Due to the reach of their trade and tribute networks, Aztecs had access to a number of natural pigments. As a result, Aztec hieroglyphics are notable for both their lavish colors and their ability to convey complex ideas through a combination of images. Artists, scribes and even accountants were able to utilize Aztec hieroglyphics to convey history, transcribe conversations and conduct complex mathematical functions.
Aztec accountants and scribes would depict a combination of dots, flags, feathers and incense bags to represent specific numbers. According to Ancient Scripts, each image had a set value: For example, a dot was equal to one; a dot, two; a feather, 400; and an incense bag, 8,000.
Thus, if an accountant were recording a tribute payment of 440 woven baskets, he would draw a feather and two flags, then connect the numbers with a straight horizontal line. He would also draw a woven basket below, making a short vertical line to connect it to the horizontal line.
Like most languages, Nahuatl, the Aztec language, often combines different words to express new concepts, often in a poetic manner. To illustrate the connection between these words, scribes would integrate different images into a single drawing known as a "logogram." For example, the region Xochimilco was named after two objects, "xochi-tl," or "flower," and "mil-li," or "sown field." Scribes would combine these concepts in their hieroglyphics. As such, the logogram for "Xochimilco" consists of two flowers that grow out of a sown field.
When Aztec scribes encountered words with no adequate visualization, they would convey these words phonetically. Since they had no written phonetic alphabet, they chose to represent the sounds with images that began with the desired sound in an image called a phonograph. Ancient Scripts notes that a phonograph for the word "oztotipac," or "place above the cave," would include the "head of a reptilian earth monster, as Mesoamericans viewed caves as living beings." They would then represent the suffix "icpa" with a drawing of yarn, which the Aztecs called "icpa-tl."
When scribes could not find a way to convey a word through phonetic or logical means, they drew ideograms instead. Aztec History notes that ideograms "would represent the idea behind the symbol." In some cases, a snake might represent the ruler Izcoatl, whose name can be translated as "obsidian snake." In other cases, footprints might represent a voyage or the passage of time. This technique was codified to a certain extent to ensure future readers would understand the meaning behind symbols.
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