A unique group of ceramics were collected close together in the stern section of the ship. This group consists of six sherds of postclassic Aztec wares. The type is called negro grafitto sobre rojo pulido (Noguera 1975:187), and is characterized by a buff paste with a highly burnished red-to-orange slipped exterior, frequently seen with graphite-based paint applied in geometric patterns. The type also is called Aztec IV to mark its sequence in the progression of Mesoamerican pottery traditions (Pasztory 1983). The first sherd to be found at the shipwreck has a geometric design, consisting of black zigzag lines and dots. This motif occurs in various Aztec art forms, but, to date, no pottery parallels have been found to suggest the size, shape, or function of the container represented by this sherd.
Two curious, molded effigy sherds, one with a downward grimacing mouth filled with outlined teeth and surrounding facial decoration, the other with a molded left eye and cheek with facial decorations, also appear to be of the Aztec IV tradition. Photographs of the sherds were sent to Dr. Pilar Luna Erreguerena, of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City, who showed them to her colleague, John Joseph Temple. According to Temple, the molded facial forms, burnished on one side with red to orange color, and unburnished (black) on the interior, were described by Barlow (1951) in relation to a codex made by 16th-century Indian potters from Cuauhtitlán, in the Central Valley of Mexico. Among their wares, the potters fabricated examples that showed the faces of Africans and Spaniards.
Barlow found the codex in the Aubin-Goupil collection of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris; his interpretation of the codex was that it represented a legal plea by four potters (who were Chicimecan refugees) to the resident Spanish judge in 1564 for reimbursement, since their wares had not been paid for by the local alcalde (mayor), who had ordered them. On the codex, the potters illustrated in color the forms and numbers of the ceramics in question, along with their value in pesos and tomines, completing the document with iconographic portraits of themselves as signatures. Apparently the Cuauhtitlán potters stopped making pottery after a massive epidemic of cocoliztli (plague) occurred in 1576. This information was relayed to historian John de Bry, who happened to be working in the Bibliotheque Nationale. De Bry found the codex, and was able to copy portions containing illustrations of pottery decorated in the shapes of human heads.
Fig. 60. This 1564 Aztec codex depicts pottery in the shape of human heads from the Central Valley of Mexico. From El Códice de los Alfareros de Cuauhtitlán, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Courtesy of John de Bry.
Fig. 61. These remarkable ceramic sherds, depicting a grimacing mouth, eye and cheek bone in relief, are decorated with geometric lines and dots of graphite paint, and were made by Aztec potters.
Three additional Aztec pottery fragments subsequently were found in adjacent excavations at the stern. One is a small fragment which joins the earlier sherd with a grimacing mouth. Whether these examples of colonial native Aztec wares are from Cuauhtitlán, or whether they represent the faces of Africans, as shown on the codex, is not certain. Their enigmatic discovery in the stern of the vessel suggests that the ceramics were not cargo, but belonged to a high-ranking occupant of the ship. According to one Aztec ceramic specialist, wares of this type often were used for ceremonial purposes, as in the consumption of pulque, a fermented Mexican beverage (Thomas Charlton 1995, pers. comm.)