The Role of Turquoise at Templo Mayor

The capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, was razed and rebuilt by the Spanish during their colonization. Templo Mayor was one of the buildings that was devastated. Archeologists fully uncovered the temple in 1979. The temple’s earliest construction dates to 1390 AD, while its most recent construction dates to 1521. The archeological site has transformed into a museum, where some artifacts contained turquoise. Turquoise was incorporated into the social activities that took place within the capital’s the market place, status, and religious beliefs.

Turquoise has a long history in Mesoamerica; it has been around since the Pre-Classic Era to the Late Post Classic Era, which is roughly 1500 B.C. to 1521 A.D. The stone was an item of commerce in Tenochtitlan, a major trade center. Typical trade routes would flood daily; on average the routes reached 20,000 people and easily doubled on Sundays. Luxurious goods, such as turquoise, jade, xcal obsidian, chocolate, salt, feathers, and shells were traded. These items were fashioned into various items. For instance, turquoise was made into helmets, ear plugs, masks, mirrors, sacrificial knives, scepters, shields, spears, staffs, and jewelry. These items would have been made for the elite.

Carmen Aguilera explains that “objects bearing turquoise were very expensive and could be worn only by gods, nobles, and priests.” So, elite used turquoise to display their power, wealth, and status. They also used turquoise as a gift in order to build new relations with other rulers. Turquoise was traded by traveling merchants, or the pochteca, as far north as New Mexico and as far south as the Yucatán Peninsula. Trading on such a wide scale, shows how luxurious items like turquoise shows the capital’s large network.

The capital was a major religious attraction too. According to Mark Cartwright, Templo Mayor was centrally positioned in Tenochtitlan; signifying that the temple was “the religious and social heart of the Aztec empire.” There was well-over a hundred offerings archeologist have uncovered at Templo Mayor. Most of the offerings had foreign origins. Among these gifts, turquoise was found; there were small turquoise beads, small unworked turquoise fragments, jet, alabaster, and greenstone discovered at Templo Mayor. Who were these offerings to, and why offer them turquoise?

Templo Mayor’s design gives insight into how the Mexica’s economy sustained itself. The temple was divided into two sections, each one exalted a deity. In the northern half, Tlaloc, a rain god who is associated with life and fertility, while the southern half is devoted to Huitzilopochtli, a solar god who was associated with war. According to Eduardo Moctezuma, the architectural layout of the temple suggests that “Templo Mayor contains two of the principal Aztec myths, reflecting Tenochtitlan’s two means of support: agricultural production and the military conquest of other communities to impose tribute obligations on them.” With this in mind, it makes sense why the original design of Templo Major was replicated in the Museum's layout; one half of the exhibit is dedicated to agriculture, while the other half of the exhibit is devoted to war.

While the Aztec capital was stimulated by agriculture and war, “Mesoamerican religion touched practically every aspect of social life. It regulated everything from the most insignificant daily acts to relations among the different political entities,” claimed Lopez Lujun. Turquoise, in particular, managed to permeated into the Mexica’s cosmology. Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were regarded as Mexica’s regional protectors, and turquoise symbolized these gods. For example, the blue-to-green color of turquoise was associated with Tlaloc. One of the artifacts from the museum was a depiction of Tlaloc wearing a turquoise mask. The mask is not merely turquoise because of his status but because turquoise symbolizes who he is. Likewise, the brightness of a turquoise stone was associated with Huitzilopochtli. Overall, turquoise played an intricate role in trade, status, and religious beliefs.


Images

Turquoise Beads

Turquoise Beads

When Alfonso Caso, an archeologist, uncovered Monte Alban in 1931, he led many excavations. One of his excavations uncovered Tomb Seven. He found that there are two layers inside Tomb Seven. When the Mixtec moved in and occupied Monte Alban, they did not clear out the interior of the tomb. Instead the Mixtec added a layer of stone down and inadvertently preserved the pervious artifacts and even bodies. Some of the preserved artifacts found inside Tomb Seven includes, an altar, human remains, decorated bone, turquoise beads, earplugs, and sowing items. | Source: This photo was taken at San Domingo Cathedrale by Savanah Nicole Burns. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Tlaloc Depicted in Turquoise

Tlaloc Depicted in Turquoise

At Templo Mayor, located in Mexico City, one can see some of the artifacts from the Mexica. Templo Mayor is one of the temples Tlaloc, a rain god, and Huitzilopochtli, a sun god, worshipped in Tenochtitlan. The gods were often presented offerings. Tlaloc, for instance, was depicted as wearing this luxurious mask made out of made of turquoise. The mask gives Tlaloc attributes, such as blinders, mustaches cover, and fangs, which are typically features associated with Tlaloc. In this particular piece, there are decorations that help identify which god is being honored. The vertical lines symbolize rainfall, the discs represent raindrops, and the color turquoise denotes water; all of these characteristics are typically associated with Tlaloc. | Source: This picture was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Muse de Templo Mayor. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Turquoise Mosaic

Turquoise Mosaic

At Museo del Templo Mayor, there is a turquoise mosaic that took hundreds of hours to make. It is comprised of approximately 15,000 small pieces of turquoise. The mosaic disc was found underneath the building Casa de las Alsracas during an excavation that took place in 1994. The turquoise mosaic disc corresponds to phase six of Templo Mayor, suggesting it dates back to 1480-1500 A.D. The mosaic disc uses turquoise to depict seven warriors dancing. These warriors are a part of the universe which is fundamental to the Mexica religion. One of the warriors is Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, the Lord of the Place of the House of Twilight. He is associated with Venus, Mixcoatl (the Serpent Cloud), and the Milky Way. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Muse de Tempo Mayor. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Individual A covered in Turquoise

Individual A covered in Turquoise

In 1931, Alfonso Caso re-discovered Monte Alban. His excavation uncovered about 150 tombs. Among these tombs, was Tomb Seven. While excavating Tomb Seven, Caso found one of the riches finds in Mesoamerica. Some of the artifacts he found included, a human skull that was decorated with turquoise. The skull also had a stone sticking out of its naval cavity, representing a knife. The skull was found on an altar and likely belongs to a person known as Individual A. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at San Domingo Cathedral. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Mexica Trade Map

Mexica Trade Map

The map above depicts the inter-connectivity of Mesoamerica. One of the cities on the map is Tenochtitlan, one of the largest cities in Mesoamerica. The map shows how Monte Alban was known for trading with Tenochtitlan. The routes depicted in the map were likely used for pilgrimage and trade. The goods most often traded was milpa: corn, chili, beans, squash, and cacti. Other everyday items like dresses, animals, wood, construction stones and other tools were traded as well. There were luxurious items, such as xlcal feathers, chocolate, shells, turquoise, jade, and more traded. The long distant trade that was conducted between chiefs to help with their social standing with other states. They often employed pochteca, a merchant who specialized in long distance trade, to carry luxurious items. Turquoise in particular has been found as far north as New Mexico. According to Dr. Heath, it has been found all the way in Arizona and near the Grand Canyon region, among Native Americas. | Source: This photo was taken by Savanah Nicole Burns at Muse de Templo Mayor. | Creator: Savanah Nicole Burns View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Savanah Nicole Burns, “The Role of Turquoise at Templo Mayor ,” HistoricalMX, accessed November 24, 2017, http://historicalmx.org/items/show/44.

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