Knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade


British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

The handle of this knife is carved from a single piece of cedro wood (Cedrela odorata) and takes the form of a crouching man dressed as an eagle warrior. The warrior looks out from the open beak of the eagle headdress and clasps the haft of the flint knife. The hafting of this blade is bound with cord made from maguey (Agave) fibre and coated with pale yellow Protium resin. The eagle warrior mosaic is made from turquoise, shell and malachite. At least four kinds of shell are used: red Spondylus (thorny oyster), white Strombus (conch), pink Stombus gigas (queen conch) and iridescent Pinctada (mother-of-pearl). Pine resin is used to hold the mosaic in place and provides the decorative inlay.

Plain, unadorned knives served many practical purposes in hunting, food preparation and warfare, while more ornate decorated examples were probably reserved for rituals, possibly ritual blood sacrifice. Flint blades were often placed in temple offerings, sometimes set vertically in resin to represent the glyph tecpatl (meaning flint). This glyph is associated with one of the ‘year-bearers’ in the Mexica 260-day ritual calendar and with the north cardinal point, the direction of death and cold. Death and blood, in Mesoamerican thought were linked to the sun’s life-giving power. Eagle warriors were a prestigious military order, the ‘fighters of the daytime’. In Mexica mythology the eagle represented the power of the day and was believed to carry the sun into the sky from the underworld each morning. Blood, as a powerful life substance, was an integral part of the cyclicality of time and the natural environment. The transference of substances such as blood is conceptually associated with impersonation. As such, a person impersonating an eagle warrior is a direct reference to the function of the object.

Only a few elaborately decorated knife handles survive. This one is a rare example where the blade and handle have survived together. Radiography has revealed that the hafting is far too shallow for the knife to have been fit for practical use so its ceremonial purpose must have been symbolic rather than functional.


  • Title: Knife with a mosaic handle and a chalcedony blade
  • Date Created: 1400/1521
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 10.30cm; Length: 32.30cm; Depth: 6.10cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: bound; carved; inlaid
  • Subject: eagle warrior
  • Registration number: Am,St.399
  • Place: Excavated/Findspot Mexico
  • Period/culture: Aztec; Mixtec
  • Other information: Cultural rights may apply.
  • Material: malachite; flint; cedrela wood; turquoise; conch shell; oyster shell; maguey fibre; resin; fibre; wood
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Donated by Christy, Henry. Previous owner/ex-collection Hertz, Bram

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