinking! Codex Tudela folio 74
Pic 2: A bride-to-be eyes her future husband; ‘Is that all you’ve got to offer?’ she seems to be thinking! Codex Tudela folio 74 (Click on image to enlarge)

Look at Picture 2: at the top you can see a humble Aztec farmer with some of his basic tools: digging stick, copper axe, and a crude carrying strap (like the one on his back) for lugging things around. Next to him (top left) is his future bride. Just look at her face. What do you think she’s thinking?! Below them are the parents (and a couple of extra relatives) on both sides, negotiating the marriage. Notice the two fathers sitting on petate-and-earth seats. Why do the mothers have such long pointing fingers?!

Pic 3: A digging stick in use in the ‘chinampas’
Pic 3: A digging stick in use in the ‘chinampas’ (Click on image to enlarge)

A successful harvest didn’t just depend on solid hard work, however: whether the earth would deliver up its life-giving fruits in plenty depended too on climate, fate and the goodwill of the gods. In the Florentine Codex there are several pictures of the digging stick - some where different types of soil are discussed, and some, as in Picture 4, where the farmer’s good fortune is linked to a particularly favourable date on which to be born: One Rabbit. A farmer born on this day could look forward to seeing rich fruits from his labours:-

Pic 4: An Aztec farmer born on a good day sign, Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 4: An Aztec farmer born on a good day sign, Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

‘This man... provided for and benefitted his children and grandchildren... If he were one who tilled the land, one who broke and reworked the fields, he planted and sowed all things on his land... [later] he hoed the ground... and opened his plot for irrigating... and fertilized the land.
After this, he witnessed the successful results of his fatigue and pains... When he had realised and produced his products of the soil, he was content, rejoicing and happy...

Pic 5: The digging stick represents a good citizen... Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 29
Pic 5: The digging stick represents a good citizen... Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 29 (Click on image to enlarge)

Scholars are now coming to realise that ordinary-looking artefacts like the uictli actually have ‘deeper’ levels of meaning: they appear in certain sequences in the codices that form ‘chapters’ relating to key themes of every-day life: birth, partners, travel, planting, marriage, public service, and... behaviour. In picture 5 the digging stick, alongside its twin tool the woodcutter’s axe (remember them in Picture 2?!) represents peaceful, settled farming, made possible by the hard work of the ‘good’ citizen, in contrast with baddies who loiter, gamble, thieve, gossip, drink alcohol, and worse...

Pic 6: A public works official orders two youths to work - and warns them against slacking! Codex Mendoza, folio 70r
Pic 6: A public works official orders two youths to work - and warns them against slacking! Codex Mendoza, folio 70r (Click on image to enlarge)

The snake (Picture 5, on the left), representing fertility, becomes the digging stick: together they represent the hard work of the community that produce life-giving maize.

Pic 7: Rain god Tlaloc using his digging stick to cultivate corn - detail adapted from Codex Borgia, plate 20
Pic 7: Rain god Tlaloc using his digging stick to cultivate corn - detail adapted from Codex Borgia, plate 20 (Click on image to enlarge)

Amongst the Inca of South America, the act of planting and the ‘passing of the sun underneath the world’ - as seen passing through 4 pillars on a hill overlooking their great mountain city of Cuzco - were connected both in meaning and in time of year: always in mid-August, when, as an Inca legend says, the earth mother, Pachamama, ‘opens up’. She is then at her most fertile and can be penetrated both by the tiller (with his plow - in Mexico, the digging stick) and the sun (with his rays).

Our Activity Sheet 3b, on the digging stick
Our Activity Sheet 3b, on the digging stick (Click on image to enlarge)

For all the peoples of ancient America, then, a humble farming tool like the digging stick would have stood for life - plant, human and divine...

Further reading (for serious students!):-
Gordon Brotherston Book of the Fourth World, Cambridge University Press, 1992
Anthony Aveni People and the Sky, Thames & Hudson, 2008

Picture sources:-
Main picture of a digging stick: drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos ©2008
Diego Rivera mural, National Palace, Mexico City: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Chinampas painting, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Codex Tudela: image scanned from our copy of the Testimonio Compañía Editorial facsimile edition, Madrid, 2002
Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
Codex Fejérváry-Mayer: image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971
Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) - scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
Codex Borgia: image scanned from The Codex Borgia: A Full-Colour Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript by Gisele Díaz and Alan Rodgers, Dover Publications, New York, 1993, p.58 (detail only)

Now that you’ve learnt more about the petate, download the activity sheet on it (click on the PDF icon below) and get to work...!

Acrobat logo Download our Activity Sheet on the digging stick...

Our in-depth feature on the ‘uictli’

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