The Aztec Sunstone

My Mexico Trip, Part 3: The Museum of Archeology and its Hidden, Historic Treasures.

Continued from My Mexican Trip, Part 2: The Zócalo , Metropolitan Cathedral and Segrario Metropolitana.

After a very busy morning seeing Teotihuacán and the Zócalo followed by a much-needed lunch, we headed off to the National Museum of Archeology. It is in Chapultepec Park between Paseo de la Reforma and Mahatma Gandhi Street. Mention of that name caught my attention. We got off the bus and made our way to the museum entrance.

Monolith of Tlaloc, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City.
Monolith of Tlaloc, the Aztec Rain God, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City.

We passed the gigantic Monolith of Tlaloc, the Aztec Rain God. In Nahuatl (the language spoken by the Aztecs and other natives of Central America), it means: “He who makes things sprout”, a fitting description of the God of rain. It was brought here from Coatlinchen where it was unearthed, on a specially designed tractor-trailer that traveled very, very slowly over the distance of 29 miles carrying the 168-ton, 25 feet high stone statue. We were told that on the day the monolith arrived at that very spot, the skies opened up with a spectacular thunderstorm during an especially dry, winter season. it poured for days. Some thought it was a supernatural event—The Rain God’s blessings raining down! Others interpreted the storm as Tlaloc expressing anger at being moved. Who knows! It is hard to divine ‘Divine Intentions’.

Mexican emblem above the museum entrance, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.
Mexican emblem above the museum entrance, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

On top of the museum entrance was a large depiction of the Mexican emblem—an eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its beak. We see it also in the center of the Mexican flag. We waited as Pepe went to get our tickets. Security was strict, almost airport-like. We entered. I managed to get a map of the exhibits in English which was a big help in planning which ones to see in the limited time we had.

The museum is a large, two-story quadrangle arranged around a rectangular courtyard with an ornamental pond in the center. It is divided into sections representing various time periods and cultures in Mexican history. Depending on the time available, visitors can opt to see the sections of most interest to them. Suffice to say, even a full day cannot do justice to all the exhibits. It is a vast, superb collection.

I chose to start with the section on Introduction to Anthropology (to get the basics) followed in order by Teotihuacán, the Toltecs, Mexica, and lastly, the Mayans. That should give me a good overview in the time I had, I thought. It almost did.

Disc of Mictlantecuhtli.
Disc of Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec God of the Dead, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

I started browsing through the exhibits and stopped in front of the Disc of Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec God of the Dead. The skull-like depiction of the face was emblematic of his role, it seemed.

Next, I came across two Metates. They were used to grind corn and other grains in ancient Mesoamerica. I observed them minutely. Even now in India similar implements are used to grind spices and have been used through the ages. In my house in Kolkata, India, we have one that is almost identical to the one seen on the left. It struck me again how very similar ideas and shapes came to people on different continents seemingly without any communication between them.

Metate (quern) for grinding grain.
Metate (quern) for grinding grain, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

I entered the hall marked Mexica. The Valley of Mexico around 1200 AD was settled by nomads who called themselves Mexica from which Mexico gets its name. A group of them later became the Aztecs, a powerful empire that eventually stretched from coast to coast with its capital in Tenochtitlán (centered around the Zócalo in Mexico City). The empire expanded by waging war, subjugating neighboring tribes, forcing them to pay tribute and taking prisoners. The prisoners became slaves, labored, added to the war efforts and were used in ritual sacrifices. They were sacrificed in large numbers, often by the thousands on important occasions. Their bellies were slit open by sharp obsidian knives, their still-beating-hearts ripped out by high-priests and put in specially designed stone vessels as offerings to please the Gods to ensure a good harvest and the next victory. See the picture below.

Jaguar-Cuauhxicalli, Aztec ceremonial stone vessel to hold hearts extracted during sacrifices. Note the hole on the back to hold the hearts. Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

This led to a spiraling cycle of violence—more wars to bring more prisoners to continually appease the Gods to give more and more. War and bloodshed became an integral part of Aztec life.

Carving of warriors in battle.
Carving of warriors in battle. Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

In a closed system, nothing can grow forever. Eventually this had to end, and it did with the advent of the Europeans. But by then the vassal states had had enough with meekly giving tribute and prisoners to the empire and were willing to rise up against it.

In the face-off between Hernán Cortés, the conquistador, and Moctezuma II, the Aztec ruler at the time, there were about 400 Spaniards but more than10,000 under Moctezuma’s command. Look at the gross imbalance between the numbers. In war, quantity has a quality of its own. Yet, in the end, Cortés was the victor. True, he had horses, guns, and sundry bits of artillery. Smallpox, unknowingly brought by the Europeans, to which the indigenous Americans had no immunity, was devastating. But these still cannot fully explain the lopsided defeat.

Cortés had masterfully exploited the resentment of other indigenous groups, in particular the Tlaxcalans, hostile to the Aztecs, who flocked to his command. Together they defeated Moctezuma’s forces. Superior battle tactics and good leadership won the day against a numerically bigger army. Tenochtitlán was razed to the ground and European power became firmly entrenched on the American continent.

