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The original Codex Mendoza on display at the Bodleian Library, Oxford

‘Desert Island Artefacts’: survey of our Panel of Experts

During one of our team visits to a primary school in Kent in 2019, we were asked the intriguing question: ‘If you had to choose just one ancient Mexican artefact to have with you, if you were shipwrecked on a desert island, what would it be?’ For mature UK readers this resonates with the long-running BBC Radio programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, in which celebrities choose their favourite music, plus one book and ‘one luxury’. We couldn’t resist putting this to our Panel of Experts, and here are the results... (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Professor Frances Berdan alongside the original Codex Mendoza at the Weston Library, Oxford in 2016
Pic 1: Professor Frances Berdan alongside the original Codex Mendoza at the Weston Library, Oxford in 2016 (Click on image to enlarge)

One object stands out above all others: the Codex Mendoza ‘with its wealth of information about the history of the Mexica, the tribute register and portrayal of life at the time. I don’t think one would ever tire of looking at it and drilling down through the density of the information that is embedded within it’ (AL). It was chosen by three of our Panellists, Frances Berdan, Stephanie Wood and Adrian Locke. FB explains: ‘I’ve always loved the Codex Mendoza (and yes, a book can be considered an artefact). Being shipwrecked on a desert island with that amazing document is not too far-fetched - back in the sixteenth century it was temporarily “misplaced” on the high seas. Having survived some harrowing experience on the ocean sea, in this little fantasy I can imagine cradling it on my lap as I sit on the hot white sands of my desolate little island, scanning the horizon for a rescue. I’ve spent most of my career delving into every detail of the Codex Mendoza, over and over. But surprisingly, even now I see things I had never seen before. So while you may think I’d be bored on my little island with a document I know so well, in fact I would look forward to having lots of “aha moments” with my favorite Aztec artefact. And, of course, there’s comfort in having a very familiar companion by your side!’

Pic 2: James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile of the Codex Mendoza, with variations on glyphs for cave (above) and water (below) scanned from it
Pic 2: James Cooper Clark 1938 facsimile of the Codex Mendoza, with variations on glyphs for cave (above) and water (below) scanned from it (Click on image to enlarge)

SW adds: ‘If I were shipwrecked on a deserted island and could have one Mexican artifact with me, it would be a copy of the Codex Mendoza. That way, I could study all the Aztec hieroglyphs that are so beautifully painted and absorb all their various elements, comparing them to the glosses in alphabetic Nahuatl that help us be relatively sure about what they mean. Of course, we cannot be complacent, for the great hieroglyphic scholar Gordon Whittaker has found glossators’ errors, which presents one with rich challenges. I would also relish hunting for meaning associated with certain colors (the Mendoza has such wonderful color), or creating a list of glyphs that represent sounds. I would have time to explore how to identify proper “word order” in this amazing writing system, tracking bottom to top, left to right, and so on, tracing identifiable patterns. Further, I would like scrutinize the nuances and subtle differences between, for example, the cave (oztotl) that presents itself in profile versus face-forward, or contemplating how water is contained, boils, spills, splashes (throwing off shells), swirls, and rains down from the sky, perhaps discovering some individual scribal flair in such representations and uncovering creative methods from which compound glyphs were formed.’

Pic 3: A replica of the Codex Borbonicus on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 3: A replica of the Codex Borbonicus on display in the Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Of course, the Mendoza wasn’t the only codex requested. Barbara Mundy specifically asked for the Codex Borbonicus: ‘First, it’s a calendar, so I could keep track of time. Second, it’s a book used for auguries, so I could puzzle out the future. But most important, it has beautiful depictions of the rituals that the Mexica devised to celebrate their veintena (20-day) feasts. Looking at these pictures of people as they celebrated with each other, and as they used ritual to affirm their place in the cosmic order, would remind me of the human community, both past and present.’ Catherine DiCesare was the only other Panellist to specify which: ‘Definitely a book! I think it would have to be the Codex Borgia. The pre-Columbian manuscripts bring together all my interests: pictorial imagery, books, ritual, cosmology, the sacred.’

