A Peek into the World of Moctezuma an Exhibition at the Denver Museum of Natural History Takes Visitors through Aztec Daily Life, Religion, Art, Economy

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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. …