The coat of arms of Mexico – seen on the country’s flag – shows an eagle poised on a cactus, grappling with a snake in its beak and talons. This image and even the name of the country are indebted to the Aztecs, or, as they referred to themselves, Mexica. Coming from a mythical place of origin called Aztlán (from which the label ‘Aztec’ was later derived in the 18th and 19th centuries), these people were, according to myth, guided by their god Huitzilopochtli as they travelled south to find an unspecified place where an eagle sat on a prickly pear cactus. It was here, the prophecy said, they should build a city. That city was Tenochtitlan.
Historical sources say that Tenochtitlan was founded in AD 1325. It was built on a group of islands in Lake Texcoco, using sediment from the shallows of the lake to reclaim land and establish one of the great metropolises of the day. The Aztec city was divided into four quadrants, reflecting the four cardinal directions. In the centre, the pillis (nobles) and the tlatoani (emperor) lived in lavish palaces; in the Sacred Precinct – a hive of religious activity – were temples, priestly houses, armouries, monoliths, a ball-game court, and more.
Aztec Tenochtitlan thrived for two centuries until 1521, when the city fell to Hernán Cortés and the Spanish conquistadores. They largely destroyed the Aztec buildings, and the capital of New Spain, Mexico City, was built right on top of the ruins. A lot of what we know about the Aztecs and their cities comes from the accounts written by the Spanish. Sometimes surviving members of the Aztec elite provided information for these Spanish documents. But as many of the settlements, like Tenochtitlan, were built over, uncovering archaeological evidence can be something of a challenge, sifting through material from the colonial period – fragments of Chinese porcelain, Spanish and Italian majolica, vessels that carried olives, wine, and oil all the way from Andalucía – before reaching the Aztec levels. Still, the Aztecs left behind evidence of a rich material culture that sheds light on their world, their beliefs, and their wealth – subjects explored in a travelling exhibition currently on view at the Weltmuseum Vienna (see p.54) – and archaeologists working in Mexico City continue to make exciting new discoveries.
Though relatively small in area, Tenochtitlan had a large population, and so required good urban planning and management to keep everything running. The city’s infrastructure included an aqueduct with two channels to bring in freshwater (Lake Texcoco was brackish), but people needed to be fed as well as watered. Doris Kurella, curator of the Latin and North America department at the Linden-Museum Stuttgart and the exhibition Aztecs, explains,
The whole empire was built to generate tribute for Tenochtitlan. They conquered provinces just so they could
get tribute. Tenochtitlan wanted everything. It was one of the largest cities in the world, with around 200,000 people (on this the archaeologists agree, which is quite rare), but it didn’t produce that much food, so it had to rely on tribute and trade to keep its people fed and its elite living in luxury.
From the palaces, there are a few existing luxury items. The tribute went to the houses of the emperor and noble lords, but it was also used for religious sacrifices.
Trade, not just tribute, played an important part in sustaining the city. Kurella adds,
There is direct tribute from within the empire, and then there are long-distance traders, pochtecas, who brought things like precious feathers from Guatemala and turquoise from what is now the south-western United States into the empire. These were traded at the markets in the empire.
The largest of these markets was at Tlatelolco, the sister-city of Tenochtitlan. Spanish accounts estimate that Tlatelolco’s market attracted 20,000-25,000 people a day, and a bigger crowd of 40,000-50,000 people every fifth day. Conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo toured the market, and reported on the many displays he saw there. He concluded, ‘If I describe everything in detail I shall never be done.’
The lower classes, the macehualtin who made up most of the Aztec population, would sell their surplus agricultural produce at the markets, where singers, dancers, scribes, fortune tellers, and healers would offer their services. Bartering was commonplace, but cacao beans and cottons, which were woven by women, could be used as currency. Some markets of the empire were known for specialising in certain trades. Beautiful black obsidian could be purchased at Otumba, cloths and ceramics at Texcoco, dogs at Acolman, turkeys at Otompan, and, at Azcapotzalco and Itzocan, enslaved people.
Pochteca, the merchants responsible for long-distance trade, brought luxurious goods into the empire. As they had their own militia to accompany them on their long journeys and their own judges at market to govern over trade disputes, some have suggested the pochteca may even constitute their own class between the macehualtin and the noble pilli. But it was hard work, even for the professional pochteca, to move goods around in the Aztec world. Kurella says,
Frances Berdan has said that central Mexico had the world’s lousiest transport system. They had no pack animals, no rivers. So everything had to be moved around on people’s backs – including some of the huge stones used for building the temples. At Tenochtitlan, which was built on an island in the middle of a lake, people were able to move things on canoes, but everywhere else, it was up to people.
