The Aztecs in the British Museum

Turquoise double headed serpent with white shell teeth and red shell mouth and nose. Aztec, 15th century AD, British Museum
Aztec turquoise double headed serpent in the British Museum

The Aztecs had an extensive empire in Mexico, ruling from the Island metropolis of Tenochtitlan, in Lake Texcoco. They forged an imperial dynasty based on military prowess and a network of long-distance trade and tribute routes that stretched from the Caribbean to the Pacific.  They treasured the precious stone, turquoise, which among other green stones symbolized life-giving water and the sources of fertility. The mineral was scarce, and reserved for ritual objects and ceremonial regalia worn by priests and rulers. Aztec trading emissaries went as far as the South-West of North America (think Texas, New Mexico and Arizona) where there were mines of turquoise. However, only about 55 turquoise mosaics are known to have survived. Taking the scenic route to the BM’s room 27, here there are 9 of their finest examples. The BM bought them in Continental Europe – it’s thought that they may have made their way to Europe via Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes, who the Aztecs would have presented with such treasures upon his arrival to the coast of Mexico in 1519 AD.

Human skull decorated with turquoise and onyx with iron agate eyes and leather straps for wering. Aztec, 16th Century AD, British Museum
A real human skull decorated with onyx and turquoise.

Examples range from one of the BM’s highlight, a double headed snake. To a frightening skull, who would have dangled around the waist of a priest while he was making sacrifices (think cutting the heart out of some poor schmoe!). Then there are turquoise mosaics, such as on the handle of the sacrificial knife, in case the skull didn’t drive home the gruesomenature of their sacrifices, this knife was actually used in obtaining the live, blood-pumping hearts from their sacrificial victims!

A high priest would have needed their hands free (to hold the knife, presumably!), so the priest would have worn the skull dangling around his waist while performing a human sacrifice which was made in the belief that blood offerings kept the sun on its course. Now how’s that for grisly & gross?

Remember, hunters, if a sentence is bold it’s likely to be helpful on bonus questions for while you’re hunting!

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