Rock & Gem
Mexico City’s Obsidian Monkey Vase
STORY AND PHOTOS BY HELEN SERRAS HERMAN
The National Museum of Anthropology (MNA) [Museo National de Anthropología] in Mexico City is the largest and most visited museum in Mexico, renowned for preserving Mexico’s indigenous legacy. The museum opened in 1964, and it’s managed by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). This museum was on top of our attractions list, when my husband and I visited Mexico City a few years ago.
The MNA is located on the Avenue Paseo de la Reforma, within the beautiful Chapultepec Park. The park’s name comes from the Nahuatl language and means “at the grasshopper hill.” I loved Chapultepec Park. The 1,695-acre park contains several museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the National History Museum Chapultepec Castle.
The National Museum of Anthropology’s collections are divided into the archaeological collections – located on the ground level of the museum - and the ethnological collections, located on the upper level. The museum is enormous and the collections massive. The twelve exhibition halls on the lower floor open to a huge courtyard with benches and fountains. A single, impressive sculptured pillar, decorated with the history of Mexico, serves as a waterfall fountain and supports the vast concrete “umbrella” roof, which covers most of the courtyard. During our first visit, we spent the entire day at the museum. When we exited after dark, the sculptured pillar was beautifully lit.
Every Mesoamerican ancient culture is represented at the museum, including the early pre-classic period, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Mexicas, the Oaxaca cultures (Zapotecs and Mixtecs), Olmecs, Maya, West Mexico, and Northern Mexico cultures. Sculptures large and miniature, relief plaques, pottery, jade artifacts, gold jewelry and beads fill the exhibit cases and walls. Famous sculptures, such as the Stone of the Sun, and the burial jade mask and pectoral of King Pakal from Palenque, drew our interest and most of the visitors’ attention.
There are many obsidian carved blades and artifacts within the museum collections. On exhibit are natural obsidian nodule cores and long blades knapped-off the nodules. Obsidian – the natural hard volcanic glass – was used as early as 2,500
BC for arrowheads and ceremonial blades.
Obsidian was brought in the ancient city of Teotihuacan – where the famous monumental Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon are located, just outside today’s Mexico City, anywhere from 9 to 130 miles away. It was worked at the obsidian stone workshops in Teotihuacan and was made into blades and eccentrics (non-tool forms) to be used in everyday life and ceremonial affairs, valued for their sharp edges. At the 2018-2019 exhibit Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire at the Phoenix Museum of Art (see my article in
the June 2020 issue of Rock & Gem), there were stunning obsidian carvings with abstract shapes, as well as human standing figures and feathered serpent figures. Some of the obsidian artifacts were from the MNA museum. Black and grey obsidian was used for most knives, points and scrapers, while most core blades were made of green obsidian (The Obsidian Industry of Teotihuacan, Michael W. Spence, American Antiquity, Vol. 32, 1967).
One of the obsidian carved artworks that I was really drawn to at the MNA was the Obsidian Monkey Vase, exhibited in a case by itself within the overwhelming with monumental sculptures Mexica (Aztec) Room. The Mexica world was dominated by Mexico-Tenochitlan and dates from 1300 to 1521 AD.
THE OBSIDIAN MONKEY VASE STORY
The Obsidian Monkey Vase is considered a masterpiece of Aztec stoneworkers. The vase is reportedly from Texcoco, a city and municipality in the State of Mexico, 25 km northeast of Mexico City. Texcoco was a major Aztec city on the eastern shores of Lake Texcoco, south of Teotihuacan.
The Obsidian Monkey Vase is featured on the museum’s website https://mna.inah.gob.mx , under the Mexica collections (catalogue number 11.0-03514). It is a vessel made from a singular piece of obsidian, measuring six inches tall. The vase is finely carved and polished to a mirror finish. It depicts a stylized charming little monkey holding its tail with both hands, believed to be a representation of a spider monkey. In the museum’s 2010 printed guide, the photograph legend calls it a pregnant monkey.
As per the museum’s exhibition label (which I photographed), “the monkey is associated with the Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl deity, as well as black rain clouds.” The wind was one of the original elements that participated in the creation of the universe, and it was the domain of Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, the snake-bird deity, identified by a mask in the shape of a beak that covered the lower part of its face. The people believed that the
god produced the wind by breathing through this mask, and he was able to give life into the planet earth. He is also associated with spider and howler monkeys.
This Obsidian Monkey vase was among 124 items stolen from the National Museum of Anthropology on Christmas Eve 1985 (NY Times, Dec 27, 1985), but were miraculously recovered three years later and returned to the museum (LA Times, June 15, 1989).
