The Artisan Craft
The beautiful pieces that artisans created took a great deal of effort. Most of the jewelry that involved metal was done in various steps with a number of specialists. Aztec metal workers used the lost-wax method when working with gold and other metals. In this highly technical method a craftsman would:
- Make a clay model
- Dust the model with charcoal
- Brush the shape with melted wax
- Let the wax harden
- Dust the surface again with charcoal
- Add a second layer of clay
- Invert the object and heat the wax until it melts, and then pour it out
- Set the mold and fill it with melted metal
- Let it cool
- Break the mold and reveal the object (Phillips, 225)
Some objects were produced in two-stage casting, in which two different kinds of metals were used. One metal would be cast first, and then another afterwards.
The process of annealing, which is alternately hammering and heating metals, was also used in metalworking.
Stones were worked on by direct percussion, pressure, and by pecking away at large pieces of stone. Most of the beads were finished by abrading, grinding, cutting, whetting, scraping, drilling, engraving, and polishing. Abrading was done by stones of harder composition and water. The surfaces were smoothed with leather and sand, or with bamboo bark (Crouch, 113).
The Aztecs depended on trade and goods from a complex network of tribute-paying areas in the empire to provide them with military equipment, food, and other necessary items used to make jewelry and luxury goods. Because the Aztecs had conquered an enormous amount of territory, a constant flow of resources was provided to the capital. The warriors of Tenochtitlan led campaigns into territories that had the best raw materials for its artisans, which allowed them to create pieces with vast amounts of materials.
All of the main towns in the Valley of Mexico had a busy marketplace near the closest major temple. As many as 60,000 people might have been at the marketplace in Tlatelolco, which is Tenochtitlan’s twin settlement in Lake Texcoco, making it the largest market in the world at the time (Phillips, 72). Even on the calmest day of the year, numbers would reach up to 25,000 people. The markets were so big because the law required merchants to sell their goods at the marketplace. If they did business elsewhere they risked provoking the wrath of the market god and would also be fined.
Merchants at the marketplace were divided into different classes. Small vendors sold goods at the market that they also produced. Other full-time merchants carried their treasured goods over long distances. There was also a strong merchant organization, called the Pochteca, consisting of merchants who traded the most expensive and elite commodities. They were said to be protected by the patron deity of merchants (Carrasco, 97) and were the only merchants allowed to trade in foreign lands, which were regions not controlled by the Triple Alliance. They were not considered nobles nor commoners, but were somewhere in between the two.
Crouch, Donald. Stone and Metal Jewelry of Pre-Columbian Middle America. 3rd ed. Vol. 11. Cetnral States Archaeological Societies, 1964. 106-113.
Phillips, Charles. The Aztecs and Maya World: Everyday Life, Society and Culture in Ancient Central America and Mexico, with Over 500 Photographs and Fine Art Images. London: Lorenz Books, 2005.
Carrasco, David, ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America. Vol. 1. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.