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Aztec archaeolgist looking for clues using smoke signals, Florentine Codex

Smoke signals - an Aztec archaeologist’s best clue

The Aztecs were expert archaeologists, miners, lapidaries (cutters and polishers of gems), jewellers, craft workers of all kinds, and... precious stone detectors. They believed that the presence of something valuable underground would be pointed to by vapour or smoke rising slowly from the exact spot in the earth. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Locating precious stones, Florentine Codex, Book XI
Locating precious stones, Florentine Codex, Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

In Book X of the Florentine Codex the Aztec writers, talking of the skills and expertise of the Toltec people (who they greatly admired), wrote: ‘Because of great knowledge [of rocks], if, verily, that which was a precious stone were inside a massive rock, they could find it; and if a wonderful precious stone were somewhere in the earth, they could find it.

Breaking up the ‘mother’ stone, Florentine Codex Book XI
Breaking up the ‘mother’ stone, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

‘It is said they found it in this manner: when [it was] still dark, they came forth; they placed themselves somewhere on a high place; they placed themselves facing the sun. And when the sun came up, they took great care to look carefully in all directions, they say, in order to see by means of wet earth where the precious stones were in the ground. And when the sun shone, especially when it appeared, they say, a little smoke, a little mist, arose there where the precious stone was, either in the ground or within a rock. When they saw it, it was as if the rock were smoking.’

Emerald-green jade (‘quetzalitztli’ in Náhuatl), Florentine Codex Book Xi
Emerald-green jade (‘quetzalitztli’ in Náhuatl), Florentine Codex Book Xi (Click on image to enlarge)

Book XI of the Florentine Codex goes into more detail: ‘The different kinds of precious stones... are by no means good, fresh and green... For there is the so-called mother. It is only a common stone, an ordinary stone... Wherever it is, it is passed by... But this, the so-called mother of the precious stone, is not the whole thing. It is only where it is placed: perhaps well within, or on its side... And those of experience, the advised, these look for it. In this manner [they see], they know where it is: they can see that it is breathing, [smoking], giving off vapour.

‘Early, at early dawn, when [the sun] comes up, they find where to place themselves, where to stand; they face the sun. And when the sun has already come up, they are truly very attentive in looking. They look with diligence; they no longer blink; they look well. Wherever they can see that something like a little smoke [column] stands, that one of them is giving off vapour, this one is the precious stone. Perhaps it is a coarse stone; perhaps it is a common stone, or something smooth, or something round. They take it up; they carry it away. And if they are not successful, if it is only barren where the little [column of] smoke stands, thus they know that the precious stone is there in the earth.

‘Then they dig. There they see, there they find the precious stone, perhaps already well formed, perhaps already burnished [polished]. Perhaps they see something buried there either in stone, or in a stone bowl, or in a stone chest; perhaps it is filled with precious stones. This they claim there. And thus do they know that this precious stone is there: [the herbs] always grow fresh; they grow green. They say this is the breath of the green stone, and its breath is very fresh; it is an announcer of its qualities. In this manner is seen, is taken the green stone.’

NOTE: Mexican scholar Carmen Aguilera suggests that this idea was ‘probably prompted by the collected dew on turquoise outcrops which the morning still evaporated. Turquoise deposits do not go very deep, which makes their extraction fairly easy...’ (‘Ensayos sobre Iconografía’, vol. II, 2010, pp. 207-8)

English translation of Florentine Codex (from Books X and XI) from the edition by Charles E. Dribble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, published by University of Utah, 1963/1975. Images scanned from the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994.

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