The Spanish Conquistadors regularly expressed their respect of both native weaponry and armor. Bernal Díaz del Castillo gives us our most vivid descriptions of combat when engaging with Mesoamerican forces. For instance, this passage from the second time the Spanish and Tlaxcalans clashed:
When, therefore, the attack commenced, a real shower of arrows and stones was poured upon us; the whole ground was immediately covered with heaps of lances, whose points were provided with two edges, so very sharp that they pierced through every species of cuirass, and were particularly dangerous to the lower part of the body, which was in no way protected.
There’s really two aspects to both native and foreign arms and armor being demonstrated here. One thing to note is that the Spanish who accompanied Cortés were very rarely wearing anything resembling full-body steel armor. Spanish accounts confirm that the “infantry” would have had at least a sword and shield, but armament beyond that was up to the individual soldier to supply for themselves. The most common pieces of armor mentioned are helmets, gorgets, and cuirasses, though the presence of these were not universal to all soldiers, nor did the initial arms and armor of the Spanish always last through the rigors of the campaign. To quote Díaz del Castillo again, he remarks that when a group was traveling back to the Gulf coast to confront Narvaez:
We were altogether in want of defensive armour, and on that night many of us would have given all we possessed for a cuirass, helmet, or steel gorget.
Even the steel cuirasses of the Spanish were not always protection from Mesoamerican weaponry, as the first passage quoted indicates. Díaz del Castillo himself writes about one instance where his steel cuirass was pierced by an atl-atl dart, and he was saved from serious injury only by the cotton armor he had taken to wearing underneath it. Indeed, the Spanish often took to adopting some form of the quilted cotton ichcahuipilli, sometimes paired with a Spanish cuirass but sometimes not, because of the both the protection and comfort it afforded.
Whatever steel armor the Spanish could afford for themselves did provide a more effective defense, but rarely did it protect the whole body. Ross Hassig notes, in his Mexico and the Spanish Conquest:
Clubs and swords had their effect, but Spanish steel armor was proof against most Indian projectile, except perhaps darts cast from very close range. Indeed, Spanish wounds were typically limited to the limbs, face, neck, and other vulnerable areas unprotected by armor…
Those unprotected areas could find themselves very vulnerable given the rain of arrows that accompanied assaults, and reports of injuries and deaths from volleys of arrows (and sling stones) are not uncommon in Conquistador accounts. Hassig, however, points to an advantage in the missile weapons of the Spanish, noting their crossbows and harquebuses were most effective at close range, with the inaccurate latter weapon even more effective against closely masses troops, as Mesoamerican military doctrine at the time tended to provide. Nevertheless, we see native forces sometimes retreating back to a point where the guns of the Spanish were largely ineffective, but that the bows of the indigenous archers could rain arrows down on the Spanish at a much greater rate then the Spanish crossbows could reply. If the Spanish were unlucky, as in the case of the Cordoba expedition in a Maya town, the arrow/sling barrage could keep them pinned down until more Maya forces arrived and swamped the Spanish, resulting in the loss of about 50 of the 100 Spanish soldiers, including Cordoba himself later dying from injuries.
If the Spanish were lucky, they could maintain a defensive formation and withdraw, using cavalry charges or artillery to break the lines of the opposing force. These are the tactics Cortés used in his clashes with the Tlaxcalans. No matter the defensive advantage of steel armor or the offensive advantages of crossbows, guns, and artillery on massed troops, the Spanish quite often found themselves having to maintain a defensive position and execute strategic withdrawals in the face of more numerous and better supplied foes who were quite capable of enacting grievous harm on them. Only with the alliance with native groups would the Spanish (and their allies) see a distinct military advantage. To quote Hassig again:
Thus, while the Spanish enjoyed greater firepower, which prevented their enemies from engaging them in organized formations, and although they could disrupt the enemy fron much more easily than could Mesoamerican armies, they were too few to exploit these breaches fully. If they joined forces with large Indian armies, however, these allies could exploit the breaches created by the Spaniards, while maintaining the integrity of their own units, because other Indian armies lacked the Spanish edge in arms and armor. Together they could wreak havoc on the enemy.
