REACHING into the past to reconstruct a distant era, a lost culture, a conquered people, the Denver Museum of Natural History places an ancient world in context. "Aztec: The World of Moctezuma," which opened Sept. 26 and runs through Feb. 21, offers no merely random collection of artifacts but a carefully researched and mounted expedition through Aztec daily life, religion, art, and economy. We get to see what Aztec life was like as Hernan Cortes found it when Moctezuma, mistaking the Spanish adventurer for a god, welcomed him to the palace.
Aztec culture represents one of the highest civilizations of the so-called New World. The highly sophisticated society had evolved over a very short period of time, roughly 200 years, by the time the Spanish conquerors ravaged Tenochtitlan, the Aztec city, in 1521. The Aztecs had ruled a vast empire from there, where Mexico City sits today. Opulent city
"Aztec" is a brilliantly informative exhibition. The 300 objects from Mexico have been organized around the life-sized dioramas and miniature reconstructions of the center of Aztec culture, the opulent city of Tenochtitlan. Accompanied by an excellent exhibition catalog written by the Natural History Museum's curator, Jane S. Day, the exhibition encourages the viewer to appreciate a vastly different culture with an open mind, despite decidedly enormous challenges to contemporary sensibilities: As complex
and varied as Aztec culture actually was, the Aztecs are known by North Americans today more for their practice of ritual human sacrifice than for their splendid accomplishments.
As the viewer enters the exhibition, a large mural overview of Tenochtitlan shows the city as it was in 1519. The city sits on an island in the middle of a huge lake (long since dried up), surrounded by tiny man-made islands reclaimed from the water and ingeniously constructed for farming. The mural was painted from maps made by Hernan Corts mapmaker.
A seminomadic and warlike people, the Aztecs were said to have left their mythic homeland, Aztlan ("Place of the Herons") in the desert of northern Mexico around AD 1000 on a journey that would take them 200 years to arrive at their final destination. The last indigenous people to enter the Valley of Mexico, they served as servants and mercenaries to the already established city-states of the area, absorbing the traditions and customs of their patrons for another 100 years as they searched for a place of
their own in the densely populated region. In 1325 they began the building of Tenochtitlan.
Other murals in the exhibition become the backdrops for dioramas complete with mannequins hovering over their corn crops, cooking tortillas, or selling their wares at the great marketplace.
In its size and variety, the marketplace amazed the Spanish. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortes, later described the gold, silver, precious stones, slaves, clothing, building materials, games, pottery, firewood, paper, obsidian knives, feathers, flowers, and foodstuffs: "Some of our soldiers who had been at Constantinople, Rome, and all over Italy said they had never seen a market so well laid out, so large, so orderly, and so full of people."
The orderliness of the marketplace reflected the strict discipline of the Aztec culture. A highly stratified society, the nobles held enormous power and privilege. But much was expected of them as well. Rule of law was maintained rigorously, and all citizens were supposed to conduct themselves modestly.
When Moctezuma II, the last of the great Aztec kings, ascended the throne in 1502, he was 34. He was selected from a group of royal princes by an electoral body comprised of various rulers of the empire and a council of nobles. He was chosen for his military ability, since first among his duties was commander-in-chief of the armies: Conquest was his most important role. But he was also chosen because of his just, mature, and temperate nature - the embodiment of Aztec values.
By the time Moctezuma II came to power, the Aztecs had rigidified the class structure of their society so completely it was virtually impossible to rise in the world except as a warrior. The merchant class, which brought luxuries from afar, also held a special place in the society because it provided the nobility with status items like chocolate, jade, silver, gold, amber, and jaguar skins. And artisans likewise held special status, handing down the skills of their particular art to their children.
The exhibition illustrates how the Aztecs incorporated the art of many societies into their own. We see exquisitely carved and variously styled small figures made of jade and other stone. We see examples of their complex pictographic writing with which they recorded everything, including instructions for disciplining children, demands for tribute, and tax records. They taught their children history, along with religious obligations, music, and dance in their mandatory schooling. The boys learned the arts
of war in school, too.
The Aztecs created impressive trade routes, calendars, colorful architecture, and magnificent artwork and jewelry without benefit of the wheel or metal tools. Most of the important artifacts of this exhibit are statues, jewelry, carvings, and obsidian knives used in religious sacrificial rituals. As David Carrasco, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, said in a recent interview, "You can't really discuss the art of the Aztecs without discussing their religion."
True enough. Rather than killing their enemies on the field, the Aztecs captured them to be offered up later as sacrifices to their many gods. They believed human blood, the most precious of all liquids, was needed to feed the sun god so that he would continue to rise every morning. Tens of thousands died on the altars. As overwhelming as that fact is, many like Dr. Carrasco try to put it in perspective by noting how very brutal practices of torture were in Europe as well. Consider the Spanish Inquisitio n. Pristinely preserved
However difficult it may be to dismiss or ignore the Aztec religious practices, there is still much to consider about the Aztecs in the context of history. That is what this exhibit does best.
And the artifacts are in excellent condition for study. A stone likeness of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent, is a coiled figure whose feathers are carved with elegant precision to appear blown by a breeze.
A magnificently preserved "Weeping Tlaloc" is a ceramic and white-stuccoed brazier, a rare piece that shows the rain god weeping. Another of the finest sculptures in the exhibit is a giant conch shell, one of three found in the Templo Mayor courtyard. The conch symbolized life, and the sculpture's exquisitely flowing lines are believed to represent life's constant movement.
Some of the objects like the "Feathered Serpent" and a Xipe Totec statue were included in last year's "Circa 1492" exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., but many more artifacts in the Denver exhibition have never been shown in the United States before - nor will they likely visit here again. The show is not traveling, so it has become a major event for the western US, a contribution to our understanding of America before Columbus.
* The objects of "Aztec: The World of Moctezuma" come from the Templo Mayor Museum and the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, and the Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The exhibition grew out of a collaboration among Ms. Day, Dr. Carrasco, and Mexico City's Templo Mayor Museum's director, archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma.