One of the best ways to understand past societies is through their artifacts, and Aztec society is no different. The Aztec artifacts that have survived give us great insight into daily Aztec life, religious beliefs, and warfare.
Though much of Aztec material culture did not survive the Spanish conquest, those that crossed that Atlantic as curios for conquistadors or laid buried under Mexico City for centuries, now give us a fascinating insight into Aztec culture.
Aztec Calendar Stone
The Aztec Calendar Stone is an Aztec artifact like no other. It stands out with its impressive size and intricately-carved details. Finished in 1487, the stone is a round monolith with a diameter of just under 12 feet and a weight of 25 tons!1
Despite its name, the Calendar Stone was not a calendar in the modern sense of the word. Rather, it depicts the history of the cosmos.
From the center of the stone the face of the sun god, Tonatiuh, emerges. In Aztec belief, Tonatiuh was reborn every morning to make the journey across the sky, then die each night at sunset. This cycle of death and rebirth is key to understanding the Calendar Stone. At the core of Aztec cosmology is idea that the world has existed, and will continue to exist, in phases which the Aztec labeled as “suns.”
The Calendar Stone was created in the Fifth Sun and shows the history of the world from the First Sun through the Fifth. We know this because of the dates and symbols 4 Jaguar, 4 Wind, 4 Rain, and 4 Water are carved along the outer rim of the stone. These dates, archaeologists have found, correspond to the dates the Aztecs believed each of the first four suns, or phases of history, ended.
The symbol for “earthquake,” which corresponds to the Aztec date 4 Movement, also shows up. It is thought that the Aztecs believed this was the date the Fifth Sun would end (possibly due to an earthquake) and the next era or phase of history would begin.2
Now thought to have been commissioned by Moctezuma II after a victory over a strong neighboring kingdom, the Tepanecs, the Calendar Stone survived the depredations of the Spanish Conquest because it was buried by the Aztecs themselves. In an act of ritual sacrifice, this ornately carved piece of cosmology was buried under the Templo Mayor, the main ceremonial center in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital.3
Fired-Clay Mictlantecuhtli Statue
An Aztec artifact of strikingly beautiful craftsmanship is the fired-clay Mictlantecuhtli statue. Representing the Aztec god of death, this statue was discovered in Mexico City in 1994 by archaeologist Leonardo López Luján.
In Aztec religion, Mictlantecuhtli was the god of the dead, ruling over the underworld, or “Mictlan,” with his wife Mictecacíhuatl.4 In Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, the word tecuhtli means “dignitary” or “lord.” So, Mictlantecuhtli literally means “the lord of the world that is under the ground.”5
In this role, the god essentially sat a the cross-road to heaven or hell. According to Aztec belief, if a person’s sole did not immediately transcend to one of the various paradises of the dead, then their soul had to undertake a four-year long journey through the nine stages of Mictlan, enduring trials along the way. When they reached they end of these trails, these poor souls would meet Mictlantecuhtli, who decided whether put them through further despair or allow them to finally rest.6
Dating to around 1480, the Mictlantecuhtli statue stands just a hair under six feet tall, making it one of the most impressive Aztec artifacts ever found.7 Aztec artisans created this fearsome looking statue by firing clay to form the body, then adding stucco and paint to fill in the features of the god. And they certainly nailed his underworldly nature. With long fingernails resembling claws protruding from all ten fingers, an exposed rib cage, and his liver hanging out, Mictlantecuhtli looks like who you would expect to meet after a journey through the underworld.
Eagle Warrior Statue
Another beautiful example of Aztec sculpture and art is this eagle warrior statue. Just like Mictlantecuhtli, this statue stands just shy of six feet tall and was made using ceramics. Exquisitely decorated, Aztec artists used stucco to give this warrior a feather like texture all over his body. Though many of the many pieces have fallen off over the centuries, we can still see remnants of these feathers on his arms, shoulders, chest, and legs.
On his arms, further stylized feathers plum out, while eagle-like talons project out from around his knees. On his head, the warrior wears a helmet shaped like an eagle’s head, with his face visible through the gaping beak of the furious bird of prey.
More than just a work of art, this statue may provide some insight into Aztec warfare. Eagle warriors were one of the most elite corps of troops within the Aztec Empire. In this image from the Florentine Codex, the shoulder farthest to the left wears the same regalia as our clay warrior.
As we have multiple sources that demonstrate the the eagle warriors wore suits of armor designed to replicate the appearance of an eagle, we can say with decent certainty that this was a real practice within the Aztec Empire.
But, that’s not all our life-sized friend has to tell us. The statue originally stood in the House of the Eagle, a building that served both military and religious purposes that sat in the sacred precinct of the Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlan. In the House of the Eagle, eagle warriors gathered to perform rituals to guarantee success in battle, make sacrifices in thanks to gods (including bloodletting), and more.
These two large stone sculptures of an eagle warrior most likely stood guard over these rituals.
Aztec Feather Shield
Since the reemergence in interested in the Aztec Empire in modern times, this feather shield, known as Ahuizotl, has become of the most Aztec artifacts.
This beautiful azure shield was decorated with a feathered mosaic to resemble a prominent figures in Aztec mythology and lore, the coyote. Within the coyote’s mouth, we can also see a symbol that held great meaning Aztec society, the atl tlachinolli.8 A combination of the Aztec symbols for water (atl) and scorched earth (tlachinolli), it was the symbol for war.9
Crafted with meticulous care, it took months for skilled artisans to complete the shield. The intricate designs and the decorative elements around the frame of the shield were made using four kinds of feathers: scarlet macaw, rose roseate spoonbill, yellow oriole, and blue cotinga.10
The frame of the shield that supports these beautiful feather designs was made braiding the inner bark from an agave tree.
Due to the symbols of war on the front and the delicate nature of the construction, historians believe that this exquisite shield served as ceremonial armor and was used by high ranking soldiers during ceremonies or events attended by respected members of society.
The Skull of the Smoking Mirror
Perhaps the eeriest of Aztec artifacts, artisans crafted the Skull of the Smoking Mirror from an actual human skull. Though it may seem strange, or even creepy, to modern audiences, the Aztecs had a much different view of death – as evidenced by the fact that this skull was actually meant to be worn as a mask.
They made the striped design on the outside by using blue turquoise and dark ignite, and the eyes were created by placing polished black pyrite on top of white conch shells. The nose is also lined with red plates taken from thorny oysters. The inside of the skull was then lined with deer skin, allowing Aztec priests to wear the mask comfortably. The strips of leather that sit coiled next to it in the above image would have been decorated to match other priestly garbs.
All of this was done to allow the priest who wore the mask to play the part of Tezcatlipoca, or the god of the Smoking Mirror, in religious ceremonies. Often depicted as the foe of one the Aztec’s principal deities, Quetzalcoatl, was the god of the night sky and had been the ruler of the world during the First Sun.
The worship of Tezcatlipoca began with Toltecs, centuries before the Aztecs arrived in central Mexico, and some scholars believed this god’s cult introduced human sacrifice to Mesoamerican religions. No matter who worshiped him, when it came to Tezcatlipoca, Tezcatlipoca was always depicted with black stripes across his face and with an obsidian mirror in the place of his left foot (hence the moniker “the Smoking Mirror”).11
A truly awe inspiring relic, the Skull of the Smoking mirror has given us wonderful insights into Aztec religious beliefs and ritual practices.
Sources on Aztec Artifacts
- Jacqueline Phillips Lathrop, Ancient Mexico: Cultural Traditions in the Land of the Feathered Serpent (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1995), 229
- Lathrop, Ancient Mexico, 229
- Muriel Porter Weaver, Aztecs, Maya, and their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica (New York: Academic Press, 1981), 440
- “Mictlantecuhtli: Aztec Deity,” britannica.com
- Jacques Soustelle, Daily Life of the Aztecs on the Eve of the Spanish Conquest (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1962), 38
- “Mictlantecuhtli: Aztec Deity,” britannica.com
- “Mictlantecuhtli,” mexicolore.co.uk
- Dana Leibsohn and Barbara E. Mundy, “Feathered Shield with Coyote, front view,” fordham.edu
- “The Aztec Symbol for War,” mexicolore.co.uk
- Walter Baumgartner, “The Aztec Feather Shield in Vienna: Problems of Conservation,”
- “Tezcatlipoca: Aztec God,” britannica.com