Pic 4: Part of the ADEVA facsimile of the Codex Borgia
Pic 4: Part of the ADEVA facsimile of the Codex Borgia (Click on image to enlarge)

Others - Camilla Townsend, Ben Leeming, Andrew Laird, John Schwaller, Felipe Fernández-Armesto - opted for a pictographic text but either was happy not to specify which: ‘I could then spend hours trying to read it, hearing the words in Nahuatl, imagining the scenes in which it was painted, and then read aloud. That would keep me busy for a while!’ (CT), or let the imagination fly: ‘There are only two pre-Contact Aztec codices that survived the Spaniards’ destructive campaigns and consequently what we know about Aztec writing is rather limited. If I could have one of those precious books that were lost, I would spend the rest of my time on the island studying its pictures and glyphs to see if I could arrive at new understandings of how the Aztecs wrote and what they wrote about.’ (BL), or...

Pic 5: The ‘Teocalli de la guerra sagrada’, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (L); Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copán, Honduras
Pic 5: The ‘Teocalli de la guerra sagrada’, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (L); Hieroglyphic Stairway, Copán, Honduras (Click on image to enlarge)

... selected texts carved in stone, no matter what the size! ‘My favorite artefact is the Teocalli de la Guerra Sagrada, the Temple of the Sacred War. It is a model of a Mexica temple. Unfortunately, it’s about four feet tall (1.3m) and probably weighs over 600kg, so I couldn’t carry it in my pocket. I love it, because all of the glyphs on it have a very important meaning. I studied it a great deal when I was writing my last book, The Fifteenth Month, because it describes changes in the Mexica calendar system that moved the New Fire ceremony from One Rabbit to Two Reed, during the reign of Moteuczoma II. I got to see it in Mexico City a few days ago, and I really got emotional. I could read the glyphs and tell my kids all about the story it told’ (JS). ‘In the spirit of the game, and assuming that the island isn’t meant to be a real desert but the kind of tropical-mooned, sleepy-lagooned paradise evoked by the Desert Island Discs theme tune, I’d choose something that would keep me occupied: the hieroglyphic staircase of Copán - the longest text to have survived from pre-hispanic America’ (FF-A), or...

Pic 6: ‘Vocabulario trilingüe’ (Ayer ms. 1478), Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago. This page [folio 102r] shows the beginning of entries for the letter L, starting with labor
Pic 6: ‘Vocabulario trilingüe’ (Ayer ms. 1478), Edward E. Ayer Digital Collection, The Newberry Library, Chicago. This page [folio 102r] shows the beginning of entries for the letter L, starting with labor (Click on image to enlarge)

... ‘cheated’ slightly by going for an early post-invasion text, a Trilingual Vocabulary* ‘This little handwritten book, smaller than most smartphones, is a remarkable artefact. It was produced by a native Mexican scribe who first copied out in tiny black letters the entire content of a popular Spanish-Latin dictionary – all 15,479 entries: he may have done this because the printed book was too expensive to buy. He then added a new column in red ink, providing, for more than 11,000 of the entries he had copied out, the corresponding word in his own language of Nahuatl. If this trilingual vocabulary was available to me on a desert island (along with pens and paper), I would pass the time by working out what each term meant in order to add a further column of English words in another colour. If I was marooned for enough time, I could next try to organise a dictionary going the other way – from English into Latin, Spanish and Nahuatl. That would fill the days and increase my word power in each of those interesting languages.’ (AL)

Pic 7: A newly made obsidian blade core, from Teotihuacan
Pic 7: A newly made obsidian blade core, from Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

The next most popular group of objects was obsidian, both blades and mirrors, chosen by David Carballo, Davide Domenici, Jennifer Matthews and Guilhem Olivier. DC, DD and GO were equally eloquent in their praise for this unique material: ‘Mesoamerican pressure-blade cores represent one of the most ingenious technologies for stone tool working in the ancient world. They made very efficient use of stone (in this case, the sharp natural glass obsidian) by fashioning a conical core with tight, parallel ridges, and a flat platform for ensuring the removal of symmetrical blades. They were pretty much ready-made razor-blades. Each new core would have approximately 250 blades that could be detached. So, if I were stuck on an island with an obsidian core like this I would have enough blades to last me for years. All I would need to find on the island is a piece of bone, antler, or hard wood to press off the blades (or a stone to hit them off with, but this direct percussion technique is less efficient for saving stone). These could handle most of my cutting activities and I could segment them to make barbs for harpoons to fish with, or arrowheads to hunt with.’ (DC)
‘I know what I would like to have with me on the desert island: one of the thousands of obsidian prismatic blades that archaeologists usually find in their excavations in Mesoamerica. Not too precious, not unique at all, but still the most wonderful cutting instrument ever produced by any artisan in the world. When they first observed them in 16th century, Europeans called them “razors” and were absolutely astonished by the fact that a blade sharper than a steel one could be produced in a few seconds, with a single strike. “If they can make a blade so sharp, they must be very sharp guys”, they thought. A tiny, unassuming, little tool could really save my life on the desert island, helping to obtain and prepare food, shelter, clothes, etc. Asking forgiveness for having stolen one of their artefacts, I would heartily thank those sharp, ancient guys!’ (DD)

