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The Aztec Origins of a Mysterious Elizabethan Mirror

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When Elizabeth I’s scientific adviser and “philosopher” John Dee died in 1609 at the age of 81 he left behind a trove of unusual artifacts. Among them was his speculum, a hand mirror made of polished obsidian (volcanic glass), that was also known as “the Devil’s Looking-Glass.” This mystical device for talking to the dead was coveted by his peers and later generations; it was acquired by politician and writer Horace Walpole before winding its way into the British Museum, where it resides today. Despite its popularity, however, the mirror’s history was shrouded in mystery. A just-published scientific study has tracked its origins to 16th century Mexico and the religious rituals of the Aztecs.

The mirror in question is part of a cluster of obsidian artefacts in the British Museum and measures about 7.2 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. Visually it resembles drawings of black mirrors that appear in the pages of codex Tepetlaoztoc, a 16th century Aztec book made by residents of Tepetlaoztoc in Central Mexico. The book depicts images of the tribute that indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica were forced to pay to the Spanish conquistadors and among jewelry and other precious objects were at least 10 obsidian mirrors. These objects were associated with the god Tezcatlipoca (literally “smoking mirror”), the authors explain, and were used for scrying, or examining the future.

Just because the mirror resembles those in the manuscript does not mean, however, that it is the real deal. Anything of value is susceptible to forgery, and Dee moved in spiritualist circles that included known forgers like the alchemist Edward Kelly. A scientific team, led by University of Manchester professor of archaeology Stuart Campbell, analyzed the various obsidian objects at the British Museum and compared their chemical composition to various samples from regions of modern Mexico. Their findings, which were published this week in the journal Antiquity, show that the mirror is very similar to the........

© The Daily Beast

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