When Lynn Foster was asked to contribute remarks on Mesoamerican gold
to a panel discussion of the Spanish conquest, she expected to find little
to say. Both the Aztec and Maya referred to gold as “excrement of
the sun;” the Spanish conquerors claimed that the Mesoamericans valued
jade, not gold; and few Mesoamerican gold objects survived the conquest.
But lack of artifacts does not mean that gold was unimportant. Although the total weight of gold artifacts found in Mexico to date is less than 50 pounds, Cortez received a quarter-tun of gold per year, and Moctezuma may have received as much as 2 tons annually. Pre-Columbian sumptuary laws restricted the wearing of gold to nobility. Gold was not irrelevant. Lynn Foster’s research turned up some surprising results, not only about the value of gold but also about the depth of its significance in Mesoamerica. Much of the gold came from elsewhere, and Foster suggests that it may have been regarded as an “improved,” more workable form of iron pyrite, a substance that earlier Mexicans had long used for ritual objects such as mirrors.
Lynn Foster received her doctorate in philosophy, but she has spent more time studying Mesoamerican civilization than she has Plato or Aristotle. A former senior research scholar in Hispanic Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, she has written several books on Mesoamerica and Latin America, among them Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World and the recently published and updated edition of A Brief History of Mexico. She has given talks and published papers in her area of special interest, Chichen Itza, and is currently writing a book on that site.
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