By Barbara Litwin

Anthropology Museum Mexico City


The British Museum opened a new gallery, Mexico Before the Spaniards. It is a permanent display of the Mexican treasures the British Museum has had for many years, plus some new pieces donated by Mexico and by private donors. The museography was done by Architect Teodoro González de León and it is breathtaking!

He had the walls painted blood-red and he designed a dramatic pre-Hispanic shrine for the superb pieces which somehow escaped the Spanish conquerors’ iconoclasm. The Mexican sponsors, the National Council for Culture and the Arts, the National Institute of Anthropology and History, and several very important private donors, are delighted with this new gallery.

Upon entering the gallery, to the right are Mixtec and Aztec creations in turquoise mosaic, the masks of Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent god, and the double-headed snake, which was worn on the chest or in a headdress, supposedly to take on the strength of the deity. Ahead is a larger than life coiled rattlesnake in stone. It is possible to admire the talent of the sculptor, who not only was an excellent artist, but also knew the viper very well: the snake’s forked tongue and the rattles in the tail are precise enough to illustrate a biology book.

The gallery shows the cultures of Mexico from around 2000 BC until 1521 AD. The show makes clear the differences between the west and the east coasts and the central highlands. The magnificent display, with many masterpieces and the dramatic museography, both instructs and excites the imagination.

Every piece shows the power of religion. The gods of nature reigned, helped in this world by the kings and priests who built the temples and pyramids for them and also the ball courts for ritual ball games, when the losing team had their heads cut off. As scholars know, bloodletting was a constant ritual in pre-Hispanic Mexico. A Maya relief from Yaxchilán shows King Bird Jaguar standing over a captive noble, who has shed blood as part of the consecration ritual. On other reliefs his wives pull ropes with thorns bound into them through their tongues. And Bird Jaguar, wearing a skull and serpent headdress, is about to pierce his penis with a perforator. There is a fine example of this perforator, made in jade, which were used to produce blood.

In Western Mexico, the natives seemed gentle. They made clay figurines of fat, smiling, hairless dogs to accompany the dead on the eternal walk into the underworld. The craftsmanship of these sculptures is of extraordinary beauty and finesse. The same sensitive talent is evident in a Mixtec (1200-1521) text painted on deerskin recording the history of ancient towns. A king is shown gambling for a town on the result of a ball game.

One must also notice the “Smiling Totonaca” faces. Portraits of young people, all smiling with some showing the tip of the tongue as in a mischievous gesture. One of the other magnificent pieces is the rock crystal skull, standing on a column. The detail of the sculpture reveals, again, the fine skills of the artist. A striking piece is the frightening turquoise mosaic mask of Tezcatlipoca (Smoking Mirror, one of the four Aztec creator gods). The stone pieces are fixed to a human skull: broad black and blue bands of lignite and turquoise, with white shells for teeth, and polished iron pyrites for the eyes, achieve a piece of unusual beauty. Mexicans visiting London have expressed the pride they feel, as we all do, at seeing such a magnificent display of Mexico’s ancient history in one of the most visited museums in all of the world.

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