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Saturday, 17 October 2009

Exhibitions - Monctezuma – Aztec Ruler at the British Museum

Star rating - 6/10

The latest of the exhibitions of great rulers to inhabit the Reading Room at the British Museum tells the story of Monctezuma, (to give him his correctly spelt name), the last ruler of the Aztecs (or Mexica as we learn they were called).

Monctezuma was born in 1467, and was the ninth and last elected ruler of this famous civilisation. We learn here about the mythological tale of how they came to choose the location for their capital. Copil was thought to be scheming against the Mexica, so his uncle tore his heart out and threw it onto an island. The spot where it landed was chosen for their great temple. And indeed we see the rather impressive ‘Heart of Greenstone’ which brings this tale to life, and which has lovely grey/green and red tones.

Blood and sacrifice are running themes through this story. A huge stone eagle, a bird which for the Mexica symbolised the sun, is shown with a very large cavity in its back – apparently for holding the hearts of human captives which were sacrificed to feed the sun.

Monctezuma was supreme elected ruler in 1502, and had a month long celebration for his coronation, which again involved human sacrifice, and blood letting by the new ruler himself. The large coronation stone shows rich detail of the events, deciphered from the many glyphs, or signature pictures, that the Mexica used to record their history.

There are some interesting details about Monctezuma revealed here. He wore jaguar skin sandals – obviously not an endangered species to the Mexica then. A reproduction shield is shown made of exotic materials such as ocelot pelt and hummingbird feathers. We see beautiful gold necklaces complete with bells. We see pottery with exquisite detail, and learn that good old Monctezuma used to smash it after each meal – so presumably he didn’t actually use the exhibits here then! His vast palace covered 5 acres. The Great Temple was located on the spot where an eagle was seen perched on a cactus. Hopefully this didn’t happen too often or the poor Mexica builders would have been exhausted – such was the scale of the temple that they constructed.

There are undeniably some beautiful exhibits contained here – the turquoise masks, the eagle warrior knife, and the gold disc with turquoise inlay. But to be honest I expected a bit more.

We all know roughly how the story ends – the Spanish conquistadors under Cortes come to convert the Mexicas to Christianity and plunder their wealth. And they end up killing some of them and giving others fatal diseases by raping their women which eventually leads to their obliteration. Not very positive really. And it does make you a bit angry at the arrogance of imperialism. Monctezuma himself died in mysterious circumstances depending on which part of the legend you believe – either he was slaughtered in front of his people as a dire lesson to them, or he died in the caring sharing arms of the conquistadors. Take your pick really.

An interesting but not fascinating exhibition then. It does reveal some great details and beautiful objects, but just not really enough for me to justify the big billing. Or maybe I just expected too much.

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