Chapultepec Park’s outstanding attraction – for many people the main justification for visiting the city at all – is the Museo Nacional de Antropología, one of the world’s great museums, not only for its collection, which is vast, rich and diverse, but also for the originality and practicality of its design. Opened in 1964, the exhibition halls surround a patio with a small pond and a vast, square concrete umbrella supported by a single slender pillar around which splashes an artificial cascade. The halls are ringed by gardens, many of which contain outdoor exhibits.
The entrance from Reforma is marked by a colossal statue of the rain god Tlaloc – the story goes that its move here from its original home in the east of the city was accompanied by furious downpours in the midst of a drought. Just east of the museum is a large open plaza, at one end of which is a small clearing pierced by a 20m pole from which voladores “fly”. This Totonac ceremony is performed several times a day, and loses a lot of its appeal through its commercial nature – an assistant canvasses the crowd for donations as they perform – but it is still an impressive spectacle.
The Pre-Classic room covers the development of the first cultures in the Valley of México and surrounding highlands – pottery and clay figurines from these early agricultural communities predominate. Notice especially the small female figures dated 1700–1300 BC from Tlatilco (a site in the suburbs), which are probably related to some form of fertility or harvest rites. The influence of the growing Olmec culture begins to be seen in later artefacts, including the amazing acrobat vase, also from Tlatilco. With the development of more formal religion, recognizable images of gods also appear: several of these, from Cuicuilco in the south of the city, depict Huehueteotl, the old god or god of fire, as an old man with flames on his back.
The next hall is devoted to Teotihuacán, the first great city in the Valley of México. A growing sophistication is immediately apparent in the more elaborate nature of the pottery vessels and the use of new materials, shells, stone and jewels. There’s a full-scale reproduction of part of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacán, brightly polychromatic as it would originally have been. It contains the remains of nine sacrificial victims dressed as warriors, complete with their funerary necklaces: a relatively recent confirmation of human sacrifice and militarism at Teotihuacán. Nearby is a reconstruction of the inside courtyard and central temple of an apartment complex bedecked in vibrant murals representing ritual life in the city, including El Paraíso de Tlaloc, a depiction of the heaven reserved for warriors and ball-players who died in action.
The Toltec room begins with reproductions of vibrant red and blue murals from Cacaxtla near Tlaxcala and then objects from Xochicalco, a city near modern Cuernavaca, which flourished between the fall of Teotihuacán and the heyday of Tula. The large stone carvings and pottery show a distinct Maya influence: particularly lovely is the stylized stone head of a macaw, similar to ones found on Maya ball-courts in Honduras. Highlights of the section devoted to Tula are the weighty stone carvings, including one of the Atlantean columns from the main temple there, representing a warrior. Also of note are the Chac-mool, a reclining figure with a receptacle on his stomach in which sacrificial offerings were placed, and high up, above a large frieze, the standard bearer, a small human figure that acted as a flagpole when a standard was inserted into the hole between its clasped hands. Overlooking some human remains, there’s an exquisite little mother-of-pearl-encrusted sculpture of a coyote’s head with teeth made of bone and a bearded man (possibly a warrior in a headdress) emerging from its mouth.
Next comes the biggest and richest room of all, the Mexica Gallery, characterized by massive yet intricate stone sculpture, but also displaying pottery, small stone objects, even wooden musical instruments. Facing you as you enter is the Ocelotl-Cuauhxicalli, a jaguar with a hollow in its back in which the hearts of human sacrifices were placed (it may have been the companion of the eagle in the Templo Mayor museum; the two were found very close to each other, though over eighty years apart). Among the hundreds of other powerful pieces – most of the vast Aztec pantheon is represented – snakes, eagles and human hearts and skulls are prominent. Among the statues is a vast image of Coatlicue, goddess of the earth, life and death, and mother of the gods. She is shown with two serpents above her shoulders, representing the flow of blood; her necklace of hands and hearts and pendant of a skull represent life and death respectively; her dress is made of snakes; her feet are eagles’ claws. As a counterpoint to the viciousness of most of this, be sure to notice Xochipilli, the god of love, flowers, dance and poetry. You’ll come across him, wearing a mask and sitting cross-legged on a throne strewn with flowers and butterflies, in the section to the left of the entrance as you come in. Also impressive is a reconstructed version of Moctezuma’s headdress, resplendent in bright blue quetzal feathers, and a gold bar lost by one of Cortés’s troops during their attempted escape on “Noche Triste”.