The Obsidian Monkey vase was initially mentioned in the museum’s first catalog in 1882, the Catalogue of the Historical and Archeological collections of the National Museum of Mexico, by Prof. Gumersindo Mendoza (Director of the museum) and Dr. Jesús Sánchez (A Short Historical and Descriptive Notice of the National
Museum of the City of Mexico, Jesús Galindo and Villa, 1901; and La Vasija De Obsidiana de Texcoco, Walsh, 2004, Arqueologia Mexicana, Vol 12, No 70).
The vessel came to the National Museum in 1880, and was catalogued as having come from an ancient tomb. It was sold to the MNA by a doctor named Raphael Lucio in 1876 (catalogue item #127 of Vol. II), who had acquired it through one of his patients, originally found at a hacienda near Texcoco. The story is told by French collector and archeologist Eugène Boban (1834-1908), who saw the vase at Lucio’s house, and who may have done the appraisal (ibid. Walsh, 2004). The obsidian monkey vase was photographed while at the doctor’s office and from there three engravings were produced and illustrated Eugène Boban’s article published in 1885 in the journal Revue d’Ethnographie.
When Boban began negotiations to sell part of his collection to the Smithsonian and corresponded with curator William Henry Holmes (1846-1933), the subject of fakes and counterfeiters was brought up and discussed. Boban shared his knowledge of Mexican lapidaries who made fake antiques – he even named several forgers - and concluded that “all obsidian objects with body, arms and legs can be considered fake” (Smithsonian archives, SIA RU 7084, Walsh 2004).
Some suggest that because Boban was aware of several fake obsidian vases and idols coming from the small town of San Juan Teotihuacan,
that the monkey obsidian vase is a fake, too.
I first came across this supposition in a presentation by Marc Zender, from the Department of Anthropology at the Tulane University, at the 2016 Annual Maya at the Playa Conference, in which he alleges that the obsidian monkey vase is also a fake. He pointed to the book Faking Ancient Mesoamerica (Nancy l. Kelker and Karen O. Bruhns, 2010) for additional examples of lapidary forgeries.
At this point, my curiosity had peaked. Could this beautiful vase be a fake? How is it possible? It is still on exhibit at the MNA museum and promoted on their website as a masterpiece. This is the 21st century; wouldn’t they have identified all fake artifacts by now and have them removed?
I will take a moment here to state that I absolutely do not support or promote any kind of fake antiquities. I am actually not in favor of any kind of antiquity trade either. I believe that all ancient art belongs to museums in the countries where the objects are found. As I am doing this research, I am appalled by the huge number of fakes and forgeries reportedly still part of large museums, and the multitude of ancient artifacts for sale on the open market.
FOLLOWING THE OBSIDIAN ARTWORK TRAIL
Since then — three months ago — I stopped writing this article and I started further research on the subject, reading several books and papers, and trying to find the truth about this vase.
I ordered the Faking Ancient Mesoamerica book, which I just finished reading. Although the authors talk about fake obsidian masks, there is no direct reference to the Obsidian Monkey vase.
Leopoldo Batres (1852-1926) worked as an archeologist and anthropologist for the National Museum of Archeology in Mexico City between 1884 and 1888.
In his 1909 book (which I also read) Antigüedades, mejicanes falcificades, falcificaciones y falsificadores (Ancient Mexican fakes, forgeries and counterfeiters), Batres describes the obsidian lapidary industry of fake vases and figures. He states that, “the counterfeiters worked the obsidian in a very simple style. They took a block of obsidian, and carved it with oil and emery. They carved it by means of sharp punches and chisels of well tempered steel, roughing the piece by tapping with the chisel and mallet, and once the piece was modeled they polished it again with oil and fine emery dust.”
Batres continues stating that, “the Mexican National Museum has a very rich collection of fakes.” In the book, there is a huge number of illustrations of those fakes, including pottery pots and figurines painted black, gold pieces, bronze figures, alabaster masks and figurines, and obsidian objects and figurine idols from the 19th c., including several obsidian masks, discs and frogs, for which he said that, “the falsification of obsidian objects has reached a high degree of art, and that sometimes only a very expert eye can distinguish the fake”. However, the Obsidian Monkey vase is not among them.
Mark Jones, Assistant Keeper of the Department of Coins and Medals at the British Museum, curated the exhibition “Fake? The Art of Deception” which opened in April 1990 at the British Museum with hundreds of fake artworks from all-civilizations and several museums. Included were two Aztec-style obsidian masks featured in the richly-illustrated catalog, in which Jones states that, “The late Gordon Ekholm, one of the foremost experts in the detection of Mesoamerican fakes, had warned that all large-objects of obsidian, especially masks, must be considered suspect” (Fake: the Art of Deception, Mark Jones, 1990). [sited, The problem of Fakes in Pre-Columbian Art, G.F. Elkholm, Curator VII/I, 1964, pp 19-32].
Jones continues, “It is, indeed, hard to think of any large obsidian mask among the known body of antiquities from Mexico that is generally accepted as genuine. Masks are, however, among the most sought-after categories of object with collectors.” The two examples included in the exhibit – one of the rain-god Tlaloc and one of a man’s face - were “almost certainly nineteenth or early twenty century fakes.”
