National Museum of Anthropology

Chapultepec Park, Mexico City

No trip to Mexico City is complete without visiting the National Museum of Anthropology. In my opinion, it is the most impressive museum of the old civilisations of the New World.

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From the huge Umbrella fountain in the courtyard, to all the museum wings, there are top quality artefacts and a comprehensive array of early Mexican societies. Almost too much to absorb on a single visit.

It covers the entire evolution cycle (back to pre-Neanderthal), then to Teotihuacán, then on to the development of the Mexican culture. 

There are individual rooms for the Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecas, Mixtecas, Purépechas, Olmecs and many other cultures, that are still alive in Mexico today. There are also lovely garden spaces with replicas of famous ancient structures. The museum’s architecture also uses interesting symbolism. For example, the bronze snail in the pond in the main patio represents the way the ancient Mexicans called each other together: by rattling sea snail shells.

It is almost guaranteed that you will not manage the second floor displays, unless you come again. We spent six hours here with my husband on a winter day in 2014 and we managed only downstairs (and even then not everything), and we did not dare to have a break for a snack, yet alone a meal.


On the left there is one of the outdoor exhibits, a replica of a Maya ruin (with the Mountain Monster Witz around the door frame). Given the space in this post, I will only describe a few exhibits that I was personally taken by most. I will do so in my usual structure: the People, The Focus and Don't Miss.


The PeopLe: The Olmecs

Mexico owes everything to the Olmecs. They were the first major civilisation in Guatemala and Mexico and the forerunners of all subsequent Mesoamerican cultures (such as the Maya). The lava stone head sculptures of the Olmec Civilisation of the Gulf Coast of Mexico (1200 BC-400 BC) are amongst the most mysterious and debated artefacts from the ancient world. The Olmec religious practices of sacrifice, cave rituals, pilgrimages, god worship, jaguar worship, offerings and ball-courts were adopted and further developed by the Maya (but not 'invented' by them). The same applies to writing, astronomical knowledge, time measuring and the famous Mesoamerican calendar. Not many people are aware of that and I think not enough tribute is paid to the Olmecs. I strongly recommend visiting the Olmec room for that reason. I have also been to La Venta Museum in Villahermosa (Tabasco), to further explore this civilisation but if you are unable to go there, this room will leave its mark on you.

With Olmec head, December 2014.

With Olmec head, December 2014.

Monument in Mérida to Montejo the Elder and his son: .

Seventeen heads have been discovered to date, 10 of which are from San Lorenzo and four from La Venta. The fact that these giant sculptures depict only the head may be explained by the widely held belief in Mesoamerican culture that it was the head alone which contained the emotions, experience, and soul of an individual. They are called 'colossal' heads because they can be nearly 3m high. The physiognomy of the sculptures has caused speculation about their African origin. Others think the first people were from Asia (more specifically Indonesia) but the negroid features don't fit that theory. The debate continues and I don't think we will have a resolution soon. The subject often wears a protective helmet, which was worn in battle and during the Mesoamerican ballgame. Some scientists speculate that the colossal portraits were made in an act of remembrance following the ruler's death. Watch this space; this is the most intriguing Mesoamerican civilisation of them all and the scientists keep bringing new light on this culture….


The FOCUS: Codices of Mexico

This was my focus and you may not have a chance to see it because it was a temporary exhibition (Sept 2015-January 2016). I felt privileged to be able to see it. The exhibition celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Museum, and the codices were shown to the public for the first time (the codices are otherwise kept in the Museum Archive).

A codex (plural codices) is the technical name for an ancient book or manuscript; typically the term refers to the books of the prehispanic Mesoamerican civilisations, such as Maya, Aztec and Mixtec.


The Madrid Codex.

The Madrid Codex.

The Dresden Codex.

The Dresden Codex.


Most codices were burnt during the Spanish Conquest, but a handful survived. The most famous codices are the Madrid Codex and the Dresden Codex (named after the museums where they are kept today). They were made out of animal skins or the bark of mulberry trees, called amate (from the Nahuatl word amatl). The paper was made into long sheets folded like an accordion. Codices were painted with a range of natural pigments such as calcium carbonite for white, ochre for orange, cochineal for red, carbon for black and the so-called Maya blue was made from a mixture of palygorskite and indigo. We spent a good two hours just at this exhibition, looking at all the amazing details of the drawings. Here are a couple of examples.


Codex Cuauhtinchan, XVI century, from Puebla

This codex on amate paper is actually a map, which shows the route of the tribe groups of Colhuaques and Huexotzincas, when settling in Tepeyac (Puebla). It depicts in detail, through a trace of footprints, the battle with the lords of Cuauhtinchan. You can spot the arrows and the burnt temples, which represent the scene of the forced exodus (by the Spaniards).


 Codex of Tributes of Mizquiahuala, 1570

This codex (left image) gives an account of the goods taxed by the indigenous town hall of an Otomí population in Mizquiahuala (Hidalgo). It is organised as a calendar, arranged in thirteen sections that are read from top to bottom. The days are represented by yellow or colourless circles; Sundays are marked red with a spiral to the centre. It records the specific days on which loads of grass were to be given as tribute, along with fish, turkeys and other groceries.

