Why are Feathers So Important in the Aztec Culture: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Different civilizations place higher value on various materials and therefore we cannot make assumptions about past cultures based on today’s value system.  While some civilizations from the past deem precious metals like gold, silver, and copper to be objects of higher worth, others find value in a different variety of items.  Archaeologists have determined for example that the Aztecs held feathers as one of nature’s most valuable gifts, as birds appeared to be very important in their culture.  The Aztecs would use brightly colored feathers in headdresses worn by their leaders, including the great Aztec emperor Moctezuma.  Great time and care went into the making of any object involving feathers, as feather-workers spent weeks creating intricate designs to be used in battle shields and adornments, important buildings, cloaks and costumes of the nobles, and religious ceremonies.

The great feathered headdress, supposedly worn by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma himself.  This headdress was believed to be given to Hernan Cortez by the emperor, which is how it presumably ended up in Europe.

The importance of feathers appears to stem from the many references of birds in Aztec culture.  One of the first references to birds in Aztec culture is in the story of how the Aztecs choose the area in which they would build the capital to their future empire.  Legend states that the grand Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was chosen because the first Aztecs wandered and searched for a long time till they witnessed a bird perched on a cactus eating a snake, which is now pictured on the current day Mexican Flag.  The bird in this story is seen in a position of power, as it sits on top of the cactus, peering over the land.  There are also many references to feathers and birds in the Aztec religion.  The Aztecs held many rituals involving human sacrifices to the gods, but birds were also sacrificed during high religious ceremonies.  One of the most important gods in Aztec culture is named Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “Hummingbird of the Left.”  Huitzilopochtli was the god of the sun and of war and the Aztecs believed that warriors who lost their lives in battle would return as hummingbirds, which are characterized by their vibrant feathers.

The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, generally pictured in artwork bearing the bright colors of the hummingbird and holding his serpent-like weapon.

Quetzalcoatl was one of the other most important gods in the Aztec religion and his name translates to “plumed” or “feathered serpent.” Quetzalcoatl was one of the Aztecs gods of creation, as well as the god of learning and wind.  Many of the important Aztec gods are associated with birds or feathers, leading us to believe that this is one of the reasons that the Aztecs held feathers as such valuable materials.  Only through the analysis of Aztec culture, especially their religion, can we attempt to see the true reason that the Aztecs valued bright feathers and understand that value of a material differs from culture to culture, but that does not make any specific culture more or less advanced because of what they value.


Additional Reading:

Aztec Headdresses. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.legendsandchronicles.com/ancient-civilizations/the-ancient-aztecs/aztec-headdresses/

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016, July 08). Huitzilopochtli. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli


Berdan, F. F. (2014). Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Aztec Religious Ceremonies and Rituals. (2017, May 11). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-religious-ceremonies-and-rituals/

Brittenham, C. (n.d.). Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from birds other than quetzals? Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/did-the-maya-and-aztecs-take-feathers-for-headdresses-from-birds-other-than-quetzals-1

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017, February 16). Aztec. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aztec

Aztecs Find a Home: The Eagle Has Landed | EDSITEment. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/aztecs-find-home-eagle-has-landed

Cartwright , M. (2013, August 1). Quetzalcoatl. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.citationmachine.net/apa/cite-a-website

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P.G. (2015). Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, practice. London: Thames & Hudson.

Image Sources:

[Huitzilopochtli represented in the Borbonic Codex. He is carrying a snake like weapon called a Xiuhcoatl and a shield. On his head is a headdress imitating the head of a hummingbird]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/gods/god-of-the-month-huitzilopochtli

[Mexico Aztec Headdress]. (2012, April 28). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-17878130

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Seriation of Astronomical Observatories

It seems that humanity has always been fascinated by the night sky. Across the globe, archaeologists have found records of people analyzing the movements of the heavens and using those movements to measure time and to signify important cultural events. While the specific reasons for the study of the cosmos has changed over time, one thing has remained constant: the use of observatories. While the methods and materials used for building observatories have changed, their overall appearance has changed very little.

