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|Pic 1: War between the Aztecs and the people of Xochimilco, Fray Diego Durán ‘Historia...’, fol. 37r (Click on image to enlarge)|
Mexica Weaponry: Classification, Systems and Latest Research
Our knowledge of the weapons used by the Mexica (Aztecs) has tended to focus on the listing and classifying of known artefacts, deliberating in some cases on their possible offensive and defensive roles and capabilities. However, present-day classification-type studies are proving less and less adequate as demands from the academic community continue to grow for a clearer understanding of Mexica army fighting techniques and the role that particular weapons played on the field of battle.
New methodologies and above all new theories are leading to a deeper knowledge of these weapons, going beyond mere description and classification.
|Pic 2: Eagle and Jaguar Knights, Florentine Codex Book 2 (Click on image to enlarge)|
Sources on Mexica weaponry are wide-ranging yet incomplete. To begin with we have the different – sometimes contradictory – descriptions of weapons used by the ancient Mexicans left to us by the Spanish chroniclers.
Next, the rich iconography of pictographic manuscripts [pictures in codices] allows us to explore artefact designs in some detail and provides perhaps the most reliable source of information on Mexica weapons systems – ie, the interplay of offensive and defensive weapons, responding to needs that may be social as well as functional: a subject that remains open to debate.
|Pic 3: Warriors’ stone - Mexica sculpture, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
Stone sculptures and other Mexica art provide a further important source of information; yet despite the large number of available images, standards and meanings tend to get swallowed up in symbolism, which can make understanding the practical use of Aztec weapons harder to grasp. (See Pic 3).
Finally, we have a very few examples of archaeological weapon finds: and of those that do exist, scattered around the world in museums, the archaeological context of each has been lost, except in cases – and these are often disputed – of arrowheads and dart throwers, whose exact origins are thought to be known.
|Pic 4: Aztec cotton doublets together with other military equipment; illustration by Adam Hook (Click on image to enlarge)|
The best known and most traditional classification system is the following:-
Two DEFENSIVE weapons were particularly common: the passive ichahuipilli or cotton doublet with a coating of salt, generally worn as a type of waistcoat underneath the military uniforms of Eagle and Jaguar Knights and other orders.
A common active weapon in defense was the shield or chimalli, of which we know a wide range existed, varying not only in design but also in manufacturing materials: whilst some were made exclusively for combat use, others were simply military insignias and symbolic objects given to officers in religious festivals.
|Pic 5: Bows and arrows: traditional ‘ranged’ weapons, the world over. The Aztecs leave one of the Seven Caves, Fray Diego Durán’s ‘Historia...’, fol. 4v (Click on image to enlarge)|
A great deal of speculation has arisen surrounding the use of helmets and the extent to which these were used to defend and protect or whether they simply served to depict status and symbolic value. Argument abounds over whether the richly decorated uniforms of ancient Mexican warriors, with their impressive display of assorted fine feathers would not simply have got in the way during hand-to-hand fighting, however profound their religious symbolism.
There were two main types of OFFENSIVE weapon: ‘ranged’ (projectile) and ‘melee’ (hand-to-hand). In the first group, the best known is the dart-thrower or átlatl, with a range of up to 120 metres.
|Pic 6: In popular Mexican tradition the captive Moctezuma II was killed by a sling by Cuauhtémoc; oil on canvas screen painting of the Spanish Conquest (detail), National History Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
The bow and arrow was not always accompanied by a quiver: Mexica warriors were more used to carrying a bunch of arrows in their hands, but confusion arises when we try to consider the functionality of this system, particularly when a shield was also carried.
The sling, made from cactus fibre thread, could throw stones with great precision and force. The acorn-shaped sling-bullets (glandes) were made specifically with this in mind (see pic 6).
Throwing lances, tlazonctectli, were simple wooden darts that could be hurled with the power of the human arm alone: though lacking the extra propulsion supplied by the bow or atlatl, they could still prove lethal.
|Pic 7: The ‘macuahuitl’: model displayed as part of the British Museum Moctezuma exhibition, London (bottom); artist’s impression by Felipe Dávalos (top) (Click on image to enlarge)|
Of the close-range offensive weapons, the favourite among Mexica troops was the macuahuitl. It consisted of a wooden staff, 70-80 cms. long, studded with from six to eight prismatic obsidian blades. We ought to point out that on many reconstructions of this type of weapon the size of the blades has been exaggerated: the standard use was small razor-like obsidian blades. This weapon could inflict severe wounds, but given the fragility of the blades, the practical details of its use and function are the subject of considerable debate today.
