Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/August 1887/The Metal Art of Ancient Mexico
|THE METAL ART OF ANCIENT MEXICO.|
OF the contemporary writers of the conquest of ancient Mexico there are but three who have told us that there were in that city not only objects of gold, silver, and copper, but also some of bronze and tin. They have, moreover, told us that some of these metals were most skillfully wrought, and that the designs fashioned therefrom were so marvelous and beautiful that even the European goldsmiths of those days could not excel them.
However true this may be, it should be remarked that there is neither in the museums of this country, Spain, nor Mexico a single representative relic of this advanced skill in metal-working. All the Mexican specimens of unquestionable pre-Columbian origin that we have are of pure copper, and are simply hammered into shape. There are a few of bronze, but these, as well as some of copper, can not be said to antedate the conquest.
M. Guillaume Dupaix, who was employed by the King of Spain in 1805 to explore Mexico in search of remains of Aztec art, is the first to tell us anything about Mexican metal relics. Though an endeavor is evident throughout his notes to strengthen the belief in the greatness of Aztec civilization, the only metal specimens that he describes are three of what he calls "red copper." His annotator, Lenoir, referring to these metal specimens, properly adds that "this red copper is native, whereas the yellow copper is the result of an alloy which the Mexicans, it appears, did not use."
The twelve Mexican axes collected by Dr. Palmer, Mr. Frederick Ober, Professor Agassiz, and Mr. L. H. Ayme, seven of which are in the Peabody Museum at Cambridge, and the two in the National Museum at Washington, are all of pure copper; and Professor F. W. Putnam, who had the privilege of examining the former, tells us that there is no doubt that they were all shaped by hammering. This is also true of those in the National Museum.
These axes are of but two types, and it is gratifying to see that they correspond to the two forms figured in the ancient paintings. We might, therefore, reasonably deduce from this the fact that those figured axes were of a like composition to these that survive, and also that they were wrought with the hammer. To further sustain this conclusion, Landa gives, in his "Cosas de Yucatan," a cut of a Yucatan axe which also corresponds in shape to those just mentioned. These, he says, "are made of a certain metal, and shaped by hammering the edge with stones." Now, upon the authority of Cogolludo, we know that these hammered axes of Yucatan were made in Mexico, and brought from that country to be exchanged for other merchandise, and that they were made of copper.
All those very uniform implements, termed "T-shaped," of which we know, are also of pure or unalloyed copper. As to these, however, there is nothing in the records or in the objects themselves to warrant belief in their ante-Cortesian origin. The material of which they are made appears to be the hammered sheet-copper in use before the invention of the rolling-mill in 1784, and which formed, as the records show, a very favorite article of aboriginal trade. The specimens bear no evidence of oxidation to indicate great age, and the fact that their edges are very neatly cut gives rise to the suspicion that their manufacture must have been subsequent to the introduction of the necessary European cutting-tools. They were found only in the State of Oaxaca, and in each find there were great numbers of them. It is not improbable, then, that for some purpose or other a large lot of sheet-copper was at an early day introduced among the natives of that section, who in turn converted it into these implements. What special use they were intended to serve we can at present only surmise. The absence of objects like these in the aboriginal codices should be noted, while throughout the whole literature of the conquest there is but one approach to their description. This is found in Torquemada, who says: "They also used certain copper coins almost in the shape of a Greek Tau, its width about three or four fingers. It was a thin piece of plate of an uncertain size, and contained much gold." It is not likely that the specimens in question were used as coins, for the edges of what might be called the shank are flattened as if for the attachment of a handle, and hence its probable use as an implement. Moreover, they do not answer to Torquemada's description, for, instead of being three or four fingers in width, they vary in this respect from fourteen to twenty centimetres; and, instead of containing much gold, analyses have proved them to be of very pure copper. Admitting them, however, to be the objects that Torquemada had in mind when he wrote, he is not sufficient authority for ascribing them to pre-Cortesian art.
In the National Museum at Washington there are three copper specimens that were used as awls. One of them, which is nine inches long, is pointed at one end, and flattened or beveled at the other, while it bears unmistakable evidences of having been shaped by hammering. It closely resembles in form, composition, and fabrication a similar tool lately procured by the Bureau of Ethnology from a mound in Wisconsin. These, with other specimens, were purchased from the collection of the distinguished Mexican archæologist, Don Fernando Ramirez, but it is to be deeply regretted that, with the exception of one or two specimens, no data accompanied them as to the locality or manner in which they were found. We can not even say with certainty that they were found within the limits of Mexico.