That said, the Aztec empire had achieved a high degree of sophistication. Tenochtitlán was a large city, one of the largest in the world at that time. It was set amidst a lake and had wide streets, canals, large temples, palaces and a water management system. The common soldiers among the invaders had a difficult time believing their eyes. They had never seen anything like that back home and thought it was a dream.

The Aztec Sun Stone, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.
The Aztec Sun Stone, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

All this went through my mind as I entered the Mexica section and stopped in front of the Aztec Sun Stone, perhaps the most famous and recognizable piece of Aztec sculpture. There are several interpretations of what it represents. Some refer to it as the Aztec calendar because the glyphs depict days, months and their cosmological history (note the five suns around the central figure). Others describe the central figure as Tonatiuh, the Aztec Sun God (hence, the Sun Stone).

However, I like the following interpretation—the central figure is Xiuhtecuhtli (God of Fire). He holds two human hearts in his clawed hands on either side. His outstretched tongue is the sacrificial knife. Look closely at the center. You might just convince yourself of it. This interpretation is also in line with the Aztec penchant for human sacrifices.

Aztec gold ornaments
Aztec gold ornaments, Archeology Museum, Mexico City.

I saw a display of gold ornaments and thought back to the stories I had read in school of English pirates “Plundering the Spanish Main”, and falling upon slow-moving, treasure-laden Spanish galleons as they were transferring the precious metal from America to Europe. Sir Walter Raleigh came to mind who became a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I because of such daring exploits.

The discovery of gold and silver sealed the fate of the endogenous empires. Spaniards and other Europeans flocked over and used indigenous Americans as slave labor in the mines. As greed and demand increased, they brought slaves from Africa. In time, Spanish rule ended as the Mexicans demanded and fought for their independence. But, even in defeat, the Aztecs had a symbolic victory. The Mexican emblem is of Aztec origin.

A statue of a man in ceremonial attire. Note the elaborate headdress.
A statue of a man in ceremonial attire. Note the elaborate headdress. Mexico City.

I came across a statue of a man in ceremonial attire that included a feathered headdress, beaded necklace and large earrings. Such elaborate headdresses were seen in many statues, carvings and frescoes. In particular, note the resplendent replica of Moctezuma’s headdress below.

Replica of headdress of Moctezuma II
Replica of headdress of Moctezuma II, Museum of Archeology, Mexico City.

I continued onto the section on the Maya. They had a complex and elaborate glyph writing system. As a result, we know a lot about them from their recorded history. The Mayan culture took hold in eastern and southern Mexico and extended further south ultimately encompassing parts of Honduras. A culturally sophisticated civilization with their peak around 600-800 AD, they left their mark in carvings and inscriptions in well-known places like Uxmal and Chichen Itza. We would be visiting them later. This exhibit whetted our appetites for more. I saw numerous such carvings. In particular, one frieze from a temple with its original coloration affixed high on the wall caught my eye. See the picture below.

A Mayan frieze.
A Mayan frieze, Archeology Museum, Mexico City.

I saw a stone stele depicting a warrior with a prisoner kneeling at his feet. I looked closely and was impressed at the fine detailing—the feathers in the headdress, the ornaments on the armor, the face and the surrounding glyphs. Mayans did not have iron, no sharp steel chisels to chip stone. How did they do these engravings? It remains an enigma.

An exquisitely engraved Mayan stele.
An exquisitely engraved Mayan stele, Archeology Museum, Mexico City.

As I was walking through the exhibits I looked outside through the glass windows. In the garden, I saw a wall with a wooden door that looked like it could have been part of an Aztec palace. I did not get a chance to find out.

View of stone wall from the museum window. Mexico City.
View of stone wall from the museum window. Mexico City.

Too soon it was time to leave. Pepe gathered us together and we set off for the rendezvous spot where our tour bus was waiting. It had been a long and busy day. I sat back contemplating the lost cities of the Aztecs and Mayans and the rise and fall of civilizations. These were well established, powerful empires. Yet, the sun has long set on them. The world changes. It is now very different from what it was when I was a child. Countries that were once weak and powerless have risen and are now striding center stage. Who knows what it will be fifty years from now.

I dozed off on the ride back to the hotel dreaming about these ancient civilizations.

To be continued: Part 4, Popocatepetl, Puebla, China Poblana.

4 thoughts on “My Mexico Trip, Part 3: The Museum of Archeology and its Hidden, Historic Treasures.

  1. Lisa

    Thank you for providing such a concise history of the fascinating objects–and the fascinating cultures they once were part of–on display at this wonderful museum. Looking forward to your next post. — Lisa


  2. Bill Bourque

    Thank you Ranjan, for this outstanding “memory shaker”. Like you, I started at the Introduction to Anthropology. This section especially interested me as I had (totally coincidental) chosen the Spencer Wells book “The Journey of Man” to read on the bus — and here it was !! in full dioramas !! I probably spent 75% of my museum visit in this single section. Now I MUST go back; giving justice to the rest of this outstanding museum.


    1. Ranjan Post author

      Thanks Bill. I too wish we had more time. I had to rush through the Maya section. Plus, we did not get a chance to see the city itself. Enough justification for another trip.



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