The room’s undoubted highlight, directly opposite the entrance, is the enormous 24-tonne Piedra del Sol, the Stone of the Sun or Aztec Calendar Stone. The latter, popular name is not strictly accurate, for this is much more a vision of the Aztec cosmos, completed under Moctezuma only a few years before the Spanish arrived. The stone was found by early colonists, and deliberately reburied for fear that it would spread unrest among the population. After being dug up again in the Zócalo in 1790, it spent years propped up against the walls of the cathedral. In the centre is the sun god and personification of the fifth sun, Tonatiuh, with a tongue in the form of a sacrificial knife and claws holding human hearts on each side, representing the need for human sacrifice to nourish the sun; around him are symbols for the four previous incarnations of the sun – a jaguar, wind, water and fiery rain; this whole central conglomeration forms the sign for the date on which the fifth world would end (as indeed, with the Spanish Conquest, it fairly accurately did). Encircling all this are hieroglyphs representing the twenty days of the Aztec month and other symbols of cosmic importance, and the whole thing is surrounded by two serpents.
Moving round to the third side of the museum you reach the halls devoted to cultures based away from the highlands, starting, in the corner of the museum, with the Zapotec and Mixtec people of Oaxaca. Although the two cultures evolved side by side, the Zapotecs flourished earlier (from around 900 BC to 800 AD) as accomplished architects with an advanced scientific knowledge, and also as makers of magnificent pottery with a pronounced Olmec influence. From around 800 AD many of their sites were taken over by the Mixtecs, whose overriding talents were as craftsmen and artists, working in metal, precious stone and clay. The best site in the country for both these cultures is Monte Albán.
The Zapotec collection demonstrates a fine sense of movement in the human figures: a reproduction of part of the carved facade of the Temple of the Dancers at Monte Albán; a model of a temple with a parrot sitting in it (in the “Monte Albán II” section); vases and urns in the form of various gods; and a superb jade mask representing the bat god Piquete Ziña.
Gulf of Mexico
Next is the Gulf of Mexico room, in which are displayed some of the treasures of Olmec art as well as objects produced in this region during the Classic period. The Olmec civilization is considered the mother culture of Mexico for its advanced development as early as 1500 BC, which provided much of the basis for the later Teotihuacán and Maya cultures. Olmec figures are delightful, but have many puzzling aspects, in particular their apparently African features, nowhere better displayed than in some of the famed colossal heads dating from 1200–200 BC, long before Africa is supposed to have had any connection with the Americas. Many of the smaller pieces show evidence of deliberate deformation of the skull and teeth. The statue known as “the wrestler” (though labelled in Spanish only as “hombre barbado”), with arms akimbo as if at the point of starting a bout, and the many tiny objects in jade and other polished stones are all outstanding. The later cultures are substantially represented, with fine figures and excellent pottery above all. The two most celebrated pieces are a statue of Huehueteotl (though labelled only as a “dios viejo”) looking thoroughly grouchy with a brazier perched on his head, and the so-called Huastec Adolescent, a young Huastec Indian priest of Quetzalcoatl (perhaps the god himself) with an elaborately decorated naked body and a child on his back.
The hall devoted to the Maya is the most varied, reflecting the longest-lived and widest-spread of the Mesoamerican cultures. In some ways it’s a disappointment, since their greatest achievements were in architecture and in the decoration of their temples – many of which, unlike those of the Aztecs, are still standing – so that the objects here seem relatively unimpressive. Nevertheless, there are reproductions of several buildings, or parts of them, friezes and columns taken from them and extensive collections of jewellery, pottery and minor sculpture. Steps lead down into a section devoted to burial practices, including a reproduction of the Royal Tomb at Palenque with many of the objects found there – notably the prince’s jade death mask.
Temple of Paintings
Outside, a trio of small temples from relatively obscure sites are reproduced, the Temple of Paintings from Bonampak among them. The three rooms of the temple are entirely covered in frescoes representing the coronation of a new prince, a great battle and the subsequent punishments and celebrations. They are much easier to visit than the originals and in far better condition.
Northern and western societies
As a finale to the archeological collections on the ground floor, there’s a large room devoted to the north and the west of the country. Northern societies on the whole developed few large centres, remaining isolated nomadic or agricultural communities. The small quantities of pottery, weapons and jewellery that have survived show a close affinity with native peoples of the southwestern USA. The west was far more developed, but it, too, has left relatively few traces, and many of the best examples of Tarascan culture remain in Guadalajara. Among the highlights here are some delightful small human and animal figurines in stone and clay, a Tarascan Chac-mool, a jade mask of Malinaltepec inlaid with a turquoise and red-shell mosaic and a two-storey reconstruction of the houses at Paquimé in the Chihuahua desert.
The Ethnography Section
The Ethnography Section is on the upper floor. You must cross the courtyard back towards the beginning of the museum before climbing the stairs – otherwise you’ll go round in reverse order. The rooms relate as closely as possible to those below them, showing the lifestyle of surviving indigenous groups today through photographs, models, maps and examples of local crafts. Regional dress and reproductions of various types of huts and cabins form a major part of this inevitably rather sanitized look at the poorest (and most oppressed) people in Mexico, and there are also objects relating to their more important cults and ceremonies.