In this collection came also five specimens the precise use of which we do not know. They also are of copper, but a close examination shows them to be unmistakably of drawn wire, the manufacture of which it is not pretended the pre-Columbian native knew. These specimens consist each of a single piece of wire, averaging four inches in length, and are flattened or beveled at both ends.
Besides the above specimens, this collection comprises two needles of copper, two objects of twisted copper wire, nine little bells, and two bronze chisels.
The two needles, like the specimens last described, are of drawn copper wire, and are so called because in one end there is an eye, while the other is slightly pointed.
The two twisted wire specimens consist of four pieces of very fine copper wire, six inches long, and neatly twisted about one another. The purpose they served is a matter of speculation.
Four of the little bells in this collection appear to be alloyed, but are we warranted, in the absence of knowledge as to where and how they were obtained, in ascribing them to pre-Cortesian art? They bear no evidences of oxidation to indicate great age, and I am disposed to regard them as the bells of which Sahagun speaks in the following quotation: "The goldsmith is an expert in the selection of good metal. He knows how to make of it whatever he likes, and does it with skill and elegance. He is conversant with all kinds of devices, and all this he does with composure and accuracy. He knows how to purify the ore and make plates of silver as well as of gold from the cast metal. He knows likewise how to make molds of carbon, and how to put the metal into the fire in order to smelt it." Farther on he says: "He who is a trader in needles casts, cleans, and polishes them well; he makes also bells, filters, punches, nails, axes, hatchets, coopers' adzes, and chisels."
No one will pretend that Sahagun here refers to the metal-smiths as they worked before the conquest. For thirty years he lived among the surviving natives, to study their language and record all that he could concerning their customs, mythology, and arts. He gives, whenever it is obtained, all hearsay testimony as to the civilization which the Spaniards destroyed, but the bulk of his work, excepting the twelfth book, which is devoted to a history of the conquest, is the result of a study of the natives as he found them. This is evident in this case from the fact that he enumerates molds of carbon, needles, filters, coopers' adzes, hatchets, and nails, none of which are mentioned by the chroniclers of the conquest. Dr. Philipp Valentini, commenting upon this quotation, says, "A few new features are cropping out in this enumeration of implements, which give rise to the suspicion that the goldsmith is described, not as he worked before the year 1521, but as he had perfected himself and enlarged his technical knowledge through the intervention of Spanish mechanics in the year of Sahagun's writing, about 1550." These metal-smiths were evidently bound to secrecy in their art, for, in the Viceroy Mendoza's time, Lorenzana says that one of these workmen was imprisoned for counterfeiting the Spanish coins, and, though he was promised pardon if he would reveal the workshops of his people, his persistent silence caused him to be put to death.
We find that chisels also are enumerated by Sahagun in the above quotation, and there is no reason why we can not ascribe the three bronze chisels that we have to the native metal-smiths to whom he refers. We have, at any rate, no evidence, historic or archæologic, by which we might reasonably consider them as belonging to the period before the conquest. Two of these bronze chisels are in the National Museum at Washington, but, unfortunately for our present investigation, their origin is unknown, and no analysis of them has been made to determine the relative percentage of copper and tin.
The remaining bronze chisel is in the Museum of Mexico, and is described and figured in the annals of that institution, Vol. I, page 117. It should be noted that its form is very unlike either of the two to which we have above referred, and that it has a percentage of 97·87 parts of copper and 2·13 of tin, which is precisely the same as that of a bronze chisel found by Mr. J. H. Blake in Peru and described in Wilson's "Prehistoric Man," Vol. I, page 293. We know not where, when, or how it was found, and if we doubt that it was fashioned by the native metal-smiths who worked after the advent of the Spaniards, we might suppose it to have wandered thus far from its Peruvian home, for greater distances, we know, did the copper of Lake Superior travel in aboriginal barter.
