Knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade
Mexica*/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD
A sacrificial knife
The handle of this knife is carved from a single piece of wood (Cedrela odorata) and takes the form of a crouching man wearing the regalia of an eagle warrior. The warrior looks out from the open beak of the eagle headdress and clasps the haft of the flint knife.
Eagle warriors were a prestigious military order, the ‘fighters of the daytime’. In Mexica mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning.
The handle of this knife is covered with mosaic made from turquoise, shell and malachite. At least four kinds of shell are used: red Spondylus (thorny oyster), white Strombus (conch), pink Stombus gigas (queen conch) and iridescent Pinctada (mother-of-pearl). Pine resin is used to hold the mosaic in place. The hafting of the blade is bound with cord made from maguey (Agave) fibre and coated with pale yellow Protium resin.
Plain, unadorned knives served many practical purposes in hunting, food preparation and warfare, while more ornate decorated examples were probably reserved for ritual sacrifice. Flint blades were often placed in temple offerings, sometimes set vertically in resin to represent the glyph tecpatl (meaning flint or sacrificial knife). This glyph is associated with one of the ‘year-bearers’ in the 260-day Mexica calendar and with the north cardinal point, the direction of death and cold.
Only a few elaborately decorated knife handles survive. This one is a rare example where the blade and handle have survived together. Radiography has revealed that the hafting is far too shallow for the knife to have been fit for practical use so its ceremonial purpose must have been symbolic rather than functional.
*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced 'Mé-shee-ka').
C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey Turquoise mosaics from Mexico (London, The British Museum Press, 2006)
C. R. Cartwright and N. D. Meeks, ‘Aztec conch shell working: high- tech design’, British Museum Technical Research Bulletin 1, (2007), 35-42
R. J. Stacey, C. R. Cartwright and C. McEwan ‘Chemical Characterisation of Ancient Mesoamerican ‘Copal’ Resins: Preliminary Results’. Archaeometry 48, (2006), 323-340
C. McEwan, Ancient Mexico in the British Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)