Staff writer Sydney Wells attended the first in-person installment of the Bettman Lecture Series since 2019, featuring Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

During the evening of Monday, October 24, the excitement was palpable in Schermerhorn 612. Lovers of art history sat anticipatingly in their seats, eager for the first in-person Bettman Lecture after two years of online-only events.

Hosted by the Columbia Department of Art History and Archaeology, the Bettman Series is named after Linda Bettman, a former graduate student in the department who endowed the program. It consists of monthly lectures in art history by speakers from all across the world and is finally back in person.

To kick off this return, the series hosted Dr. Laura Filloy Nadal, current Associate Curator for the Arts of the Ancient Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Filloy Nadal specializes in pre-Hispanic and early colonial Latin American art and archaeology, and spoke Monday about featherworking in fifteenth-century Aztec shields.

Aztec shields from this era were brightly colored, intricate, and meaningful. Warriors donned them, in addition to other full-body feathered garments, for both combat and religious festivities. Dr. Filloy Nadal described the shield during this era as an “emblem of corporate identity,” as their different colors and materials differentiated soldiers’ statuses and duties.

There are only six Aztec feather objects known to still exist, four of which are feather shields. This is surprising, considering the size of the Aztec Empire in the fifteenth century, which spanned from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It is partially this vastness that allowed for the diversity of feathers used for the shields.

In the creation of some feather objects, feathers from at least 20 different species of birds were used. According to Dr. Filloy Nadal, access to so many types of feathers was made possible by the extensive trade system present in the Aztec Empire at the time. Feathers would make their way across long distances in bundles and bunches, from all over the empire and towards the capital city of Tenochtitlan.

According to Dr. Filloy Nadal, there were two main contexts in which featherworking, and thus the attainment of feathers, took place—military garb and luxury items. When making items for members of the military, featherworkers would have acquired feathers from marketplaces. Those who made luxury goods, such as for festivals or members of the ruling class, had access to the royal store of feathers, including those harvested from birds held in captivity.

Obtaining the feathers, however, was only one step of the complex featherworking process, said Dr. Filloy Nadal. Featherworking itself was an intricate and difficult craft that required intensive training, usually provided from father to son. The process of shield construction had many discrete steps, as described in the Florentine Codex, an ethnographic text regarding sixteenth-century Mesoamerica written by a Franciscan friar.

First, cotton fibers and starch were combined to make a paper to be used as the support system for the shield. Then, each section of the shield was covered in feathers, with adhesive used to attach them. A layer of feathers from common birds was used as the base, and then covered by the more rare, colorful feathers that give the shields their striking appearance. The shield sections were then joined with more adhesive, like the assembly of a puzzle. Once a shield was complete, it likely contained tens of thousands of feathers.

After describing the details of featherworking itself, Dr. Filloy Nadal turned to modern efforts to restore and analyze Aztec shields. X-rays and CT scans are used to see the internal structure of the shields. Samples of their wooden and fibrous components are taken and examined to determine their source plant species. Feathers are compared to those from museum specimens in effort to identify which species they were taken from. The study of Aztec shields is incredibly interdisciplinary, combining techniques from many different fields of study, from radiology to history.

Dr. Filloy Nadal’s presentation illuminated the complexity of Aztec featherworking in the fifteenth century, an exciting opening to this year’s Bettman Lecture Series. The series will continue to be in-person throughout the semester, and more information can be found on the Department of Art History and Archaeology’s website.

Image via Wikimedia Commons