John Pohl, THE CODICES John Pohl's



During the course of excavations within the matrix fill of the Great Temple, archaeologists have found hordes of shells, jade beads, greenstone masks, the bones of jaguars, crocodiles, exquisitely painted polychrome vessels, tantalizing fragments of what were once beautifully woven and embroidered textiles and a vast array of other exotic materials. Investigators were at a loss to explain the presence of these caches until they consulted Codex Mendoza, an Aztec pictographic book preserved in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. The manuscript inventories the entire tribute of the empire for one year. Hieroglyphic place signs name cities and provinces conquered throughout the fifteenth century. Pictographs for staple foods such as maize, beans, and squash appear but by far the majority of the pictographs represent precisely the same kinds of exotic materials found in the excavations.

Image - Folios 42v and 43r of Codex Mendoza Folios 42v and 43r of Codex Mendoza illustrates the gold, jade, feathers, woven textiles, and military uniforms given in tribute by the principal Mixtec kingdoms of Oaxaca. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Tribute of Tochtepec (Rabbit-Hill) Tribute of Tochtepec (Rabbit-Hill) located on the Gulf Coast included precious stones in jade, serpentine, and turquoise very similar to pieces found in caches buried within the foundations of the Great Temple at Tenochtitlán. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Tribute of Cihuatlan (Place of Many Women) Tribute of Cihuatlan (Place of Many Women) located on the Pacific Coast features Spondylus, a rare and valued shell. Click on Image for more detail.

Many ancient societies of the world were known to bury precious materials including works of art. Economists have proposed that such practices served like leveling mechanisms when the supply of anything rare or labor intensive exceeded demand. We also know that the Aztecs compared war to a market place and it appears that there was more to this than just metaphor. In societies like the Mixtecs and Zapotecs of southern México with whom the Aztecs fought nearly continuously for seventy-five years, the production and consumption of luxury goods in precious metals, gems, shell, feathers, and cotton was restricted to the elite. Commoners were even forbidden to wear jewelry.

Among the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, royal women were the principal craft producers and so the kings sought to marry many wives not only because they could forge new alliances but because they could enrich themselves by exchanging their artistic creations through dowry, bridewealth, and other gift-giving networks. Considering that a king might marry as many as twenty times, each palace could produce luxury goods to be measured in tonnage. By A.D. 1200, royal palaces throughout the Central and Southern highlands began to engage in fiercely competitive reciprocity systems in order to enhance their position in alliance networks. Many would be quick to perceive that the greater a royal house’s ability to acquire exotic materials and to craft them into exquisite jewels, textiles, and featherwork, the better marriages it could negotiate. The better marriages it could negotiate, the higher the rank a royal house could achieve within a confederacy and in turn the better access it would have to more exotic materials, merchants, and crafts people. In short, royal marriages promoted syndicates.

Image - Illustration from the Florentine Codex Illustration from the Florentine Codex showing the Aztec emperor personally awarding warriors with ritual dress, and gifts taken in tribute from foreign states. Click on Image for more detail.

Consequently, scholars are beginning to recognize that the Aztec strategy of military conquest was not only to secure supplies of food but also to subvert the luxury economies of foreign states by forcing them to produce goods for their own unique system of gift exchange, rewards for military valor that made the soldiers of the Imperial armies dependent upon the emperor himself for promotion in Aztec society. The outlandish uniforms seen on the battlefield therefore served as graphic proof of the kind of crushing tribute demands the Aztec Empire could inflict as well; shields shimmering with the feathers of rare tropical birds, headdresses carved from mahoghany into the likenesses of towering mythic animals, cotton tunics so intricately woven and embroidered that they were comparable to silk. Surviving records tell us that no less than 50,000 woven cloaks a month were sent by the conquered provinces to Tenochtitlán. The prospect of being forced to subvert their artistic skills to the production of military uniforms that were then redistributed to an ever more glory-hungry army of Aztec lords and commoners alike must have been a frightening proposition to the kingdoms of southern México.