Ultimately, if we look at the clashes between Spanish and indigenous groups in Mesoamerica, neither guns, steel, or horses (or germs, for that matter), were decisive. While it is tempting to crudely lump the Aztecs into the “Stone Age,” while putting the Spanish further along some imaginary and arbitrary tech tree, we must keep in mind that the macuahuitl and tepoztopilli were not “crude” weapons, but the result of centuries of refinement and practical tests in Mesoamerican warfare. The Spanish rightly feared and respected those weapons. So to were the tactics of the Aztecs refined for the opponents they faced. Prior to the Spanish, the Aztecs had enjoyed a century of almost ubiquitous military victories, and though we can absolutely see how their tactics were thrown for stumble by the addition of never before seen weaponry like artillery and cavalry, particularly at early encounters like Otumba, this was an intelligent and adaptive war machine. By the time the Spanish licked their wounds from La Noche Triste and returned in force with the Tlaxcalans, the Aztecs had autochthonously invented cavalry counter-measures with pike-like spears and ensuring the chosen field of battle with marshy or strewn with stones. They had adopted tactics to blunt the guns and artillery of the Spanish with breastworks and zig-zag maneuvers.
Bottom line, both the Spanish and the Aztecs respected each other as deadly opponents.
This Day in Mexican History: Aztec Calendar Unearthed 225 Years Ago
225 years ago today, on December 17, 1790, the Aztec Calendar Stone was unearthed in Mexico City’s Zócalo.
Workers were laying water pipes in the south side of the plaza when they found the 24 ton colossal stone carving. Soon after, it was mounted on the western wall of the Metropolitan Cathedral where it remained for almost a hundred years until 1885 when officials transferred it to the Monolith Gallery of the National Museum in downtown Mexico City.
In 1964, officials again moved the Mexica Sun Stone to Mexico’s newly formed National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, where this year it celebrated 50 years as the centerpiece of the museum’s Mexica Hall.
Archaeologists believe the Stone of the Sun was carved in 1479, just 40 years before contact with the Spanish.
While called a calendar, it is actually several calendars in one. The Xiuhpohualli is a 365-day solar calendar that sets dates for yearly rituals and agricultural activities. The 260-day Tonalpohualli is considered by most scholars a sacred calendar dedicated to the divine forces for spiritual guidance. Others track specific planets and stars.
Within its elaborate carvings are the symbols that represent the Mexica’s cosmology, their history and account of the universe and their place within it.
The Aztec Calendar remains a symbol of our heritage and identity as Mexican people.
Aztec solar disc stone
The solar disc was the emblem of the sun, known to the Aztecs as Tonatiuh, whom they imagined as a vigorous youth covered in red body paint and with ochre and yellow face paint. They believed that he was guided in his passage across the sky by Xiuhcoatl, the legendary fiery serpent that was also the deadly weapon that Tonatiuh used against his enemies in the underworld, the stars and the moon….
[This disc] is a simplified version of [the Sunstone]. The sun is represented here by four rays and by four sacred cactus thorns on the outside… In the centre is the calendrical number of the Fifth Sun (“4-Movement”). The date “6-Rabbit” appears in the border. It may refer to the year in which the stone was carved or to that of a historical event.
The Aztecs had two calendar cycles, one 365 days and based on the sun, and one 260 days and based on ritual. They aligned every 52 years.
An engraving of an Aztec calendar can be found in the 1699 world chronicle Giro del mondo (Mirror of the World). Volume 6 is entirely dedicated to Mexico and contains information from pre-Conquest sources.
By the way, the famous “Aztec Calendar Stone” isn’t actually a calendar; it’s a sacrificial altar that the Aztecs called a cuauhxicalli, or eagle vessel. Shown here is the first European image of the Calendar Stone, created just months after the massive carving was unearthed in 1790, more than two centuries after being buried by the Spanish.
The Aztecs were expert astronomers. There’s disagreement about how they accounted for the fact that there are more than 365 days in each solar year—365.2422, to be exact. We account for it with our leap years, which bring us the extra-special February 29.
Engraving [GIF-ed] of an Aztec calendar in Giro del mondo…, vol. 6. Engraving of the Aztec Calendar Stone by Francisco de Agüera in Antonio de León y Gama, Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras… Both prints: The Getty Research Institute