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What were Aztec shields made of?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Matt Troup: Do you know what material shields were made from? Leather or wood, etc? It seems like the most minute of details, but I’d like the (Aztec) videogame I’m working on to be respectably accurate... Hope all is well at Mexicolore. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Detail from ‘Aztec battleline’ - illustration by Adam Hook
Detail from ‘Aztec battleline’ - illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)

Thanks for asking, Matt. To answer this question, we can’t find a better summary than that provided by Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (on our Panel of Experts) in his excellent reference book Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (p. 135) -

Aztec military shields (‘yaochimalli’) came in a variety of designs and materials. Many were made of hide or plaited palm leaves. A description made by a conquistador describes a shield called a ‘otlachimalli’ as being made of a strong woven cane with heavy double cotton backing. Earlier accounts describe shields of split bamboo woven together with maguey [cactus] fibre, reinforced with bamboo as thick as a man’s arm and then covered with feathers.

‘Cuauhchimalli’ shields were made of wood. Others were made with a feather facing over which was laid beaten copper. Some shields had such innovative designs that they rolled up when they were not needed in fighting and could be unrolled to cover the body from head to toe. Shields were covered with painted hide, feathers, and gold and silver foil ornamentation. There was variation in the feather ornamentation by colour, type, and design, according to the owner’s status, merit, and so forth.

(Aztec battleline illustration courtesy of Osprey Publishing)

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Don’t read too much into these names. Yaochimalli simply means ‘war shield’ - as opposed to ceremonial or parade shields (of the handful of Aztec shields that have survived, most are of the latter type); Otlachimalli simply means ‘bamboo shield’; the most interesting is the last, cuauhchimalli: this means ‘eagle shield’, and is the name of a special shield with an eagle’s foot design (see the Codex Mendoza, fol. 65r). It’s one of two very similar and special designs, the other being one with a jaguar’s paw - presumably representing respectively members of the Eagle Knight and Jaguar Knight orders, only reached after you had captured 5 enemy warriors in battle. The colonial document ‘Primeros Memoriales’ has this description of the eagle’s foot shield: ‘It is covered with eagle feathers. [The eagle’s] foot is fashioned upright and its claws are of gold. It has a hanging border [of feathers].’
On the question of holding the shield, you’ve raised in interesting point - touched on by Marco Cervera Obregón (see his article ‘Mexica Weaponry’ on our Aztecs homepage): in his book ‘Guerreros Aztecas’ he suggests that Mexica warriors used both: most were full-size (c. 30” in diameter) war shields, strapped to the arm, whereas there are images (such as the Tovar Manuscript, fol. 34) that appear to show a smaller one being used by a tied captured warrior in a gladiatorial fight more as a buckler. Remember of course that in these fights, captives were provided with ‘token’ weapons in contrast to the fully armed, freely moving Aztec élite warriors they almost always lost to.
Mexicolore replies: please...
Mexicolore replies: According to John Pohl, the shield represented the soul of the warrior - and was often burned with him on death. Maybe that’s why so few actual warrior shields have survived...? Read ‘Did war shield symbols represent cities?’ in our ‘Ask Us’ section.
Mexicolore replies: They had both. See more examples in our little feature on the Aztec shield: it’s called chimaili and it’s in the ‘Aztec Artefacts’ section.
Mexicolore replies: These differences are set out to some degree in the Codex Mendoza. We’ve hinted at some of the factors involved in our answer to another, more recent, shield-related question, further up this page: look for ’Did war shield symbols represent cities?’ in the right-hand menu...