Pic 8: Obsidian mirror, Museo de América, Madrid
Pic 8: Obsidian mirror, Museo de América, Madrid (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I’ve worked on these incredible artefacts for many years; they reveal the extraordinary skill and talent of Mexica - and wider Mesoamerican - artisans. Eponymous symbol of Tezcatlipoca or “Smoking Mirror”, the mirror was used both to determine the fate of mortals and to communicate with the god. It was also an instrument of power in the hands of the Mexica king, a special gift from the deity associated with royalty. Whilst a divinatory mirror would hardly be required by someone on a desert island, it could surely be used to send signals by reflecting the sun’s rays, and at the same time to channel prayers to the all-powerful Tezcatlipoca...’ (GO).
Knives were specifically chosen for their practicality by Claudia Brittenham and Jennifer Mathews: ‘I’d like to have something that is beautiful as well as useful, which is no hardship at all, since so many of the things that we now designate as art were made to be used in their original contexts. I’m torn between two objects: a chert knife that was dredged out of the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza and a travertine vessel with a portrait of the ruler of Copán. They are both objects that I think it would be interesting to touch and hold as well as to look at. It would be useful to have a vessel to hold water; it would be useful to have a knife to cut things with. Perhaps I could even use the knife to cut open something like a coconut to serve as a container, so I think I had better choose the knife as my desert island object.’ (CB). Or, to put it bluntly (sorry!), ‘I would want to have some kind of stone knife or weapon so that I could use it to hunt and cut up meat and other food goods’ (JM).

Pic 9: Practical objects chosen as ‘Desert Island Artefacts’ by our Panel of Experts
Pic 9: Practical objects chosen as ‘Desert Island Artefacts’ by our Panel of Experts (Click on image to enlarge)

This brings us to the largest single group of responses: a range of utilitarian objects chosen by Caroline Cartwright, Ximena Chávez, Ross Hassig, Dorothy Hosler, Joyce Marcus, Esther Pasztory, Louise Burkhart and Anastasia Kalyuta. In no particular order:-
• decorated) conch ‘to summon passing boats!’ (CC)
• Tlaloc pot ‘so always to have rain water and not be thirsty’ (XC)
• canoe ‘so I could get out of there’ (RH)
chinampa: ‘Chinampas are artifacts resulting from intelligent agricultural technology. I would take a chinampa.’ (DH)
• ‘the humble gourd or jar would be wonderful to have, because that one artifact would allow us to collect rainwater for drinking!’ (JM)
• ‘plenty of cloth for clothes and blankets’ (EP)
comalli (griddle) ‘to prepare tortillas’ (AK); ‘so I could cook tortillas out of whatever roots or seeds might be on the desert island. With a comalli, all you would need for cooking is fire and some wood. And who would want to live without some kind of tortillas?’ (LB)

Pic 10: Olmec jade axe; © Trustees of the British Museum
Pic 10: Olmec jade axe; © Trustees of the British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, there are a number of very specific artefacts individually chosen by Panellists: Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Penny Bateman, Adje Both, Kitty Emery, Elizabeth Graham, Alan Sandstrom, David Stuart and Jane Walsh. Most have a quite personal connection to share. We start with one of the oldest...
’This Olmec jade axe was the real beginning for me of a love and deep interest in Mesoamerican cultures and people both in the ancient past and of today. I now live in Canada, but when I go back to London, and visit the Mexican Gallery I go first to see this piece and it feels like visiting a dear if inanimate friend. This is definitely the piece I would choose to have with me on the desert island.’ (PB)

