Wooden ceremonial shield with mosaic inlay

Mexica*/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD
From Mexico

An intricate mosaic which illustrates the Mexica universe

This mosaic covered wooden disc was probably once the central element of a striking ceremonial shield. Among the many ceremonial shields listed in inventories of shipments sent to Spain by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) 25 were decorated with turquoise mosaic. A companion of Cortés, the ’anonymous conqueror’, observed that mosaic shields were ‘not of the kind borne in war but only those used in the festivals and dances which they are accustomed to have’.

The mosaic on this shield is worked in turquoise and shell from Strombus (conch), Spondylus (thorny oyster) and Pinctada (mother-of pearl). ‘Beads’ of pine resin covered with gold leaf are also used in the design which portrays the principal divisions of the Mexica universe. At the centre is a solar disc, picked out in bright red Spondylus shell. The four rays emanating from the solar disc divide the earth into four quarters. In each quarter stands a figure with raised arms, these are skybearers, gods whose role was to support the sky. The shield also displays a vertical design in the form of a serpent which emerges from toothed jaws and coils around a tree. The tree represents a 'world axis' connecting the underworld, earthly and celestial realms.

Pine was a source both of the resin adhesive used on this shield and the wood from which it was carved. The surface of the wood was carved to delineate the design by giving relief prominence to certain elements such as the serpent and the skybearers. Numerous perforations in the shield further emphasise the outlines of the skybearers.

Around the edge of the shield the wood is not decorated but is pierced by a series of fairly regularly spaced holes. These may have been used to attach feathers. According to sixteenth-century descriptions, coloured feathers were used to decorate the edges of mosaic shields.

*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica (pronounced Me-shee-ka).

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 Museum (London, The British Museum Press, 1994)

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Diameter: 31.000 cm

Museum number

AOA ST 397.a


Purchased with the assistance of the Christy Fund


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