Turquoise mosaic of a double-headed serpent

  • Close up view

    Close up view

  • Close up view

    Close up view


On display

Double-headed serpent
turquoise mosaic

Mexico, 15th-16th century AD

An icon of Mexica (Aztec) art, this striking object was probably worn on ceremonial occasions as a pectoral (an ornament worn on the chest).

It is carved in wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered with turquoise mosaic. The wood is hollowed at the back.

Serpent imagery occurs throughout the religious iconography of Mesoamerica. The serpent is associated with several Mexica deities including Quetzalcoatl (Feathered Serpent), Xiuhcoatl (Fire Serpent) and Mixcoatl (Cloud Serpent) or Coatlicue (She of the Serpent Skirt), the mother of the Mexica god Huitzilopochtli. The habit of snakes to shed their skin each year probably led to them being used to convey ideas concerning renewal and transformation. Likewise the ability of many species to move freely between water, earth and the forest canopy helped underline their symbolic role as intermediaries between the different layers of the cosmos (underworld, earth and sky).

Spondylus (thorny oyster) shell was used for the bright red details around the nose and mouth of both of this object's serpent heads. Strombus (conch) shell was used for the white teeth. Within the gaping mouths the resin adhesive was coloured bright red with hematite. Beeswax adheres to the edges of the empty eye sockets which were probably originally inlaid, perhaps with iron pyrites.

The reverse of the body is undecorated, although the surface may have originally been gilded, but the heads are worked in mosaic on both sides. Resins from pine and Bursera (copal) were used as adhesives for the mosaic.

Mexican turquoise mosaics


Ancient Mexico is renowned for the production of vivid turquoise mosaics. The finest examples were probably fashioned by highly skilled Mixtec craftsmen who excelled both in stone and metal work.

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Mexica (Aztecs)


The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica, which is pronounced 'Mé-shee-ka'.

Mexica (Aztecs) world culture

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Object details

Height: 20.5 cm
Width: 43.5 cm
Depth: 5 cm


AOA 1894-634

Room 27: Mexico

    Purchased with the Christy Fund


    C. McEwan, A. Middleton, C.R. 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 (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    C. Aguilera, ‘Of Royal Mantles and Blue Turquoise: the Meaning of the Mexica Emperor’s Mantle’, Latin American Antiquity, 8 (1997), 3–19.

    E. Baquedano, Aztec Sculpture (London, 1984)

    C. McEwan, and L.L. Luján (eds.), Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler (London, The British Museum Press, 2009)

    E.A. Boone, ‘Incarnations of the Aztec Supernatural: the Image of Huitzilopochtli in Mexico and Europe’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, ns 79 (1989), 1–107.

    G. Brotherston, Painted Books from Mexico (London, 1995)

    S.A. Colstom, ‘”No longer will there be a Mexico”: Omens, Prophecies and the Conquest of the Aztec Empire’, American Indian Quarterly, 9 (1985), 239–258.

    D. Carrasco, ‘Quetzalcoatl’s Revenge: Primordium and Application in Aztec Religion’, History of Religions, 19 (1980), 296–320

    W. Elzey, ‘A Hill on a Land Surrounded by Water: an Aztec Story of Origin and Destiny’, History of Religions, 31 (1991), 105–149.

    S. Toby Evans, Ancient Mexico and Central America: Archaeology and Culture History (London, 2004)

    J. Jones, ‘Gold of the Indies’, Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, ns 59 (Spring, 2002),

    M. Leon-Portilla, The Broken Spears: the Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Norwich, 1962)

    B. Mundkur, et al, ‘The Cult of the Serpent in the Americas: its Asian Background’, Current Anthropology, 17 (1976), 429–455.

    B.E. Mundy, ‘Mapping the Aztec Capital: the 1524 Nuremberg Map of Tenochtitlan, its Sources and Meanings’, Imago Mundi, 50 (1998), 11–33