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An Aztec house interior model

Aztec Furniture

The following article, compiled and translated by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore, is a condensed version of a chapter entitled El Mueble Prehispánico (‘Pre-Hispanic Furniture’) by Carmen Aguilera, from her book Ensayos sobre iconografía. vol, I, published by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City, in 2010.

Pic 1: First steps in pre-Hispanic temple construction...
Pic 1: First steps in pre-Hispanic temple construction... (Click on image to enlarge)

In Mesoamerica the climate - never extreme and with long periods of pleasant temperatures - played an important role in shaping the region’s architecture and household furnishings. Since building methods had barely moved on beyond ‘post-and-beam’ techniques (vertical columns or posts and horizontal beams or lintels), common people’s houses tended to be small, simple, one-room units with no windows and with doorless entrances that provided the only source of daylight: entrances were sometimes covered with a mat or curtain with a little bell attached to hear if someone was coming in. The houses of nobles and official and public buildings were more solid, larger and with more rooms. Temples built on the top of pyramids were small too, windowless and with minimal furniture. Even so, both palace and farmer’s hut were perfectly fit for purpose, since houses were almost entirely only used for sleeping in and for protection from the elements, and temples merely for housing men and gods.

Pic 2: Model of life outside traditional rural dwelling, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 2: Model of life outside traditional rural dwelling, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Mild temperatures encouraged people to spend most of the day outdoors, either - at home - surrounded by vegetation or in the great temple courtyard where religious ceremonies took place. Many of the daily activities that today take place indoors were carried out in the open air: washing the body, cooking, grinding, peeling, weaving, looking after domestic animals, etc.

Pic 3: Petate illustration by Felipe Dávalos (L); example of petates in use in farmers’ houses today on bed frames (top R); bulrush reeds (bottom R)
Pic 3: Petate illustration by Felipe Dávalos (L); example of petates in use in farmers’ houses today on bed frames (top R); bulrush reeds (bottom R) (Click on image to enlarge)

The local environment provided all the materials for making domestic furniture: clay to make washtubs, various woods, leaves and vegetable fibres, especially tule (in Maya called zibake, in Náhuatl tollin), a species of bulrush reed whose spongy leaves, when woven together, form springy, comfortable surfaces that feel fresh in summer and warm in winter. The famous petate (reed mat), of varying sizes, was woven from tule and used for sleeping or sitting on. Cured animal skins - jaguar, puma, bear, wolf, coyote, deer - were also used, though less often, as seat covers.

Pic 4: Mapa Quinatzin, folio 1, with overlay to enhance image
Pic 4: Mapa Quinatzin, folio 1, with overlay to enhance image (Click on image to enlarge)

Indigenous households were directly affected by (good) climate, local materials available and the physical size of the local population: as a result furniture was frugal, light, easily transportable and all at floor level; tables and chairs were barely more than a handspan above ground. From the start the inhabitants of Mesoamerica had been of nomadic origin, sleeping in the open or in caves, their only possessions being the animal skins that they slept on and covered their bodies with. Though a very late example, we get a glimpse of this lifestyle from the Codex Quinatzin: a cave is shown in which a mother and father, wearing animal skins, cook a rabbit while the baby Quinatzin - future lord of the Acolhua - sleeps in a cradle (pic 4). It isn’t until the Early Preclassic period (1500 to 600 BCE) that the first remains of woven mats are found. Pre-Hispanic furniture, in summary, consisted essentially of beds, hammocks, cradles, wash bowls, benches, chairs, storage boxes, tables, table cloths, rugs, curtains and room dividing screens.

Pic 5: Inside a Mexican peasant farmer’s house today, a rolled-up ‘petate’ stands on the right against the wall
Pic 5: Inside a Mexican peasant farmer’s house today, a rolled-up ‘petate’ stands on the right against the wall (Click on image to enlarge)

The one universal piece of furniture to be found in every house was the bed - a mat, petlatl (petate in Mexican Spanish), roughly measuring 1.35 by 1.9 metres, sometimes covered with rugs of varying weight and padded with feathers or rabbit fur, and interwoven with a variety of colours and designs. As is the custom today in the countryside (pic 5), the mat was probably shaken, rolled up and stood against the wall during the day to avoid it absorbing the cold and moisture from the ground, which was generally flattened earth or possibly stucco or flagstones in wealthier homes.