A prime example of this is El Caracol, found in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Iztá. This stone observatory was built on the southern side of the city and was rebuilt several times. Archaeologists believe the final version was erected between 900-1000 A.D. The observatory was used to track the movement of the sun and certain planets. The observers seemed to be especially interested in the movement of Venus, as an entire floor of the two-story observatory is dedicated to tracking its movement. The observatory also allowed the Mayans to tell when the sun reached its zenith. This mattered to the Mayans, as the rainy season starts right after the sun reaches its zenith in May. Knowing when the sun reached this point allowed the Mayans to make sure their fields were ready for the rain. They also viewed the planets as embodiments of the gods, so their movement was of religious significance to the Mayans. While the observatory was built using ancient methods and is comprised entirely of stone, its overall structure is similar to that of modern observatories, with a domed roof that allowed for viewing at all angles, and its positioning at a high point in the landscape.

El Caracol, or “The Snail”, an observatory found in the ancient city of Chichén Iztá.

As time went on, observatories shifted from having religious and agricultural significance to being more heavily based in scientific discovery. This is the case for the Vassar College Observatory. Completed in 1865, the observatory was used as both the home and observatory of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer. The observatory was used to study telescopic moments, along with the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Unlike El Caracol, the Vassar College Observatory is comprised of mostly brick, with the dome being made of metal. The observatory also has a telescope, a commodity not invented until 1608.

Vassar College Observatory, located at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Even in modern day, observatories continue to maintain the same basic appearance. However, they have changed quite dramatically in the scope of both their reach and potential. One example of this is the Mount Graham Observatory. Built to research exoplanets and to analyze the dust around stars. While maintaining a similar shape to both El Caracol and the Vassar College Observatory, it not only has a cube shaped top rather than a dome, but it has two telescopes rather than one.

The Mount Graham Observatory, located on Mount Graham in Arizona.


Miller, Julia. The Caracol, or Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Yucatan Today. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://yucatantoday.com/caracol-or-observatory-chichen-itza/?lang=en.

Maria Mitchell. Vassar Encyclopedia. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/original-faculty/maria-mitchell1.html

Vassar College Observatory. National Park Service. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/places/vassar-college-observatory.htm

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html

Picture sources:

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vassar_College_Observatory.jpg

EL Caracol, The Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Atlas Obscura. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/el-caracol-chichen-itza-mexico

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html



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Clonycavan and Old Croghan Man


When thinking about archeology and the preservation of organic materials one usually thinks of the archeological sites in dry environments or cold environment. Thinking of preserved bodies many think first of the mummies of ancient Egypt or of the Ötzi, the frozen iceman found in the Alps. However, another major location for the preservation of organic materials in archeology is wetland sites, especially the peat bogs in Europe.


Bog bodies refer to the corpses that have been naturally mummified found in these bogs. Two such bog bodies were found in 2003 in Ireland less than three months apart. Based on carbon testing the partial corpses found twenty-five miles from each other had lived and died during the height of the Celtic Iron Age (archive.archeology.org). The Clonycavan Man, a corpse that was only recovered from the torso up, was shown to have lived between 392 and 201 B.C. Whilst the Old Croghan Man, a torso with only the arms, was dated to have lived between 362 and 175 B.C. Both corpses had been of young, healthy men who had been violently killed, the Clonycavan Man having been struck by a stone ax, splitting his skull, and the Old Croghan Man having been decapitated, stabbed and cut in half. Many of the other wounds on their bodies imply that they had been tortured before their death, possibly as a part of a ritual, especially as both corpses had their nipples pinched and cut off (irisharcheology.ie).


Archeologists studied these two corpses, learning not only about the deaths of these two men, but learning about the lives they had lived. There were few signs of physical labor on the men, and there was much evidence found of the Old Croghan Man’s wealth and higher status.

