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Bronze Mortar and Pestle

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Artifact Description

An intriguing collection of both recognizable and unusual artifacts excavated from the “Tortugas” shipwreck contribute to the image of shipboard life in the Americas trade in the waning years of the Golden Age of Spanish colonial seafaring. The two sets of bronze mortars and pestles located just beyond the hull in the starboard stern are of familiar form used on vessels of multiple nationalities. The “Tortugas” mortars are mold decorated externally with what resemble human faces or zoomorphic figures. Such mortars were manufactured with little stylistic change between c. 1600 and the mid-18th century.

These utensils are commonly interpreted as surgeon’s mortars, undoubtedly due to their depiction in paintings such as Interior of a Dutch Pharmacy by the School of Terborgh dated to 1665 and in The Surgery by Gerard Thomas, 1663-1720. However, these objects enjoyed an equally broader function for basic food preparation. The precise "Tortugas" type of bronze mortar is extremely common in still life works by the Seville school in the Golden Age, typified by Diego Velázquez’s Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary of 1618, Christ at Emmaus of c. 1620 and Two Young Men at a Table, assigned a date of 1623-24 .

The origin of the "Tortugas" wreck’s bronze mortars and pestles is unverifiable, but a letter written in 1549 in Seville reveals that a metal mortar weighing 9lbs cost 1½ real per pound and a pestle 2 reales. Since the record is concerned with how “To transport the containers from Triana to the apothecary shop” (in this instance perhaps revealing usage for grinding medicinal herbs), production within Seville may be hypothesized.


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