Peering Through Time: Early Mesoamerican Mirrors for Grooming and Divination
Mirrors are known to have been used by human beings for thousands of years. The earliest examples of manufactured mirrors come from Anatolia (known today as Turkey). These were made from pieces of polished stone, and have been dated to around 6000 BC.
Over in Mesoamerica, it has been found that polished stones were also used to make mirrors. These, however, date from around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC. For the Mesoamericans, mirrors were not used merely as tools for personal grooming. Instead, they took on symbolic meanings as well, and were also often used for divination .
Although not the focus of this article, it’s worth mentioning that stone mirrors were created further south than Mesoamerica as well. One instance of this is the Inca culture, which also created obsidian mirrors. For example, an obsidian mirror in the collection of the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, France that was previously attributed to a shipment sent by Hernán Cortez in 1522, has recently been discovered to have actually originated in what is now Quito, Ecuador , when that area was ruled by the Inca.
Stone and Iron Mirrors
The first known mirrors in Mesoamerica were made of polished stone, and the earliest examples available date to around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC.
An Aztec mirror made of obsidian. ( Public Domain )
At about the same time, iron ore was also being used to produce mirrors. These mirrors were made by polishing a piece of iron ore until it had a high level of reflectiveness. Such mirrors were made by the Mokaya, and have been discovered during excavations. At the Mokaya site of Paso de la Amada, for example, iron ore mirrors dating to between 1400 BC and 1100 BC have been unearthed.
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Painted ceramics with decorative features such as shell impressions, and reflective hematite. Dated to between 1700 and 1300 BC from Paso de la Amada, Mazatán and on display at the Regional Museum in Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )
Working with Fool’s Gold
Another type of material used to make mirrors was pyrite (also known as fool’s gold). This type of mirror was popular in the city of Teotihuacan, as well as in Maya regions. In order to make such mirrors, pre-cut pieces of pyrite were fixed onto a piece of slate. These mirrors do not survive well in the archaeological record as the mineral is unstable and rapidly oxidizes, leaving behind its slate along with red or yellow stains where the pyrite pieces were once fixed.
Four-petalled flower-mirror with feathered rim from Teotihuacan. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Mirrors as Luxury Items
Mirrors are able to tell researchers a number of things about the various Mesoamerican cultures that made them. One thing that is obvious is that mirrors were objects that took a long time to produce. One researcher, for example, has found that a single craftsman would need to take between 900 and 1300 hours to make a small mirror.
Painted mural at Teotihuacan depicting a headdress with a centrally positioned mirror. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Therefore, mirrors were luxury objects and it’s little surprise that they have been uncovered in elite, but not regular burials. For example, in Snaketown, a Hohokam site located in the southwestern American state of Arizona, more than 50 pyrite mirrors have been found during excavations.
These mirrors, which have been dated to between 650 AD and 950 AD, are an indication that the site may have once been home to a large number of elite people. Additionally, it has been suggested that the people of Hohokam were trading with the peoples of Mesoamerica, though perhaps indirectly.
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Mesoamerican Mirrors for Divination
For the Mesoamericans, mirrors were also regarded as tools for divination. Due to their smooth, reflective surfaces, it was thought that mirrors were able to allow a person to look into the past, the present, and the future. As the mirror functioned as a tool for divination, these objects became associated with water, which was another means of prediction. In Mesoamerican art, the mirror has possibly also been used to represent the surface of a pool of water.
The back of a Toltec atlante at Tula, showing the sculpted back mirror. ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Another object associated with the mirror in its divinatory role is the eye. Some gods are represented in art with mirrors for their eyes. Such mirrors / eyes are shown by circles with an upper half, a lower half, and a central focal point.
An example of this is found in the Codex Laud , a divination almanac. In one of its images, there is a skeleton-monkey being wearing a red and white mirror on its neck. The same object can be seen in the lower margin of the same page. Instead of a mirror, however, the red and white circle is used to represent the eye of a deity who personified rain.
A turquoise mask representing the god Tezcatlipoca (one of the Aztec creator gods). The base for this mask is a human skull. Note the reflective eyes. Mixtec-Aztec. 1400-1521. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )
Top image: A photo of a section of a mural from the Tepantitla compound in the Mesoamerican ruins of Teotihuacan. (CC BY SA 2.0 ) Aztec obsidian mirror from Mexico. ( Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte - Gobierno de España )
By Wu Mingren
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