The nails, hair and stomach of the Old Croghan Man were so well preserved in the bog that researchers were able to conclude that due to his well-kept fingernails, lack of calluses and good diet he had been an “individual of relatively high status” (Archeology Essentials).


The keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, Eamonn P. Kelly, used the information learned about the lives and deaths of these men to develop new insights on the Celtic culture of Ireland in the Iron Age. Kelly interpreted these brutal, almost ritualistic killings, of two well-to-do men as the killings of “failed kings or failed candidates for kingship,” as the loss of their nipples would have been a sign of no longer being fit for kingship, whose bodies had been an offering to a Celtic goddess (archive.archeology.org). The analysis of these bog bodies was able to give more of an understanding of the culture that lived over 2000 years ago, presenting beliefs and rituals of the time through the similar wounds on the bodies, connecting two separate archeological finds from wetland sites to one another.

The Clonycavan Man

The Old Croghan Man






Renfrew, Colin, and Paul G. Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: theories, methods, practice. 3rd ed. London: Thames & Hudson, 2015.


Picture Sources:


The Bog Bodies of the Iron Age: The Clonycavan Man and the Old Croghan Man (Belen Gimenez)


Further Readings:


The Bog Bodies of the Iron Age: The Clonycavan Man and the Old Croghan Man (Belen Gimenez)

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Terracotta Army Archaeology: Understanding of Ancient Military and Production Strategies

In 1974, near the Chinese city of Xi’an in the Shaanxi Province, several local villagers made a tremendous archaeological discovery while digging a well: the Terracotta Army. These clay-based figures, standing in battle formations of thousands in three pits, are the lasting reminders of an ancient civilization more than two millennia old. Every warrior, life-size and sporting unique and distinct facial characteristics, was built to serve the notorious first emperor of China, Qin Xi Huang, in the afterlife. The Terracotta soldiers are organized into various militarized units—foot soldiers, archers, chariot battalions, and armored units.

The Terracotta Army is extremely important to modern archaeology for its insights into the ancient Chinese society of the Qin Dynasty. Much can be learned about the level of technological advancement and the infamous military of Qin Dynasty by studying the distinctive and notable formations of the warriors as well as the weapons and tools found alongside them.

The pits containing the Army provide myriad information regarding the military tactics and formations of units employed by Emperor Qin Xi Huang during his reign.

A chariot battalion from the Terracotta Army pits.

The presence of an agile and maneuverable vanguard containing chariots, infantry, and the cavalry preceding the main echelon of troops pointed to the idea that military strategists of the past were very much aware of the capricious conditions of the battlefield and relied on mobile units to quickly adapt. Furthermore, the diverse weaponry found with the figures allowed archaeologists to infer that each unit, armed with multiple weapons, evolved to play diverse support roles when necessary, filling in the weak and vulnerable spots of the army during ambushes or sieges.

The bronze weapons found with the Terracotta Army also resolved the quandary of whether or not the bronzesmiths of the time mass-produced or individually crafted weapons used by the army. Due to the nature of the size of the massive army and the uniformity of the weapons, it was assumed by many archaeologists that ancient China employed some form of an assembly line.

Arrowheads recovered from Terracotta Army pits.

However, with the help of an X-ray fluoresce spectrometer, archaeologists measured the chemical compositions of some tens of thousands of arrowheads collected from the pits, coming to the conclusion that weapons of the Qin Dynasty were created in multiple workshops individually and debunking the idea that Qin bronzesmiths employed mass-producing assembly lines.

By studying artifacts gathered from the Terracotta Army, modern archaeologists learned much regarding the military and the level of technological advancements of an ancient Chinese society. Through the careful study and the understanding of the Terracotta Army formations and the use of modern-day X-ray fluoresce spectrum imagery, archaeologists gained insights into the military tactics and production methods employed by ancient China under Emperor Qin Xi Huang.

Further Readings:






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