Mexican turquoise mosaics

Ancient Mexico is renowned for the production of vivid greenstone mosaics.  Early Zapotec and Maya examples from the Classic period were made predominately of jade. Later, turquoise became the material of choice. The finest examples of turquoise mosaics date to the Late Post-Classic period and were probably fashioned by highly skilled Mixtec craftsmen who excelled both in stone and metal work.

A variety of objects were decorated with mosaic, such as masks, shields, staffs, knives, discs, and animal forms. These objects, as well as raw chunks of turquoise, were sent to Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, as tribute and used to adorn images of the gods, as well as priests and the nobility.

The mosaic work on these objects usually overlies carved wood, although a number of human skulls decorated in this way are also known. Although the mosaics are usually described as ‘turquoise’ they in fact incorporate a diversity of materials. Various types of shell and many minerals were used in the mosaic work and to fashion inlays. Some elements were gilded and the mosaic was held in place using plant resins (usually pine resin).

Around 25 mosaics are known in Europe and most of these are thought to date to the time immediately before the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521. Mosaics are listed in the early colonial inventories of objects that were sent to Europe at this time, although the descriptions are not sufficiently detailed to identify the exact object to which they refer. More mosaics are preserved in collections in Mexico and the United States, including recently excavated and reconstructed examples of discs or shields from the Toltec capital, Tula and from offering caches made at the Templo Mayor in the heart of what is now Mexico City. There are nine Mexican mosaics are in the collection of the British Museum.

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