Image - Depiction in Codex Mendoza Six differing levels of military achievement are depicted in Codex Mendoza for young men who are destined to become priests. The first is a novice who has had made one capture. He wears a simple ichcahuipilli or quilted armour jacket. Those who had made two captures were awarded a white feather ornamented tlahuiztli, a tightly fitting body suit. A third capture entitled the warrior-priest to a wear a green tlahuiztli. A fourth capture entitles a priest to wear a remarkable black and white conical hat adopted from the Huaxtec people of Veracruz. The white dots and swirl on his shield signify a constellation of stars. Five captures entitles the warrior to carry a special shield ornamented with an eagle's foot while the highest ranking soldiers were awarded a yellow tlahuiztli and a helmet carved in the shape of a mountain lion. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Reconstruction of a macuahuitl, the prefered weapon of Aztec armies Reconstruction of a macuahuitl, the prefered weapon of Aztec armies. Carved of hardwood, it was fitted with obsidian blades along the two cutting edges. The weapon was as sharp as a razor and intended to maim or otherwise disable an enemy so he could be captured. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Codex Mendoza illustrates a number of heraldic designs for shields Codex Mendoza illustrates a number of heraldic designs for shields. This particular design was awarded to, among others, the elite fighting men called Cuahchique. A surviving example of this shield ornamented with the precious feathers of tropical birds is preserved in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart, Germany. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Reconstruction of a quilted cotton vest called an ichcahuipilli Reconstruction of a quilted cotton vest called an ichcahuipilli, the most basic warrior garment. Worn under the tlahuiztli or ehuatl, the vest gave the Aztec soldier a formidably stout appearance. Helmets were carved from hardwood in a variety of heraldic shapes including jaguars, eagles, and a demon of the air known as a tzitzimitl. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Commanders of the Aztec army Commanders of the Aztec army. The extraordinary back ornaments allowed troops to keep sight of their officers during the thick of battle. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Enemy capture In Aztec society, the field campaign was only a part of the battle. It was not enough to simply kill an opponent in a remote field. After an enemy was captured, he was incapacitated with a wooden collar and taken back to Tenochtitlán for formal presentation. The intention was to literally "bring home the war." Click on Image for more detail.
Image - The festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli at Tenochtitlán illustration The festival of Tlacaxipehualiztli at Tenochtitlán featured gladiatorial style combats in which ranking enemy warriors who had been captured were forced to defend themselves against jaguar and eagle warriors. In today's world we witness war on television to confirm for ourselves that what our government claims it is doing to ensure our national security is worth the cost in resources and human life. Ancient societies had no comparable way to convey the image of battle to their people, so heads of state devised ways of recreating events through festivals in order to foster public trust. Thousands of Aztec citizens participated in these events, reassuring themselves that their investment in supplying food, making weapons and equipment, and committing the lives of their children would grant them the benefits of conquest that their emperors guaranteed. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - Ritual execution portrayed in Codex Magliabechiano Ritual execution portrayed in Codex Magliabechiano. It was the sworn duty of each and every Aztec soldier to carry on the legacy of the great patriarch Huitzilopochtli; to be ever vigilant, ever prepared to protect his family, his calpulli, and his city from those who would destroy all that his ancestors had worked so hard to accomplish. Every captive walking to his death up the stairs of the Great Temple represented the legendary hated siblings who in their jealousy would have slain Huitzilopochtli. Each would reenact the role of the cosmic enemy, living proof of the god's omnipotent power, manifesting the abilities of his spiritual descendants, his mighty warriors, to repay him for his blessings, indeed the very livelihood that they enjoyed. When the captive reached the top of the stairs, he was stretched out on his back over a stone and held down by four attendants. Then a fifth priest drove a knife into his chest, the trauma of the blow killing him nearly instantaneously. Just as quickly the priest slit the arteries of the heart and, lifting the bloody mass into the air, pronounced it to be the "precious eagle cactus fruit"; the supreme offering to the Sun god Tonatiuh. The heart was then burned in a special vessel carved with designs to represent an eagle. The lifeless corpse of the captive was tossed down the staircase where it came to rest next to the stone image of the decapitated goddess Coyolxauhqui. The Aztecs didn't use the term "human sacrifice" nor did they consider their ritual activities in any way connected to such a practice as it was later cast on them by Europeans. For them it was: nextlaualli, a sacred debt payment to the gods. Click on Image for more detail.
Image - A skull rack called a tzompantli The skull of an enemy was displayed as a trophy, on a skull rack called a tzompantli. The remains of these tzompantlis have been found in excavations. Click on Image for more detail.

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