The Aztec teputzopilli lance was of similar design to the macuahuitl but was up to two metres in length; equally studded with prismatic obsidian blades it delivered stabbing blows and wounds on enemy warriors.
|Pic 8: Club-wielding warriors from Tlachquiauhco, Fray Diego Durán ‘Historia...’ fol. 186v (Click on image to enlarge)|
One of the most ancient weapons used by the Aztecs for hand-to-hand combat was the quauhololli, a type of wooden club topped with a blunt ball that could fracture a man’s skull (Pic 8).
As explained above, the recent use of experimental archaeology [trying out models of real artefacts to see how they actually work in practice] has allowed new light to be shed on the exact function of the weapons in the Mexica armoury, beyond what has already been deduced from the historical sources mentioned earlier.
|Pic 9: War against Coyoacán, Tovar Manuscript pl. X (Click on image to enlarge)|
Current studies of pre-Hispanic weapons using experimental archaeology are gaining attention, even if the initial experiments point to the need for improved tests and further interpretations to be made.
In Mexico the first such serious studies began in the 1970s with the work of Francisco González Rul, who made a reproduction macuahuitl for display in the Introduction to Mesoamerica Room of the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. A call was made in 2004 by Marco Cervera in the journal Arqueología Mexicana (‘Aztec Weaponry’) in which the need to develop experimental weapons studies was brought to public attention.
|Pic 10: Reconstruction of an Aztec ‘teputzopilli’ (Click on image to enlarge)|
Later that same year Marco Cervera presented a paper to the 27th Congress of the Mexican Anthropology Society (SMA), at Xalapa, Veracruz, titled ‘The Mexica macuahuitl: a probable weaponary innovation from the Late Post-Classic Period’. This article was later (2006) published in English in the journal Arms and Armour, Journal of the Royal Armouries, and was subsequently adapted for public consumption in the magazine Arqueología Mexicana (no. 84).
Questions have arisen as to the most faithful way to reproduce a macuahuitl based on the sources known to us, given that not a single historical example of this weapon exists anywhere in the world (save for some possible fragments held in the storerooms of the National Anthropology Museum, of unknown date).
|Pic 11: The construction of an experimental macuahuitl by Marco A. de la Curz and Marco Cervera (Click on image to enlarge)|
The first working model of a macuahuitl was made of oak, to which the obsidian blades were added using pine resin; later on the designs were altered, the oak was substituted with pine, and finally, following research, the resins were replaced with more authentic ones from the spiny shrubs mezquite and huizache (acacia plant) (Pic 11).
Today the reconstruction of the macuahuitl in several parts of the world and the study of how it was used are starting to be topics of great interest to researchers who are contributing significantly to our knowledge of this artefact.
|Pic 12: Atlatl throwing, Codex Becker, fol. 10 (Click on image to enlarge)|
One of the weapons that has most benefitted from this new global research is the atlatl, which as we know was widely used in different contexts, and several researchers from different countries have established more accurate parameters for its use based on newly reconstructed models. In Mexico the group Atlatl México has been at the forefront of this research, even publicizing the sport of atlatl-throwing.
Some of these new studies, with new and different methodologies and results, have led to considerable discussion and disagreement.
|Pic 13: Mexica warriors bearing macuahuitls, Fray Diego Durán ‘Libro de Dioses y Ritos’ folio 273r (Click on image to enlarge)|
Recently the present author, together with the team of Atlatl México, has experimented with other Mesoamerican weapons, including the use of dart-throwers against the ichahuipilli, succeeding in penetrating the latter, though only lightly. The team also aimed darts with an atlatl against an Aztec shield: the obsidian head lodged in the shield, but didn’t necessarily penetrate it. A macuahuitl was smashed against the ichahuipilli, which proved to be an effective defense: the blades broke immediately and in fact part of the pine macuahuitl itself split when one of the blades was forced back against the wooden staff. The ichahuipilli was placed over a large pig’s trotter to simulate a human body in the tests.
|Pic 14: A pine machuahuitl staff is fractured by a blow against a steel sword (Click on image to enlarge)|
Our tests weren’t limited to Mesoamerican weapons: as far as we were able we also tested Spanish weapons. In one notable case a metal sword was used on a macuahuitl which, as expected, fractured the obsidian blade and managed to chip the wood somewhat, without the whole weapon breaking (Pic 14). Given that not a single instruction guide or codex exists to show us exactly how these weapons were used, it has been experimental archaeology that has proved most successful in revealing the technical aspects of weapon use.
