What is Basalt?

Aztec stone sculpture is the result of a long Mesoamerican tradition. One of the common stones that artisans used to create astonishing monuments was basalt. Basalt is a volcanic rock that is composed of plagioclase and pyroxene minerals. There are not many primary sources that discuss basalt; however, in the Florentine Codex Volume II, Chapter II, Paragraph 7,  Bernardino de Sahagun describes the stone as “black, dark … hard, very hard … it is solid, round, wide; asperous, scabrous, unpleasing, blemished.” Furthermore, he states, “[it] can be fashioned well, worked pecked, smoothed, abraded, sculpted” (1).


What does Basalt looks like?  

Basalt is a common type of rock that forms when volcanoes erupt lava onto the earth’s surface. Basalt is made of dark colored materials such as pyroxene and olivine, which accounts for its darker color. The quick cooling of the lava that results in the rock prevents the formation of large crystals. The quick cooling process of the minerals explains its finely grained texture. Basalt was found in various outcrops around the Aztec civilization in the Valley of Mexico. The accessibility and abundance of basalt caused it to be a very common material for art and tools (2).


Aztec Use of Basalt

The Aztecs prominently used basalt for household functions and to create beautiful artworks. The primary reason for the excessive use of basalt among the Aztecs was basalt stones were scattered around the Aztec Empire. According to Michael E. Smith, the volcanic stone was prominently sourced from the Otumba region (3). The distance between the Otumba region to Tenochtitlan, or what is now known as Mexico City, was approximately 60 kilometers. Smith believes that “the waste flakes production tools that indicate basalt working were found at a few scattered locations within the city” (3). In other words, Smith predicts that basalt stone was sourced from Otumba and traded throughout the Aztec empire by the Mexica. Based on a map Dr. Thomas Charlton provides in “Aztec Craft Production and Specialization: Archaeological Evidence from the City-State of Otumba,” it is evident that the basalt sources and industries were dispersed all around the region. For this reason, Dr. Charlton believes that the basalt industry was household based (2).   


However, there is evidence that basalt stone was not only used for household functions, but it was also a prominent medium for Aztec art. According to Richard Townsend, the Aztec craftsmen were employed by the state to make colossal basalt sculptures. Such figures as the great Coatlicue and the disk of Coyolxauhqui are examples of the Aztec genius for carving in high relief (4). Furthermore, Townsend elucidates a main difference between Aztec and Mediterranean artisans, which is that the Aztecs did not aim to “liberate their figures from the block of stone” like many of their Mediterranean counterparts (4).” However, one could argue that is exactly what the artist is doing in the basalt sculpture of the Seated Deity: Macuilxochitl.


Significance of Basalt

Most Aztec sculpture was carved from basalt. Significantly, these figures may “represent anthropomorphic manifestations of the volcanoes that ring the Valley of Mexico” (5). As a volcanic rock, basalt can be associated with fire and the Aztec notion of tonalli. Tonalli means “warmth of the sun.” The Aztecs believed that tonalli partook of the sun and shared some of its qualities as a portion of energy in the cosmos and individuals (6). Statues carved from basalt then would contain a considerable amount of potential energy. Nearly all basalt sculpture was “plastered and painted with a vivid palette of primary colors” (5).  The Aztecs understood colors and coverings to be extensions of one’s tonalli, so these accoutrements would have added to the energy of the sculptures (7).


Written and researched by Casey Puglisi, Erika Robbins, and Eleni Souroulidi



  1. Sahagún, Florentine Codex, 263

  2. Charlton, “Aztec Craft Production and Specialization”

  3. Smith, The Aztecs, 105

  4. Townsend, The Aztecs, 183

  5. Pohl, The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire, 34

  6. Duverger, “The Meaning of Sacrifice,” 367

  7. Magaloni Kerpel, The Colors of the New World, 46




Charlton, Thomas H. "Aztec Craft Production and Specialization: Archaeological Evidence from the City-State of Otumba, Mexico." World Archaeology 23.1, Craft Production and Specialization (1991): 98-114. JSTOR. Web. 15 Apr. 2017.


Duverger, Christian. “The Meaning of Sacrifice.” Trans. Shelley Temchin. Fragments for a History of the Human Body. Ed. Michel Feher, Ramona Naddaff, and Nadia Tazi. New York, NY: Zone, 1989. 367-85. Print.


Magaloni Kerpel, Diana. The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the Florentine Codex. Los Angeles, L.A.: Getty Research Institute, 2014. Print.

Pohl, John M. D., and Claire L. Lyons. The Aztec Pantheon and the Art of Empire. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2010. Print.


Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de. Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain. trans. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O Anderson (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1950-1982).


Smith, Michael Ernest. The Aztecs. Malden, Mass: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. Print.


Townsend, Richard F. The Aztecs. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.