General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
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How did the Aztecs make molcajetes?

ORIGINAL QUESTION received from - and thanks to - Socrates Bravo: My name is Socrates Bravo and I am a student at Wenatchee Valley College. For my anthropology class, we were asked to make an artifact, and i chose to do a molcajete. Ive been doing some research but i cant seem to find out how the aztecs did the molcajetes? What kind of tools did they use to make the molcajetes? I you could send me information I would realy apreciate it. (Answered by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

A tale of two molcajetes: one made of fine black basalt and the other from poor grey lava rock
A tale of two molcajetes: one made of fine black basalt and the other from poor grey lava rock (Click on image to enlarge)

You can buy Mexican molcajetes online nowadays, but beware! The quality can vary enormously. There is a world of difference between the best quality molcajetes, made usually from dark ‘river rock’ basalt with low sand content, and cheap and cheerful ones made from grey, very porous lava-rock. The problem with the latter, to quote the website, is that ‘They are softer and easier to carve and thus less expensive. Unfortunately they are terribly sandy and no matter how you may try to cure them they will always be sandy. They are also typically very shallow so they don’t have a very usable capacity. These pieces are fine for decoration or serving only but we don’t recommend using them as a preparation or grinding tool.’

Pic 2: Close-up of a well-used basalt pestle
Pic 2: Close-up of a well-used basalt pestle (Click on image to enlarge)

Making a molcajete today is essentially the same time-consuming process that it was hundreds and even thousands of years ago: ‘pecking’ away (using repeated short, light, percussive strokes against the base stone using a hard hammer stone) to form a bowl. To provide an expert answer to Socrates’ question, we asked a professional flintknapper, ‘primitive skills practitioner’ - and percussionist! - DAN STUEBER, to explain in detail what is involved. He has generously sent us this outline of the process:-

Pic 3: Dan Stueber hard at work...
Pic 3: Dan Stueber hard at work... (Click on image to enlarge)

Molcajetes are made primarily using the stone pecking method. The type of stone that they are made out of is often a fairly soft vesicular basalt. This type of basalt is readily available in small to very large rounded cobbles in the Columbia River region near Wenatchee, WA. where Socrates is attending school. I live in Portland, OR. and collect vesicular basalt near the mouth of the Sandy River that flows into the Columbia. It is very suitable for this work. I have a modern made molcajete that I bought at a local Mexican grocery store, they are now made using a steel Masons chisel. The method that was employed by the Aztecs and all stone age people was to use a hard hammer stone for the pecking process. This hammer stone can be a quartzite cobble or possibly a very hard basalt. Quartzite rounded cobbles are also available on the Columbia R. and its tributaries.

Pic 4: Some of Dan Stueber’s students equally hard at work...
Pic 4: Some of Dan Stueber’s students equally hard at work... (Click on image to enlarge)

Once the materials have been collected, then the stone worker proceeds to strike the object stone, in this case the vesicular basalt, repeatedly in one place with the hard quartzite hammer stone. Quickly, the repeated pecking starts to remove material, producing a small cup like indentation, the beginning of the bowl. That indentation gets larger and larger as work progresses. The object stone can be placed on the leather covered lap, or the ground for pecking. Care must be taken as work progresses to not strike too hard. Striking too hard will break the object piece.

PIc 5: The ancient art of stone ‘pecking’
PIc 5: The ancient art of stone ‘pecking’ (Click on image to enlarge)

The next tool that’s needed is a quartzite pecking chopper that is used for detail work, like the legs of the molcajete. This is made by striking the edge of a flat, rounded quartzite cobble, with a larger quartzite cobble, removing flakes and producing a sharp working edge. Making the pecking chopper is the trickiest part and takes a lot of practice. But, it is an important tool for detail work. The pecking technique is technologically fairly simple, but labour intensive. This technique was employed to build Machu Picchu. It is a lot of fun though, and is a good social activity.

Pic 6: An Aztec stone-worker, Florentine Codex Book X
Pic 6: An Aztec stone-worker, Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno (on our Panel of Experts adds: ‘Molcajete crafters in Mexico use piedra de río (river rock) and I have personally seen how they model the basic form with a hammer-peak and a metal chisel. After that, they polish it with sand and rub it with another stone of equivalent hardness. They make about 10 per day...
’My parents who are educated Mexicans still believe that the salsa made in a molcajete has a better flavor than if you make it in a blender. They think that the one made in a blender tastes of plastic!!  So my mother, when she has time, gets off the shelf her old molcajete that belonged to my grandmother, and makes original salsa. I agree with them because I think that the texture and consistency of the stone has some properties that gives a kind of earthen flavor to the salsa. So, very modern urban Mexican people with university degrees, still prefer the molcajete than the blender, and make salsa in the old traditional way.  This is an example of continuity and persistence of traditions from the pre-Columbian past into the present!!’

Pic 7: Graciela and pupils demonstrating the use of a molcajete, E P Collier Primary School, Reading, 2009
Pic 7: Graciela and pupils demonstrating the use of a molcajete, E P Collier Primary School, Reading, 2009 (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture Sources:-
• Photos of molcajetes by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Photos of Dan Stueber and bowl-making students courtesy of Dan Stueber, and Frank Sherwood of Earthwalk Northwest
• Image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994

Read our feature on the molcajete

Learn more about ancient American technologies

Visit Dan Stueber’s website

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Mexicolore replies: We’re delighted to have helped with your project, Socrates, and look forward very much to seeing the results; good luck!