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The Turquoise Mosaics

  • Object type

  • Museum number


  • Title (series)

    • The Turquoise Mosaics
  • Description

    Human skull covered with turquoise and lignite mosaic held in place with pine resin adhesive. The nasal cavity is lined with red thorny oyster shell (Spondylus princeps). The eyes are made of polished pyrite surrounded by white conch (Strombus) shell. There is a lining made of deerskin and maguey (Agave) fibre on the interior and long deerskin straps which were originally painted red (traces of the iron rich ochre pigment remain). The skull is belived to represent Tezcatlipoca, or Smoking Mirror, and was probably worn as a back ornament.


  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 1400 - 1521
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Height: 19 centimetres
    • Width: 13.9 centimetres
    • Length: 12.2 centimetres
  • Curator's comments

    Tezcatlipoca is often depicted with obsidian mirrors at the head and is conventionally cast as an adversary to Quetzalcoatl.

    - Carmichael, E., 1970. 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico', London. pp.12-13, 35
    - Joyce, T. A., 1912. 'A Short Guide to the America Antiquities in the British Museum', London. Fig.12
    - Klor de Alva, J., Nicholson, H.B., and E. Quinones Keber (eds.), 1988. 'The Work of Bernardino de Sahagun: Pioneer Ethnographer of Sixteenth Century Aztec Mexico', Texas. pp.242-47
    - López Luján, L. and Fauvet-Berthelot, M-F., 2005. Azteques, la Collection de Sculptures du Musée du Quai Branly. Paris. pp.71-72
    - Madrid, 1992. 'Azteca-Mexica, las culturas del Mexico antiguo', in Jose Alcacina Franch, Miguel Leon-Portilla and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma (eds.), exh. cat., Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario, Madrid. p.304, LXVIII
    - McEwan, C. 1994. Ancient American Art in Detail. London. p.75
    - McEwan, C. et al. 2006. Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico. London: British Museum Press. pp.24-25, 66-70
    - Miller, M., and Taube, K. 1993. ‘The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya: An Illustrated Dictionary of Mesoamerican Religion’, London. pp.164-165
    - Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos, and Felipe Solice Olguin, eds. 2002. Aztecs. London: Royal Academy Books. pp.323-24
    - Pasztory, E., 1983. 'Aztec Art', New York. Fig.63
    - Saville, M.H., 1922. 'Turquoise Mosaic Art In Ancient Mexico', Indian Notes and Monographs, no.8, Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation, New York. Fig.19Composite object. Modified human remains. No record of research. No claim received. On display.


  • Bibliography

    • Matos Moctezuma 2002 304 bibliographic details
    • MacGowan & Rosse 1923 46 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 2009a Cat. 72 bibliographic details
    • McEwan, Middleton, Cartwright & Stacey fig.102, p.67 (full frontal image) bibliographic details
    • Mack 1994 fig.59 bibliographic details
    • McEwan 1994 p. 75 bibliographic details
    • Attenborough 1976 p.47 bibliographic details
    • King et al 2012 pp.55-64,183-196 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G27/dc6

  • Exhibition history

    1987-1994, London, Museum of Mankind (Room 1), 'Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico'
    2002, London, Royal Academy, Aztecs
    2003, Berlin, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Aztecs
    2009-2010 24 Sep-24 Jan, London, BM, Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date