Still, products flowed into Tenochtitlan, including highly prized objects in tribute payments. The capital received gold, obsidian, shimmering and vividly coloured feathers from the quetzal bird, jaguar skins, even live jaguars, some destined for large-scale offerings at the spiritual heart of the empire, the Sacred Precint.
This complex was built on a 340m by 360m rectangular platform, clearly distinguishing it from the secular surroundings. Of all the structures in the religious centre, the Templo Mayor (‘great temple’) was the most sacred – the most sacred place in all the empire, no less. It offered a connection to the heavens and to the underworld. Emulating a sacred mountain, the temple consisted of four super-imposed pyramids, with two shrines on top. One was devoted to Tlaloc, god of rain, water, and fertility, the other to Huitzilopochtli, god of war and the sun, who led the Aztecs to Tenochtitlan. Both water and war (which led to tributes) were key to the Aztec economy.
In 1978, the chance discovery of a monumental sculpture of the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui led to the start of the Proyecto Templo Mayor, a long-running research project set up by Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia to investigate this sacred site and nearby structures. The archaeological site can – under normal circumstances – be visited, and finds from the temple and Sacred Precinct can be seen at the attached Museo del Templo Mayor.
Research on the temple has found that it was constantly renovated, with at least seven complete extensions during its 200 years of use, highlighting its vital importance. It was designed to evoke Coatepec, the ‘Snake Mountain’ where Huitzilopochtli was born. The Aztecs set up sculptures of snakes all over the temple. These creatures were considered the sacred animals of various earth deities, and, because they shed their skin, a symbol of renewal and fertility. But, because of Coatepec, they also tie into the Aztecs’ migration story. On their travels from Aztlán, the Aztecs arrived at this Snake Mountain, where they installed a temple to Huitzilopochtli, a ball-game court, and a cuauhxicalli, a sacrificial bowl where the heart was placed as an offering to the sun.
Excavations at the Sacred Precinct have uncovered plenty of offerings, or ofrendas. Intriguingly, most of those found so
far at the Templo Mayor are to Tlaloc, rather than Huitzilopochtli, who Spanish accounts tell us was the most-important deity in the Aztec pantheon. Plants and animals have been found in most of the ofrendas in the Sacred Precinct. Shells, corals, even water fleas, creatures from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans flanking Mexico were offered up to the gods. Animals that related to military orders, namely jaguars, pumas, wolves, and eagles, were sometimes buried dressed with the trappings of a warrior. Based on current evidence from the Sacred Precinct, it is wolves who were the most-frequently sacrificed mammals: one recently excavated sacrificial deposit contained the remains of 27 wolves.
Archaeologists have also uncovered human remains. As Kurella says, ‘In total, there are human remains of about 1,000 individuals found so far in the Sacred Precinct. Researchers have analysed the bones and they’re mainly young men from the provinces, captured and taken into Tentochtitlan.’ Interestingly, isotopic analysis of these remains shows that these people lived in Tenochtitlan for the last years of their lives; they were not immediately killed on arrival in the capital.
Another building investigated by the Proyecto Templo Mayor lies just to the north of the great temple. Called the Casa de las Águilas (House of Eagles) by archaeologists, this large religious building was where power was handed from the deceased tlatoani to his elected successor. It was built and expanded between 1430 and 1502, and contained some striking examples of Aztec art: eagle-heads adorning the staircases, two ceramic life-size figures dressed in eagle costumes guarding a door, and, above all, a pair of almost identical painted ceramic sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Underworld, the dead, and ancestors. One of these two remarkable sculptures is on display in the exhibition. It took five months to excavate the hundreds of fragments of this 128kg figure, and nearly a year to restore it. Holes on the top of the head mark where a black curly wig would have been attached, and hanging below Mictlantecuhtli’s rib cage are his gall bladder and liver, which was where ‘the sacred breath’ (one of the three souls of every human) was located.
The myth of the eagle and the cactus gave the Aztecs a mandate
from the gods, particularly Huitzilopochtli, to establish Tenochtitlan, but they also needed a cultural backstory. As Kurella explains,
The Aztecs were migrants. They came from somewhere in Mexico, from the north – we suspect somewhere like Baja California, but we don’t know where exactly. As they travelled, they came to regions with long-standing cultures and they had to fight their way through. But they were newcomers, and as newcomers they invented their own history. They based this on two references to past cultures: Teotihuacan (already in ruins by the time of the Aztecs) and the Toltec Empire, which was one of the states of ancient Mexico. The Aztecs arrived just after the eroding of the Toltec Empire.
