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Professor Karl Taube

Question for June 2006

What tools did the Aztecs use to make their jewellery with? Asked by Freegrounds County Junior School. Chosen and answered by Professor Karl Taube.

The Aztec jewellery that survives to this day often is beautifully worked, but it is also true that these objects were made with relatively simple tools and technology. The Aztec artisans [craftsmen] worked without much of the equipment used by modern jewellers, including steel chisels and hammers, high speed drills and blow torches.

Pic 1: Jadeite boulder from the Motagua River, Guatemala. As with other peoples of ancient Mesoamerica, the Aztec especially favoured the colour of the bright green vein appearing in the centre
Pic 1: Jadeite boulder from the Motagua River, Guatemala. As with other peoples of ancient Mesoamerica, the Aztec especially favoured the colour of the bright green vein appearing in the centre (Click on image to enlarge)

As in modern times, highly polished precious stones were highly regarded, among these being jade, quartz crystal, amethyst and turquoise. Such hard stones were shaped by grinding with abrasives, such as pulverized quartz or jade. These abrasives could range from course granules roughly the size of salt grains to fine polishing powder resembling our kitchen flour. In carving and polishing, the lapidaries [gem craftsmen] would work with the coarsest grit for initial carving and shaping followed by consistently finer powders to finally achieve a mirror like polish. The final sheen could be readily achieved with polishing powder applied with a piece of wet cloth or leather. Pieces of jade or other hard stones could be cut with a thin slab of sandstone or with a piece of wood supplied with an abrasive grit. Surprisingly, hard stones also were commonly cut by string sawing. With this method, a wet string impregnated with an abrasive is pulled back and forth across the block of stone. Although many stones were cut and polished with a back and forth motion, rotary drills were also used with grit. Drilling was especially important for fashioning holes for beads and pendants. Boring such holes in hard stone is extremely slow and all too often, boring!

Pic 2: Detail from the eyebrow of the Aztec turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent, British Museum
Pic 2: Detail from the eyebrow of the Aztec turquoise mosaic double-headed serpent, British Museum

One of the most popular stones used by the Aztec was turquoise, which was imported from the far north in what is now the Southwest of the United States. Along with being fashioned into beads, turquoise was commonly ground and polished into thin, irregular plaques that were glued in mosaic fashion on pendants and other jewels. Among the glues for such mosaic work were tree resins and the sap of particular orchids.

Pic 3: The spiny oyster, spondylus was often carved into pendants and beads by Aztec jewellers
Pic 3: The spiny oyster, spondylus was often carved into pendants and beads by Aztec jewellers (Click on image to enlarge)

Marine shells from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were commonly used for jewellery, and were more easily worked than the harder precious stones. Perhaps the most prized shell was the red, spiny oyster (Spondylus princeps). Acquired from the Pacific waters of western Mexico, spondylus shell has a bright red exterior, which closely resembles red coral when polished.

Pic 4: The cut conch wind pectoral, Museo Nacional de Antropolog´┐Ża, Mexico City
Pic 4: The cut conch wind pectoral, Museo Nacional de Antropolog´┐Ża, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

From the Atlantic Gulf Coast came the conch (Strombus), which was valued for its thick, white shell. Jewellery from conch was commonly fashioned to retain the spiral form of the shell, which for the Aztec symbolized volutes of wind. Thus the pectoral of the wind god, Ehecatl-Quetzalcoatl, was in the form of a cross-sectioned conch. It is likely that just as we hear the ocean when we put a conch to our ears, the Aztecs heard the wind.

Pic 5: Aztec metal workers, Florentine Codex, Book 9, fol.53v
Pic 5: Aztec metal workers, Florentine Codex, Book 9, fol.53v (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztec were exceptionally skilled workers in metal, especially copper and gold, although silver was also occasionally worked. It is generally believed that the technology of metalworking, or metallurgy, did not originate in Mexico, but was probably introduced from Central or South America. Metals were commonly worked and melted with very high temperatures, which were often created by the metal workers blowing air through blowpipes into the furnace, a technique also graphically portrayed in ancient Moche art of northern Peru.

