General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
Text Size:

Link to page about the Maya Calendar
Today's Maya date is: 13.0.4.17.18 - 1799 days into the new cycle!
Link to page of interest to teachers
Click to find out how we can help you!
Search the Site (type in white box):

An Aztec wooden coffer or chest for storing valuables

Study the... FAMILY CHEST

Inside an Aztec house, the family valuables would all be stored in a wooden chest or coffer, or - more usually - a wickerwork basket made of stiffened reed or palm leaf. This contained whatever the family had managed to save as something to treasure: a blanket, shawl, cotton cape, bracelet, jade stone on a string cord, quetzal feather... (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A simple reed basket  - shown open here in the Codex Mendoza (folio 70r) it represents one that’s been pilfered by a thief
A simple reed basket - shown open here in the Codex Mendoza (folio 70r) it represents one that’s been pilfered by a thief (Click on image to enlarge)

Remember, first, as Warwick Bray says ‘To our eyes, even the richest Aztec house would have appeared bare and unfurnished.’ Wickerwork baskets (usually made of reed) or wooden chests - like the one above - held clothes and most of the family’s belongings. Some of the chests in Moctezuma’s palace were said to be 70-80 feet long! A wicker chest was called a petlacalli (literally, a ‘mat house’). The modern Mexican Spanish word ‘petaca’ comes from this. The same word petlacalli, by the way, also identified the state treasure. A family might own a few more baskets or chests, where they kept spinning equipment, small household god figurines, small stones and flints, or possibly simple fig-tree bark paper books containing the signs and dates of past events.

Thief raiding a family chest, Codex Mendoza, folio 70r
Thief raiding a family chest, Codex Mendoza, folio 70r (Click on image to enlarge)

As with the reed mat petate and the digging stick, a reference, when speaking, to the petlacalli could be ‘metaphorical’ (like when we today call someone ‘the salt of the earth’ or ‘a pillar of the establishment’). For example, ‘a basket, a coffer’ could refer to someone who could keep a secret: ‘(S)he guards words or another’s life perfectly.’ In formal speech, an ambassador praising the ruler to the inhabitants of the city might say: ‘The coffer, the reed chest, is opened; you have seen that there lie folded the store of the government, the secrets, and the commandments of our lords.’

A plain reed chest could be as precious to an Aztec as a treasured photo album today
A plain reed chest could be as precious to an Aztec as a treasured photo album today (Click on image to enlarge)

Such chests could hold precious personal souvenirs. For example, the Florentine Codex tells of the merchant who reached the honourable position of making a ‘bathed slave’ available for human sacrifice. As long as the merchant lived he zealously guarded his reed box, as it contained the now sacred clothing of his sacrificed offering. As well as the victim’s cape and loincloth, all the hair from the crown of the slave’s head was carefully stored in the owner’s petlacalli. So valuable were these precious objects that at the time of this merchant’s death, they were burned together with his mummy bundle.

Images from ‘The Shawl’: the real meaning of family treasure...
Images from ‘The Shawl’: the real meaning of family treasure... (Click on image to enlarge)

(For a superb story about a simple Mexican family shawl and the symbolic Aztec treasure it represents, you MUST read The Shawl - follow the link below to find out more...)

Treasure in an Aztec mummy/death bundle; Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 68r. Can you spot the precious green stones on strings?
Treasure in an Aztec mummy/death bundle; Codex Magliabecchiano, p. 68r. Can you spot the precious green stones on strings? (Click on image to enlarge)

In general, a very strict law against theft made people think twice before stealing. But the Aztecs were as human as the rest of us, and theft, though rare, must have been a fact of life in Tenochtitlan. Nicking things in the city market was definitely a Bad Thing: tried on the spot by a court of 12 magistrates, punishment followed immediately - beaten to death in the marketplace where you had committed your crime...
Natty thieves, however, worked in gangs, at night, in the guise of sorcerers, to steal from a family home:-

A thief in the guise of the jaguar raiding a temple, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 26
A thief in the guise of the jaguar raiding a temple, Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, p. 26 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘They would come to the door by night, and by means of certain charms they would strike the people of the house motionless. “It was as if they were all dead, and yet they heard and saw everything that happened... The thieves lit torches and looked through the house to find what there was to eat. They all ate quite calmly, and none of the people could hinder them, for they were all... turned to stone and out of their senses. Then when the sorcerers had eaten and thoroughly satisfied themselves they went into the store-room and granaries and took everything they found there, clothes, gold, silver, precious stones and feathers...”’
The thief shown in the Codex Mendoza (near the top of the page) is pinching cotton capes and precious green stones (perhaps jade) strung on a cord. You can see these close-up in the picture further down from a death bundle.

The Aztecs were quick to draw a strong contrast between good behaviour - represented in some codices by the hard working farmer with his digging stick - and bad - shown here in the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer as an idle jaguar stealing food from a temple.

References and sources of further information:-
• Soustelle, Jacques, Daily Life of the Aztecs, Stanford University Press, 1961
• Bray, Warwick, Everyday Life of the Aztecs, B.T. Batsford, 1968
• Sullivan, Thelma D., and Knab, Timothy J., A Scattering of Jades, University of Arizona Press, 1994
• Aguilar-Moreno, Manuel, Handbook to LIfe in the Aztec World, Facts on File, 2006
• Berdan, Frances F., and Anawalt, Patricia R., The Codex Mendoza Vol. II, University of California Press, 1992
• Brotherston, Gordon, Book of the Fourth World, Cambridge University Press, 1992
• Winer, Yvonne, The Shawl, Martin International, 1991 (illustrations by Jim Tsinganos)

Our Activity Sheet 3c on the family chest
Our Activity Sheet 3c on the family chest (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture sources:-
• Main picture of a wooden chest: drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos ©2008
• Images from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) - scanned from our copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
• Photo of a reed basket by Tecpaocelotl (see below!)
• Image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
Codex Fejérváry-Mayer: image scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1971

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 family chest...

More on ‘The Shawl’ in Ideas for STORIES

Feedback button

Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: No! But as we pointed out above, quoting this time Jacques Soustelle, writing about the wickerwork chests: ‘These frail coffers, which were only covered baskets, offered no real resistance to thieves; nor did the lockless doors, and from this arose the extreme severity of the laws against theft...’ Having said that, there were of course guards placed in charge of the public treasuries and grain stores.
Mexicolore replies: Many thanks, Tecpaocelotl, for this lovely contribution!