Mexico, 15th-16th century AD
Download this video to watch in your favourite media player, or to view this video online please install the Flash player
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.