General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 23 Nov 2017/8 Flint
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Mexican stone carving workshop, British Museum

Stonecarvers par excellence

The exhibition on Moctezuma at the British Museum is supported by a wide range of hands-on educational activities, both inside and outside those hallowed walls... One of the many sold-out sessions was a stone carving workshop, run by Arts Express (October 3rd., 2009). (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

 (Click on image to enlarge)

The Museum steps resounded to the energetic and creative sound of a group of highly enthusiastic adults chiselling away all day at large slabs of white stone. The tutor, Marcia Bennett Male, has run stone carving workshops at the BM for several years and inspired the students to draw both on their own talents and on the wealth of images in the Mexico Gallery of the Museum.

Tutor Marcia lends a helping - and very dusty - hand
Tutor Marcia lends a helping - and very dusty - hand (Click on image to enlarge)

First step, then, in the workshop was a visit to the Gallery to get a feel for pre-Hispanic Mexican stone carving skills. Each student made a pencil sketch of a piece that appealed to them, and then drew the same image on the bare stone outside. Marcia stressed that, when undertaking this sort of relief stone carving, it was vital to keep the initial image outline simple - the fine details would be added later.

Proud student Martin Kramer with his ‘Maya cross’
Proud student Martin Kramer with his ‘Maya cross’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Basic tools included tungsten-tipped claw, flat, mallet and hammer. The flat is used to carve out the outline of the image drawn on the stone. The claw is then employed to remove the waste stone. The final depth of the image in the stone has to be set. The edges are then rounded and the finer details added.

Kate Oliver’s fire serpent head
Kate Oliver’s fire serpent head (Click on image to enlarge)

Artefacts in the Gallery that served as image models included a small Maya jade portrait head, a basalt eagle relief and the dramatic xiuhcóatl or fire serpent that first greets every visitor to the Mexico Gallery.

Malcolm Burge’s impressive eagle relief, with the sculpture that inspired it
Malcolm Burge’s impressive eagle relief, with the sculpture that inspired it (Click on image to enlarge)

Ancient Mexican sculptors used equally simple stone tools; interestingly, there is evidence that they made preliminary models in clay in order to plan their ideas before sculpting the final images in stone. Aztec/Mexica sculptors developed the art of interpreting strikingly realistic eagles, snakes, jaguars and many other native creatures to a very high level of skill - yet they were equally at home carving symbolic motifs. The resulting stone figures ranged from spectacular, giant monoliths to tiny figurines only a few centimetres in length.

Aztec stonecutter, Florentine Codex Book X
Aztec stonecutter, Florentine Codex Book X (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Professor Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, the ancient Mexican term stonecutter ‘identifies a group of powerful and energetic individuals with very skilled hands. They were responsible for quarrying stones, breaking them into large and small pieces, splitting them, and cutting them with great dexterity, turning them into everything from walkways to houses and monuments. Stonecutters needed to be excellent draftsmen as well; they would sketch a preliminary drawing of a house and draw up the plans. Some of the imperial stonecutters were responsible for erecting great religious monuments, such as the Sunstone and other artistic structures...’

Malcolm and Sue Burge with daughter Kate Oliver, with their finished results
Malcolm and Sue Burge with daughter Kate Oliver, with their finished results (Click on image to enlarge)

After many hours of hard and dusty work, arms ached and mouths cried out for refreshment. The BM’s massive stone pillars seemed to miss the noisy and cheerful hammering that had reverberated around the entrance all day. They were made in much the same way...

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.
Image from the Florentine Codex scanned our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
Quote from Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Facts on File, New York, 2006, p. 333

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