Featuring Mexican objects from the collections of the Peabody Museum, this bilingual exhibit tells the story of Mexico as a multicultural and geographic crossroads—one where the exchange of resources, products, and ideas among Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas before the Spanish invasion, and then with cultures around the globe—have all created a vibrant nation.
Discover more about ancient Mexico by exploring the objects in the two Ancient Mexico cases below.
Learn more about the leather Spanish colonial anquera (an extension behind a saddle that covers the horse's rump) from our conservators: see detailed images of the embroidery, the jingles, and conservation at work, and watch a time-lapse of conservators readying the anquera for display in the gallery.
Watch Song for Cesar (10:34 minutes), an exhibit video about the labor movement led by Cesar Chavez.
For more information about the United Farm Workers, please visit www.ufw.org.
Excerpts from the documentary Fighting for Our Lives appear in this video. Fighting for Our Lives is the intellectual property of the UFW and is used with permission of the United Farm Workers of America.
Ancient Mexico–Left Case
1. Blackware Effigy Duck Bottle
Valley of Mexico. 1200–900 BCE, Early Formative. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 28-1-20/C10384
The specialized craft industry of modeled ceramics with naturalistic depictions of various animals, plants, birds, and people, sometimes in spouted vessels, was transferred from south to west Mexico and highland central Mexico.
At the sites of Tlatilco, in the Valley of Mexico and Las Bocas in Puebla, bottle forms like this one became popular and were used as burial offerings. This is a fine example of a blackware effigy shaped like a duck. In later times, ducks were associated with the Wind God Quetzalcoatl, one of whose guises was a god of wind instruments like flutes, ocarinas, and the conch shell, which was his symbol.
2. Aztec Carved Stone Head
Tenochtitlán, Mexico City, 1200 CE–1521 CE, Late Postclassic. Gift of Alfred M. Tozzer, 41-17-20/13950
Stone sculptures were ubiquitous throughout the urban centers of ancient Mexico, ranging from the stately Chacmool lightning and rain god seen at the entrance of this exhibit, to comical and supernatural representations of animals, and funerary and portrait masks of important gods, heroes, and rulers. The Valley of Mexico Aztecs of the fifteenth century CE excelled at stone sculpture. They created some of the most realistic examples that have survived in the archaeological record of ancient Mexico.
This carved stone head is a “warts and all” representation of someone from the Aztec capital of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the proverbial “face that only a mother could love.” It represents one of the last examples of true portraiture in ancient Mexican stone art, which began with the “Colossal Heads”, ruler portraits of the enigmatic Olmec “rubber people” of the Gulf Coast of Mexico, made nearly 3,000 years before this head was carved by an Aztec sculptor.
3. Teotihuacán-Style Tripod Vase
Tiquisate, Escuintla, Guatemala. Classic period 200–600 CE. Museum Purchase, 50-4-20/17570
Just northeast of the modern metropolis of Mexico City lies the vast urban center of Teotihuacan, known much later as the “The City of the Gods” to the Aztecs. This cosmopolitan city, which flourished from 0-600 CE, had entire neighborhoods of resident immigrants from all the major cultural regions of ancient Mexico, including the Gulf Coast, Oaxaca, Western Mexico, Northern Mexico, and the Maya region far to the east. Hundreds of thousands of trade pieces manufactured in Teotihuacán have been recovered in archaeological sites throughout Mexico, Central America, and even as far away as the great pilgrimage center of Chavín de Huantar, Peru. They are evidence that merchants from Teotihuacan spread not only objects, but ideas about social hierarchy, wealth, and religion throughout the region.
This vessel was collected in Guatemala, hundreds of miles away from Teotihuacan. It is a local copy of the most famous and sought-after form of pottery from Teotihuacan, the “cylindrical slab-footed tripod vessel”. The starfish element incised on this example was very popular in Teotihuacán art, incorporated into a variety of pieces including painted murals, obsidian objects, and ceramic vessels.
Such vessels were portable ritual objects that represented a miniature version of a Teotihuacán temple complex. The tripod form is thought to be mythologically significant and is often found in the most sacred early temple complexes. In both the Maya area and in Teotihuacán, for instance, a “Three Temple Compound” is found at the heart of each residential “apartment compound.” In this way, such vessels were a vehicle by which one could partake of the power and glory of Mexico’s first imperial capital.
Originally, these vessels were most likely used to serve ritual drinks, such as frothy cacao, and topped with a lid to protect the contents from flies. The lids, which most often bear the same design as the vessel, are typically more prone to breakage than the pots themselves and are therefore harder to find at an archaeological site.
