Aztec Period Mask at the Museum of Ethnography

Among theologians and scientists of the early 16th century, the question of what to consider the beings found living in the lands explored and conquered by Europe’s Catholic kings was one of fierce debate. Were they humans at all (the existence of such peoples was not discussed in the Bible), and if so, how should they be classified: as beings with full, or merely limited faculties of reason? Hardly surprisingly, some of those participating in the conversion of the ‘Indians,’ men who—by virtue of proximity—better understood their culture, argued that they were indeed human and, therefore, endowed with the full complement of human rights.

It was a debate that intensified in particular following the conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521: the palaces and pyramids of the Aztec capital had stunned the conquistadors, and the treasures sent back to Europe by Cortez fascinated artists like Albrecht Dürer. Similar artefacts had reached Europe among the personal possessions of Dominican monks returning home to the Vatican. In 1532, one such individual, Domingo de Betanzos, pointed to the quality and workmanship of a specific assemblage of these as an argument for the innate capabilities of the native population. The collection in question included a number of shields, earrings, sacrificial knife grips, and—above all—masks covered in mosaic tiles of various materials, particularly turquoise. The Dominicans’ role in the migration of such artefacts stemmed naturally from the order’s extensive operation in the territory where they were made, including the Valley of Mexico, the modern states of Puebla and Tlaxcala that border it to the south, and parts of Guerrero and Oaxaca (Figure 1).

Sites in Central Mexico where mosaic masks have been found
Sites in Central Mexico where mosaic masks have been found

Belonging to the first wave of mosaic artefacts to reach Europe, the pieces to which Betanzos referred are still found today in the Pigorini Museum in Rome, the British Museum in London, and the Welt Museum in Vienna. From around the turn of the 20th century onward, similar objects derived from illegal digging began turning up in museums and private collections, as well, often devoid of provenance. Artefacts unearthed by professional archaeologists, whose age was therefore ascertainable and whose discovery had been precisely documented, began making an appearance only later, around the mid-to-late 20th century.

Acquired as part of an exchange executed in 1973 (Figure 2), the mosaic mask owned by the Museum of Ethnography, Budapest belongs to the second category of artefact.

Mosaic mask (Museum of Ethnography, inv. no. 74.2.9)
Mosaic mask (Museum of Ethnography, inv. no. 74.2.9)

Institutional records offer very little by way of provenance: only that it is made of wood, turquoise, and shells and that its origins lie with the pre-Columbian Mixtec culture (c. 10th-13th century A.D.). For hundreds of years, nothing else was known, and, given that the condition of its carved wooden back panel—not to mention its nearly perfectly intact mosaic covering—seemed too good for an object found buried in the ground, there were even suspicions that it might be a forgery.

Given the above circumstances, the idea of subjecting the mask to a battery of tests to determine its age was, therefore, a natural one. First, analysis of a sample of the arched back panel indicated it had been carved from alder wood some time between 1492 and 1653 A.D. As the alder is native to many parts of the world, this meant that in theory, the panel might have been carved anywhere. However, as alder trees are also found in Latin America, and a European is not likely to have used such a humble species of wood in creating a forgery, the piece may be reasonably assumed to have originated in Mexico. Another crucial question surrounded the composition of the adhesive used to secure the cream plates and turquoise-blue mosaic tiles to the alder panel. Here, too, tests revealed the glue to consist of vegetable resins similar to those found in other Mexican mosaic artefacts, a finding that again supports the mask’s authenticity. The final piece of the puzzle, however, was the analysis of the mosaic pieces themselves. Most authentic masks are covered in turquoise, though other similarly coloured materials are also known to have been used. Although tests conducted at the Energy Science Centre of the Eötvös Loránd Research Network and ATOMKI in Debrecen revealed that the material in question was indeed turquoise, the team was surprised to discover that plates previously thought to have been made of pieces of shell were, in fact, crafted from alabaster/plaster.

Thus, tests confirmed the piece to be a turquoise-covered mask of the appropriate archaeological age, yet, as one might expect, disclosed nothing about its use or circumstances of discovery. To find the answers to these questions would require comparison to other museum artefacts, along with the consultation of both archaeological research, and such documents as have survived from the time of the Spanish conquest.

