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Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed


An obsidian 'spirit mirror' once used in the 16th Century by John Dee, a confidant of Elizabeth I, to contact otherworldly entities, has Aztec origins, a new study revealed.


Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed
An obsidian 'spirit mirror' once used in the 16th Century by John Dee, a confidant of Elizabeth I,
to contact otherworldly entities, has Aztec origins, a new study revealed
[Credit: Campbell et al., 2021]

The mirror, now held in the British Museum in London, has long been suspected of being made by the ancient Mesoamerican empire, but the truth was lost to history. Now, thanks to a system that involved repeatedly firing X-rays at the object until it fired back, a team from the University of Manchester confirmed its Aztec origin.




They compared the findings of the geochemical analysis from Dee's mirror to other obsidian objects held by the British Museum, but with a confirmed origin, and found they all shared similar signatures - coming from Pachuca in Mexico. 


Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed
Among items John Dee (c. 1594, anonymous) used to 'speak to angels' was
this mirror, crafted out of obsidian [Credit: Campbell et al., 2021]

Dee was a remarkable figure, a Renaissance polymath with an interest in astronomy, alchemy and mathematics, he later developed an obsession with the occult. Among items he used to 'speak to angels' was this mirror, crafted out of obsidian. 


Professor Stuart Campbell, and an international team, had the opportunity to study the mirror in more detail, in the hope of confirming the long-held theory that it was among items pillaged from the Aztec empire in the 16th Century.


Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed
The mirror, now held in the British Museum in London, has long been suspected of being
made by the ancient South American empire, but the truth was lost to history
[Credit: Campbell et al., 2021]

Their work involved a process known as geochemical analysis, which uses a bombardment of X-rays against an object until it starts emitting X-rays back. The results allow them to measure the chemical composition and search for 'fingerprints' in the returned data that can be compared to other objects.




The team studied four objects in the British Museum – John Dee's mirror, two other Aztec mirrors, and a polished rectangular obsidian slab. This method revealed that all four of the obsidian artefacts studied were made from Mexican obsidian exploited by the Aztecs in an area near Pachuca.


Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed
Other obsidian objects studied by the researchers
[Credit: Campbell et al., 2021]

This obsidian source was heavily exploited by the Aztecs, according to researchers, who have previously traced other stolen artefacts to this region. To the Aztecs, obsidian also had spiritual significance, as it was used in medicinal practices to shield against bad spirits and capture souls on its reflective surface. 


One deity, Tezcatlipoca, is even named 'smoking mirror' and often depicted wearing circular obsidian mirrors, as symbols of premonition and power. This symbolic value is what likely made them appealing to European collectors, such as John Deer, bringing them home after the Aztecs were conquered. The fact that mirrors were also often viewed as magical artefacts in Europe may have served as additional motivation for the collectors.


Aztec origins of Elizabethan obsidian spirit mirror confirmed
An example of mirrors depicted in Aztec literature
[Credit: Campbell et al., 2021]

'The 16th century was a period in which new exotic objects were being brought to Europe from the New World, and opening up exciting new possibilities in the intellectual world of the period,' said Professor Campbell. These Aztec mirrors were novel and exotic items that found a place in many early collections, the researcher explained. Stories about the meaning of the mirrors may have travelled with them, and may have been what motivated John Dee to acquire his mirror.


The findings have been published in the journal Antiquity


Author: Ryan Morrison | Source: Daily Mail [October 07, 2021]



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