4115

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Exceptional Collection of 18 Aztec Black-Clay, Tubular, Ear Plugs or Spools

Aztec Civilisation, Capilco, Mexico
14th-15th century

diameter: 2.1cm (smallest), 3.1cm (biggest)

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Provenance

UK art market, prior to that Madrid, Spain from before 1974

This remarkable collection is of 18 ear spools or plugs from the Aztec people of Central America in what is now Mexico. It is accompanied with a letter from the Museum if Mankind, London, dated December 3, 1974, to the owners of the collection in which an Assistant Keeper at the Museum identifies the ear plugs as coming from South or Central America but acknowledging that (at that time) little published information on such items was available making identification difficult. The letter does provide important provenance information.

We have since been able to identify the ear plugs as having come from the Aztec people and dating to around the 14th or 15th century.

Each of the plugs is tubular, pierced and made of black clay. Men and women wore such ear plugs or spools through holes in their ear lobes that made their lobes elongated.

Many of the plugs feature pairs of seated bird-like motifs with over-sized, round eyes and feather headdresses. The motifs are not unlike the ‘birdman’ motifs of Easter Island.

A very similar example is in the Penn Museum (more formally, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). That example also is illustrated in McIntosh et al (2014, p. 109). The Penn Museum also has another related example.

The collection is sealed, under glass, in a gilded, wooden box and probably has been framed this way since the 1970s. Each plug has been glued to the interior wooden backing board. The letter from the Museum of Mankind has been taped to the rear of the box (long ago). We have not attempted to open the box. Each plug appears to be in very good condition, although it is not clear how easily each would be removed from the board onto which it has been attached.

Overall, the collection does seem to be remarkable with apparent provenance back to the early 1970s. We have found only two other similar examples (although surely more exist). But here is a collection of 18.

 

References

McIntosh, J., et al, History of the World in 1,000 Objects, Dorling Kindersley Ltd, 2014.

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