Archaeological findings show that human beings have regarded caves as entrances to the underworld since around the first millennium B.C.E. According to the Nahua of Central Mexico, the underworld—known as Tlalocán—was a place of abundance, transformation, and rebirth, as well as the home of the gods, who in turn oversaw the natural elements and life-giving forces such as water and wind. Given their association with the underworld, caves were seen as places where humans, through various rituals, could enter into contact with the gods and their ancestors, and it was for this reason that the wrapped bodies of the dead were placed at the entrance to what the Aztec referred to as Mictlán, the home of the dead (Figure 3).

Aztec-period burial bundle and accessories (Codex Magliabecchiano, folio 68)
Aztec-period burial bundle and accessories (Codex Magliabecchiano, folio 68)

These were not, however, the only ‘sacred bundles’ laid to rest in such locations: caves might hold any of three other types, as well, including those that symbolised gods or contained the remains of ancestors or symbolic objects that had once legitimised the power of their owners. This third category included the tokens, amulets, and divination paraphernalia of priests, shamans, and healers, along with ritual items, most having to do with Tlaloc, god of mountains and life-giving rain, and the various ceremonies that pleaded with him for water (Figure 4).

Tlaloc in a bark-paper costume as painted on the wall of a pyramid temple (Codex Borbonicus p. 30)
Tlaloc in a bark-paper costume as painted on the wall of a pyramid temple (Codex Borbonicus p. 30)

While it may be that nothing was known about the Museum of Ethnography’s mosaic mask at acquisition, several other similar artefacts originating from the same circle of collectors did enter museum inventory that same year. Of these, two groups are of particular interest as pertains to the mask’s identification. Firstly, in 1968, two Belgian museums purchased masks similar to the Budapest piece from the same collectors. In both cases, the items were indicated as having come from a pair of caves in Puebla’s Tehuacán Valley. More interestingly, the mosaic artefacts acquired by Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium included typical funereal objects: incense vessels featuring depictions of Tlaloc, a quantity of copal resin incense, stone figurines, jewellery, miniature plaited agave bast sandals, cotton cloth, painted paper sections stretched over reed frames, corn cobs, and various seeds. Similarly interesting was the collection of artefacts that two American museums, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas and the Textile Museum in Washington, purchased in 1966 from the same antiquities dealer with which the Budapest Museum of Ethnography was to conduct its trade in 1973. Records at these American museums assign the finds to a certain La Tambour Cave, assumed to refer to the mountain Cerro Tambor near the city of Tehuacán.

In all probability, both the Belgian, and the American collections came to their sellers from grave robbers operating on the heels of scientific excavations conducted in the caves of the Tehuacán Valley during the 1960s. The dealers then divided the finds into smaller groups in order to sell them to different museums at a greater profit. It was likely in this way, therefore, that the particularly well-preserved mask in the Budapest museum became separated from the other objects and, eventually, traded for artefacts from Oceania and Asia—pieces that were difficult to find on the open market and therefore extremely valuable. During the period in question, museums did not always consider the origins of the artefacts they procured, and when able to acquire a piece as unique as this one, were prepared to go to great lengths to do so—even to the extent of breaking up a classic 19th-century international collection. Though similar to the artefacts now found in Brussels, the items accompanying the masks sold to Kansas feature artefact types not found in the latter, including two human skulls, clay vessels, rush mats, and twisted vegetable fibre ropes.

Given all of the above, it may therefore be determined that the mosaic masks now in Belgium once belonged to an assemblage used in ceremonies dedicated to the god Tlaloc where—Aztec codices reveal—a figure of (or person representing) the rain god was outfitted in painted bark garments and various tokens; those that found their way to Kansas, Washington, and Budapest, on the other hand, originated from sacred burial bundles. This theory is supported by the presence in the latter of human remains, grass mats and ropes (used in wrapping the deceased), and vessels containing provisions for the road to the underworld.

Although the above tests represent a great step forward in gaining information both on the composition, and background of a museum piece about which almost nothing was previously known, there are still others to be performed. One serious challenge will be to discover the place of origin of the turquoise used to decorate it. Another will be a comparison of various findings with those conducted on the artefacts currently in Kansas: in particular, to discover what organic materials they contain and identify the contents of the burial vessels to determine whether they were actually foods intended for consumption on the way to the underworld.

The Museum of Ethnography’s Aztec mask will be featured in the ‘Zoom In: Under the Microscope’ section of its new permanent exhibition as a conspicuous and persuasive example of how the application of modern materials analysis can reveal important and valuable information toward a better understanding of objects of obscure provenance.

János Gyarmati