Mictlantecuhtli Detail. © Michel Zabé / AZA. Reproduction authorized by the  Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia

CHICAGO.- The Field Museum’s newest exhibition, The Aztec World, gives visitors a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore the otherworldly grandeur and sophistication of one of history’s great civilizations. The Field has gathered nearly 300 artifacts including monumental works in stone, colorful ceramics, and intricate jewelry made of precious metals. Many of these treasures will be displayed for the first time outside Mexico. The artifacts come from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, the Templo Mayor Museum, The Field Museum, and other distinguished museums in the United States and Mexico.

The Aztec World will be shown exclusively at The Field Museum—it will not travel to other venues.

Witness the compelling story of how, in just 200 years (between 1325 and 1521) the Aztecs grew from a nomadic group to one of the most powerful and influential societies ever developed, leaving behind a powerful legacy. Discover how an empire that began in the middle of a lake became the center of the Mesoamerican world. With spectacular artifacts and works of art assembled together for the first time, the exhibition provides a look into the remarkable rise and fall of the Aztecs.

The journey begins on the bountiful shores of Lake Texcoco and moves to the heart of Tenochtitlan, the complex, radiant capital of the Aztec world. Examine the deities, temples, and sacrificial altars of Aztec religion. Explore the training, weapons and celebrations of Aztec warriors. Discover the privileges, treasures, and responsibilities of Aztec rulers. Marvel at beautiful objects crafted from precious metals, ceramic, obsidian, greenstone and other materials to gain a new perspective on Aztec art, science, trade, cosmology, and religious rituals. Explore life as a farmer, trader, weaver, warrior, priest, and emperor.

The Field Museum’s approach to the exhibition is unique – blending art history and anthropological study of Aztec society as a whole, paying special attention to gender and class. Elizabeth Brumfiel, professor of anthropology, Northwestern University, is a co-curator for the exhibition. “We wanted to include objects that would be used by all the different kinds of people who contributed to the Aztec world: farmers, artisans, women, merchants, and warriors, as well as rulers and priests. We wanted to use these objects to enter into the daily lives of all the people who created and sustained the Aztec Empire.”

Field Museum anthropologist Gary Feinman, PhD, is a co-curator for the exhibition. “We felt it important to share the rich traditions of this majestic empire. A generation ago, little attention was paid to pre-Hispanic history. Today, Latin Americans make up one-third of Chicago’s population. In our multi-ethnic society, it’s critical to have an appreciation for different cultures. We have to move beyond the notion that most advances come from the Euro-American tradition.

According to legend, the Aztecs originally emerged from the earth through seven caves (Chicomostoc) and established their homeland at Aztlan (Place of the Cranes). They departed Aztlan following the instructions of their god Hummingbird on the Left (Huitzilopochtli) who told them they were not to stop until they saw an eagle perched atop a cactus. Over the next century, they migrated hundreds of miles southward, finally encountering the eagle on an island in Lake Texcoco in 1325. And that is where this exhibition begins—an imposing stone eagle-shaped cuauhxicalli, or offering vessel, welcomes visitors into The Aztec World.

Surrounded by volcanic peaks, Lake Texcoco was a scenic setting, but much was required to make it habitable. The Aztecs drained marshes, laid out canals, built causeways and expanded their islands by sinking timbers in the water. Eventually, the great city of Tenochtitlan arose – a marvel of engineering. At its height the city had 200,000 inhabitants and contained 60,000 buildings. It was so fabulous, a Spanish soldier later wrote: “Great towers and temples...seemed to rise out of the water...never before did man see, hear, or dream of anything equal to the spectacle.”

Hilary Hansen, Field Museum exhibition project manager, observes, “The Aztecs were ingenious and resourceful, building on other peoples’ ideas, such as aqueducts, terracing, and creating artificial islands (chinampas) for crop production. They learned new ways of growing food, had clean water, and built ecologically correct sewer systems that recycled human waste as fertilizer. These were problem-solving people.”

The Aztec World is organized so that visitors move from the periphery to the city center, passing farms and houses of artisans, merchants and warriors, before entering the splendor of the central temple district surrounded by the palaces of the ruling elite

Traveling through the exhibition, visitors—like the Aztecs—first encounter Lake Texcoco. Here, they’ll learn the importance of cosmic forces and the Aztec gods, and see up-close the gorgeous blue pot depicting Tlaloc, the rain deity, and the stone sculpture of Chalchiuhtlicue, the water deity. Walking on, visitors will encounter farmers and discover that life was centered on home and hearth. Women prepared food, wove cloth, harvested and processed maguey sap, and sold their wares in the markets, while men farmed, labored as construction workers, and performed military service. Both men and women made daily offerings to the gods of food, incense, and prayer. On important occasions, commoners offered the gods blood drawn from their own earlobes.