4. Prismatic Obsidian Blades
Central Mexico. Age Unknown. Museum Purchase, 79-32-20/18731
Sierra Las Navajas, known to archaeologists as “the Pachuca obsidian source,” has been a major source of obsidian to Mesoamerican societies for more than 3000 years. Its fine green obsidian is unique to Central America and was an important commodity in the “international” economy of the Teotihuacan empire, forming the economic backbone of the major sociopolitical centers of Classic period Teotihuacán, epi-Classic Toltec Tula, and Aztec Tenochtitlán. It has been identified in sites throughout Mexico and even into Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.
These green obsidian Pachuca blades are third series, or late-stage, pressure blades. The smaller one shows light use wear on the edges, and the larger one, which retains a curved tip, was probably never used.
5. Long Obsidian Blade
Oaxaca. Age Unknown. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 28-1-20/C10405
Obsidian was widely used across ancient Mexico, tapped from numerous sources throughout the region. The color of this knife’s edges suggests it is made of green obsidian from the city of Pachuca in central Mexico. Its shape resembles knives made at Teotihuacan during the Classic period, which were typically sharpened on both sides. These blades, however, lack the finely rippled edges made by chipping away obsidian at an angle parallel to the blade, a style typical of the region. It remains unknown whether this step in fabrication was missed intentionally or not.
6. Cylindrical Puebla-Tlaxaca Vessel
Puebla, possibly Cholula. 1350–1521 CE, Late Postclassic. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 01-43-20/C3035
In highland Mexico, a lively palette of colors was used to decorate ceramics from the beginning of the Current Era onward. They were painted in the “Mixteca-Puebla” international style, an approach commonly used in murals and books made of painted bark-paper or deerskin.
Polychrome ceramics like this were made in workshops near the great city of Cholula in what is now Puebla, Mexico, and were the most highly valued serving vessels in all the land when the Aztec “Triple Alliance” Empire was at its height from 1428-1521 CE. According to the eyewitness account of Spanish foot soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo, the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma would only permit his feast of one hundred dishes to be served on Cholula ware.
7. Shell Nose Plug
Location and age unknown. Gift of Charles P. Bowditch, 04-24-20/C3745
In ancient Mexico, the upper echelons of society distinguished themselves by their use of high-quality greenstones (see String of Greenstone Beads, Object 12, case right), shell bracelets and anklets (see Carved Spiny Oyster Shell Bracelet, Object 8, case left), and in rare cases, labrets, and nose plugs.
This nose plug is made from what was considered the finest shell material, embellished with a “coffee bean” design popular on many cylindrical slab-footed tripod vessels from Teotihuacan (see Teotihuacán-Style Tripod Vase, Object 3, case left). The two drilled holes on the item were threaded with string and attached to the wearer’s septum.
8. Carved Spiny Oyster Shell Bracelet
Placeres del Oro, Guerrero. Age Unknown. Gift of Clarence L. Hay, 11-39-20/C5746
Shells were highly prized among all the peoples and cultures of ancient Mexico, whether coastal or inland. A wide variety of them and other marine animals found their way into the temple offerings of cultures from northern Mexico through Central America. The spiny oyster, Spondylus sp., was a particular favorite, prized for the feat required to obtain it from its deep ocean environment.
This bracelet is from the important Guerrero site of Placeres del Oro, a locale that is believed to have engaged in commerce with South America where many of the population of Spondylus bivalves were exploited. It is carved from the shell of Spondylus princeps, a large, pink-hued species. Its incised designs include a person and some symbolic signs less easily understood. Some scholars, however, have described these as a depiction of four monkeys in profile. What do you see?
9. Polychrome Bowl with Geometric Designs
Casas Grandes, Ramos, Chihuahua. 1300–1475 CE, Middle to Late Postclassic. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 09-47-20/C5425
Northern Mexico represented one of many regions of ethnic diversity and vibrant economic and cultural exchange in the Pre-Columbian era. There was a lively polychrome ceramic tradition that features geometric designs and includes three or more colors, usually white or cream, black, orange, and/or red. Variations of the design are found from Costa Rica in the south through central Highland Mexico, western and northern Mexico, and all the way to the “Puebloan” cultures of what is now the U.S. Southwest, in the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Along with ideas and technologies of ceramic manufacture and use, the overland merchants, known as “pochteca” to the Aztecs, exchanged materials, like Southwestern turquoise, for macaws and other parrots, metal objects, and cacao, an important ingredient for a ritual drink.
