Arte-Factual: Metatl

It’s been a ridiculously long time since the last Arte-Factual deep dive. I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed researched and writing these articles! So without further ado, let’s take a look at one of the many Mesoamerican-inspired artefacts Lara Croft found in Paititi’s Hidden City: the metatl.

To begin with – and I apologise for being pedantic – the metatl shouldn’t really be labelled a Yucatec artefact even though they can still be found in rural kitchens across Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. For starters, the word metatl actually comes from Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec Empire and central Mexico. Yucatec Maya was – and in some regions still is – spoken further east and belongs to a completely different language family.

In fact, several of the game’s “Yucatec” artefacts are actually of Aztec/Mexica origin. Another example is the macuahuitl, the obsidian-bladed wooden club used by some members of the Cult of Kukulkan. What’s more, the metatl seen in Shadow of the Tomb Raider was actually based on a ceremonial artefact from a Central American culture. But more on that later.

The animal-shaped metatl that Lara Croft finds in Paititi's Hidden City
Lara Croft finds this animal-shaped, corn-legged metatl in the Hidden City

So, what is a metatl? Basically it’s a type of Mesoamerican quern or grinding stone that was typically used by women for food preparation purposes. Grains, nixtamalized corn, seeds, and even tobacco would be ground by hand on the sloped or trough-shaped surface, a practice that continues to this day in parts of rural Mexico. Most metatls were functional items and rarely adorned. Some lay completely flat on the ground while others stood on three – or sometimes even four – stone legs. Metatls were made in a variety of shapes and sizes but they were generally made from wear-resistant, low-porosity volcanic rocks such as basalt and granite.

These days most people call these stone utensils by their Spanish name, metate. And here’s a fun little fact for you: the cylindrical grinding stone that’s normally used to grind the grain is called a metlapil, which translates to “son of the metatl“. Sadly, the one Lara found in Paititi seems to have lost their son.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the artefact in question. The object was created by 3D artist Timothy Ayangco and you can find high-res shots of his metatl design over on his ArtStation portfolio. Ayangco doesn’t go into any detail about his design process but he most likely based it on this jaguar effigy metate from Costa Rica or Nicaragua.

Jaguar effigy metate from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston's collection.
Jaguar effigy metate from the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s collection.

This particular basalt metate has an open-work jaguar head with ears carved in the form of crocodiles. Both of these animals were thought to be revered by the peoples of the Greater Nicoya region of Costa Rica and were common motifs seen in their art. Like many of the stone sculptures from the region, this metate was carved from volcanic rock. The dozens of volcanic formations across Costa Rica are not just responsible for the country’s lush vegetation and biodiversity; they also provided people with ample material for their distinctive stone sculptures.

The intricate carvings suggest that this type of metate served a ceremonial purpose. Historical records from the 16th century describe these as a type of burial good, a ceremonial seat, a funerary bier, or a grindstone used to ground hallucinogenic plants for ritual use. Unfortunately, we only have colonial Spanish accounts to rely on. What’s more, a lot of the surviving metates from that region were snapped up by private collectors decades ago and later donated to museums, making it harder to study the role these objects once played in their respective communities.

Some of the products sold at Paititi’s markets, including ears of multi-hued corn.

The metatl in Shadow is a lot more colourful than its real-life counterpart but this may be something specific to Paititian culture. As you can see, the incised tripod legs of the original have been replaced with multicoloured ears of corn, perhaps honouring the role maize played in the Paititian diet and cosmology. It may even been a casual reminder that many indigenous and heirloom varieties of flint corn come in a wide variety of colours, such as the stunningly beautiful multi-hued Glass Gem and the purple corn used to make Peru’s popular drink chicha morada. You can see a basket of purple corn in the screenshot above.

Ceremonial or functional, there’s no denying how important the metatl was to Mesoamerican food culture, especially in the preparation of corn tortillas. And if you’re interested in preparing some Mexican dishes at home, check out my Taste Raider feature on Poc Chuc!

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If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more about the art and artefacts seen in the Tomb Raider games, feel free to check out the other articles listed in the “Arte-Factual” archive.


About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a writer, part-time translator, and gamer who is passionate about archaeology, language learning, travel, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

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