But besides these there have also been found many other chisels, and these as far as we know are all of copper. Dupaix describes several which were plowed up in the neighborhood of the village of Antequera in Oaxaca. They are composed, he says, of red copper which we remember his editor, Lenoir, called native. Dr. Philipp Valentini refers to another which, he says, is similar in form and composition to those described by Dupaix. This was plowed up by Señor Andrez Axnar Perez on his plantation near the river Zompan in Tabasco, at a depth of nearly twelve inches. Unfortunately, none of Dupaix's chisels can now be found, but the cut he gives shows them to have been of the simplest form, and not unlike those in use by our carpenters to-day. These, and that of Señor Perez, are uniform in shape and composition, while each of the three of bronze presents a strikingly odd and distinct type. An analysis of their composition would doubtless show also a varying percentage of copper and tin, and we feel tempted, under the circumstances, to regard those of pure copper, which are uniform, as indigenous, and the bronze, which are odd, as importations from South America, or else the product of post-Columbian skill.
Thus we see that, excepting three chisels and four bronze bells, the specimens are all of pure copper, and, whether or not this pure copper is native, chemical experiments have not yet been able to determine. The fact that drawn wire is catalogued with the bronze specimens as Mexican antiquities bids us receive them with caution; and in this connection we must remember what Sahagun and Lorenzana have told us, that the Mexicans after the conquest, like the Navajos to-day, utilized some of the arts of the European, and worked largely and skillfully in metals. We must remember, also, that there has never been in Mexico, as in Peru and Wisconsin, a discovery of an ancient mine, neither a crucible nor any kind of tool by which the metal was extracted from the ore, yet investigations have been going on very actively in Mexico for nearly a century and a half.
We have, then, nothing whatever, so far as archæologic evidence goes, to show that the Mexicans acquired and practiced the art of smelting, refining, and alloying before the advent of the Spaniard.
Turning from this fact to an examination of the early historic records, we learn that Cortes, Gomora, and Bernal Diaz are the only original authorities whose statements imply a knowledge of smelting. But the honesty and accuracy of these very writers have been questioned. Though founded, to be sure, upon a more or less substantial basis of fact, their descriptions of Mexican civilization are palpably colored and idealized. The natural features of the country refute many of their statements, while others are characterized by gross discrepancy. They have been regarded, therefore, for the most part, as imaginary and delusive, and, since they are the main basis upon which rests the popular idea of a high civilization in ancient Mexico, that civilization has been thought fictitious in some of its most essential features, and in general greatly overdrawn.
Examining first the accounts of the expeditions that touched upon the shores of Yucatan and Central America prior to 1519, we find no mention of any metals except pure copper and gold. But Cortes, on the other hand, in one of his letters to the emperor, says that he saw within the market-place of Mexico "trinkets of gold and silver, of lead, bronze, copper, and tin." I can not agree with many writers in thinking that the gold which Cortes saw was the product of so enlightened and difficult an art as smelting. Though gold in the ore is rich and plentiful in the Mexican country, the inhabitants could not have been aware of any better method of obtaining it than by sifting it from river sands. Notwithstanding his numerous observations of marvelously wrought gold objects in Mexico, Bernal Diaz's own words should establish this fact. Montezuma, he says, informed them that their gold "was obtained from the province of Zacatula, where the earth which contained it was washed in wooden vessels, and the gold-dust sank to the bottom." It was also to be had, he says, in Tustepec, "where it was collected from the beds of rivers." Again, speaking of the expeditions sent out by Cortes in search of mines, he says that Gonzalo de Umbria, who went to Zacatula, reported that there "the natives washed gold out of the sand in small troughs."
If this were the only means employed, it is improbable that the Spaniards saw it in all the instances and in the great quantity that Cortez and Bernal Diaz describe; and that their statements in this regard are grossly exaggerated is evident from the fact that, with the exception of a few small trinkets, not a relic of the beautiful things of which they speak remains. Neither do the chronicles record a very great amount actually gathered by the rapacious conqueror, yet all the schemes which his mind could conceive must have been directed to this one object, not for personal greed only, but to meet the expectations of the emperor, to whom, when he had feared that he was to be deprived of his command, he had promised wealth and treasure. Though torture of the most barbaric description was employed to induce the natives to reveal the riches that they were supposed to hide, no more were obtained; and, in order that the Spanish king and those about his court may afterward understand the absence of the treasure in the kind and quantity which he had led them to expect, Cortes cautiously wrote that it was all lost in that disastrous revolution which first drove him from the city.
