Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico

Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico

Book Pages: 96 Illustrations: 162 color photos, 1 map Published: November 2006

Art and Visual Culture > Art History, Latin American Studies > Mexico

The nine turquoise mosaics from Mexico are some the most striking pieces in the collections of the British Museum. Among the few surviving such artifacts, these exquisite objects include two masks, a shield, a knife, a helmet, a double-headed serpent, a mosaic on a human skull, a jaguar, and an animal head. They all originate from the Mixtec and Aztec civilizations first encountered by Europeans during the Spanish conquest in the early sixteenth century. The mosaics have long excited admiration for their masterful blend of technical skill and artistry and fascination regarding their association with ritual and ceremony. Only recently though, have scientific investigations undertaken by the British Museum dramatically advanced knowledge of the mosaics by characterizing, for the first time, the variety of natural materials that were used to create them.

Illustrated with more than 160 color images, this book describes the recent scientific findings about the mosaics in detail, revealing them to be rich repositories of information about ancient Mexico. The materials used to construct the mosaics demonstrate their makers’ deep knowledge of the natural world and its resources. The effort that would have been involved in procuring the materials testifies to the mosaics’ value and significance in a society imbued with myths and religious beliefs. The British Museum’s analyses have provided evidence of the way that the materials were prepared and assembled, the tools used, and the choices that were made by artisans. In addition, by drawing on historical accounts including early codices, as well as recent archaeological discoveries, specialists have learned more about the place of the mosaics in ancient Mexican culture.

Filled with information about the religion, art, and natural and cultural history as well as the extraordinary ability of modern science to enable detailed insight into past eras, Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico offers an overview of the production, utilization, and eventual fate of these beautiful and mysterious objects.


“The nine Aztec mosaic pieces dealt with in Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico . . . have immense cultural and historic value. . . . Engaging and informative for the general reader, [and] valuable to the specialist. . . . Represents the first comprehensive, scholarly, contextual analysis of the works, providing a timely and much-needed foundation for further related studies in the field.” — Heather S. Orr, New Mexico Historical Review

“This photographic record is one of the strengths of the book; with clear, concise, descriptive narrative, it brings these mosaic artifacts to life.” — J.J. Borowicz, Choice

“What makes Turquoise Mosaics From Mexico of special interest to mosaic artists is the information on how and why particular materials were used, their origins and ritual significance. Also very useful for visual artists are the illustrations of multiple views of objects and magnified images of their details. The illustrations allow the reader vantage points typically not seen from texts or even first hand as a museum-goer.” — Janet Kozachek, British Association for Modern Mosaics Newsletter


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Colin McEwan is an archaeologist and head of the Americas section at the British Museum.

Andrew Middleton is a mineralogist at the British Museum.

Caroline Cartwright specializes in the identification of wood, fiber, and shell as a scientist at the British Museum

Rebecca Stacey is an expert in the characterization of resins, waxes, and gums at the British Museum.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Director’s Foreword 6

Acknowledgments 7

1. Introduction 8

Ancient Mexico 8

Sources of information 8

Mosaics in the British Museum 11

Antecedents in serpentine and jade 14

The significance of materials 19

2. Mosaics under the Microscope 24

Microscopy and analysis: the science behind the art 24

Raw materials: selection and procurement 27

Construction of the mosaics 38

3. The Turquoise Mosaics in the British Museum Collections 42

The masks 42

The helmet 53

The double-headed serpent 54

The shield 59

The mosaic on a human skull 66

The knife 71

The jaguar 78

The animal head 83

Epilogue 85

Notes 86

Glossary of scientific techniques 90

Bibliography 91

Index 94

Picture Credits 96
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3924-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3915-1
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