This vessel from Chihuahua has two drilled holes near the rim, which were used to insert a string for easy carry. It is reminiscent in both form and size of the kinds of vessels contemporary Mexican farmers use during the planting season to carry maize seed. Its constricted neck prevents the loss of seeds while, at the same time, being large enough for the planter to insert his or her hand.
10. Gourd-like Ceramic Drinking Bottle
Tlatilco, Valley of Mexico. 1200–900 BCE, Early Formative. Exchange with Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico, 66-46-20/22995
The specialized craft industry of modeled ceramics with naturalistic depictions of various animals, plants, birds, and people, sometimes in spouted vessels, was transferred from northern South America to West Mexico and, ultimately, Highland Central Mexico.
At the site of Tlatilco, in the western Valley of Mexico, bottle forms such as this were immensely popular and were found in the burials of dozens of people there. This item is a fine example of a “skewomorph” drinking bottle, mimicking the shape of another object, in this case, a gourd found in the region.
Ancient Mexico–Right Case
1. Colima-style Effigy Figure
Colima, Mexico’s Pacific coast. 100 BCE–200 CE, Terminal Formative, early Classic. Gift of the Estate of Frances L. Hofer, 979-14-20/25544
The specialized craft industry of modeled ceramics with naturalistic depictions of various animals, plants, birds, and people, sometimes in spouted vessels, began in northern South America and was transferred to West Mexico.
This effigy represents a decorated person wearing ritual garb that includes a headband—a symbol of authority in many ancient Mexican cultures—with a prominent, single horn. In West Mexico and other parts of the world, a horn is thought to be the identifier of the “shaman,” or ritual specialist, whose job it was to heal the sick, “seat the soul” in newborn infants, and divine the future for both the individual and the world around them.
2. Drinking Vessel from New Mexico
Site Bc. 51, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, U.S.. 900–1100 CE, Puebo II, Early Postclassic. Exchange with the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 39-79-10/18675
Northern Mexico represented one of many regions of ethnic diversity and vibrant economic and cultural exchange in the Pre-Columbian era. The exchanges that took place throughout the region are present today in the great towns of Chaco Canyon, which have architectural features reminiscent of the great ancient cities in Mexico, including the contemporary Toltec capital of Tula (850–1110 CE), which is nearly 1,500 miles away.
This “beer mug” drinking vessel from New Mexico reflects the lively commerce that traversed northern Mexico all the way to the “Puebloan” cultures of what is now the U.S. Southwest—the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Along with ideas and technologies of ceramic manufacture and use, the overland merchants, known as “pochteca” to the Aztecs, exchanged materials like Southwestern turquoise for macaws and other parrots, copper bells and cacao, used for making a highly prized ritual drink of “frothy fermented cacao.” Residues of Theobroma cacao sp. from the town of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, were found in other ceramic mugs like this one in the Peabody collections.
3. Plumbate Ware Tripod Jar
Copán, Honduras. 850–1050 CE, Early Postclassic. Peabody Museum Expedition, M. H. Saville and J. G. Owens, Directors, 1891-1892, 92-49-20/C276
During the Toltec empire, in the years following the heyday of Teotihuacan, from 850-1050 CE the trade ware known as “Plumbate” was found from northern Mexico to lower Central America. Early archaeologists mistook its shiny surface for a lead “plumb” glaze, but scientific archaeologist Anna Shepard discovered that it was simply the result of an extraordinary quality inherent in the clay source of Chiapas, Mexico. Every work of this fine ceramic art, including this effigy vessel with an eagle warrior, was made near the source of the clay in eastern Chiapas, and then traded far and wide. This example comes from an Early Postclassic tomb in the Maya city of Copán, Honduras.
4. Colima-Style Armadillo Effigy Vessel
Colima, Mexico’s Pacific coast. 100 BCE–200 CE, Terminal Formative, early Classic. Gift of the Estate of Frances L. Hofer, 979-14-20/25542
Showing stylistic similarities with ceramics that originated in northern South America, this vessel, which was used to store ritual drinks, presents the effigy of an armadillo.
The industry of modeled ceramics with naturalistic depictions of various animals, plants, birds, and people, sometimes in spouted vessels, began in northern South America and was transferred to West Mexico by sea-faring traders.
5. Spiral Obsidian Bead
Chichén Itzá, Yucatán. Late Postclassic. Peabody Museum Expedition, E. H. Thompson, Director, 1904-1907, 07-7-20/C5035.1
Obsidian, or volcanic glass, is found throughout Mexico in colors ranging from nearly transparent to frosted and striped grey, green, brown, and deep black. People often fashioned it into objects used in daily life, like household cutting implements, as well as more elaborate projectile points (see Obsidian Stemmed Dart Point, Object 6, case right) and knives. With the advent of more specialized craft production, highly skilled artisans were able to produce more regular and sharp cutting implements in the form of prismatic bladelets (see Prismatic Obsidian Blades, Object 4, case left). Others took their craft further, creating amazing works, like earflares (see Green Obsidian Earspool, Object 7, case right) and this spiral bead, using this highly fragile material.