Aztec farmers responded to the challenges of dense populations and urban growth in the Valley of Mexico by two innovative agricultural techniques. The first was chinampa agriculture, mounding up earth in swampy areas to create artificial fields. The second technique was the use of maguey plants to limit soil erosion on the slopes surrounding the Valley of Mexico and to provide nourishment and income during the winter season when maize production was not possible.

“The Aztec World emphasizes that contributions from every level of society were important. Visitors to the exhibition will see that many Aztecs were ordinary people just like them who raised families, went to work, paid taxes, celebrated good times, had rites of passage, and were spiritual,” Hansen explains.

In the farming section, visitors will find charming figures of family members, including their beloved pet dogs, utensils, goddess figurines, musical instruments, pipes, and vessels for the all-important feast days. One of Dr. Feinman’s favorite artifacts is a bowl for the fermented drink pulque in the form of a rabbit lying on its side. “I love the idea of a rabbit having ‘one too many,’” he says. The Aztecs did have a sharp sense of humor, making up riddles such as, “What is a little blue-green jar filled with popcorn? It is the sky.”

The Aztecs maintained a complex economy in which three elements were interwoven: markets, tribute (a type of tax), and long-distance trade. Artisans crafted tools, utensils, weapons, and jewelry from obsidian, greenstone (more precious than gold), wood, and cloth. These valuables, along with food, were traded in the all-important markets. “Spanish accounts report that the Aztec markets were larger and more diverse than the conquistadors had ever seen,” says Dr. Feinman. “That’s impressive considering these men were from the Mediterranean, which was then the hotbed of European commerce.”

The Aztecs found war everywhere: in the cosmos and on earth. The military played a central role in state religion, culture, and politics. In the “Warrior” section of The Aztec World is an artifact Dr. Feinman urges visitors not to miss the commanding life-size terra cotta masterpiece, Eagle Man, in his wing-like cape. Scholars think this figure may represent the soul of a dead warrior—one of many "spirit warriors" who accompanied the sun on its daily journey across the sky—or a personification of the sun itself. This artifact speaks to the importance of war in Aztec society, the aim of which was to conquer, gather tribute, and take prisoners for later sacrifice to the gods. Military ideology even extended to women, as it was believed that childbirth was similar to combat. As dead warriors accompanied the sun during its morning rise to the zenith, women who died in childbirth accompanied the sun during its afternoon descent.

Walking closer to the city center, visitors will encounter a gallery devoted to the ruling class. While living rich lives, rulers had many responsibilities, such as building temples, maintaining the empire’s infrastructure, and staging religious ceremonies. Here, visitors can admire some of the riches brought to the emperor via tribute and view highly decorative sculptures from original temples and monumental plaques commemorating the coronation of a great ruler or the completion of a major public aqueduct.

In the heart of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs built a great temple district containing more than 70 structures, dominated by the Templo Mayor, which stood at the center of the Aztec universe. The temples were symbolic mountains where the Aztecs communicated with the celestial world and offered gifts to the gods. Sacrifice—including human sacrifice—was not unique to the Aztecs, the practice was found in many Mesoamerican societies. Commoners typically sacrificed quail, rulers performed “self-sacrifice” or bloodletting, and human sacrifice—especially of enemy warriors—was seen as critical to maintaining the cosmic order.

Culture Lives On
An alliance between Spanish soldiers and thousands of rebellious indigenous peoples brought the Aztec Empire to an end, but elements of its culture lives on to this very day. The Aztecs gave the world their cuisines and medicines, and provided models of organic farming and sustainable maintenance of the environment. They inspired the great Mexican muralist movement of the 20th century and the rebirth of traditional Mexican arts.

Artifacts in this section attest to the merging of the Aztec and Spanish cultures, including a stone serpent (an iconic Aztec image) carved into a baptismal font. Also on display will be a Spanish sword and helmet, and colonial coins struck from local silver for the Spanish crown. Visitors will also discover how the Aztecs still found a way to preserve their own belief system within the Catholic system of iconography.


Ceramic Cross. This ceramic disk from the early colonial period combines Aztec and Spanish design motifs. It may represent a Christian cross placed on top of an Aztec pyramid. John Weinstein © The Field Museum