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Unseen Aztec art in Leiden

Leiden’s Museum Volkenkunde (National Museum of Ethnology) is the third stop – after Vienna and Stuttgart – on a remarkable exhibition tour. Azteken presents over 200 objects from the Aztecs (or the Mexica, as they referred to themselves) on loan from Mexican and European museums – among them a number of artefacts that are on display outside Mexico for the first time.

The temple was destroyed by the Spanish, but its remains have been uncovered through archaeological excavations in the centre of modern-day Mexico City. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Ulises.rubin.

The sight of mighty Tenochtitlan

When the Spanish conquistadors first laid eyes on Tenochtitlan in 1519, they are reported to have been stunned by the city’s beauty. It was a metropolis the likes of which had never been seen before. Tenochtitlan was built on wooden piles, driven down under a marshy island, and its appearance must have resembled that of an aquatic theme park. Deep blue canals covered with red and white blossoms, squares decorated with fountains and, between them all, lavish villas, adorned with flowers and curling ivies. Standing on top of the highest building in the city, the Templo Mayor, Hernán Cortés and his companions watched how the residents of Tenochtitlan, who numbered more than 200,000, swirled their canoes through the city’s canal network. A sight that, according to the Spanish records, surpassed the view of Seville, Constantinople, Milan, and Venice.

The exhibition features a model of the Templo Mayor, the heart of Tenochtitlan, and the point from which the conquistadors surveyed the city when they first arrived. Image: Museum Volkenkunde.

Host to the Spanish party in the first days of amicable diplomacy was Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzín (1466-1520). The ‘Angry Lord’, as his people called him, had risen through the ranks as a military commander, assuming royal power in 1502 or 1503; by the time the conquistadors arrived in 1519, Moctezuma ruled over almost all Aztec city states in Central America. The great ruler apparently believed that the threat posed by Cortés could best be handled with a cordial approach, and he lavished the Spanish with gifts and invited them to his palace. This strategy backfired, as the Spanish took Moctezuma captive and went on to seize control of his empire. However, Moctezuma’s actions cannot be dismissed simply as strategic incompetence. According to Spanish texts, the emperor placed great trust in what he believed to be the will of the gods. And, for all he knew, the Spanish were descendants from a spiritual realm, or even gods themselves – their arrival did correspond with the prophesied appearance of a god from the east. Supporting the written accounts of Moctezuma’s powerful religious beliefs is a stone box dating to the early 16th century, which he is believed to have commissioned. This box, skilfully engraved with Moctezuma’s name glyph as well as other figures, animals, and wildlife scenery, is believed to have contained the ashes of former rulers, which would have served as talismans for Moctezuma.

This stone box is believed to have been used by Moctezuma to store the ashes of his predecessors. Image: Museum Volkenkunde; MARKK Museum am Rothenbaum.

On display next to the stone box in the exhibition is a mosaic mask in the form of a bird’s head. This archaeological find is a testimony to the great distances that Aztec envoys and traders would travel to get their hands on precious materials. Because turquoise, the main component of the mosaic mask, could only be found in what is now north-western Mexico and the US Southwest, Mexica traders had to cover enormous distances. As for the touches of gold on the mosaic mask, another 4,000km had to be voyaged southwards all the way to Peru, the kingdom of the Incas. Remarkably, these journeys were undertaken without the help of wheeled transport. In fact, other than for children’s toys, the Mexica did not make use of the wheel at all; a decision that can perhaps be explained by the absence of large pack animals in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Without horses and oxen strong enough to pull their loaded carts, traders would have ended up hauling the cargo with their own hands anyway.

Objects like this mosaic bird-head mask, made of turquoise from Arizona and gold from Peru, are a testament to the Aztec’s extensive trade networks. Images: Museum Volkenkunde; Schloss Friedenstein Gotha ; Museum Volkenkunde; Museum aan de Stroom.

The sinister side of the Mexica empire

The Spanish conquistadors arriving in Tenochtitlan were struck not just by the lack of wheels, but by something that appeared to them to be much more disturbing. According to the Spanish version of events, the conquistadors were invited by Moctezuma to take a tour around the inside of the Templo Mayor. Wandering through this sacred building, Cortés and his men were supposedly puzzled as to why the Mexica had put so much effort into decorating the outside walls of the temple in vivid colour, and yet apparently had decided to paint the interior all black. When one of the curious Spanish captains took out his knife and scraped the inner wall, he found out that what he had believed to be dark paint was in fact dried blood. From this moment on, the Spanish, in their own words, were ‘hovering on the brink of horror’. The ritual of human sacrifice, they recounted, was deeply embedded within Mexica worship, often in remarkably brutal ways. Priests, adorned with mosaic bird’s masks, decapitated their sacrificial victims, or extracted their hearts, sometimes even consuming the still beating organ or setting it on fire. Other methods of ritual killing included stoning or gladiatorial fights. After the sanctioned executions, the priest and his servants collected the heads of their slain victims and placed them on skull racks called tzompantli. Cortés’ men are even said to have found a tzompantli containing more than 130,000 skulls.

Today, these horror stories are viewed with scepticism in Leiden. Curator Martin Berger points out that the Spanish accounts of the number of victims do not match up with archaeological finds at the sacrificial sites. Berger explains: the conquistadors were prone to exaggerating the number of ritual executions as propaganda served up to justify the conquest and also to underscore the urgency of the conversion programme by Christian missionaries.