This bead was originally produced in a highly specialized workshop in the Valley of Mexico, and subsequently transported on pilgrimage to Chichen Itzá. There, it was thrown into a sacred well, or cenote, where the Maya rain god Chac resided. Hundreds of objects like this from all over Mesoamerica, as far away as Costa Rica and Panama, were retrieved from offerings found at the bottom of this cenote.
6. Obsidian Stemmed Dart Point
Teotihuacán, Valley of Mexico. Classic. Gift of the International School of Archaeology of Mexico, 35-106-20/13389
Obsidian, or volcanic glass, is found throughout Mexico in colors ranging from nearly transparent to frosted and striped grey, green, brown, and deep black. People often fashioned the material into objects used in daily life, like household cutting implements, as well as more elaborate knives and projectile points like this dart point.
The stem at the bottom of the point was used to attach it to a lance. Similar, smaller points made from bladelets were attached to arrow shafts while larger points would have been attached to smaller shafts to be used as kitchen knives. Following the advent of polyhedral bladelets (see Prismatic Obsidian Blades, Object 4, case left), which were vastly sharper as cutting implements for household uses, points like these were exclusively used in warfare.
7. Green Obsidian Earspool
Guerrero. Postclassic. Gift of Frederick O. Thompson, 36-79-20/4562
Obsidian, or volcanic glass, is found throughout Mexico in colors ranging from nearly transparent to frosted and striped grey, green, brown, and deep black. People often fashioned the material into objects used in daily life, like household cutting implements, as well as more elaborate knives and projectile points (see Obsidian Stemmed Dart Point, Object 6, case right). However, with the advent of more specialized craft production, highly skilled artisans could produce more regular and sharp cutting implements in the form of prismatic bladelets (see Prismatic Obsidian Blades, Object 4, case left). Others took their craft further still, creating amazing works out of the highly fragile material, such as spiral beads (see Spiral Obsidian Bead, Object 5, case left).
This extraordinary earflare was fashioned laboriously over a long period of time from precious Pachuca green obsidian found northeast of modern Mexico City. It was likely produced in a highly specialized workshop around Teotihuacan and subsequently traded to a site in the southern state of Guerrero, where it was recovered.
8. Obsidian Mirror
Michoacán. Late Postclassic. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 31-41-20/C13569
Mirrors were powerful portals to the supernatural “Otherworld” of the gods, ancestors, and forces of nature. They are found far and wide throughout Mesoamerica and were sources of great power and, potentially, great danger. In Olmec times, mirrors were fashioned from iron ore, or ilmenite, deposits in the Valley of Oaxaca, but later on, they were made from obsidian, like the mirror on display.
Many Highland Central Mexican people, including the Aztecs, referred to their Creator of the First Sun as Tezcatlipoca, which means “Smoking Mirror” because that is what he had in lieu of a left foot. He was a Jaguar God, and the jaguar itself symbolized the night sky with its spots representing the stars. One of the most powerful omens that foretold the invasion of the Spanish was when Moctezuma saw foreboding things in an obsidian mirror only weeks before the arrival of Cortes and his men.
9. Carved Serpentine Funerary Mask
Guerrero. Classic, Museum Purchase. Mary L. Ware subscription, 03-24-20/C3506
Many regions of ancient Mexico developed their own distinctive styles in their artistic traditions. Everyday material culture items such as ceramics and other more perishable materials like textiles only rarely survive archaeologically. In the southern state of Guerrero, some of the most distinctive non-perishable artifacts are stone masks called “Mezcala,” named for the area in the Upper Balsas River where they were manufactured. Abstract in style, these objects and others, such as miniature, portable stone house models, were made by people in that area from the Olmec’s time of 700 BCE through at least the fall of Teotihuacan ca. 600 CE.
This object is a funerary mask, a type of object widely used throughout Mesoamerica including Teotihuacan. At the Maya site of Palenque, the ruler Janaab Pakal was buried with a very realistic jade mosaic portrait mask. The later Aztecs also portrayed “mummy bundles” of the royal ancestors, placing funerary masks on the mummies’ heads.
