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Swamps, Skulls, and Aztec-Mexica Identity

Posted On March 19, 2019 | 14:02 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Ángel González López reconstructs an empire from fragments of stone sculpture

Ángel González López, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, is a junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. His recent research report, “The Production of New Political Speech: Unpacking the Stone Sculptures Archive from Tenochtitlan,” showed how 2,387 (and counting) stone sculptures he documented reveal political goals of the Aztec-Mexica empire. 

Q&A with Ángel González López

How did you launch this ambitious documentation project, and what are your goals?

As an undergrad, I started working in the storeroom of the Templo Mayor Museum—the main temple of Tenochtitlan, which was the imperial capital of the Aztec-Mexica empire. And I found literally a mountain of stones, all fragmented. It was complete chaos.

So I started to document this collection. But then I realized that I wanted more to form a representative sample of Aztec-Mexica stone monuments than these 152 pieces. The project started as a hobby when I finished work at 3 p.m. in Mexico. Okay, I have the rest of the afternoon, what should I do? Drink a beer or go to the museum? I love museums. So I started photographing and recording information in the Templo Mayor Museum, the National Museum of Anthropology, then the next museum, and at some point I finished all the museums in Mexico City that held sculptures. I started to explore salvage archaeology in storerooms and archives. When I moved to grad school at UC Riverside, I explored Aztec-Mexica collections in California, also in Berlin, in London, in Paris—in total, 80 museums in Mexico, the Unites States, and Europe. So far I’ve documented 2,387 stone sculptures.

The Aztec-Mexica empire had a life of 91 years, but in this period the changes happened so fast and the forms that appear in stone sculpture are so different, there must be associated social changes. The final goal of my project is to establish a chronological sequence of changes in Aztec-Mexica stone sculptures, to understand how these transformations occurred in iconography and also in the imaginary. I use a constellation methodology of organizing these sculptures, with two important components: space and time. I look for the relationship between forms and how forms change over time. 


How does the constellation methodology help you better understand Aztec-Mexica political messages and intentions?

For example, in Tenochtitlan, archaeologists have found many violent acts depicted on basalt—human sacrifices, human skulls, decapitation. The most common image in stone sculptures from the city is a skull. Why is this form ubiquitous among the archaeological discoveries at Tenochtitlan? To find the answer, I had to connect these figures to the broader context. Maybe three years ago, an archaeologist from Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) found hundreds and hundreds of decapitated human beings in Tenochtitlan—contemporaneous to the set of stone skulls discovered in Building B. So to me it seems the sculptures were an attempt to reproduce these sacrifices to the public, but on stone.

The intention for Aztec-Mexica sculptures—some of which were massive—was at times public display, to share certain ideas with certain people. In this sense, they are trying to create an identity, a national identity for Mexica people. 

One of the clearest examples is the promotion of agriculture. Among the first movements of the Aztec-Mexica empire was conquering the southern part of the Basin of Mexico and transforming the swamps into gardens (chinampas, small plots of cultivated land). Almost overnight, these newly-fertile lands allowing for agriculture created a considerable amount of wealth that reinforced the formation of states and class. I’m investigating the presence of sculptures of the rain god Tlāloc in the entire Basin as a response to this imperialistic agenda. Why? Because it’s a rain god, the patron of agriculture. And contemporaneously, other supernatural beings appear in sculptures for the first time in this area—for instance, the goddess of corn, Chicomecōātl. I think by analyzing this constellation of symbols, I can understand the correlation between the emergence of the Aztec-Mexica empire and the transformation of swamps into fertile lands. 


What resources have you consulted here at Dumbarton Oaks?

Dumbarton Oaks has the best library in the world. You ask, and they have everything. I need this catalogue from 1973, it’s there. If I need a rare codex, it’s there. This is an academic paradise. And the Museum has maybe one of the most beautiful serpents, one of my favorites. The green stone fire serpent, or Xiuhcōatl. That’s pure imperial—it would have required a lot of wealth and a good sculptor to commission this kind of piece. And the mask in the Museum is amazing, one of the finest Aztec-Mexica works ever.

Previous researchers focused on museum objects like these—single pieces of high aesthetic quality. But they are not abiding by what I think is the diversity of the corpus, because only half the archive of known Aztec-Mexica sculpture is published. That’s why I’m putting this project online. I think the most important thing is to share information. In this intellectual tradition, and in other fields too, specific people create knowledge, but for various reasons they share this information only with small groups. To me, that’s nonsense. My goal is to share with people interested in art, in archaeology, in history, in iconography. 


Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.