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General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 29 Apr 2017/8 Dog
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Aztec obsidian blades and flints

Basic Aztec facts: AZTEC TOOLS

The Mexica (Aztecs) lived in what’s called the Bronze Age, which came late to the Americas. For thousands of years the ancient Mesoamericans had done very nicely without the use of metals at all - by quarrying first andesite (a volcanic rock) and then obsidian (a strong but brittle volcanic glass) to give them some of the best cutting tools around... (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Razor-sharp obsidian blades in the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City
Pic 1: Razor-sharp obsidian blades in the Templo Mayor Museum, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

OBSIDIAN has been described as the steel of the New World. Elite Aztec warriors were still using super-sharp obsidian blades (pic 1) on their weapons some 9,000 years after its earliest use. And why not? Mesoamericans perfected the technique of ‘prismatic blade production’, giving them knives, scrapers and weapon points with some of the sharpest edges known to modern science!

Pic 2: Obsidian mirrors were associated by the Aztecs with the great god of fate, Tezcatlipoca
Pic 2: Obsidian mirrors were associated by the Aztecs with the great god of fate, Tezcatlipoca (Click on image to enlarge)

Mind you, they didn’t just use obsidian, andesite and flint for making blades to cut and puncture things, they fashioned some seriously beautiful objects from them too: like fine ear plugs, vessels, and this highly polished obsidian mirror (pic 2). They got impressive results from the simplest of technologies...

Pic 3: The Aztec farmer’s all-important digging stick
Pic 3: The Aztec farmer’s all-important digging stick (Click on image to enlarge)

Equally old of course as a tool-making resource was WOOD, used to make one of the most traditional of work tools in Mexico, still employed today by poor farmers around the country, the classic wooden digging stick (pic 3). No digging stick, no crops! Called a uictli in Náhuatl, you can learn more about it from the link below.

Pic 4: Fire kindling, Aztec style
Pic 4: Fire kindling, Aztec style (Click on image to enlarge)

And without matches, wood was used in its simplest form to make the ultimate Aztec Boy Scout tool: fire kindling sticks (pic 4) that were rubbed together vigorously and at high speed. Every 52 years the Aztecs held a New Fire Ceremony to celebrate the start of a new ‘century’: the hero of the day? The high priest who lit that crucial first fire on the chest of a sacrifice victim. (Find out more in our Aztec Stories section...)

Pic 5: A Mexica (Aztec) farmer with a precious copper axe, alongside his digging stick and carrying strap
Pic 5: A Mexica (Aztec) farmer with a precious copper axe, alongside his digging stick and carrying strap (Click on image to enlarge)

It was only in the last few centuries before the Spanish Conquest that metal-working arrived in Mexico - probably by sea from South America. It was the Tarascans (who were never defeated by the Aztecs and whose lands to the West of the Aztec Empire formed the second biggest state at the time) who were skilled at making copper and bronze tools and even weapons. Copper axes (pic 5), like cocoa beans and cotton capes, were valued by the Aztecs as a kind of ‘currency’ (a bit like money).

Pic 6: Aztec stonemasons sculpted huge and stunning pieces - the most famous being the Sunstone
Pic 6: Aztec stonemasons sculpted huge and stunning pieces - the most famous being the Sunstone (Click on image to enlarge)

Metallurgy involves quite complex techniques, and the Aztecs used these mostly to fashion small copper, gold and silver bells, pins, figurines and jewellery. They mastered other complex technologies to make rubber goods, textiles, ceramics and featherwork. But ironically they’re best known for creating monumental stone sculptures - from massive jaguar figures to calendar stones - with the simplest of stone chisels (pic 6), unchanged for thousands of years...

emoticon Once an Aztec wrote a story about the invention of fire. He claimed it was all down to magic. We’d just call it ‘a work of friction’...

Study the digging stick

Read the story of the New Fire Ceremony

See how big the Aztec Calendar Stone was/is...

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