One such story included a description of the opening ceremony of the sixth rebuilding of the Templo Mayor. During this four-day event, starting on 19 November 1487, no fewer than 80,000 people are claimed to have been slaughtered at the altar. ‘Almost certainly a myth,’ explains Berger, ‘So far, Mexican archaeologists working at the sacrificial sites of the Templo Mayor have dug up the remains of only 450 individuals. And that is from all time periods.’

Truth in propaganda

What the Spanish also failed to comprehend was the spiritual meaning behind the ritual sacrifices that did take place. According to their customs, the Mexica were in debt to their gods and had to pay tribute – tequitl – to make up for their version of Original Sin. Offering human and animal flesh, as well as flowers, shells, fruits, and plants made sure that the sun kept shining. All adults also participated in auto-sacrifice and, in doing so, did not let themselves off lightly. Using a cactus thorn, they pierced their most sensitive body parts and let the blood pour out for the gods to consume. The ultimate gift to the deities, however, was that of a noble, enemy warrior.

Indeed, attempts to minimise the number of individuals sacrificed by the Mexica can only be taken so far. Just how intensive the ritual slaughter of able men, and occasional women and infants, could be was discovered towards the beginning of 2015 by a group of archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Digging under the pavement behind Mexico City’s cathedral, they uncovered the remains of an enormous tzompantli (see CWA 73 and 106). The skull rack measured 35m long, 14m wide, and 5m high, and had enough space for thousands of crania. Perhaps the conquistadors were not exaggerating after all. Even Vera Tiesler was quoted by Science magazine as saying that, ‘Other Mesoamerican cultures also engaged in human sacrifice and built tzompantlis. But the Mexica certainly brought this to an extreme.’

Excavations in Mexico City have uncovered the remains of a large tzompantli, suggesting that extensive human sacrifices were taking place. Images Museum Volkenkunde; Museo de Antropología.

However, it should be noted that for the Aztecs, death did not represent an end but simply a transition to a different state, and was therefore not something to be feared. The Azteken exhibition challenges not just the Spanish conquistadors’ accounts of this aspect of Mexica culture, but also the preconceptions held by modern visitors.

Distinct from the practice of human sacrifice, it must also be noted that the Mexica were no strangers to physical hardship in life. Their formidable civilisation echoed the same martial ideals that characterised the ancient world of Homer, where heroism displayed on the battlefield was the highest of all virtues. Equally, as with the Ancient Greeks, the class distinctions among the medieval Mexica were clear, though there was room for social mobility. In theory, every man had the opportunity to improve his social position, as long as he was strong enough and brave enough. For this reason, parents trained their young from an early age, with the development of strength and character involving some severe punishments. One of the disciplinary methods carried out on children – colourfully depicted on a wall in the Leiden museum – was hanging them face-down above a campfire. Sometimes, this ordeal was heightened by roasting chilli peppers on the flames.

The horrifying end of the Aztecs

Ultimately, neither courage nor strength were enough to hold off the conquistadors. The European armies of the 16th century had long ago traded their Homeric ideals for the practical benefits of mechanised and tactical warfare. The Spanish gained the upper hand in these confrontations in the Americas not just because they brought mounted warriors onto the battlefield – Columbus took horses with him on his second voyage in 1493 – nor did they triumph simply because they used guns and weapons of steel, the likes of which the Mexica had never seen before. Victory fell to the invaders because of their manoeuvring on the battlefield and their ability to fight in formation. An art of war in which, even by European standards, Cortés’ tercios were exceptionally skilled. By contrast, the Mexica warriors left their ranks and sought glory individually. True to their war tradition, Mexica champions dressed themselves up in colourful suits, adorned with feathers and jaguar furs, making them look formidable but, at the same time, easily recognisable for Spanish marksmen.

However, the most significant factor contributing to the downfall of the Mexica was the effect of the diseases that the Spanish brought with them. In 1519, smallpox swept over the Antilles. From these islands, the disease spread to Yucatán and in 1520 it reached Tenochtitlan. The virus destroyed the successful Mexica uprising led by Cuitláhuac (1476-1520). He took command after his brother Moctezuma met his tragic end, and succeeded in driving the Spanish from the city. But, in only two months, smallpox decimated Tenochtitlan’s population, killing many military leaders, and leaving the streets and canals choked with bodies. Cuitláhuac succumbed to the disease as well, while those who survived were usually blinded for life. In 1530, measles ravaged the continent – by this time, Central America and Peru were already under nominal Spanish control – and in 1546 typhoid devastated the Mexica and other indigenous Central Mexican states. The population of central Mexico was around 20 million in 1500, by the end of the 16th century, the Aztec population had fallen to a little over one million.

Azteken offers an insight into the rich and vibrant world that the Mexica inhabited before the arrival of the conquistadors in the 16th century. Although many details of Mexica culture were subsequently lost, the fascinating objects on display in Leiden today, which range from the everyday to the spectacular, are a testament to the exquisite art, influential religious beliefs, complex social systems, and extensive trade networks of the Aztecs and the vast empire they once controlled.


Address: Museum Volkenkunde, Steenstraat 1, 2312 BS Leiden, The Netherlands
Open: until 20 February 2022


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