By the time the Maya reached their Classic Era, they had a well-developed political system. Following the main city were a small group of vassal city-states, with lesser nobility or a relative of the Ahau in charge. After that were affiliated villages, large enough to have religious buildings and ruled by minor nobility. The fourth tier consisted of hamlets, mostly residential and devoted to agriculture.

The main sources of income for the dominant (main) city were tribute and taxation. These were paid regularly to tax collectors (called caluac in Maya kingdoms and calpixque in the Aztec empire). The tribute typically included tropical feathers, cotton fabric, copal incense, paper, foodstuffs, and animal products. Some food production was controlled locally (such as cacao) and the king received the produce from the farms worked by his own slaves. In addition, the king received presents in his role as a judge.


Don't miss: Piedra del Sol

The Aztec sunstone (sometimes wrongly referred to as the Aztec calendar stone) is another treat for the museum visitors. Shortly after the Spanish conquest it was buried in the main square of Mexico City and unearthed during the building of the Metropolitan Cathedral in 1790.

The Sun Stone, as it is called, tells us of the Fifth World, the present world, as interpreted by several groups of Mesoamericans in their creation mythology. The Fifth World was not 'invented' by the Aztecs: they were a very young civilisation (14th-16th century) so everything had already been invented before them; they just adopted the beliefs and traditions of the native Mesoamerican people that they conquered in the land of today's Mexico.

 According to this myth, there were four other eras or cycles of creation and destruction (by hurricanes or floods) that preceded the Fifth World (which is predicted to end in great earthquakes).

The Acrobat.

The Acrobat.

So what can we see in this stone? In the centre of the monolith is the face of the Fifth Sun, the solar deity Tonatiuh. The four squares that surround the central deity represent the four previous suns or eras (Four Water, Four Jaguar, Four Rain and Four Wind), which preceded the present Fifth era, the so-called Four Movements. Richard Townsend believes that the figure represents Tlaltecuhtli, the Mexican earth. Some scientists argue that the stone was used as a calendar; others maintain that it was a prediction of the end of the Fifth Era and yet others consider it a ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices. On each side of the figure there is a hand, and it is believed it is holding a human heart, a symbol of human sacrifice. The tongue is perhaps also a sacrificial knife and, sticking out, it suggests a thirst for blood and sacrifice. The human hearts could be alluding to an eclipse monster, so in essence the stone could have been a prediction of the sun eclipse. In other words, it represents the death of the sun god Tonatiuh during an eclipse, an event Aztecs believed would lead to a global apocalypse accompanied by earthquakes. The priests were responsible for charting astronomical phenomena, including the eclipse that would bring impending doom. The Aztec dependence on the sun for agriculture was accompanied by a belief that they had to feed the sun with the blood of human sacrifice to keep it alive. They honoured the sun with sacrifices every 260 days on the day named 4 Olin. If on that day the earth started to quake (in addition to the sun eclipse), it would have been the end of the world for them (the death of the sun god Tonatiuh). However, we now know that based on the Aztec calendar system, a solar eclipse would not fall on that date until the 21st century. The possibility of purposeful manipulation by the priests (to keep their power over the people) should not be ignored.

Around the centre, surrounding the Olin glyph, appear the 20 signs of the days, which when combined with 13 numerals formed a cycle of a 260-day (Tzolkin) calendar. The next ring is actually a sun disk with eight solar rays and a series of quincunx symbols with five dots (a symbol for four directions and the centre). Quincunx symbols are most often interpreted as glyphs for xihuitl, meaning both ‘turquoise’ and ‘year’. The total of 52 quincunx symbols (some hidden) suggests cyclical completion of the Calendar Round with 52 years (life expectancy). Eight additional quincunx symbols framed by cartouches positioned in between the eight solar rays could signal the connection between Venus and the year cycle and the solar year. The two heads at the bottom centre represent fire serpents, and their bodies run around the perimeter of the stone with each ending in a tail. The patterns of dots chiselled (drilled) into the edges of the stone may represent constellations known to the Aztecs.

One way or another, it is impressive to stand in front of it. For me it truly felt like going back in time and trying to understand the cosmological beliefs of the ancient Mesoamerican ancient people and what message they were trying to convey.

The Sun stone in colour. Courtesy of Flickr.

The Sun stone in colour. Courtesy of Flickr.


How to get there:

Located in the area between Paseo de la Reforma and Mahatma Gandhi Street within Chapultepec Park. Take the metro to either Chapultepec or Auditorio station and follow the signs from there.

The turibus (hop on hop off bus) will leave you at the entrance. The museum is open 9am-7pm and is closed on Mondays.


MIX and Match

If you have any time left, enjoy the Chapultepec park where the museum is located.


Milbrath, Susan (2017): Eclipse Imagery on the Aztec Calendar Stone;

National Geographic: The Dresden Codex

National Geographic: Madrid Codex