Sitting amongst a few other instruments in the Natural History Museum’s Mexican & Central American exhibit is a teponaztli drum. Placed alongside two similar sized teponaztli drums, the jaguar-eagle teponaztli drum particularly stands out from the rest. The drum itself is estimated to have been carved between 1200 AD and 1520 AD and is 57 centimeters long with a diameter of 18 centimeters. Size wise, the drum is small enough to be portable and while the weight couldn’t be determined, the hollow drum appears as if it’s also light enough to be picked up and held. In the exhibit, the drum, with a horizontal orientation, rests on a small square that supports the drum. The lighting in the exhibit hangs from a distance above the drums which allows for the details on the top of the drum to be seen. While the lighting allows for the top to be seen, both circular sides of the drum are cast in shadow which obscures the fine detail and carving of the two side glyphs. The drums are all set against an orange background in the exhibit which does seem to cast a little bit of an orangish hue on the drum.
The jaguar-eagle drum is made of wood and from inspection seems to be made from one continuous piece of wood. The drum, likely made from a log or similarly shaped piece of wood, is finely sanded to the point that the drum appears mostly smooth throughout the drum with the exception of a few divots that may be from sanding or from age. Noticeable on the top of the drum are a series of cuts. Two wider cut slits run parallel of each other as a slit runs between the middle of the two making an “H” shape. Two thinner lines are cut in between the parallel slits and are equally set a few centimeters from the center slit. It’s likely that these cuts are deep like the other slits in the drums, but this is difficult to tell from sight alone. The drum itself is hollow on the inside which allows for musical tones to reverberate and be produced when the slits are hit. The exhibit itself notes that these types of drums are hollowed out from underneath the body of the drum, but this is difficult to see as the drum is displayed on a small block likely underneath where the drum as hollowed out from. The lighting and shadows cast from the lights also make it difficult to closely look at the bottom of the drum.
Ornamentally, the carvings on the drum are kept to the sides of the cylinder shape and kept to the edges of the drums. The body of the drum itself remains unornamented which is slightly atypical of the Aztec sculpture style of using all available space. The ornamentation on the drum is done in a relief style so that the body of the drum and the rim of the drum are on the same level with the carvings being on a raised plane. Visually, the relief carvings are very tight to the body of the drum and don’t protrude far from the body of the drum. On either end of the drum, we see an ornate band motif that encompasses the entire circumference of the drum. The main pattern consists of two three-columned strands that weave under and over each other continuously around the drum. Repeated regularly on the individual columns of each strand is a small three-balled motif. The motif itself is small and depicts three balls or carved bumps with a curved figure that encompasses it. Each individual column of the strands has their own ball motif so that three of them appear in a row. The motif repeats at small and regular intervals and always seems to appear on whatever strand currently appears on top. Along with the ball motif, there’s a small two-ear motif that appears regularly on either side of the twisting figure. The motif itself appears as two overlapping scalloped figure with two small, overlapping ovals that protrude out from the scalloped figure. This scalloped motif appears regularly like the ball motif, but evenly alternates the side it appears on. The scalloped figure does also appear on the twisting strands itself, but not with the same frequency as the motifs on the side. Interestingly enough, the ornamental band on the left side of the drum is not featured on the right side of the drum. The other ornamental band has a very different pattern but with a similar intertwining motif. The right band features a twisting figure that’s cut in the middle with regular lines cut evenly on either side of the band. This figure also runs the entire circumference of the drum. Protruding from the band are these rounded triangle motifs that are split in the middle. There are several leaf-like motifs that pop out of the band. From inspection, it appears that the long twisting leaf-like band ends in a twisting rosette figure. The figure appears to overlap and a new band seems to sprout out from underneath the ending rosette figure. The rosette spiral repeats frequently throughout the band. While both bands appear to show plant-like attributes, the band on the right appears to be more curved with a certain sense of motion. The band on the right also has several more plant-like motifs coming out from the side of the band.
Moving outward from the decorated rims of the drum, we see two figures on each face of the drum cylinder. On the left side of the drum with the three-columned twisting motif, we see an image of the eagle. The other side of the drum features an image of a jaguar or similar feline figure. Both images take up most of the available space as is common with Aztec sculpture. Both animals are shown in profile with limbs spaced out to display the entire body of the animal. Both animals in the same direction away from the drum. What’s particularly notable about the eagle image is the attention to detail on the eagle’s feathers. We see several overlapping layers that are delicately carved in relief that cover the entire body of the eagle. From the eagle’s open mouth, we see a motif common to both animals. Emitting from the eagle mouth, we see a twisting and curving motif that’s followed by three balls. The same twisting motif is also seen emitting from the jaguar’s mouth but without the three balls. The jaguar itself is shown in an aggressive posture signified by the open and snarled mouth, the few sharp teeth depicted in the mouth and the outward set of claws. Unlike the eagle image, which appears to be standing upright, the jaguar appears as if it is haunched with its two legs being level to its behind. This stance, however, may be attributed to the style of presentation rather than the actual stance of the jaguar. On the jaguar side of the drum, we do see the only significant damage to the drum in the form of a small crack between the two feet of the jaguar that splits them apart.
When we consider the all the ornamentation and fine detail devoted to the drum, we can clearly see that this drum was a special and unique object during its time. Left to us as a relic of a long and deep history of Aztec ritual, an object like the jaguar-eagle teponaztli drum allows for an insight not only into its practical use in Aztec ritual but allows a look into Aztec society and craftsmanship through its own merits as a piece of art.