It is not to be supposed either that the half-civilized Aztec was aware of those many complex chemical processes by which silver is separated from the ore. If we are to credit him with this, we must call him a great metallurgist indeed, skilled in an art known even now only to a few, and which demands all the machinery and scientific accomplishments of our modern times. We know to-day that Mexico is richer in silver than any other country in the world, yet the mention of this metal in the records is noticeably infrequent, and it is especially significant that it does not figure in the articles of tribute. Let us, nevertheless, believe the exaggerating Gomora, and we find that all the silver actually collected by the Spaniards was only five hundred marks. These facts can not be reconciled with a knowledge of smelting. The little silver they may have had was doubtless only the native metal which is to be found in Mexico, or that which was obtained like the gold from the placer-washings.
Bronze, too, is in Cortes's list of metals, and if we accept bronze we must also accept tin, its necessary component. Though Cortes tells us that he saw tin in the market-place of Mexico, we find him shortly afterward deploring its absence when he desires to cast some cannon. He does not ask the natives to show him whence the tin of the market-place was obtained, but sends only his own men "searching in all directions" until it was at last found in the form of coins among the natives of Tasco. Then, inconsistent with his past conduct, he does not rob the natives of this very coveted metal, though his "distress for it had reached its highest point," but he sends his Spaniards, unassisted by natives, "with the necessary tools to bring him samples of it." After this a sufficient quantity is procured, though it cost him, he says, "a work of much labor."
But, however much this may indicate the possession of tin among the natives, we know to-day that there is none in Tasco; and though, perhaps, it may be found in Michoacan and Jalisco, the Mexicans have not thought it worth their while to work it. Baron Humboldt, who paid a visit to Tasco, had perhaps the best opportunities for the discovery of a mine, but nowhere does he speak of finding any traces of such ancient works. Though he must have known what Cortes had said concerning Tasco, he tells us that there the natives obtained not tin, but silver. This tin of Tasco, it should be noted, is not mentioned by Bernal Diaz or Gomora, and this, with the tin seen on sale in the Mexican market, both vague and barren of description as to how it was obtained, are the only instances in the authorities upon which our belief is based. Tin, strange to say, is not embraced in that well-known list of tributes which were paid to Montezuma by the subordinate tribes, neither can it claim the distinction accorded to copper and gold to be figured in the ancient paintings. The axes figured therein, we have heretofore seen, could scarcely have been an alloy of copper and tin, for their shape corresponds to the axes in our museums, which are of hammered pure copper.
Our belief, then, in what Cortes has said concerning this metal is somewhat shaken, but additional reason for discrediting him will be hereinafter presented when we come to consider the circumstances that influenced his statements.
The fact that lead is also enumerated is enough to warn us to take these statements cum grano salis. I know of no place in Mexico where lead is worked to-day, though Humboldt tells us that in 1803 it was feebly mined in the extreme northeast. It is found to a limited extent in the States of Oaxaca and Chihuahua, but it is associated with silver; and, if the natives made use of this supply, which is extremely doubtful, they must have possessed the scientific knowledge by means of which the two metals are separated. Cortes is sustained in this statement as to lead only by Gomora; and he, while designedly reasserting what his master and patron had already said about the metals of the market-place, is careful, however, to add the important qualification that "lead was scarce."
The subordinate Cortes, on landing in Mexico, shrewdly saw in its conquest an opportunity for his ambition. He feared that he might in this be superseded by another should he await the forms of Spanish law, so he contrived an election by which he was irregularly made a captain-general, and then boldly undertook a military expedition without a royal charter.
Thus there is hardly a doubt, and his letters plainly indicate it, that his prime object in these reports was to so frame them as to secure imperial pardon for his offenses, as well as sanction to continue the conquest. Therefore, he pictured the El Dorado of which Spaniards were wont to dream, whose wealth would fill the emperor's depleted treasury, and whose greatness would augment the power of his realm. All that he saw and did was extravagantly colored in such language and terminology as would magnify his adventures, and at the same time picture the conquest of a country after the Spanish ideal. Besides this, he tells how the people were idolaters and human sacrificers; how he overturned their false idols and set up crosses and images of the Virgin in their stead; and how, by constant appeals to them to embrace the religion of the Spaniards, it pleased God to make him the means of converting many. Thus, by emphasizing his acts as religious, and giving his expedition the color of a holy war, did he also secure the necessary and powerful influence of the priests at court, who, in those days of a jealous Inquisition, the Romish sovereign dare not ignore.
