General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Professor Warwick Bray

Question for March 2014

Why is the original [Mixtec gold pendant in the British Museum] in England? Asked by Dulwich Prep School. Chosen and answered by Professor Warwick Bray.

A close-up of the (replica) gold pendant that the Mexicolore team take to schools every day...
A close-up of the (replica) gold pendant that the Mexicolore team take to schools every day... (Click on image to enlarge)

[Mexicolore writes: This intriguing question led to a brief discussion in the school at the time about the role of English pirates in taking (Aztec) gold from Spanish treasure ships. We asked Professor Bray to address the idea that, in principle at least, some of the gold items from ancient Mexico now in the British Museum might have come here through pirate hands...]

Ian, Mexicolore Director, shows the replica pendant to a primary school audience
Ian, Mexicolore Director, shows the replica pendant to a primary school audience (Click on image to enlarge)

I can answer the specific question about the Mixtec pendant because it has a publication history. The British Museum has two. They were found, in the 1870s I think, in a tomb in the Isthmus of Tehantepec together with two others that made their way to a museum in Berlin. So nothing romantic there.
In fact I can’t think of a single Aztec/Mexican item (gold or otherwise) that can be proved to have been brought back by the initial conquistadors and has a continuous history from its arrival in Europe to its present resting place. Some of the pieces in continental museums may be part of the original loot, and are certainly early, but there is always a gap in the story. Usually the first trace of them is when they appear in the ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ (often royal and princely collections), but we don’t normally know how they got there. I go into this a bit in my chapter in a book I edited called ‘The Meeting of Two Worlds.’

The original Mixtec gold pendant in the British Museum
The original Mixtec gold pendant in the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Perhaps the closest we can get is through the wrecks of Spanish ships. This probably accounts for the ‘Fisherman’s Treasure’ brought up from the harbour in Veracruz (see the BM’s Montezuma catalogue). The same explanation accounts for a Colombian item from a known wreck off Havana. And Raleigh had a gold alloy ‘eagle’ pendant among his possessions in the Tower at the time of his execution. He even had it analysed, and we know it was gold-copper alloy, but nobody has seen it since.
All this doesn’t answer your question, but it might help to explain why we haven’t much to offer. I’m sure that one day something will turn up, or a historical chain will be completed, but I haven’t found anything - and I have looked reasonably hard.

Picture sources:-
• First two photos by Phillip Mursell/Mexicolore
• Original Mixtec gold pendant photo © The Trustees of the British Museum (Museum number Am,+.7834).

‘Privateers, Pirates and Aztec Gold’

Another photo and description of the original pendant in the British Museum

Professor Warwick Bray has answered 2 questions altogether:

Which were the most common crimes among the Aztecs?

Why is the original [Mixtec gold pendant in the British Museum] in England?

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