It’s worth noting that in the Maya region petates may have been placed on low wooden frames, and hammocks may well also have been in use; being of perishable material these haven’t survived, though there are references to them in the early colonial era.

Pic 6: Two forms of pre-Hispanic baby carriers, both from the Florentine Codex: top - Chichimec family, Bk 10; bottom - Aztec mother, baby and midwife, Bk 6
Pic 6: Two forms of pre-Hispanic baby carriers, both from the Florentine Codex: top - Chichimec family, Bk 10; bottom - Aztec mother, baby and midwife, Bk 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

In the Central Valley (Aztec territory), two types of baby-carrier were in use, both shown in codices (pic 6). One, called chitatli, was used by the Chichimecs and is still made today by a few indigenous communities. It consists of two poles bent and tied in an oval shape, covered with a net of maguey fibre and joined to form a small basket. The other is the rectangular wooden cradle with a double handle made of curved poles for carrying: inside would be placed a mat and cloths to protect the new-born.

Children were bathed in clay washing tubs (pic 7). Whilst it’s possible adults made use of these too, most grown-ups washed at the side of the lake or river, or used the nearest steam bath.

Pic 7: An Aztec child is washed in a ceramic wash tub; Florentine Codex Book 6
Pic 7: An Aztec child is washed in a ceramic wash tub; Florentine Codex Book 6 (Click on image to enlarge)

In popular use were small mats, commonly measuring around 80 x 110 cm, used (still today) as simple seats for resting, conversing, carrying out every-day tasks such as weaving, grinding, preparing vegetables etc. Some indigenous people today still carry these light supports rolled up under the arm, for sitting on in church, market place, town square, or for sleeping on when travelling.

Seats above floor level were small benches made of hollowed out logs of wood, often carved in the shape of an animal such as a badger, whose head and tail could serve as handles. Elders and lords commonly sat on wooden benches with four legs. Other light and comfortable chairs were icpalli, woven from bulrush reed and used by men from all social classes. It was usual for men to sit on small benches and for women to sit modestly on mats (pic 8).

Pic 8: Domestic scene, Florentine Codex Book 7 (L); artist’s impression of an ‘icpalli’ (R)
Pic 8: Domestic scene, Florentine Codex Book 7 (L); artist’s impression of an ‘icpalli’ (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Backless benches for lords (and deities!) reached high levels of luxury and refinement. One of the most elaborate pre-Hispanic benches ever recorded is that found on a stucco relief at Palenque: now disappeared, but known of thanks to a drawing made by Jean-Frédéric Waldeck [in the 1830s]. It is a throne, possibly carved from wood, with the seat in the centre, covered with a soft and luxurious cushion, the arms and legs shaped like jaguars’ limbs (the arms in the form of jaguars’ heads) (pic 9). In the Postclassic period [shortly before the arrival of the Spanish] wooden benches with four crenelated legs [indented like the parapets of a castle battlement], painted or lacquered and at times incrusted with decorative materials, were common in the Central Valley of Mexico and the Oaxaca region.

Pic 9: Plate 42 from ‘Ancient Monuments of Mexico’, engraved by Gilbert, 1866 (litho), after Johann Friedrich Maximilian von Waldeck (1766-1875)
Pic 9: Plate 42 from ‘Ancient Monuments of Mexico’, engraved by Gilbert, 1866 (litho), after Johann Friedrich Maximilian von Waldeck (1766-1875) (Click on image to enlarge)

The rising sun god, Tonatiuh in the Codex Borgia can be seen sitting on one of these elaborate benches, and Xochipilli, patron god of nobles, rests atop a similar (stone) bench in the well-known sculpture of the deity in the Mexica Hall of Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology (pic 10).

Pic 10: (L) Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias of Tonatiuh (from the Codex Borgia plate 71); (R) sculpture of Xochipilli seated on a bench adorned with fertility icons, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 10: (L) Drawing by Miguel Covarrubias of Tonatiuh (from the Codex Borgia plate 71); (R) sculpture of Xochipilli seated on a bench adorned with fertility icons, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Lordly chairs with backrests. With time the low bench evolved into the tepotzoicpalli or chair with backrest (sometimes upright, sometimes angled), providing more comfort to the incumbent ruler. Examples abound from the Maya region, Oaxaca and the Central Valley. Mexica lords rested on such seats, woven with reed and frequently covered with fine animal skins (pic 11).