These letters were dispatched by trusted messengers direct to his Majesty in Spain, and, that their object might be the more surely accomplished, a quantity of virgin gold was sent with one of them, which was either gathered from the Mexicans themselves or by the Spaniards with native aid.
These considerations should influence our judgment as to the truth of Cortes's Aztec story. Even Mr. Hubert Bancroft says that "he was ever ready with a lie when it suited his purpose," and that he sees in his letters "calculated misstatements both direct and negative." Dr. Robertson, too, though he accepts them as so much history, is forced to confess that such and such a statement "seems improbable."
Besides Cortes, however, both Gomora and Bernal Diaz speak of bronze and tin, but it is only in the single instance when the merchandise of the market-place is described. Gomora only enumerates the metals, without describing the form in which they were used, and Bernal Diaz's words are, "They had for sale bronze axes, copper, and tin."
But Gomora, it should be remembered, was Cortes's secretary and chaplain, and, as Dr. Robertson says, he probably composed his work at his master's dictation, we naturally expect him to repeat the latter's highly-colored and delusive account of Aztec art. If he obtained versions from other lips besides his master's, it was all doubtless recorded in the manner the latter desired. Indeed, Las Casas asserts this most positively, and in another place adds also the charge of "downright falsehood." Muñoz and Robertson have rejected him as a reliable authority, and even his contemporary, Bernal Diaz, has emphatically accused him of adulation and inaccuracy.
But Bernal Diaz himself can not be believed, and in him we have the last of the three authorities for aboriginal smelting. A reading of his work alone would lead the educated mind of to-day to doubt the best part of what he describes. Though he denounces the figures of Gomora as eight times too large, his own remain plainly extravagant: for instance, the number and population of the valley cities which he gives would be more than the natural conditions of the country could support. One hundred and thirty-eight years after the conquest Thomas Gage confessed himself sorely puzzled to account for the disappearance of these cities as described; and Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, in his "Houses and House-Life of the Aborigines," even rejects the idea of their actual existence. Mr. Morgan, I might say, discredits these three authors in nearly everything except the main acts of the Spaniards, and these, he says, are all that can be accepted as historical, while "the descriptions of Indian society and government are imaginary and delusive."
I was glad to see that Mr. David A. Wells, in the April, 1886, number of this magazine, took the same view. He says that the popular idea of the civilization of ancient Mexico has very little foundation, and the fascinating narrations of Prescott as well as the Spanish chronicles from which he drew his so-called historic data, are little other than the merest romance, not much more worthy, in fact, of respect and credence than the equally fascinating stories of 'Sindbad the Sailor.' And in defense of this conclusion he calls attention, among other things, to the fact that the relics in the Museum of Mexico, which are probably the best collection of the remains of the so-called Aztec people that ever has been gathered, are very little better than those from the Western mounds and some of the Indian tribes of the United States.
Though it is a harder task to impeach the motives and work of Bernal Diaz than those of Cortes and Gomora, we must nevertheless consider that his original manuscript slumbered unpublished in private hands for fifty years after his death, and then was printed for the first time in Spain under a censorship decree by Alonzo Remon, a Franciscan priest. Brasseur de Bourbourg says he saw the original manuscript in Guatemala; and Scherzer, who also saw it there, informs us that the text, as published, is very incorrect. Moreover, in Rivadeneyra's "Historiadores Primitivos de Indias," tom, ii, we find that the above edition of Padre Remon, first appeared in 1675 in Guatemala, although it was printed in 1632! Thereupon, Señor Fuentes, a descendant of Bernal Diaz, said that "it contained in some parts more and in others less than my great-grandfather wrote." He added, also, that the title on the original cover, which the family have preserved and kept in sight, is simply "Ancianidad Manuscrito," and not "Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de la Nueva España, por el Capitan Bernal Diaz del Castilo, un de los Conquistadores." We learn also from the above authority that the inaccuracy commences at the very beginning of the narrative, for the opening words are not those given in the printed edition.
Thus there is scarcely a doubt that, in the process of copying, changes greater or less were made; and, since the work had to receive the sanction of the Inquisition, it is not unlikely that it was changed to conform, in certain necessary and possible features, to the records already licensed which emphasized the conquest as a triumph of the Church. It is not unlikely, also, that by this time a better knowledge of the conquered land and people had led many to doubt much that Cortes and Gomora had described, and, though dead fifty years, Bernal Diaz was thus brought forward as a convenient corroborative authority.
