Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Bell with Face (Tlaloc)

11th–16th century
Mexico, Mesoamerica
West Mexico
Copper or copper alloy
H. 2 5/8 x W. 1 3/8 x D. 1 3/8 in. (6.7 x 3.5 x 3.5 cm)
Metal-Musical Instruments
Credit Line:
The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert W. Campbell, 1971
Accession Number:
Not on view
Metalworkers in West Mexico produced this pear-shaped bell between the 11th and 16th centuries. It is likely made of a copper alloy—that is, copper chemically mixed with another element—based on the analysis of similar bells (Hosler 2014; Schulze 2008). The metalworkers employed lost-wax casting to fabricate the bell and used a cast filigree design. The bell shows the face of Tlaloc, a deity venerated in various parts of Mesoamerica and associated with caring for land, making it fertile, and controlling rains.

The presence of a circular loop at the top of the bell implies that it was designed to be worn, perhaps on the human body, or to be attached to another material. Below this loop there is a ring that shows a braided design. The upper half of the bell’s resonator features two zigzag motifs on the obverse. They are oriented downward, and their lower ends touch a plain band that wraps around the entire bell, roughly at the midpoint of the resonator.

On the lower half, the face of Tlaloc is shown on the obverse. The face consists of a wide, curved, and open-ended outline of the eyes. This outline features a slight indentation at its center. Tlaloc’s eyes are petal-shaped: their rounded ends point upward. There is a small sphere within each petal shape to represent a pupil. The eyes are oriented inward, and the lower point of each touches the nose, formed by a larger sphere of metal. Tlaloc’s mouth is composed of seven long, vertical strips of metal. On the leftmost and rightmost strips, the lower ends curve outward. The bells’ resonator is open. This opening extends around the lower half of the bell. It is outlined by a braided band similar to that seen near the top of the bell.

There is no clapper—usually a stone, ceramic, or metal sphere that helps to produce sound by striking the resonator’s walls—in the bell. A large loss of metal, with an irregular shape, appears on the bell’s upper half on its reverse. This likely occurred during or after the bells’ excavation. A green patina is visible on much of the bell. This is a natural corrosion product related to the presence of copper in the metal. As noted, the bell was made through lost-wax casting (for more information on this process, please see Metropolitan Museum of Art 2008.569.13a, b). All of the features of the bell originally would have been designed in wax, formed around a ceramic core. Workers delicately shaped at least 40 threads of wax to build the body of the bell’s resonator. The shapes of these threads are seen today in the ridged appearance of the metal over much of the bell. It is possible that the number of wax threads was higher than 40. In this case, the workers would have formed either side of the resonator’s opening separately rather than creating continuous bands of metal and then removing wax to form the opening. The workers designed the zigzag motifs and Tlaloc’s face, along with the band at the middle of the bell, by applying separate wax threads to the surface of the pre-formed wax model. The braided motifs were likely designed by looping a thread of wax around a rod-like element that was removed after the shaping was complete. Metallographic studies of similar bells (Hosler 1994, 135, fig. 5.3) have indicated that they are usually cast as one piece. Thus, the suspension loop at top was likely part of the original wax model and was cast with the rest of the bell.

Similar bells have been recovered from San Juan Atoyac and Amapa, both of which are located in West Mexico. At San Juan Atoyac, in the Cuenca de Sayula, archaeologists identified a range of metals from human burials and a residential area (García 2016, 196-98). The dates of the contexts that contained metals range from approximately A.D. 1364 to A.D. 1553. One bell from the site (see García 2016, fig. 8a) shows a design comparable to that of the present example. The faces are similar, with the petals that form the eyes oriented more to the left and right rather than upward. It is clear, however, that its body was created out of sheets of wax, rather than by adding together coils of wax threads, as seen on the present object. Other differences include the absence of zigzag motifs on the San Juan Atoyac bell and its smaller height (around 4 cm).