Pic 11: Monumental stone sculpture of Coatlicue, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City
Pic 11: Monumental stone sculpture of Coatlicue, Museo Nacional de Antropología, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I would choose the Mexica-Aztec statue of Coatlicue because it is the object that synthesizes the spirit of Mexica-Aztec art, that is: “Abstraction in the Whole, but Concretion and Realism in the Details”. This monument reminds us of the duality of our earth: Life and Death, Womb and Tomb, Fertility and Dryness, Alfa and Omega, etc.
’On one occasion I was leading a tour in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and I was in front of the statue of Coatlicue, ready to give an explanation to my group of 35 students, when suddenly an old indigenous woman appeared with her grandson and she told him: “Look my child, this is our Mother Earth for whom we live. She gives us our sustenance and we need to thank her for all that she gives us every day in the fields. We need to love her because she is alive.” After that profound and conscious prayer that shows the interaction of that woman with Coatlicue, the earth as a living being, I was frozen wondering if what I was going to explain about her was relevant after hearing such a beautiful profession of faith. After a few seconds of silence, I decided to start my talk discussing the difference in meaning of the statue for someone that believes in her as a living reality today, compared with people like us that see her as an object of art that expresses just certain philosophical and artistic concepts.
’So, to me today, I see Coatlicue as an artistic and historical reality, that represents the earth as a living being, but the total comprehension of her goes beyond our materiality and projects into the realm of faith and the supernatural.’ (MA-M)

Pic 12: Adje Both recording a reproduction quadruple flute from Teotihuacan at Huddersfield University Music Department in 2019
Pic 12: Adje Both recording a reproduction quadruple flute from Teotihuacan at Huddersfield University Music Department in 2019 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I would like to take with me a quadruple flute from Teotihuacan. When I came to Mexico for the first time in 1994, my professor at the Institute of Latinamerican Studies in Berlin, Ursula Thiemer-Sache, established contact with some musicians living in Mexico-City, making an unbelievable kind of music on all kinds of precolumbian sound tools and musical instruments. I started to look at information about precolumbian music and found that, despite some research randomly carried out since the 1870s, generally not much is known about the ancient musical instruments of the Americas and their sounds. Now, after more than two decades of intense research that I carried out on the music of the Aztecs and the sound tools of sites such as Xochicalco, Morelos, I turned to a music culture completely unknown so far: Teotihuacan. There are lots of instruments that once contributed to the soundscape of the city, poorly researched so far. Among the best known ones are the quadruple flutes, but only two specimens are preserved more or less intact and until now nobody had managed to produce their original sounds, as they were badly restored. There is a small one and a big one, and currently I’m making experiments with replications of these. As one of the results, I discovered that these instruments produce a great range of quadrupled frequencies, microtones and noises, and that the overall impression is that of a truly meditative instrument, maybe used in the temples or in the patios of elite apartment compounds. I could play it for hours, exactly what you would need to pass time on a lonely island.’ (AB)

Pic 13: Late 1st millennium BCE ancient Maya cacao pot carved from limestone - a rare and elegant example
Pic 13: Late 1st millennium BCE ancient Maya cacao pot carved from limestone - a rare and elegant example (Click on image to enlarge)

‘if I were stranded on a deserted island, I think the Mesoamerican artifact I’d most like to have with me is a spouted cacao pot (with contents). We don’t yet know everything about how chocolate was served, but chemical analyses of the residues in various vessels are revealing that chocolate beverages at least were flavored with sweet fruit juice, spicy chili pepper, vanilla and other delicious aromatics, and even sometimes with psychoactive ingredients like tobacco. According to the early European visitors, the cacao was poured from on high through the spout which gave it a froth of bubbles - and some Late Classic artifacts seem to show this process with pictures of courtiers carefully pouring a liquid from an upheld vessel. Maybe I’d save my treat for a day when all my other efforts to catch fish or roast dug-up tubers had failed, or maybe I’d drink it up the instant I realized I was marooned. Either way, I’d be sure to feel a lot better afterwards - and could use the “useful pot” for other things later.’ (KE)

Pic 14: Maya-style incense burner from Tipuj, Belize
Pic 14: Maya-style incense burner from Tipuj, Belize (Click on image to enlarge)

Elizabeth Graham and David Stuart chose Maya artefacts, namely -
’A Maya-style incense burner or ‘thurible’ [via Old French from Medieval Latin turibulum] found in a burial under the nave of an early Franciscan-built church at the site of Tipuj, Belize. The church was built around 1545 but was functional until the 1600s.’ (EG)