In this connection it is not a little significant that Bernal Diaz is an extremely zealous churchman, and that the expressions which he, an unlearned soldier, uses, correspond almost precisely to those which characterize the writings of the priests of that period. His narrative is filled throughout with religious observations and considerable emphasis is given to acts done in aid of the Church.
Moreover, we notice that he resents the imputations of Las Casas of inhumanity and inaccuracy. This is especially noteworthy when we consider that while at Guatemala in 1560 he could not have known what Las Casas had written, for the latter's "Historia General" was not completed when that author died in 1561, and then his injunction that no one should use it for forty years after his death must have been strictly obeyed.
But whether the Remon edition of Bernal Diaz be a true copy or not, we can not at any rate reconcile our knowledge of Mexican topography and resources with much that he therein relates; and as for his elaborate particulars of Mexican art and civilization, they are so plainly idealistic that our common sense forbids us to believe them. Even Mr. Prescott contends that "the more intimate our acquaintance with his narrative the less is our confidence in the accuracy of his details."
Besides Cortes and Bernal Diaz, however, there are two other authorities who were eye-witnesses of Mexican art before the conquest. These were the so-called Anonymous Conqueror and Andres de Tapia. Both were Cortes's captains, and both have left personal accounts of what they saw, which Icazbalceta has recently taken from their obscurity and published in his "Coleccion de Documentos para la Historia de Mexico." The Anonymous Conqueror gives a full description of Mexico, its country, resources, people, and customs, but, in his detailed account of the Mexican market-place, its separate stalls and the various articles on sale therein, there is no mention of any metal except gold. Mr. Hubert Bancroft has properly said of this writer that "his method and language denote intelligence and inspire confidence. Dealing wholly with native institutions he seems to have no desire as is the case with some to magnify native strength and resources for the sake of raising the estimate of the deeds of himself and comrades. His whole narrative bears the stamp of reliability, and the student may easily from internal evidence and comparison deduct approximate truth."
Andres de Tapia, on the other hand, describes the march against Mexico as well as all that was seen and done upon its entry, and although apparently a panegyrist of the conqueror, he is absolutely silent concerning the elaborate silver presents which he is said to have received. Neither does he testify to the bronze, lead, and tin of the Mexican market. Our confidence in Cortes and Bernal Diaz, the other two eye-witnesses, being impaired, these facts should be given no little significance. There is one instance, however, in which Tapia mentions silver, and in this he says that "Montezuma's treasures of gold, silver, and greenstones, of not very fine quality, were shown to himself and another Spaniard in the Casa de las Aves," or the House of the Birds.
Another contemporary writer who is of unquestionable authority is Bernadino de Sahagun. He was a Franciscan priest, and came to Mexico eight years after the conquest. He studied the native tongue, and became more proficient in it than any other Spaniard. He studied also the motives, lives, and thoughts of the natives and got from them their hieroglyphics which he expressed in the Roman character. His work is composed from the evidence in large part of Aztec eye-witnesses, and these are mingled, though somewhat confusedly, with recollections from old Spanish soldiers. He gives considerable space to the arts of the natives and their manner of work, and though he speaks of their work in gold, and this as performed with the hammer, he fails to furnish any information in regard to silver, bronze, and tin. Now, if the ancient Mexicans separated tin from its ore and knew how to fuse it with copper to make bronze, it must certainly be considered strange that Sahagun so soon after the conquest neither saw a relic thereof, nor obtained from the surviving Aztecs any account of their skill in this regard. Sahagun, moreover, in his twelfth book, gives a full description of the conquest. Herein he describes in detail the presents of gold, feathers, etc., which Montezuma made at different times to Cortes, but he is careful to omit all mention of any of silver. Not a word about that wonderful silver disk that represented the moon, neither any mention of what we deem still more wonderful, namely, that lead, tin, and bronze were seen on sale in the marketplace of the conquered city. He would indeed be remiss in his duty as an historian should he omit all mention of a feature so singular and important were he confident that it was true. All that he has to narrate, concerning the metals that the Spaniards saw in Mexico, is that Montezuma showed them a hall where were stored bright feathers, "and many rich trinkets of plumes, gold, and stones," and then when the Spaniards expressed their desire to see the contents of his private chamber, which was called "Totocalco," or the House of the Birds, they saw therein "many trinkets of gold and silver, all of which they took away."