Authenticating stone artifacts is very difficult. There is no test to prove the age of a stone artifact. Archeologists and anthropologists can only go by the iconography, artistic style, and choices of materials, matching documented artifacts. Systematic excavations of preColumbian sites did not begin until the late 1880s (What is Real? A New Look at PreColumbian Mesoamerican Collections, Jane MacLaren Walsh, Anthronotes, SI, Museum of Natural History publication, Spring 2005).
Interestingly, I also found online a very similar monkey vessel, carved in Mexican onyx marble (known as tecali) with pyrite and shell inlaid eyes and teeth, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, at the Mesoamerican Gallery #358. This Mixtec culture vessel dates between the 10th and 13th centuries. This vessel is 7 ½ inches tall (www.metmuseum.org ).
SUMMARIZING MY RESEARCH
What I understood from all the writings is that nowhere is a direct link proving the Obsidian Monkey vase as a fake, or conversely, its authenticity.
I reached out to Ms. Jane Walsh, PH.D., Anthropolo
gist Emeritus of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who was very kind to reply, and send her 2004 article La Vasija De Obsidiana de Texcoco (The Obsidian vase from Texcoco) published in Arqueologia Mexicana (Vol. 12, #70) about the history of the monkey vase. She helped me sort through online inaccuracies, for which I am truly grateful.
Dr. Walsh said that she had not examined the vase in person, nor that she knew anyone that did. She also said, “It may very well be a fake – Lucio also sold an obsidian mask to the museum - but it cannot be said with any certainty or accuracy without being tested”.
The most important point I took away from Dr. Walsh’s closing argument in her 2004 article is that, “any artifact removed from its original archeological context is devoid of any certainty regarding its cultural identity.” And that refers to any excavation discovery carried out without proper archeological study and precise documentation of each artifact’s location. The Obsidian Monkey vase was featured on the cover of Arqueología Mexicana (Sept-Oct 1996, Vol IV, #12) under the magazine’s title “Looting and Destruction”.
My fellow ancient lapidaries created amazing gem art at an incredible speed, and sometimes today we don’t fully appreciate their craftsmanship and techniques. The obsidian fakes produced in the 19th and early 20th centuries have a “primitive” look, supposedly reflecting the “crude” work of the ancient lapidaries, often imitating the much-older Olmec carving style. These fakes were reflecting the private collectors’ viewpoint around the world at the time who purchased these fakes and fueled the reproduction of artifacts. The starkness and austerity of ancient artworks is often mistaken as crudeness.
I hope you enjoyed my research journey on the Obsidian Monkey vase. When I started writing this article, I had no idea where this study was going to take me. I can only trust one day we will know for certain if this beautiful Obsidian Monkey vase is a true Aztec lapidary masterpiece.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all in ways large and small. My 89-year-old mother in Nebraska was hospitalized in intensive care and a rehab center for nearly two months with the virus in October and November of 2020. She survived, but when it became clear she could no longer live on her own, my wife and I brought her to our home in California.
In making the trip to sell her house and close on other details this past April, I reached out to members of the Lincoln Gem & Mineral Club (LGMC), whom I had met during previous opportunities, such as the 2017 AFMS Show & Convention sponsored by my home rock club, the Ventura Gem & Mineral Society. LGMC members Jim and Sharon Marburger sent a warm reply, welcoming Nancy and me to their home in Hickman, Nebraska. They also sent an invitation to fellow LGMC members. In advance of our trip, I sent a flat-rate U.S. Post Office box of some 20 lapidary specimens from classic California rock and mineral localities.
Masked and socially distanced, we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon with like-minded members of an AFMSaffiliated club. In addition to rock exchanges we made that day, we’ve made contacts toward further exchanges. In fact, I’ve already sent specimens of Horse Canyon Moss Agate and serpentine (the California State Rock) to Jim and Sharon. In turn, I’ve received a boxful of jaspers, prairie agates, petrified wood, Lake Superior agates and other materials collected in Nebraska river gravels. I’m keeping some for my own collection while sharing others with fellow VGMS members and Pebble Pups. Here’s to more exchanges to come!
Wherever you travel, reach out to members of fellow rock clubs. How so? Check out the AFMS website (www.amfed.org). There, you will find links to regional federations with lists of clubs in all 50 states. If traveling internationally, use a search engine like Google to find a nearby rock club. That’s how I established a long-time connection with the Scottish Mineral & Lapidary Club in my daughter’s hometown of Edinburgh.
Rockhounds are social beings who welcome opportunities to meet fellow enthusiasts. Let’s all gather, pandemic or not, and let’s all have fun together. These trying times will part. Meanwhile, let’s stick together, have fun together, and share the joy!