Pic 15: Three of the Maya ‘eccentric flints’ discovered at Copán - and chosen - by David Stuart
Pic 15: Three of the Maya ‘eccentric flints’ discovered at Copán - and chosen - by David Stuart (Click on image to enlarge)

‘My favorite Maya artifacts (though not Mexican) are the three ceremonial chert objects (eccentric flints) [pic 15]. I excavated these at Copán, Honduras, back in 1987, while digging under the Hieroglyphic Stairway. They were deposited there as a dedication offering along with a few other items (jades, a spondylus shell, a knife and some bloodletters) back in the 8th century AD. These are very delicate, the finest of all Maya “eccentrics,” and each one shows 5 or 6 human profiles along the edges. They all must have been fastened onto wooden handles or staffs that disintegrated. They are now on display at the archaeological museum in Copán. Why do I love them? (1) I have that personal connection to them, pulling them out of the ground, so there’s certainly a sentimental angle, (2) they are just incredibly beautiful, (3) because they represent a true lost art - not even the most skilled modern flint knapper would know how to make one of these things - and (4) if truly stuck on a desert island I guess I could very carefully use one of them as a tool (joking of course) (DS).

Pic 17: Small Mixtec ceramic cup bearing a hummingbird
Pic 17: Small Mixtec ceramic cup bearing a hummingbird (Click on image to enlarge)

We’re down to our last two entries, from Jane Walsh and Alan Sandstrom -
’Since I like to travel light - I’ve always loved a small Mixtec ceramic pedestal cup, beautifully painted and decorated with a tiny blue hummingbird perched on the rim. It’s been on exhibit in the Museo Nacional [de Antropología] since it opened in the 1960s - I think it’s still there. Among the many smuggled pre-Columbian artifacts that were seized by US customs is a beautiful Olmec carved jade hummingbird, whose beak (I think) was used as a perforator. I think I have a special liking for hummingbirds, which seem now to be reappearing in southern Maryland as it gets warmer.’ (JW)

Pic 18: Stone ‘xiuhcoatl’, British Museum (L); modern Nahua sacred walking stick being carried on a ritual pilgrimage (R)
Pic 18: Stone ‘xiuhcoatl’, British Museum (L); modern Nahua sacred walking stick being carried on a ritual pilgrimage (R) (Click on image to enlarge)

Because it’s ‘last but not least’, we also gave in and allowed Alan Sandstrom to be ‘marooned with two items from the ancient Aztecs. First would be the xiuhcoatl, the weapon carried by Huitzilopochtli, the sun. The device carries the sun across the sky each day and it defends against dark forces threatening to take over the world. The second is the walking stick, used by the Nahua of today to embody the power of the ritual specialist and to help people walk a straight path through life. With these two implements, one could survive on a desert island...’

We were so taken with this final choice of artefact, the ‘staff of justice’, together with its positive message, that we’ve decided - with Professor Sandstrom’s guidance - to upload a short feature specifically on the topilli. Follow the link below...
A big thank-you to all those Panellists who took part in our survey!

Picture sources:-
• Main, and pix 1, 2, 4 & 8: photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pix 3, 5L & 11: photos by Ana Laura Linda/Mexicolore
• Pic 5R: photo downloaded from http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/copan-stairway.htm
• Pic 6: photo courtesy of the Newberry Library, downloaded from http://collections.carli.illinois.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/nby_eeayer/id/1159/rec/1
• Pic 7: photo courtesy of David Carballo
• Pic 9: photos by Ian Mursell and Ana Laura Linda/Mexicolore
• Pic 12: photo courtesy of Adje Both
• Pic 13: photo (public domain) downloaded from https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/318346
• Pic 14: photo courtesy of Elizabeth Graham
• Pic 15: photo courtesy of David Stuart
• Pic 17: image source unknown (in our archives)
• Pic 18: photo from Wikipedia (xiuhcoatl) (L); photo courtesy of Alan Sandstrom (R).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 06th 2020

Survey: ‘What was the Aztecs’ most prized possession?’

‘The topilli or “staff of justice”’

BBC Radio 4 ‘Desert Island Discs’ website
* The Trilingual Vocabulary is kept at the Newberry Library in Chicago and the whole manuscript is now online, here
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