These facts demand particular attention when it is known that this account of the expedition was composed upon the evidence of surviving natives, and the recollections of disinterested soldiers.
We desire to refer in this connection to the fact that Sahagun's vague and only mention of silver, namely, that it was seen with gold, feathers, and stones in Montezuma's private chamber, called Totocalco, or the House of the Birds, is also the only one of which the eye-witness Tapia speaks. The latter frankly says that "trinkets of gold, silver, and greenstones of not very fine quality, were shown to himself and another Spaniard in the House of the Birds" (Casa de las Aves).
These two sober accounts can not be impeached. They are the testimony of eye-witnesses who had no thoughts of how their stories could secure the censor's license. The one innocently confirms the other, and we are forced to accept them as giving us an honest, truthful picture of just what metals the Spaniards actually saw.
Thus we have presented everything upon which the historic view of our subject can properly and authoritatively rest. We can not, however, conscientiously believe the best part of the somewhat idealized stories of Cortes and Bernal Diaz, for we have seen how Cortes's letters were influenced by his ambition, and why the printed edition of Diaz can not be accepted as a verbatim copy of his original manuscript. Besides this, not only do the natural conditions of the country refute many of their statements, but, strange to say, nowhere in all our archæologic archives is there to be found a single relic of the wealth and elaborate conveniences that they describe. We accordingly feel warranted in discrediting this much of what they say, namely, that Diaz once saw for sale "axes of bronze," and Cortes "trinkets of lead, bronze, and tin," in Mexico, and tin coins among the natives of Tasco.
A careful examination, both of the ancient pictures and the early chronicles, does not develop the fact that copper, much less bronze, was ever employed by the natives in implements of war. Scarcely anything either is said concerning metal tools. Diaz is the only man who is said to have seen some, and these were axes only, but neither he nor any one else saw one in actual use. These facts can not be reconciled with the idea that they worked so extensively as to have, as Baron Humboldt says, galleries and shafts, and that they smelted the ore, and alloyed the refined metal to make bronze.
We are not surprised when the records tell us of so much gold, nor even of silver in Mexico, but we would be if they contained anything that spoke of an extensive use of copper, for we know that native copper in Mexico is found only in a very limited degree. This native copper, with perhaps some that came from Lake Superior, through an extensive traffic, was doubtless all that they possessed.
It may be asked, however, how came their temples, and such works as the so-called Calendar Stone, for instance, so exquisitely carved, if they knew not the use of bronze? As for their temples, Mr. Norman has told us that most of them are composed of a fine concrete limestone, in the carving of which "flint was undoubtedly used." Only implements of flint, obsidian, and other stones, and copper have been found among these ruins, and this fact rather encourages the belief that the natives carved these stones when first taken from the quarry, in their soft condition, with tools of this description, the rock afterward becoming hard on exposure to the air. Herrera, speaking of the districts of Yucatan, distinctly tells us that "in all of them there were so many and such stately stone buildings, that it was amazing, and the greatest wonder is that, having no use of any metal, they were able to raise such structures." Landa, too, who was a contemporary of the conquest, adds his testimony by saying that "there exist many beautiful structures of masonry in Yucatan, all of them built of stone, and showing the finest workmanship, the most astonishing that ever were discovered in the Indies, and we can not wonder at it enough, because there is not any class of metal in this country by which such works could be accomplished."
The so-called Calendar and Sacrificial Stones unearthed in the city of Mexico, and most of their idols, are made from large blocks of basalt, and to dress or carve this very hard volcanic material with a bronze chisel, however well it may be tempered, is impossible. A process of grinding and rubbing, which archæologists have now demonstrated to be extremely practicable, and in which the Mexicans, as in other things, became more expert than their northern brethren, was doubtless the only means employed.
The remains of native work in bas relief are now known to be very numerous, but neither among the ruins of Palenque, Uxmal, Copan, Chichen, nor Mitla can there be found a single metal tool. Had these extensive works been fashioned with bronze implements, far more specimens than the paltry three that we have would have come to light ere now, within the broad area in which they are embraced.
- "Antiquités Mexicaines," deuxième partie, Planche II.
- "Historia de Yucatan," lib. lv, cap. iii.
- "Historia de la Nueva España," lib. x, cap. vii.