  • Acquisition notes

    Lot 1836, Catalogue of B.Hertz Collection. For details on Christie's purchase of Am,St.399-401, see King et al. 2012. pp. 183-197 This item is part of group of three turquoises (sacrificial Knife Am St. 399), (Mask Am St.400), (Human skull Am St.401) acquired by the dealer and collector Bram Hertz (b. c. 1794) and subsequently bequeathed to the Museum by Henry Christy (1810-65). An account of the provenance of these objects is given in a letter from Hertz, who settled in London in the 1830s in a letter dated ‘5 February 1858’ but (Dept of Asia, WWII archive) more probably written in 1859 at a time when Christy was contemplating their purchase at a forthcoming sale. The letter is reproduced in E. Carmichael, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (London, British Museum, 1970) p. 37. Hertz published a catalogue of his collection (Hertz, 1851) – possibly the first appearance of the mosaics in print since the 17th century – and in this (Hertz, 1851: iii) reference is made to the collection having been acquired “within the last twenty years”. The three turquoise items (mask, knife and skull) also appear in the catalogue of Hertz’s first Sotheby’s sale (Sotheby & Wilkinson, 1854) which took place in May 1854. In an annotated sale catalogue in the British Library the group of three mosaics is shown as having been acquired by what appears to be a Mr Roussey or Roussell for 14 guineas (the handwriting is difficult to read). It may be that some of the objects were bought in or were acquired by nominees buying on behalf of Joseph Mayer (1803-86) and a consortium of Liverpool businessmen (Gibson, 1988: 11). The turquoises were still in Hertz’s possession in July 1856 when he wrote to Mayer offering his collection for sale, including “extremely rare” “specimens of Mexican, Chinese and Indian workmanship.” The deal was concluded by 15 January 1857 when removal arrangements were discussed (Liverpool Record Office). It has been suggested that Mayer may have over-reached himself financially, at all events , the three mosaics appeared in the Hertz/Mayer 1859 sale (Sotheby & Wilkinson, 1859: 125-6), were bought by Henry Christy Since it was not displayed at the Royal Asiatic Society on 28 January 1843, it can be inferred that Hertz acquired the human skull after the beginning of 1843. He states in his 1859 letter to Christy: The skull was in a Collection at Bruges which was sold about 12 years ago, as also a wig which was described as a scalp. On the scull [sic] there is a material which is called obsidian, and which is found in great abundance in Mexico... (Carmichael, 1970: 37). It is possible that Hertz could be referring to a private sale, but there is only one public auction listed in Art Sales Catalogues Online which took place in Bruges in the 1840s and which contained antiquities and miscellaneous objects. This was the immense collection of the rich landowner and aristocrat Joseph van Heurne (1752-1844), built up over half a century, auctioned at Bruges in October 1844. Van Heurne had exhibited his collection in his residence at Bruges. The sale catalogue, which was distributed locally and in Berlin, Cologne, Paris and London, lists almost 2,000 items: 288 paintings, 198 drawings, 535 prints, 69 sculptures, 54 porcelains, 179 natural history objects, and 603 ivories, enamels, antiquities and miscellaneous objects Listed in the catalogue, amongst 84 “Objets divers” is: 483. Un Vanitas d’une composition vraiment extraordinaire, consistant en une caisse sur la porte de laquelle on a représenté la portrait d’une jeune femme; à l’intérieur se trouve un crane sur la face duquel on a appliqué des pierreries en mosaïque, les yeux sont en marcassite. A l’intérieur de la porte il y ‘a 8 vers latins relatifs au sujet. On croit que cette pièce date du milieu du l6eme siècle (Vandervin, 1844: 106). It seems very likely that this is the BM’s human skull. The date and place are right, given that Hertz’s letter is rather vague. If this is indeed the BM’s skull one puzzle might be solved. In Hertz’s 1858 letter to Christy and in both the 1854 and 1859 sales catalogues the skull was, for no obvious reason, said to be accompanied by a wig or scalp. It would make sense if this were part of a Vanitas ensemble Vanitas painting, with its focal point of a human skull, was particularly popular in Northern Europe (Flanders and the Netherlands) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. An assemblage of actual objects such as this is, however, unusual. We do not know whether Hertz was present at the van Heurne sale. His reference to Bruges (Carmichael, 1970: 37) is ambiguous so it is possible that he could have bought the skull later from a dealer. 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) Vandervin, H. (1844). Catalogue des Collections de Tableaux, Dessins, Gravures, Antiquités, Curiosités, et Objets d’Histoire Naturelle, formant le Cabinet Van Heurne, Dont la Vente se fera à Bruges ... le 21 Octobre, 1844 et jours suivants ... sous la direction de A. Bollaert, Directeur des ventes, et ministère competent, assisté d’Henri Vandervin. Gand [Ghent]: De Busscher Freres.

  • Department

    Africa, Oceania & the Americas

  • Registration number


  • Additional IDs

    • Am186?C5.401 (old CDMS no.)
COMPASS Title: Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca


COMPASS Title: Mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca

Image description



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Object reference number: ESA2443

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