We appreciate its appearance, but yet we know so little of its history as this captivating work continues to keep its secrets hidden.
The strange “Vasija del mono de obsidiana” (lit. “the vase of the obsidian monkey”) is one of the Aztec-Mexican masterpieces of the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City where it is exposed. This vase, about 17 cm high, consists of a single piece of obsidian which was sculpted, then polished. It may not seem like much, but to tell you, even today it would be difficult to reproduce it without our recent technologies.
Note that obsidian is a stone of volcanic origin which in fact is not a stone, but is classified by gemologists among glasses.
This work remains a mystery for contemporary anthropologists who are still debating its origin and its very technique. How was it cut, then polished? No testimony or other works, even less prodigious, gives any clue.
Surprisingly abstract, its figuration remains open to interpretation: does the monkey come out of the vase or is it the vase? And also, why an ape when the jaguar, the eagle and the serpent reign supreme in Aztec-Mexica iconography? rd’hui encore on peinerait à le reproduire sans nos récentes technologies.
Zero info, for a complete mystery. It is claimed that he was found at Texcoco and… that’s all we know for sure about it. For a long time the experts have been unable to attribute to it an archaeological site of attachment and even less, a reliable cultural context. The obsidian monkey was taken many times as an example to castigate the looting of archaeological sites in favor of private collections. It was commonplace until the early 20th century.
It is now estimated that it dates from between 1250 and 1521 CE.
When will the film be?
Besides the explosive aspect and the lack of information, the story of the object is quite special and obviously reinforces its mysterious aura.
It is often said that the work entered the anthropology museum in the 1920s after a donation from a farmer who exchanged it for nothing more than a little corn! But, in fact, the registers lead to think differently: the Monkey would rather have arrived at the beginning of the years 1880, since a description of the object (and there are not two like this) is made in 1882! The doctor in anthropology Jane M. Walsh noted there « we draw especially the attention to the precious obsidian vase from an ancient tomb located […] near Texcoco ». No peasant, no corn. It would rather be a country doctor who acquired it in payment against consultation to a patient who extracted it himself, more or less legally, from a site that he preferred to keep silent.
In 1891 then, a photograph of the obsidian monkey captioned « acolhua civilization », a branch of the Méxicas, themselves being a branch of the Aztecs, indicates that the latter very quickly returned to the paternity of the vase.
It’s hard not to notice how the obsidian vase seems to differ from other objects, right?
A Christmas Robbery. From enigmatic origins one does not quite make a film; even less a blockbuster. On the other hand, it is made after the Mexican « robbery of the century »! In fact, Alonso Ruizpalacios’s film Museo, released in 2018, tells the story of the 1985 robbery during which two muchachos made their market in the National Museum of Anthropology of Mexico City and left easy-peasy with 124 pieces of pre-Hispanic origin, including our obsidian monkey.
The theft, perpetrated by two model veterinary science students, was announced on the morning of December 25th. 50 thousand Mexican pesos were offered to anyone who could give a serious lead. For the great good of humanity, Mexico does take seriously its heritage!
The stolen pieces were then given to a narco-trafiquant in Acapulco who valued them at 1000 millions Mexican pesos. The latter, unlucky, was caught by the authorities in 1989 and worried not to stay too long in prison, he gave all the information necessary for the recovery of 111 works, and one of the thieves. The other one, still uncaught, probably rich from the sale of the 12 missing works to date. Our Monkey was thus restored safe and now rich of a new fame.
To find out more (in Spanish only), it’s HERE .
A plural iconography.
In Imagenes de los animales en manuscritos mexicas y mayas, Eduard Seler writes that the monkey, by not being one of the main animals of Mesoamerican cosmogony, is still a symbol of choice! Happy and clever, he was attributed to singing and dancing arts, but also to forbidden pleasures and death. He was indeed seen as an animal of bad omen since he had the habit of appearing en masse in urbanized areas before an important event occurred, or climatic conditions worsened drastically.
Experts claim that the vase is dedicated to the primary Aztec-Mexica deity « Quetzalcóatl » (the founding feathered snake), but in its « Ehecatl » (« of the wind ») form which the god takes in order to announce rain. If Ehecatl is indeed represented as a black primate, it is because the acrobatic abilities of the animal associates it with the movements of the air and the wind, and because black refers to the dark clouds which threaten before rain.
In Aztec representations, black is indeed the color of the infra-world, of the night and of the humid. The objects summoning the rain were thus decorated in dark tones: blue or black.
Another more down-to-earth analysis describes the vase primate as a female Ateles fusciceps robustus (more simply: Atele; or even « spider monkey »). So it would be in full gestation in view of the pot-bellied belly breaking the overall roundness of the vase. We can indeed recognize the long thin tail and the black of its coat, as well as the specific features of the face: small, compact face, prominent arch and rounded mouth.
Religious illustration or simple zoological representation? Or both… the Atele having served as a model to represent Ehecatl-Quetzalcóatl?
A strangely “Elsewhere” style.
We’re not done with this monkey. The use of obsidian coupled with its appearance, zoologically recognizable although stylized, contradicts its place of discovery (mexica site), since this vase remains unparalleled with the many vestiges that have come down to us from the Mexica-Aztec civilization.
Some experts think the vase is closer to the societies of the Central Altiplano, that is to say, southern Mexico, Ecuador, Peru …
So polite! Another mystery remains, that of its great brilliance, when polishing machines did not exist and that obtaining such an effect with the force of the hand is the result of genius.
In addition, the hypothesis that the version returned to the museum would be a fake arises from the post-drug trafficking recovery.
The archaeologist Emiliano Ricardo Melga, specialist in gemmology, could not say how a civilization devoid of modern tools achieved such a polishing result, but (and this is the important point) he concluded that there was no marks of recent technologies, just traces of other stones, and thus authenticated its age!
Finally, let us add that there are many slightly similar vases, but they are related to the Totonaca and Mixtec civilizations, are not made of obsidian, and do not present the same quality of execution. Judge by yourself:
Note however that these works are not completely opposed. The left vase presents the same position of the legs: the left being folded on the side, tibia on the ground, while the right poses only the foot. This position resembles a respectful cavalier bow… As for the vase on the right, we can recognize the tail passing over the head and held by the two hands of the monkey. But why then such a gap in achievement? Is this enough to link this work to the Totonaca or Mixtec one?
The obsidian monkey never ceases to surprise us …
BONUS: Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, being told a joke by our famous monkey, circa 1989.
- Seler, Eduard, Imagenes de los animales en manuscritos mexicas y mayas, Casa Juan Pablos, 2004.
- Walsh, Jane M, “La vasija de obsidiana de Texcoco”, In Arqueología Mexicana núm. 70, pp. 66-67.