10. Carved Stone Hacha
Veracruz. 500–700 CE, Classic. Gift of Ann (‘67) and Robert Walzer, 2009.2.1
Veracruz had a very rich tradition in stone sculpture during Pre-hispanic times, from the Olmecs ca. 1200 BCE to the Late Postclassic at the time of European arrival. During the Classic and Epiclassic periods, no theme inspired Veracruz stone sculptors more than the ballgame and its associated objects. Ballplayers in many parts of ancient Mexico are shown wearing yokes, U-shaped stone objects worn around the waist that resemble Western cattle yokes, palmas, carved, irregular-shaped objects that dangled from the yokes, and hachas or axe-heads, wedge-shaped objects suspended from the yokes that resembled axe-heads.
This is a particularly fine example of a hacha with a profile view of a prominent player or ruler, which occasionally played ball themselves, sporting a crested bird symbol above the head. The bird may very well be the name of the figure depicted, and the chinstrap at the bottom indicates that this was a helmet worn during the game. The colossal head portraits of Olmec rulers often wore such helmets, each distinct from the others.
Hachas are often carved with the image of human skulls, "trophy heads" of important warriors vanquished by the protagonists in battle. This sculpture may, in fact, represent the head of a conquered warrior, and would have been worn dangling from the belt of the winning player.
11. Zapotec Ceramic Effigy Vessel
Monte Albán III B, Oaxaca. 500–700 CE, Late Classic. Exchange with Davenport Public Museum, 64-38-20/22832
The Zapotec of Monte Albán, Oaxaca, believed that deceased elite ancestors had the power to intercede on behalf of the living to influence sacred supernatural forces such as lightning, earthquakes, wind, and fire. Large ceramic effigy vessels like these, found in royal tombs, depict individuals in the ritual act of impersonating supernatural forces. The man seated cross-legged here is dressed up as Lightning, or Cociyo, the most powerful supernatural force in the Zapotec cosmos. He was able to break open the clouds to bring rain and thus ensure the growth of corn and a bountiful harvest. His elaborate headdress displays a decorative motif associated with water, called “Glyph C” by archaeologists, and his face is covered by a mask with curling eyebrows and fangs, both attributes associated with Cociyo. His jewelry and clothing mark his high status—the prominent earflares (similar to the Green Obsidian Earspool, Object 7, case right) and beaded necklace (similar to String of Greenstone Beads, Object 13, case Right) would likely have been made of precious greenstone, and the cape over his shoulders of rare feathers. Symbols of water and young corn cascade from his earflares, further reinforcing this ancestor’s powerful influence over sustenance. Offerings such as blood or incense may have been placed in the small vessel between his hands, echoing the later Chacmools (see Chacmool at exhibit entrance) who also hold vessels for offerings between their hands.
The Zapotecs living at Monte Albán and its surrounding territories had diplomatic relations with their distant neighbors at Teotihuacan, which was located about 300 miles to the north of the Valley of Oaxaca. Not only were they trading partners—many of the iron ores used to make mirrors found throughout Mexico come from Oaxaca—but Oaxacan merchants lived at the city of Teotihuacan in the so-called “Oaxaca barrio.” A funerary urn of an individual also dressed as Cociyo was found in the Oaxaca barrio, which may mean some of the Oaxacan immigrants to Teotihuacan were of noble birth. No “Teotihuacan barrio” has ever been found at Monte Albán, but vessels like the Teotihuacan-style tripod vase (see Teotihuacán-Style Tripod Vase, Object 3, case left) have been found in elite areas of Monte Albán, likely gifts between noble families.
12. String of Greenstone Beads
Location and age unknown. Museum Purchase, Huntington Frothingham Wolcott Fund, 28-1-20/C10528.1
“Precious greenstones”, or chalchihuitl, like this strong of greenstone beads, had powerful symbolic and economic value in ancient Mexico. Such beads were so highly valued that they represented a form of currency for barter and exchange. They are found widely beginning in Olmec times ca. 1200 BCE, all the way up to European contact in 1519, when Cortes and his men received gifts from nobles upon landing on the coast of Veracruz. The hardest, most precious of these stones came from a large vein of jadeite found only in the Motagua River Valley in eastern Guatemala. They were harvested using only sand, water, string for cutting, and hard manual labor. Harvesting it this way was a process that could take days to months.
Greenstones symbolized all that was precious: water, vegetation, maize in particular, and life itself. In Aztec times, children were referred to as ‘precious necklaces’, in part because they were affectionately held close to the chest and neck by their caretakers. Upon death, a greenstone bead was placed in the mouth of the deceased during the burial ceremony so that the relative would never want for food through all eternity. Royal tombs bear only the highest quality jadeite objects while lesser quality greenstones are more commonly found in households and human burials of people farther down the social ladder.