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Disk with Mosaic Inlays

Mixtec-Aztec, Late Postclassic
1300-1520 CE
12.07 cm x 1.59 cm (4 3/4 in. x 5/8 in.)
turquoise and shell

Not on view


This circular wooden disk is convex on the back and flat on the front, where it is inlaid with tesserae of different materials arranged to form an image of a sun disk with a human figure inside it. The inner ring, forming the sun and its three solar rays, and the interior figure are in higher relief; the interior surface of the roundel is slightly sunken in relation to the surface of the outer ring. Between the wooden frame and the inlay’s dark brown layer are probably the remnants of the adherent for the tesserae.The outer ring, composed of nail-shaped plaques of shell, is incomplete, with obvious marks left by the many missing plaques. The rest of the mosaic decoration is intact. The individual pieces, of various sizes and materials, are highly polished. The larger tesserae inside the sun’s rays are white and characterized by conspicuous striations, suggesting the eroded outer surface of a specific kind of shell.

The human figure is rendered mostly in jade and turquoise mosaics and combines profile and frontal views. Two plaques mark the loincloth, indicating that the figure is male. Other accoutrements include a headdress and a necklace, and plaques forming these elements are the only ones detailed with fine incised lines. Those forming the necklace seem to represent shells. Those making up the hands have small notches along the inferior edge, indicating fingers. The figure has three small bits of worked stone on top of the underlying mosaic, and these highlight the eye, right ankle, and a bracelet on the left wrist. Although the latter is missing, the resin used to affix it to the disk still remains.

The wood supporting the mosaic decoration is very light and exhibits both the natural veins as well as striations in different directions, probably cutting marks from shaping the piece. Small shallow perforations characteristic of insect damage are visible in the wood, features that seem to have been present prior to the object’s assembly. A large curved crack on the back surface may be of more recent origin. On one side of the wooden disk, two sets of small perforations traverse the posterior and lateral surfaces. These perforations are biconical and were evidently done separately; they provided suspension for the disk and are symmetrically placed to allow viewing the human figure in vertical position. The sun disk’s upper ray does not coincide with this vertical axis.
The form and posture of the human figure fall within known regional variations of representation for late pre-Hispanic times. Incised details in some of the plaques and the overlaying of small pieces to highlight details are present in other pieces with mosaic decoration. Also, the theme of a human figure inside a sun disk is prevalent in many objects, inlaid or not, that are securely dated to after the thirteenth century CE. The disk PC.B.566, however, remains unique in form, size, and presumed function.

At least four different types of wooden disks inlaid with mosaic decoration are known from Mesoamerica. The smallest, averaging 5 cm in diameter, appear to be ear flares. One example reputedly from Zaachila, Oaxaca, is also convex, but in contrast to PC.B.566, this is the inlaid surface. A second type of inlaid disk is a pectoral; these range between 27 and 34 cm in diameter. Two of them, with turquoise and turtle carapace mosaic decoration, were found placed on the chests of immolated children buried at the foot of the Tlaloc shrine (offering 48) in the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan. A third type is the shield used by high-ranking warriors; these range between 30 and 40 cm in diameter. Aside from their size, these objects are invariably characterized by having small perforations in the perimeter, probably for fastening different kinds of additional items (feathers, hair, strips of fur, dangling trinkets) or as marks left by pegs used to hold in place sheets of hammered gold. Mosaic decoration on the shields varies and most often makes reference to solar imagery. A fourth type of wooden disk is smaller than shields and ranges between 20 and 30 cm in diameter. These objects lack peripheral perforations and are often scalloped around the edge. They have a central mosaic pyrite mirror with two perforations near the reflecting inner core, a feature that implies their use as the posterior mirrored clasps or brooches worn by high-ranking warriors and by the impersonators of certain deities.

Compared to these four types of disks, PC.B.566 is unique in the convexity of the posterior surface. Furthermore, irrespective of function, the four types of inlaid disks noted above display a quadripartite layout in the mosaic decoration, a structural feature that is also recurrent in actual depictions of the sun. The overall form of the inlaid disk in the Bliss Collection, the traces of a thick adhesive base to the tesserae, and the representation of a sun disk with three rays only reveal its spurious nature. The authenticity of the tiny plaques, including incised pieces, suggests that (as in the case of the human skulls PC.B.097, PC.B.098, and PC.B.099) tesserae manufactured in pre-Hispanic times were reconfigured in the recent past by someone who failed to grasp, among other things, the fourfold conception of time and space in ancient Mesoamerican worldview.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1969 Supplement to the Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D. C., cat. 453.

Izeki, Mutsumi 2008 Conceptualization of 'Xihuitl': History, Environment and Cultural Dynamics in Postclassic Mexica Cognition. Bar International Series; 1863. Archaeopress, Oxford, England. p. 142, cat. 1.8.4.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Everett Rassiga, Dallas (dealer), by Dumbarton Oaks, 1969.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Pre-Columbian Collection, Washington, DC.