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Ulli-drops: Toltec Notarial Practices and the Religious Dimension of Trade

Quetzalcoatl face is surrounded by Ulli-drops and annotations in Old Breton ogam, all with gold infill, on the Judas-Benjamin-Isaac Cross (6B).

Around the words IN MEMORIAM, there is what seems to be Ulli-drops, a kind of seal that served to certify the legality of a document.

Ulli-Drops, random points or deliberate design

“We sought nothing but peace,” remarks the annalist under the year 795, one of the last entries in the series of inscriptions signed by Oliver. The colonists’ intentions were not those of brutal conquest or forceful domination but lawful governance, peaceful trade and duly authorized commerce. The Mesoamerican Culture known as Toltec Chichimec or Chalchihuites founded the Colony of Calalus, or the Hohokam (“All Used Up”), about 560.

On the Judas-Benjamin-Isaac Cross (6), in addition to Frankish axes, trademarks, seals, trade emblems, the siglum OL and the Calalus insignia, there appears a Mesoamerican glyph with a fish head (probably the symbol of Michoacán, Land of Fishermen) and miter alongside the monogram R. A childish-looking circular face is paired opposite a ship’s emblem.

Beneath a temple is a small flattened, ovate shape with a dot in it. There is also a brazier with fire. Around the face, ship, busts, monogram, names and especially surrounding the words IN MEMORIAM are what appear to be random dots or points. That they are a deliberate part of the design is underscored by the fact that they are infilled with gold like the letters. I suggest these are Ulli-drops.

What Are Ulli-Drops?

Ulli-drops were used as we might employ seals, raised dots on signatures or watermarks to certify the legal standing of a document. Bancroft describes them as a standard part of Toltec commercial practice. “At midnight they cut flag-shaped papers for Xiuhtecutli, the god of fire, fastened them to sticks painted with vermillion, and marked on them the face of the god, always depicted in a childish drawing, never portrait-like, with drops of melted Ulli, or India-rubber.”

He continues: “Other papers, also marked with Ulli, were cut in honor of Tlaltecutli, to be worn on the breast. Others, for the god of the merchants, were used to cover a bamboo stick, which they worshiped and carried with them. The gods of the roads, Zacatzontli and Tlacotzontli, also had their papers ornamented with Ulli-drops ….” He goes on to tell how these papers were burned or sacrificed to obtain an augury about the trip.

Other instances were on copies of contracts or records of transactions. The practice seems to go back to the Olmecs (“Rubber People”), who introduced trade to Mesoamerica before the Toltecs. Indeed, it is the Olmecs who are regarded as the original Toltecs, Mesoamerica’s first advanced civilization.

Another possible example of this Toltec notarial custom occurs on the Ab Ovo Cross (3B). Beneath the words ADSUM DOMINUS (“I the Lord am with thee,” Is. 52:6) is a space left blank to the left of Oliver’s siglum. A spray of Ulli-drops appears below the word for the Lord. In the same manner, Ulli-drops were shaken from a rod topped by a burning piece of rubber beside the cartoon-like face of the god in solemnizing a contract in Toltec business practices.

The divinity thus witnessing the rite or sacrifice may have been Yacatecuhtli, the patron god of commerce and travel, Xiuhtecuhtli, the god of fire invoked before business trips, or Quetzalcoatl, popular in cases of foreign trade and cities like Tenochtitlan and Cholula. The whole practice was religious in significance and not dissimilar to the witnessing and oath swearing for formal copies of legal documents in the Western World.

The entire series of artifacts, especially the inscription-bearing crosses signed by OL, needs to be closely analyzed by experts in the fields of medieval diplomatics (forms of legal and historical documents, chiefly laws, and charters), sigillography and sphragistics ( the study of seals).

In the following extract, Bancroft summarizes the origins of Mesoamerican trade in the isthmus between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of ancient Mexico and describes the central role of merchant princes (pochteca) as well as the importance of commercial corporations. Hubert Howe Bancroft, The Native Races, Vol. II: Civilized Nations, San Francisco: Bancroft, 1882, pp. 378-90.

Commerce in Pre-Aztec Times (from Bancroft)

[There were] great commercial centers, where home products were exchanged for foreign merchandise, or sold for export to merchants from distant nations who attended these fairs in large numbers, itinerant traders continually traversing the country in companies or caravans, and the existence of a separate class exclusively devoted to commerce.

From the earliest times the two southern Anáhuacs of Ayotlan (in Jalisco) and Xicalanco (in Olmec Country), corresponding to what are now the southern coast of Oajaca (facing the Pacific) and the terra caliente of Tabasco and Verz Cruz (on the Gulf Coast), were inhabited by commercial peoples, and were noted for their fairs and the rich wares therein exposed for sale. These nations, the Xicalancas (Mayan-Olmecs, capital Cacaxtla), Mijes (Mixes of Oaxaca), Huaves (“Sea Peoples” on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec), and Zapotecs (their successors, builders of Monte Albán) even engaged to some extent in a maritime coasting trade . . . .

The Toltecs are reported to have excelled in commerce as in all other respects, and the markets of Tollan and Cholula are pictured in glowing colors, but all traditions on this subject are exceedingly vague. In the new era of prosperity that followed the Toltec disasters (after about 1100) Cholula seems to have held the first place as a commercial centre, her fairs were the most famous, and her merchants controlled the trade of the southern coasts on either ocean.

