Tribal piercings served an important role in Aztec society. Ear, nose and lip ornamentations were used to demonstrate an individual’s social status, personal wealth and military standing. Aztec piercings were also used to indicate a youth’s progression into adulthood.
Aztec Ear Piercings, Plugs & Spools
According to Rosemary A. Joyce in Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica, ear piercing was used to mark a child’s progression into adulthood. At about eight years of age, Aztec children would have their ears perforated. Later, the “Transition to complete adult status was marked by the habitual use of ear spools,” says Joyce. Robert W. Preucel, in Contemporary Archaeology in Theory, refers to images of Aztec youths found within the Aztec codices: “Codex Mendoza depicts ear spools on a boy of age 15 going to the telpochcalli, and on a girl of the same age being married.”
Ear spools and plugs were worn throughout society, regardless of a person’s gender or status. They were made from materials such as wood, bone, ceramics or leather, the most common design being a large disk, known as a nocotchli, inserted into the earlobe. Only members of the senior nobility and Aztec rulers were allowed to wear gold and precious stones, a strictly enforced aspect of Aztec social hierarchy. Aztec rulers would typically wear elaborately crafted turquoise or gold ear plugs.
Ritual ear and tongue piercings were performed by Aztec priests and rulers. These perforations were carried out as an act of self-mutilation during blood rituals – the piercings were not meant to be permanent or decorative.
Aztec Lip Plugs
According to historian Ian Heath, Aztec lip plugs were often several inches long and, depending upon the rank of the wearer, were made of various materials including gold, amber, jade, rock crystal, flint and conch shell. The wearing of lip plugs, also known as labrets, was strictly controlled in Aztec society; only the Aztec nobility and members of the Aztec warrior classes were permitted to wear them.
An Aztec youth, having been marked for a life in the military, would have his lip pierced in anticipation of his first lip plug. These plugs were powerful symbols of military advancement and achievement, and wearing such an adornment without permission was punishable by death. The right to wear lip plugs of increasing size and ornamentation was earned through acts performed in battle.
According to Heath, however, a warrior who had taken six captives (a mighty feat) was still only entitled to a long yellow labret of little material value. Lip pugs made from gold and precious stones were, as with ear spools, exclusive to the nobility, the priesthood and the Aztec ruler, the latter often wearing a large eagle-shaped gold labret.
Aztec Nose Piercings
Nose piercings were also limited to men of great social standing or military repute. According to historian Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, “only powerful men, such as Motecuhzoma [Montezuma] II, wore the nostril ring, or staff, which pierced and hung from the septum.” Images portrayed in the tribute lists of the Codex Mendoza suggest that warriors could earn the right to wear a nose ring, but these warriors are likely to have been of noble birth.
Rosemary A. Joyce – Gender and Power in Prehispanic Mesoamerica, University of Texas Press, 2000, ISBN 0292740654.
Robert W. Preucel – Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism, John Wiley, 2010, ISBN 9781405158534.
Ian Heath – Armies of the 16th Century (Vol 2), Foundry Books, 1999, ISBN 190154303X.
Manuel Aguilar-Moreno – Handbook to Life in the Aztec World, Oxford University Press, 2007, ISBN 9780195338030.
Frances Berdan & Patricia Rieff Anawalt – The Essential Codex Mendoza, University of California Press, 1997, ISBN 0520204549.