Great Men in the Jungle of Nations

By James, N. | Antiquity, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Great Men in the Jungle of Nations


James, N., Antiquity


Moctezuma, Aztec ruler was the last of four big temporary exhibitions about 'world rulers' that the British Museum has put on in the past three years. Moctezuma was the king who received Cortes and the Conquistadores in 1519 and was killed the next year in their custody. The previous three exhibitions were on the First Emperor of China, the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, and Shah 'Abbas, respectively. Hadrian and The First Emperor were archaeological (James 2008a, 2008c). So was Moctezuma. It ran from September 2009 to January 2010.

Kingship is evidently in vogue among London's galleries. During The First Emperor's showing, Tutankhamun entertained on the other side of the river (James 2008b); and the Victoria & Albert Museum mounted Maharaja during Moctezuma's run. There are good reasons for thinking about kings in any society, regardless of political constitution, because, in their coronations, their deeds and their deaths or funerals, they are 'collective representations'. Whether as heroes or as scapegoats, democracies tend to promote 'celebrities' by the same token and, as well as governing, perhaps monarchs, ancient or contemporary, served and serve that function too. Historians, sociologists and anthropologists have tackled these themes through comparison and so have archaeologists, with epigraphy, iconography and the excavation of palaces and tombs (Blanton et al. 1996; Quigley 2005).

Thus, kings are interesting less in themselves than in relation to their subjects or their rivals. 'Hadrian was a product of the society around him' (Opper 2008: 31). So, as Leslie White (1948:113) famously remarked of Tutankhamun's predecessor, the 'general trend of events would have been the same had Ikhnaton been but a sack of sawdust'. What, then, did we learn about 'world rulers' or their peoples by admiring The First Emperor, Hadrian and Moctezuma as a series? Was it run with consistent themes? Should we expect interpretive guidance; or is an exhibition just for visitors themselves to make what sense they will or can?

Moctezuma

Like most treatments of the Aztecs--including London's previous exhibition about them, Aztecs, at the Royal Academy (James 2003)--Moctezuma emphasised their vivid cosmographic and religious symbolism; and, like nearly all others, Moctezuma failed to explain it fully. The symbols and iconography were ancient and widely familiar at the time--especially the dualism of the living and the dead and of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake--but the intensity with which the Aztecs (Mexica) used them was probably peculiar to their capital city. For nowhere else in Mesoamerica was it so difficult to ensure law and order along with economic 'growth'. The government exploited art and rites to control its 'fissile conglomerate' of citizens (Clendinnen 1991: 38; Berdan et al. 1996:85-6).

One of the museum's criteria in selecting exhibits was evidently epigraphic inscriptions for Moctezuma the man (the royal diadem motif), or date glyphs (number and day-sign) presumed to be of his reign. ('Moctezuma', little better than English or French 'Montezuma', is the common hispanic rendition. His name was Motecuhzoma.)

The introduction presented one of the stone caskets that are a distinctive feature of Mexico's later pre-Hispanic archaeology. This first specimen was carved with Moctezuma's glyph, and it was suggested that it may have held the king's own implements of self-sacrifice. For a more direct hint of his political role, the next part of the exhibition illustrated the capital's sociology with two sculptures of commoners and a small but diverse sample of luxuries. Introduced with the well known relief of the previous kings, Tizoc and Ahuitzotl (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (MNA)), the third part was devoted to signs of status or power: pottery and personal accoutrements; architectural ornaments; the sculpture apparently commemorating Moctezuma's coronation (Art Institute of Chicago); and fragmentary caskets, one bearing Moctezuma's glyph (MNA), two others (British Museum and Berlin State Museum) showing the long-tailed mythical ahuitzotl, perhaps in reference to Ahuitzotl. …

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