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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Mar 2017/3 Rain
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Aztec glyphs for place names

IN THE NEWS: ‘Tooth place’

Thousands of years before screen idols began beautifying themselves with cosmetic dentistry, ancient Mexicans had ceremonial dentures. As reported in The Guardian (June 14, 2006) archaeologists have found a 4,500-year-old burial in Mexico that had the oldest known example of dental work in the Americas. The cliff walls at the remote site are painted with designs that include calendar symbols, linking the little-studied area to Mexico’s more famous cultures, like the Aztecs and Maya (read more via the BBC report, below). (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Part of a modern Mexican Day of the Dead papier maché sculpture
Pic 1: Part of a modern Mexican Day of the Dead papier maché sculpture (Click on image to enlarge)

By the time the Aztecs came on the scene, they had inherited a long tradition of oral hygiene and keeping teeth healthy. ‘Teeth were to be polished with charcoal (a good abrasive) and salt; occasionally tartar was removed by scraping with metal tools followed by further polishing. Unsweetened chewing gum was also recommended to maintain clean teeth...’ (‘Aztec Medicine, Health, and Nutrition’ by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, p.188). Learn more about the Aztecs and chewing gum in our special feature (below). Aztec women sometimes also dyed their teeth red with cochineal to make themselves more attractive.

Pic 2: The teeth in one of the British Museum’s Aztec turquoise mosaic masks
Pic 2: The teeth in one of the British Museum’s Aztec turquoise mosaic masks

In their pictorial ‘codices’ the Aztecs used a form of ‘writing’ when they ‘drew’ the names of people and places - by combining glyphs to represent some of the unusual or foreign names of places ruled by the empire. The famous Codex Mendoza (the original is in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) is choc-a-bloc with examples of this. One of the most common glyphs in place names was two (occasionally three or four) teeth (in Náhuatl ‘tlantli’): ‘tlantli’ is very similar sounding to ‘tlan’, meaning ‘place (where there is an abundance) of...’ - it’s a common ‘suffix’ (word ending) in Náhuatl.

Pic 3: ‘Bee’ + ‘Leaf’ = Belief! (Graphic by Debs Tyler)
Pic 3: ‘Bee’ + ‘Leaf’ = Belief! (Graphic by Debs Tyler) (Click on image to enlarge)

The image of teeth is used as a pictogram (strictly a ‘phonogram’) to represent, by general local agreement, a syllable - this is the basis of what’s called the Rebus Principle (in English you could draw a bee alongside a leaf to represent the word ‘belief’, each syllable being shown by a glyph - see Pic 3). In the top picture the symbol of a deer + the teeth glyph for ‘place of...’ gives the name of the Mexican town Mazatlan (‘The Place With Plenty of Deer’), made up of ‘mazatl’ (deer) + ‘tlan’ (place of...).

Pic 4: part of folio 13v of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library)
Pic 4: part of folio 13v of the Codex Mendoza (original in the Bodleian Library) (Click on image to enlarge)

The place name of Mazatlan comes in a part of the Codex Mendoza listing the provincial towns, imperial outposts and sources of tribute for Tenochtitlan: the names of the towns are all linked to the glyph for conquest (a toppled, burning temple). Just two towns further on (on the same line in the Codex - see Pic 4) is a similar example. Whilst you can guess the town’s name means ‘The Place of Many Eagles’, you’d need to know Náhuatl to read the name out loud - ‘Cuauhtlan’ (eagle = cuauhtli).

Pic 5: the glyph for the town of Ahuacatla(n), Codex Mendoza
Pic 5: the glyph for the town of Ahuacatla(n), Codex Mendoza (Click on image to enlarge)

Sometimes the teeth glyph was shown cut into the accompanying symbol, in the form of mini-jaws: the glyph in the Codex Mendoza for the town of Ahuacatla(n) (‘Where There Are Many Avocados’), for example, is a green tree with green fruits and red roots. Two rows of teeth are set into the trunk; the name comes from Náhuatl ‘ahuaca(tl’) (avocado) and ‘tlan(tli)’ (tooth, abundance of).

Pic 6: ‘Place of Much Water’
Pic 6: ‘Place of Much Water’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Here come some more examples of ‘tooth places’ from the Codex Mendoza! Picture 6 = ATLAN (‘atl’ = water)

Pic 7: ‘Place of Many Small Red Peppers’
Pic 7: ‘Place of Many Small Red Peppers’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 7 = CHILTECPINTLAN (‘chiltecpin(tli)’ = small red pepper)

Pic 8: ‘Where There Are Many Snakes’
Pic 8: ‘Where There Are Many Snakes’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 8 = COATLAN (‘cóatl = snake)

Pic 9: ‘Where There Are Many Pots’
Pic 9: ‘Where There Are Many Pots’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 9 = CONTLAN (‘com(itl)’ = pot)

Pic 10: ‘Where There Are Many Zapote Trees’
Pic 10: ‘Where There Are Many Zapote Trees’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 10 = ZAPOTLAN (‘zapo(tl)’ = zapote tree (where the chewing gum comes from!)

Pic 11: ‘Place of Many Old Men’
Pic 11: ‘Place of Many Old Men’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 11 = HUEHUETLAN (‘huehue’ = old man)

Pic 12: ‘Place of Many Thorns’
Pic 12: ‘Place of Many Thorns’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 12 = HUIZTLAN (‘huitz(tli)’ = large thorn or spine)

Pic 13: ‘Where There Are Many Nets’
Pic 13: ‘Where There Are Many Nets’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 13 = MATLATLAN (‘matla(tl)’ = net

Pic 14: ‘Where There Are Many Clouds’
Pic 14: ‘Where There Are Many Clouds’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 14 = MIXTLAN (‘mix(tli)’ = cloud)

Pic 15: ‘Where There Is Much Cochineal’
Pic 15: ‘Where There Is Much Cochineal’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 15 = NOCHIZTLAN (‘noch(tli) = prickly pear cactus fruit, ‘ez(tli)’ = blood, ‘nochez(tli)’ = cochineal)

Pic 16: ‘Where There Is Much Pulque’
Pic 16: ‘Where There Is Much Pulque’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 16 = OCTLAN (‘oc(tli)’ = pulque)

Pic 17: ‘Among Much Bamboo’
Pic 17: ‘Among Much Bamboo’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 17 = OTLATITLAN (‘otla(tl)’ = bamboo, ‘titlan’ = among)

Pic 18: ‘Where There Are Many Mats’
Pic 18: ‘Where There Are Many Mats’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 18 = PETLATLAN (‘petla(tl)’ = mat)

Pic 19: ‘Place of Much Hail’
Pic 19: ‘Place of Much Hail’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 19 = TEZUITLAN (‘teziu(itl)’ = hail)

Pic 20: ‘Place of Many Rabbits’
Pic 20: ‘Place of Many Rabbits’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Picture 20 = TUCHTLAN (‘toch(tli)’ = rabbit)
With special acknowledgement due to the 1992 facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza, by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Rieff Anawalt - in particular, to Professor Berdan’s contribution (Appendix 3, Vol. I) ‘The Place-Name, Personal Name, and Title Glyphs of the Codex Mendoza: Translations and Comments’

The story of chewing gum

BBC News feature on ancient Mexican dentistry

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