Often, whichever type of chair was used, indigenous men would arrange themselves with their feet above the seat, knees pointing skywards or legs crossed, without losing their dignity or noble bearing. In his Primeros Memoriales Fray Bernardino de Sahagún shows a sequence of Mexica rulers; the first three, before achieving independence, are depicted sitting on icpalli; from Itzcóatl onwards they rest on tepotzoicpalli, as they are now autonomous rulers (pic 12). It’s worth nothing in passing that Aztec codices, dating from from the colonial period, reveal the increasing intrusion of European art: perspective, shade, change of proportion, and decorative Renaissance styles, as for example in the Codex Azcatitlan.

Pic 11: Acamapichtli, first Tenochca ruler, sitting on a stately chair with backrest, covered with jaguar skin; Codex Azcatitlan, fol. XIV
Pic 11: Acamapichtli, first Tenochca ruler, sitting on a stately chair with backrest, covered with jaguar skin; Codex Azcatitlan, fol. XIV (Click on image to enlarge)

Chests. The Aztecs made boxes out of wood and leather for storing family possessions. The most common were petlacalli (‘reed mat houses’), with lids, in which were kept family valuables, jewels, work tools, clothes, relics and possibly even documents. One of the rare instances in which the inside of a 16th century (Aztec) house is depicted can be found in the Florentine Codex. The artist captures the moment in which thieves, having used witchcraft to paralyze the occupants (seen lying on reed mats), flee loaded with petacas - the Mexican Spanish word for family chests (pic 13).

Pic 12: Contrast the seats of (above) Chimalpopoca and (below) Itzcóatl! ‘Primeros Memoriales’, folio 51r (detail)
Pic 12: Contrast the seats of (above) Chimalpopoca and (below) Itzcóatl! ‘Primeros Memoriales’, folio 51r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

Tables and screens. Pre-Hispanic families commonly gathered together to eat around the fire in the open air or in a room or covered space separate from the sleeping area. Seated on low benches or on the ground, they ate their meals with maize tortillas taken from a small basket. On occasions the men would spread out a mat on the ground which served as a table. (Nobles used a more elaborate procedure at meal times, as noted by the Spaniard Bernal Díaz de Castillo, including the use of screens to shield them from the heat of the fire and from the gaze of servants...)

Pic 13: Thieves at work, Florentine Codex Book IV
Pic 13: Thieves at work, Florentine Codex Book IV (Click on image to enlarge)

Though not mentioned by the Spanish chronicler, the dining room, bedroom and reception halls of the last Mexica ruler were luxurious - walls adorned with exquisite paintings, floors carpeted with mats and skin rugs, richly decorated chairs and benches, chests, baskets, large lacquer-painted gourds, weavings trimmed with fine feathers and other delicate adornments. All these and more combined to render the governor’s household a comfortable and beautiful place to live, whether as a family home, when receiving foreign ambassadors, or attending to the affairs of state.

Picture sources:-
• Main pic, pix 2, 3 (top R) and 5: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 1: illustration by Debs Tyler/Mexicolore
• Pix 3 (L) and 8 (R): illustrations by Felipe Dávalos/Mexicolore
• Pic 3 (bottom R): from Wikipedia
• Pic 4: image from the Mapa Quinatzin (original in the National Library of France) scanned from our own copy of the study Códice Mapa Quinatzin: Justicia y derechos humanos en el México antiguo by Luz María Mohar Betancourt, CIESAS, Mexico, 2004
• Pix 6, 7, 8 (L) and 13: Images from the Florentine Codex scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 9: Image courtesy of Philip de Bay, Stapleton Collection, London
• Pic 10 (L): Image scanned from our own copy of The Aztecs: People of the Sun by Alfonso Caso, University of Oklahoma Press, 1978
• Pic 10 (R): Photo by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 11: Public domain
• Pic 12: Image scanned from our own copy of Primeros Memoriales by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, Facsimile Edition, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1993.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Oct 07th 2013

emoticon Q. What do Aztec nobles and British politicians have in common?
A. They’re backbenchers!

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