They’re legitimising their right to rule by using the past. The art of Teotihuacan and the Toltec Empire is integrated into their religious art. They see themselves as the sons or the heirs of the Toltecs, and they communicated this through material culture.
They even went to Teotihuacan and dug tunnels. They took out the jade masks they found and placed them in ofrendas back in Tenochtitlan. Toltec art they more or less copied. They use a lot of Toltec-style stone figures, but sometimes with an Aztec twist, though they’re still very similar. And so they created this line of ancestry.
One example of this artistic assimilation in the exhibition is a standing greenstone figure made at Teotihuacan (the birthplace of the sun and moon), between AD 250 and 750. It was reworked centuries later by Aztec artists who engraved on its chest the dates ‘1 Flint’ (the birthday of Huitzilopochtli) and ‘13 Reed’ (referring to the birth of the sun).
The Nahuatl word for artisans or craftspeople, toltecayotl, even means ‘like the Toltecs’, so engrained was this notion of Toltec-descended culture. One codex depicts a female scribe, so it was possible for a woman to be a toltecayotl, but there is very little archaeological evidence for professional workshops where such craftspeople worked.
By analysing artefacts, though, researchers can find out about the methods the toltecayotl used. Recent excavations in Mexico City have uncovered a previously unknown type of Aztec goldsmithing: the so-called ‘Tenochtitlan style’. A heart-shaped early 16th-century gold jewel, found in an ofrenda at Templo Mayor, is one example. Combining the most valuable raw material and the image of the most sacred sacrifice (the human heart), the gold heart was once part of a necklace, bracelet, or other piece of jewellery, as indicated by perforations. Unlike previously known Mixtec gold objects, which used the lost-wax technique, the Tenochtitlan style hammered and polished gold.
Gold was one of the many goods sent to the capital as tribute – and not everyone was happy about it. As he ventured into Mexico, having landed in February 1519, Hernán Cortés met various states, some distinctly fed up with paying tribute. He obtained the support of the Totonac people, who complained that they lived under Aztec oppression and saw Cortés as a means of liberation. The Confederation of Tlaxcala also allied with the Spanish, supplying them with fighters.
The exceptional wealth of the Aztec Empire made a big impression on Cortés. Kurella says,
We have only two good accounts from the first wave of the Conquest – one by Cortés and one by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. They greatly admired the wealth of the Aztecs. Everywhere they saw cleanliness and luxury. They were impressed by the markets, which were well-ordered. Everything in the empire was perfectly organised.
The Spanish conquerors mainly came from Extremadura, which was an extremely poor region in Spain and had been largely destroyed during the Reconquista conflicts, when Christians in Iberia fought against the Muslims. So there are these men used to war and poverty, and they arrive at this big, clean city. It’s like Venice, with people getting around in canoes. Canoes bring things into the city, and take the dirt away. Nothing is thrown into the lake. There are excellent doctors, there are scientists and universities.
Cortés gives huge descriptions of the beauty of the palaces. He’s a weird character. He goes on about how beautiful the palaces are, how beautiful their gardens are, then he says ‘And I burnt them all.’
As well as destroying grand buildings, Cortés and the other conquistadores plundered the riches of the capital. Later European missionaries also sent works of Aztec art back to their homelands. Gold was particularly coveted by the Spanish invaders, who wanted to get rich quick, and by the Catholic Spanish royalty, who needed funds to fight the Protestant powers in other European countries. Pieces of art were melted down into bullion to ship back to Europe,
but not everything made the journey.
One ingot of melted-down gold has been found in Mexico City. (This find featured in the Stuttgart exhibition, on loan from Mexico’s National Museum of Anthropology, to which it has been returned.) On the night of 30 June 1520, a night the Spanish called ‘Noche Triste’ (‘the night of sorrows’), the invading forces were forced to retreat from Tenochtitlan and some soldiers drowned in the waters of Lake Texcoco amid the conflict. The ingot was probably lost by a Spanish soldier as he fled the city with this loot on that night, and serves as a reminder of the dramatic events that saw the end of the affluent Aztec empire.
Further information Aztecs is currently on view at the Weltmuseum Wien, where it runs until 13 April 2021 (www.weltmuseumwien.at). The exhibition was conceived by the Linden-Museum Stuttgart (it was shown there in 2019 to mark the 500th anniversary of the landing of conquistador Hernán Cortés off the coast of Mexico), in cooperation with the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen in Leiden, the Netherlands (www.volkenkunde.nl/en/azteken), where it will run from 4 June to 5 December 2021. A book accompanying the exhibition – edited by Doris Kurella, Martin Berger, and Inés de Castro, in cooperation with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), Mexico – is available from Hirmer Verlag, price £32 (ISBN 978-3777433783).