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Atl atl

Mixteca Alta, Late Postclassic
1200-1520 CE
60.33 cm x 3.81 cm x 1.59 cm (23 3/4 in. x 1 1/2 in. x 5/8 in.)

On view


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Spear throwers, also known by the Nahuatl term atlatl, were commonly used as military and ritual weapons. They extend the arm of the user, enabling him or her to propel a dart with greater force than would otherwise be possible. This atlatl is made of a single piece of hard wood carved on both sides. The upper surface has a slight protrusion at the distal end to anchor a dart, and it is decorated with a double pattern of paired darts. The lower surface is carved with more complex imagery, which can be read vertically.

At the wider distal end, an individual is shown descending from a solar band wearing an eagle helmet with a feathered crest. He holds a shield and three darts and hurls a fourth dart with his thrower. He probably impersonates the Sun God in his eagle-warrior aspect. Below him are eight warrior figures, alternating in direction and posture. Those facing left wear elaborate regalia and take a menacing pose, while those facing right are dressed more simply and stand in a contorted position. Following Mesoamerican artistic convention, the individuals wearing elaborate regalia are probably victorious warriors while those divested of their attributes have been vanquished. In the lower part of the composition, a disembodied head wears a fanged buccal mask similar to the one worn by the Rain God and a head ornament common to the god of hunting and ritual warfare.

Javier Urcid has proposed that this scene makes simultaneous reference to a variety of sequential events, including the battle and capture of prisoners, their ritual wounding with darts, and their eventual offering as human sacrifices to the Sun. The very ceremony of offering involves the ritual descent from a tall wooden pole of four eagle-warriors— known in modern day performances as voladores—who receive the sacrificial offerings. These events aimed to petition the gods for good rain and good crops. The atlatl itself, when placed vertically, probably mimics the pole used by the four eagle-warriors as the symbolic center of the world.

Alcina Franch, José, Miguel León Portilla and Eduardo Matos Moctezuma 1992 Azteca Mexica. Colección Encuentros. Serie Catálogos. Lunwerg Editores, Barcelona. cat. LX.

Benson, Elizabeth P. 1963 Handbook of the Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art. Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C., p. 24, cat. 113.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1957 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, New York. p. 244-245, cat. 65, pl. XLIX, fig. 15.

Bliss, Robert Woods 1959 Pre-Columbian Art: The Robert Woods Bliss Collection. 2nd ed. Text and Critical Analyses by S. K. Lothrop, Joy Mahler and William F. Foshag. Phaidon, London. p. 252-253, cat. 65, pl. XLIX, fig. 15.

Bühl, Gudrun (ED.) 2008 Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 196-7.

Burland, Cottie A. 1973 Montezuma, Lord of the Aztecs. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London. p. 110.

Eggebrecht, Arne 1986 Glanz Und Untergang Des Alten Mexico: Die Azteken Und Ihre Vorläufer. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz am Rhein. vol. 2, cat. 274.

Hvidtfeldt, Arild 1987 Mexicos Kunst - Før Spanierne Kom. Louisiana Revy; 28. Årg. Nr.1. Louisiana Museum, Humlebæk. p. 69, cat. 71.

Nicholson, Irene 1967 Mexican and Central American Mythology. Hamlyn, London. p. 17.

Palencia, Jose Servin 1959 Las Artes Menores. In Esplendor Del México Antiguo, Jorge R. Acosta, ed. vol. 1. Centro de Investigaciones Antropológicas de México, México. p. 407, fig. 20.

Robertson, Donald 1959 Review of 1957 Catalogue. The College Art Journal XIX (1). p. 106.

Sydow, Eckart von 1923 Die Kunst Der Naturvölker Und Der Vorzeit. Propyläen-Kunstgeschichte, 1. Propyläen-verlag, Berlin. p. 414.

Urcid, Javier 2011 The Written Surface as a Cultural Code: A Comparative Perspective of Scribal Traditions from Southwestern Mesoamerica. In Their Way of Writing: Scripts, Signs, and Pictographies in Pre-Columbian America, Elizabeth Hill Boone and Gary Urton, eds., pp. 111-148. Dumbarton Oaks Pre-Columbian Symposia and Colloquia. Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., p. 134-135, fig. 6.16.

Exhibition History
"Twenty Centuries of Mexican Art,", Museum of Modern Art, New York, May 1940.

"Indigenous Art of the Americas", National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, February 1954 to July 1962.

"Die Azteken und ihre Vorlaufer: Glanz und Untergang des Alten Mexico", Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim, Germany, 6/30 - 11/9/1986; Ausstellungsleitung Haus derKunst, Munich, Germany, 12/6/1986 - 3/6/1987; Ober'sterreichisches Landesmuseum, Linz, Austria 4/3 - 8/2/1987; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark, 8/15 - 11/30/1987; Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Historie, Brussels, Belgium, 12/1/1987 - 3/30/1988; National Archaeology Museum, Athens, Gerece, 5/16 - 7/21/1988; Société du Palais de la Civilisation, Montreal, Canada, 7/30 - 10/30/1988.

"Azteca Mexica, Las Culturas del Mexico Antiguo", Museo de America, Madrid, 1992.

Acquisition History
Purchased from Adelaida Frank by Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), October 26, 1934.

Joseph Brummer Collection 1934 - 1947.

Purchased from Ernest Brummer, New York (dealer), by Robert Woods Bliss, June 17, 1947.

Robert Woods Bliss Collection of Pre-Columbian Art, Washington, DC, 1947-1962.

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

Eagles | Feathers | Mixtecs | Sun god | Warriors