- Museum number
- Series: The Turquoise Mosaics
Helmet, or head-dress, with two projections. Made of cedro wood (Cedrela odorata) and covered with mosaic made of turquoise, malachite and thorny oyster shell (Spondylus princeps) and mother-of-pearl (Pinctada mazatlanica). Some surfaces without mosaic bear traces of red (hematite) paint. The interior surface is painted blue (Maya blue). Two resins are used as adhesive: pine resin and Bursera resin (copal).
On one side the mosaic design depicts two entwined serpents. The design on the other side is less clear due to loss of mosaic, but appears to include two panaches.
- Production date
- Curator's comments
- McEwan, Middleton, Cartwright & Stacey 2006, pp. 53-54
"The helmet is unique among known turquoise mosaics from Mexico, although 'helmets of wood, some decorated with mosaic work' are listed in inventories of artefacts sent back to Charles I of Spain (Emperor Charles V). It has not yet been possible to recognise comparable headpieces in the codices or on sculpture, perhaps because some components of the helmet are missing; helmets in the inventories, for example, are often descibed as having plumse of feathers.
The helmet was carved from a single piece pf Cedrela odorata wood. The interior was hollowed out so that it could be worn. The orientation of the oval hollow suggests that the helmet was worn with the two 'beak-like' projections at the front and back, rather than on either side as the helmet is conventionally illustrated. The interior surface is coated with a rather dull-green-coloured paint; microscopical examination has revealed that the paint was originally bright turquoise blue. The paint was coloured by indigo and gives a Raman spectrum identical with Maya blue. Most of the exterior surface was decorated with mosaic, although much of this has been lost, exposing large areas of the mixture of pine and bursera resins used to fix the tesserae in place. However, the outer faces of the two projections, and also the sides of the broad 'notch' on the top of the helmet, do not bear any traces of resin. It seems that these were never decorated with mosaic. Traces of red paint suggests that at least parts of these areas were painted, although they may have been largely concealed if there were feathers attached. The exposure of the bare wooden surface allows the marks of the tool used to shape the wood to be seen clearly.
Large areas of the tesserae have been lost and as a result parts of the mosaic design are difficult to discern [...]. On one side of the helmet the heads of two outward-facing clawed serpents can be seen; these probably represent the Fire Serpent, Xiuhcoatl. Their main features were picked out in red Spondylus shell and dark green malachite. White mother-of-pearl shell was used for the large fang of one of the serpents, while the smaller teeth within gaping jaws were indicated by sharp triangular pieces of rather pale-coloured turquoise. Distinctive yellowish-coloured mother-of-pearl shell, reddish-pink Spondylus shell and malachite form the 'crests' on the heads of the serpents. It is not clear whether the bodies of the serpent extend onto the other side of the helmet, but two conical elements may represent quetzal-plume panaches, worn by the aristocracy. White conch shell forms the circular surround to a polished fragment of dark green, nodular malachite on this side of the helmet.
- On display (G27/dc6)
- Exhibition history
1987-1994, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 1), 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- For further acquisition details, see King et al. 2012. pp.194-195
The helmet or headpiece at one time belonged to the archaeologist and antiquary Thomas Bateman (1821-61) who, in 1844, built Lomberdale House, near Middleton, Derbyshire, to house his museum. Although Bateman’s collection of 4500 objects was particularly rich in British archaeology, it also included around 120 objets d’art and miscellaneous ethnographic curiosities. The latter covered a wide range, but the largest group - 22 items - came from Mexico. Bateman’s published catalogue mentions the helmet, noting that it had been purchased in Paris by “Mr Chaffers” (presumably William Chaffers (1811-92) in 1854. (1855: 236) Bateman correctly identified his curio, describing it as an “Ancient Mexican horned head-dress or helmet of wood, inlaid in mosaic with turquoise, malachite, coral (?) [sic], and mother-o’-pearl ... Probably unique, there being no specimen in any museums that I have hitherto visited” (1855: 236) and included it in “Miscellaneous Ethnographical Objects”.
William Chaffers (1811-92), is today quite well known as a leading nineteenth-century authority on gold and silver hall marks and on makers’ marks on pottery and porcelain. In contrast to his later scholarly reputation, he was described in the 1851 Census as a “pawnbroker employing four men,” so his activities may have included buying trips to the Continent. Bateman’s collection survived his death in 1861 but a generation later, against his wishes, it was broken up. At a sale on 14 April 1893 the annotated sales catalogue (BM, P&E) indicates that Franks acquired this “interesting and very rare specimen” (Lot 127) for the middling price of £21 through ‘Rollin’, probably Charles Rollin of the Paris dealers Rollin & Feuerdant who had bid for him on other occasions (Sotheby et al, 1893: 22).
See M Caygill, ‘Henry Christy, A W Franks and the British Museum’s turquoise mosaics’ in King et al (eds) Turquoise in Mexico and North America: Science, Conservation, Culture and Collections (2012)
Bateman, T (1855), A Descriptive Catalogue of the Antiquities and Miscellaneous Objects Preserved in the Museum of Thomas Bateman at Lomberdale house. Bakewell: the author.
Sotheby, S. et al. (1893). The Bateman Heirlooms. Catalogue of the first portion of the very valuable collection of Works of Art and Antiquity formed by the late W. Bateman, Esq. and T. Bateman, Esq. Of Lomberdale House, Youlgrave, Co. Derby ... which (by order of the Court of Chancery) will be sold at auction ... Friday, the 14th day of April 1893. London: Dryden Press.
- Africa, Oceania and the Americas
- Registration number
- Additional IDs
CDMS number: Am1893C2.6382 (old CDMS no.)