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.
"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
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. …