There are several bells from Amapa in the collections of the Museo Regional de Guadalajara whose motifs Hosler (1994, 236, fig. 3.5) associates with Tlaloc based on the depiction of the eyes, which are often identified as “goggles.” The accented teeth on these bells, interpreted sometimes as fangs, also are notable. At Amapa, bells and other metal objects were found in human burials. The bells were sometimes recovered in multiples in a single burial and often were worn around a person’s neck, wrists, or ankles (Hosler 1994, 52). It is interesting that, while the San Juan Atoyac bell dates to a later period of metallurgy in West Mexico, one that saw the emergence of copper alloys, the Tlaloc bells from Amapa are tied to an earlier period of metallurgy. This period, in which unalloyed copper was primarily used for making metal objects, dates between ca. A.D. 650 and A.D. 1100 (for information on metal sources, please see 1987.394.624). The form of the present example suggests that it was likely fabricated in the later period of metallurgy in West Mexico, between the 11th and 16th centuries.

The association of Tlaloc with bells is not surprising. The deity is occasionally represented wearing bells around his ankles (see, for example, the representation in Primeros Memoriales [1558-60, f. 261v] by Nahua artists in Baird 1993, fig. 30). The Florentine Codex (1575-77) records that the act of making rattling sounds was important for carrying out rites in honor of Tlaloc (see Hosler 1994, 237), and the deity may hold lightning snakes in his hands. These lightning snakes may relate to the zigzag motifs on the present bell.

Offerings of bells, other metals, and a range of other materials were made at the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlán between the 14th and 16th centuries. The offerings—and the architectural space itself—were dedicated to Tlaloc and to Huitzilopochtli, a deity connected to warriors and fire, and the patron deity of the Mexicas, who also wore bells on his ankles (see the representation in Primeros Memoriales [1558-60, f. 261r] by Nahua artists in Baird 1993, fig. 29).[1] Interestingly, archaeologists did not identify any bells in these offerings that show the design of a face (Schulze 2008, 344). The Templo Mayor bells thus are different in appearance than the present example but many do show its pear shape and cast filigree design. Nevertheless, the association between bells and the deities may have been created in the act of depositing the offerings in this particular space.

Even on individual objects—the choice to include lightning snakes, or to fabricate a bell with a clapper that can produce sound—metalworkers involved themselves in certain aspects of ritual practice. Like the bells at Amapa, the present example may have been buried with a human body, or like those at the Templo Mayor, it was deposited in a different form of ritualized space. It was not only metalworkers, then, but also the people wearing and depositing the bells who participated in these relationships with deities like Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli. They wore bells in similar locations on their bodies, and they had roles as farmers or warriors, aspects of these deities that emerged in daily life.

Bryan Cockrell, Curatorial Fellow, Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, 2017

[1] Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli are only two of several Mesoamerican deities that are associated with bells. Another is Coyolxauhqui, the sister of Huitzilopochtli whose name signifies “face painted with bells.” Bells are indeed shown on her face in various representations, although such bells are more spherical and may be indicated as made of gold (see Tena 2009, 74-75).

Related objects: 1974.271.49, 1987.394.624, 89.4.1952, 89.4.1953, 89.4.1954

Further reading

Baird, Ellen T. The Drawings of Sahagún’s Primeros Memoriales: Structure and Style. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

García Zaldúa, Johan Sebastián. “Nuevos conocimientos sobre la metalurgia antigua del occidente de México: Filiación cultural y cronología en la Cuenca de Sayula, Jalisco.” Latin American Antiquity 27, no. 2 (2016): 184-206.

Hosler, Dorothy. The Sounds and Colors of Power. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994.

———. “Mesoamerican Metallurgy: The Perspective from the West.” In Archaeometallurgy in Global Perspective, edited by Benjamin W. Roberts and Christopher P. Thronton, 329-359. New York: Springer, 2014.

Schulze, Niklas. El proceso de producción metalúrgica en su contexto cultural: Los cascabeles de cobre del Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán. PhD thesis. Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2008. Tena, Rafael. La religión mexica: Catálogo de dioses. Arqueología mexicana, edición especial 30. México: Editorial Raices, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2009.
Mr. Thayer; Robert W. Campbell, Oregon, until 1971; The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, 1971–1978

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