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British Museum launch of Aztecs Turquoise Mosaics book

British Museum’s long-awaited ‘Turquoise Mosaics’ book launched

Some 15 years in the preparation, the British Museum has finally (October 2006) published its long-awaited book ‘Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico’ by Colin McEwan, Andrew Middleton, Caroline Cartwright and Rebecca Stacey. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: The nine turquoise mosaics in the BM’s collection (page 12 from the book)
Pic 1: The nine turquoise mosaics in the BM’s collection (page 12 from the book) (Click on image to enlarge)

The book, richly illustrated, provides a fascinating introduction to the magnificent collection of turquoise mosaics held by the British Museum, featuring important new findings made by the Museums’ Science Group. The nine mosaics in the BM’s Mexico Gallery (pic 1) include masks, a shield, a knife and a helmet, all originating from the Mixtec and Aztec civilisations.

Pic 2: The cover of Liz Carmichael’s pioneering 1970 book
Pic 2: The cover of Liz Carmichael’s pioneering 1970 book (Click on image to enlarge)

The book brings right up-to-date current scholarship on the mosaics, first assembled in Elizabeth Carmichael’s pioneering but long out-of-print book ‘Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico’ (1970) (pic 2). As the authors explained at the book launch - held in the Clore Education Centre of the British Museum on Thursday October 26th. 2006 - ironically the book’s long gestation period has worked in their (and our) favour, as the technologies involved have advanced many-fold in the last decade.

Pic 3: The event was introduced by Warwick Bray, a distinguished archaeologist and member of our ‘Ask the Experts’ panel
Pic 3: The event was introduced by Warwick Bray, a distinguished archaeologist and member of our ‘Ask the Experts’ panel

Fate has been relatively kind to us in bequeathing these extremely rare pieces to us in comparatively fine condition: rumour has it that some of the mosaics were ‘...found in jewellers’ workshops in Florence. There they were being systematically dismantled so that the tiny polished mosaic tesserae [tiles] could be redeployed in other more fashionable ornaments’ (Director’s Foreword, p.6).

Pic 4: Turquoise mosaic disc, Templo Mayor Museum
Pic 4: Turquoise mosaic disc, Templo Mayor Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Much of the strength of the book lies in combining detailed scientific examination of the objects, insights into their construction and use, and placing of them into a wider cultural and historical context. This is in no small way achieved by tapping the fruits of research into both early codices and recently excavated mosaic finds, such as the astonishing turquoise mosaic disc from Offering 99 at the Templo Mayor (pic 4), which contains some 15,000 separate incrustations.

Pic 5: A pottery bowl of turquoise stones - tribute item in the Codex Mendoza, folio 40r
Pic 5: A pottery bowl of turquoise stones - tribute item in the Codex Mendoza, folio 40r (Click on image to enlarge)

The authors admitted that much work remains to be done in identifying the specific sources of the turquoise in the British Museum objects: this is a huge task, bearing in mind that, as mosaics, they were laboriously pieced together by highly skilled artisans using individually pre-polished tiles provided by different traders from different original sources - generally believed to have been 1,000 miles or more away in (what is today) the SW United States.

Pic 6: Turquoise as tribute in the Codex Mendoza, folio 40r
Pic 6: Turquoise as tribute in the Codex Mendoza, folio 40r (Click on image to enlarge)

A reference in the Codex Mendoza (pic 6 - original now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford) shows ‘10 masks of rich blue stones’ and ‘one large packet of the said blue stones’ alongside 40 tiles of gold - all from the province of Yoaltepec (W and NW Oaxaca), though scholars believe this was merely the last trading stage in a long chain stretching far to the North.

Pic 7: Paynal holding a turquoise mosaic shield, Florentine Codex
Pic 7: Paynal holding a turquoise mosaic shield, Florentine Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

An example of evidence for turquoise-incrusted shields (learn more about Aztec shields by following the link below) comes from Book 1 of the Florentine Codex (pic 7), where the god Paynal (who represented Huitzilopochtli when there was a procession) is depicted holding a mosaic shield.

Pic 8: 2003 commemorative stamps, British Museum’s 250th. anniversary
Pic 8: 2003 commemorative stamps, British Museum’s 250th. anniversary (Click on image to enlarge)

Reflecting the high status of the mosaics in the British Museum’s collections, the famous ‘butterfly’ mask (now thought most likely to represent Xiuhtecuhtli, the Aztec Fire God) featured in a set of GB postage stamps issued in 2003 to mark the 250th. anniversary of the British Museum.

Pic 9: ‘The Aztec Double-headed Serpent’ DVD
Pic 9: ‘The Aztec Double-headed Serpent’ DVD

And the equally famous double-headed serpent mask featured on BBC TV in the ‘Masterpieces of the British Museum’ series. The 30-minute programme is now available as a DVD (pic 9) - follow link below to order, and the link to the BM Compass site for more information on this unique piece.

Pic 10: Guests at the book launch, British Museum
Pic 10: Guests at the book launch, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

On Saturday December 9th. at the British Museum there will be an opportunity to further your knowledge and understanding of the turquoise mosaics. The session ‘will provide a succinct and informative overview of the production and utilisation of these beautiful and mysterious objects set against the backdrop of their historical context.’

Pic 11: Order the book - follow the link below...
Pic 11: Order the book - follow the link below... (Click on image to enlarge)

For a glimpse at some of the beautifully detailed research that has gone into the new book, click on our older ‘Masters of Mosaic’ preview feature, below.

Pic 12: A modern version of a turquoise skull mask (though on a wooden base!) from Oaxaca, used by the Mexicolore team in hundreds of school workshops on the Aztecs
Pic 12: A modern version of a turquoise skull mask (though on a wooden base!) from Oaxaca, used by the Mexicolore team in hundreds of school workshops on the Aztecs (Click on image to enlarge)

The book, with 96 pages and 103 colour illustrations, costs just £12.99 and is published by British Museum Press. You can order it online directly from the BM’s Book Store (see link below).

More about the ‘chimalli’ (Aztec shield)

‘Masters of Mosaic’

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