A great deal of Aztec jewellery was fashioned from sheets of hammered copper or gold. Such metal was probably flattened by repeatedly striking a flat hammer stone on a large stone anvil. For the Aztec, it is known that the primary occupation of some metal workers was hammering sheet metal, although the more esteemed position was that of the artisans who fashioned the sheets into fine jewelry Along with being cut into various forms, the metal sheets could be hammered and indented to create designs, a technique known today as reposse. The designs to be hammered often were first lightly incised onto the metal sheet with a flint blade. In addition, the metal could be hammered atop carved moulds fashioned from stone or hardwood.

Another common method for making metal jewellery was the lost wax technique. In this case, the form of the metal object, such as a bird or flower, is first sculpted in wax, a very easily worked material. To make a hollow, metal object, the jewellers first made a core fashioned a core of charcoal mixed with clay. On top of this core, the wax image is carefully fashioned, often with a sharpened stick for sculpting. This wax sculpture then entirely covered with clay mixed with charcoal except for one small hole, usually occurring at the base. After the clay has dried, it is put into a fire and the heated wax either evaporates or is poured out of the hole. Since the wax is gone, or “lost,” the surrounding clay is now a hollow mould containing the central core. The molten metal is then poured into the clay mould. Once the metal has cooled, the clay mould is broken and the remaining bits of clay carefully removed from the surface and the interior core. Finally, the sprue, the projecting metal created from the hole for pouring, is removed and the object is polished to a lustrous sheen.

Pic 6: Native portrayals of sixteenth century jewellery, Codex Kngsborough, fol. 25
Pic 6: Native portrayals of sixteenth century jewellery, Codex Kngsborough, fol. 25 (Click on image to enlarge)

Among the more common objects fashioned with the lost wax technique were tinkling bells, which often lined the lower edges of pendants and necklaces. Thus Aztec jewellery often was heard as much as it was seen. These bells were frequently fashioned in the form of floral buds, probably in part because flowers served as a symbol of music. Following the Spanish Conquest, Aztec metal workers continued to make jewellery, although at times the objects displayed clear Christian themes.

Pic 7: Aztec gold pendant in the form of a shield with darts and paper banners, Fisherman’s Treasure, Veracruz (photo from The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Felipe Solis, curator, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004: no. 363
Pic 7: Aztec gold pendant in the form of a shield with darts and paper banners, Fisherman’s Treasure, Veracruz (photo from The Aztec Empire: Catalogue of the Exhibition, Felipe Solis, curator, Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2004: no. 363 (Click on image to enlarge)

During the 16th century aftermath of the Spanish Conquest, many Europeans commented on the beauty of Aztec jewellery, including the famous German artist, Albrecht Dürer. Sadly, however, the vast majority of Aztec gold jewellery soon was melted down into gold ingots for the Spanish crown. However, archaeological discoveries of Aztec gold continue to occur. In 1975, a trove of Aztec gold jewellery and Spanish ingots was discovered by an octopus fisherman near the port of Veracruz. Known as the Fisherman’s Treasure, this constitutes the most important find of Aztec goldwork in recent years.

SOURCES:-
Digby, Adrian: ‘Maya Jades’, British Museum, London, 1972
Easby, Dudley T., Jr.: ‘Ancient American Goldsmiths’, Natural History, vol. LXV, 1956, no. 8: 401-9.
Hosler, Dorothy: ‘The Sounds and Colours of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of Ancient West Mexico’, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1994.
PHOTOS:-
Pics 1, 3 & 4 by Karl Taube, Pic 2 courtesy of the British Museum Department of Scientific Research; other illustrations, as indicated.


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Mexicolore replies: Please look at our articles on the most important farming tool, the digging stick -
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/study-the-digging-stick
http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/artefacts/uictli