After the coming of the Teo-Chichimec hordes (original “Dog Tribes” or Nahua “barbarians” from North Mexico) to the eastern plateau, Tlascala (in East Central Mexico) became in her turn the commercial metropolis of the north, a position which she retained until forced to yield it to the merchants of the Mexican valley (in the 1400s), who were supported by the warlike hordes of the Aztec confederacy.

Before the Aztec supremacy, the trade seems to have been conducted with some show of fairness, and commerce and politics were kept to a great extent separate. But the Aztecs introduced a new order of things.

The First Pochtecas

Tlatelulco (in greater Mexico City) while an independent city was noted for her commerce, as was Tenochtitlan (Mexico City, successor to Teotihuacan) for the prowess of her warriors, and when mercantile enterprise was forced to yield to the power of arms, Tlatelulco, as a part of Mexico, retained her former preeminence in trade, and became the commercial centre of Anáhuac. Her merchants, who were a separate class of the population, were highly honored, and, so far as the higher grades were concerned, the merchant princes, the pochtecas, dwellers in the aristocratic quarter of Pochtlan (originally from Oaxaca), had privileges fully equal to those of the nobles.

They had tribunals of their own, to which alone they were responsible, for the regulation of all matters of trade. They formed indeed, to all intents and purposes, a commercial corporation controlling the whole trade of the country, of which all the leading merchants of other cities were in a sense subordinate members. Jealousy between this honored class of merchants and the nobility proper brought about the many complications during the last years of the Aztec empire . . . .

Nahua trade was a rule carried on by means of barter . . . Several more or less convenient substitutes [for money] furnished a medium of circulation. Chief among these were nibs or grains of the cacao . . . Another circulating medium was gold-dust kept in translucent quills that the quantity might be readily seen. Copper was also cut into small pieces shaped like a T, which constituted perhaps the nearest approach to coined money. Cortés, in search of materials for the manufacture of artillery, found that in several provinces pieces of tin circulated as money, and that a mine of that metal was worked in Taxco (in the state of Guerrero, southwest of Mexico City).

Sahagun says the Mexican king gave to the merchant-soldiers, dispatched on one of their politico-commercial expeditions, sixteen hundred quauhtli, or eagles, to trade with. Bustamente, Sahagun’s editor, supposes these to have been the copper pieces already mentioned, but Brasseur believes, from the small value of the copper and the large amount of rich fabrics purchased with the eagles, that they were of gold. The same authority believes that the golden quoits with which Montezuma paid his losses at gambling also served as money.

Nahuatl Sophistication in Trade and Commerce

The Nahuas bought and sold their merchandise by count and by measures both of length and capacity, but not by weight; at least, such is the general opinion of the authorities. Sahagun, however, says of the skillful merchant that he knows “the value of gold and silver, according to the weight and fineness . . .

Native words also appear in several vocabularies for weights and scales. Brasseur de Bourbourg regards this as ample proof that scales were used. Clavigero thinks weights may have been employed and mention of the fact omitted in the narratives. The market, tianquiztli, of Tlatelulco was the grandest in the country and may be taken as a representation of all.

Its grandeur consisted, however in the abundance and variety of the merchandise offered for sale and in the crowd of buyers and sellers, not in the magnificence of the buildings . . . We know that space was systematically apportioned among the different industries represented. Fishermen, hunters, farmers, and artists, each had their allotted space for the transaction of business.

Hither, as Torquemada tells us, came the potters and jewelers from Cholula, the workers in gold from Azcapuzalco in (northwestern Mexico City), the painters from Tezcuco (second largest city, on Lake Texcoco between sites of Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan), the shoe-makers from Tenayocan (Tenayuca in the Valley of Mexico), the huntsmen from Xilotepec (Jilotepec in Guerero, Otomis), the fishermen from Tezcuco, the fruit-growers of the tierra caliente, the mat-makers of Quauhtitlan (Cuauhtitlan in the State of Mexico), the flower-dealers of Xochimilco (city of floating gardens), and yet so great was the market that to each of these was afforded an opportunity to display his ware . . . .

Here were to be found precious stones, and ornaments of metal, feathers, or shells, implements and weapons of metal, stone, and wood; building material, lime, stone, wood, and brick; articles of household furniture; matting of various degrees of fineness; medicinal herbs and prepared medicines; wood and coal; incense and censers; cotton and cochineal; tanned skins; numerous beverages; and an infinite variety of pottery . . .

Cortés speaks of this market as being twice as large as that of Salamanca . . . Las Casas says that each of the two market-places in the city of Mexico would contain 200,000, 100,000 being present each fifth day, and Cortès tells us that more than 60,000 persons assembled daily in the Tlateluco market. According to the same authority, 30,000 was the number of daily visitors to the market of Tlascala . . . . Considering the population of the cities and surrounding country, together with the limited facilities for transportation, these accounts of the daily attendance at the markets, as also of the abundance and variety of the merchandise, need not be regarded as exaggerations.

The particular divinity of the traders was Iyacatecutli, Iyacacoliuhqui, ‘lord with the aquiline nose’—that nasal type being, as the Abbé Brasseur thinks, symbolic of cunning and skill. Services in his honor were held regularly in the month of Tlaxochimaco, but the ceremonies performed by traveling merchants seem to have been mostly devoted to the god of fire and the god of the roads. . . to this god offerings of Ulli and paper were made by the leaders . . . . The caravans . . . were received by the authorities . . . With some public ceremonies not definitely described.


Hohokam traveling merchants with pack and staff


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