We all know how the atlatl and the bow-and-arrow work in theory, but loading the dart-thrower, keeping the dart in position and achieving a good throw is far from easy, especially to begin with. Expertise is achievable, but only with considerable experience.
|Pic 15: War between the Aztecs and the people of Cuitlahuac, Fray Diego Durán ‘Historia...’ fol. 41v (Click on image to enlarge)|
Possibly the hardest weapon to master is the sling: an error can even injure the user himself. Specific movements are required to develop a full swing which will guide the projectile to the desired target.
Without a doubt it is the macuahuitl that causes most disagreement surrounding its method of use: whilst anyone can brandish the weapon and land a heavy blow with it, we have no idea if the Mexica developed specific techniques for delivering wounding blows (or indeed defensive moves) that would allow for the weapon’s weak points, such as its fragile and brittle cutting edges.
We should always keep in mind that classification methods, knowledge built on research findings and even experimental archaeology will all be found wanting if the interpretations that stem from them aren’t developed within broader, critical frameworks. New facts have to be incorporated into a general ‘corpus’ (body) of knowledge – in this case, an armaments system – from within which pioneering approaches can grow that can give due weight to the roles of key weapons.
|Pic 16: Aztec macuahuitl alongside Spanish sword, exhibition on Moctezuma II, Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)|
Based largely on images in codices, some hypothetical systems have emerged, focused around one weapon shown accompanied by another, leading to (new) ideas relating to tactics and techniques. No-one is yet sure if such systems – warriors with macuahuitl and shield or with bow-and-arrow and shield – are based on functional needs or on social factors, including the Mexica military hierarchy. I have proposed several systems in recent publications, including:-
1. Dart thrower
2. Warrior with bow-and-arrow
3. Warrior with slingshot
4. Warrior with throwing lance
|Pic 17: Aztec elite officers with lances, Codex Mendoza folio 67 (Click on image to enlarge)|
1. Warrior with macuahuitl
2. Warrior with teputzopilli lance (Pic 17)
3. Warrior with club or quauhololli
Most of these warriors bear as part of their equipment a shield as a passive defensive weapon, but this shield could, depending on which other weapon is carried, limit the warrior’s range of possible actions. This is the case particularly with ranged weapons such as bow-and-arrow: effective use requires both hands, which would be hindered by bearing a shield at the same time.
Let’s hope that further experimentation, supported by proper interpretation and appropriate theoretical models, with help us understand these artefacts still further, in terms both of their symbolic function and their immediate use in warfare.
• Cervera Obregón Marco A, “The macuahuitl: A probable weaponary innovation of the Late Postclassic in Mesoamérica” in Arms and Armour, Journal of the Royal Armouries, no.3, Leeds, 2006, 127-148
• Hassig Ross, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control, Oklahoma University Press, 1988
• Pohl, John, Aztec Warrior, 1325-1521. Osprey Publishing, London, 2001.
• Pix 1, 5, 8, 13, 15: Images from Fray Diego Durán Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e Islas de Tierra Firme (original in the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid, Spain): public domain
• Pic 2: 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
• Pix 3, 10, 11, 14: Photos courtesy Marco A. Cervera
• Pic 4: Illustration courtesy Osprey Publishing, London
• Pix 6, 7 (bottom), 16: Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 7 (top): Illustration by Felipe Dávalos commissioned by Mexicolore
• Pic 9: Image from the Tovar Manuscript (original in the John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island, USA) scanned from the ADEVA, Graz, Austria 1972 edition.
• Pic 12: Image from the Codex Becker scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1961
• Pic 17: Image from the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938
This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jan 02nd 2012