Sunday, March 13, 2011

an hour in the museum

When I decided to sign up for the Mexico City tour, two places were on the top of my list -- places I have wanted to see for years.

The National Museum of Anthropology -- and the cosmopolitan ruins of

One turned out to be everything I had hoped for.  The other was a little disappointing -- due to my health circumstances.

Let's take the good first -- and leave the not-as-good for tomorrow.

We only had about two hours to see the exhibits in the National Museum of Anthropology -- the largest anthropological museum in Mexico. 

That is an impossible task.
The museum consists of 23 rooms.   Starting with a great introduction to anthropology, a comparison of the chief Mesoamerican cultures, and a survey of Mexico's pre-history.

The succeeding rooms then take the visitor through each of Mexico's major cultures: pre-Classic, Teotihuacán, Toltec, Aztec, Oaxaca, Olmec, Maya, and the pre-conquest cultures of the north and west.  Topped off (literally) by nine rooms of contemporary Mexican culture.

It was impossible to see everything in every room during our short stay.  After seeing the place, I am convinced it would be a great place to spend a week.  Devoting a day to each culture.

But I did not have that luxury.  Rather than running from room to room like a culture vulture, I decided to pick one area for most of the brief time we were there.

And the choice was easy.  We were going to visit the ruins of Teotihuacán the next day.  So, the Teotihuacán room it was.

I already knew anthropologists have little data about the people who built and inhabited Teotihuacán.  It had long been a ruin by the time the Aztecs came on the scene. 

Culturally, the builders are an enigma.  They were cosmopolitan -- adapting other cultures to their own ends. 

And they had a similar impact on the surrounding cultures.  In a way, it reminds me of American culture -- an amalgam of the aspects of other nations, but with a disproportionate cultural impact on the rest of the world.

Like most of the other major sites in Mexico, Teotihuacán was known for its monumental buildings -- especially, the pyramids of the sun and the moon.

But there were smaller temples.  Some of them a bit more accessible to modern eyes. 

The museum has recreated one of those smaller temples, the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.  With all of its bright colors and symbolic portrayals of the gods that required regular appeasement.

The characteristic that first struck me was the use of primary colors.  Blues.  Yellows.  Reds.  Most of the pigment produced from vegetable dyes.  But they are the same colors you often see on buildings in contemporary Mexico.

The colors are there to add impact to one of the wonders of the ancient world.  The people of Teotihuacán developed amazing stone-working talents.  Almost all of the stone figures are a combination of carved stones and mosaics.

For example, the head of this serpent is carved, but the fluting is mosaic.

Or this representation of the rain god -- a mosaic of large stone pieces.  (This motif has been copied in several art deco buildings in Mexico.  In its original form, it could almost pass as art deco.)

The recreation helps the viewer to see what we have been told about these monumental buildings.  They were stunning both in color and in design.  And that is what they were designed to do -- stun their viewers.  But I think I could have passed on the dramatic Boris Karloff lighting.

But, there may be a legitimate basis for the lighting.  There is horror associated with this small temple.  When the original was excavated, the bodies of over 200 sacrificed victims were discovered at its base.  Human sacrifice is one of the constants in Mexican history. 

But Teotihuacán is far more than temples and blood.  At its height, as many as 250,000 people lived there.  Making it one of the largest cities of the ancient world.

And where there are people, there is every-day life.  The walls of some their homes can still be seen.  But the museum has evidence of those lives in the lifeblood of archaeology -- pottery.  I particularly liked this whimsical piece.

And the ever-present carved votive offerings.  This piece made me wonder if it was modeled on someone the artist knew.  The face has an individual look to it.

This piece is from one of the temples.  But it struck me as something someone's grandmother might put on her end table.  Right next to the most recent edition of National Geographic.

Visiting the museum helped orient my mind to what we were to see the next day -- the actual ruins of Teotihuacán.  Unfortunately, I was a bit of a ruin myself that day.

But that is a tale for tomorrow.


Kwallekno said...

The little white man looks Omec, maybe a relic brought back north by a traveler of old?

Felipe Zapata said...

Nice rundown, señor.

Don Cuevas said...

I first visited the Museo with my Spanish class, on an excursion from Cuernavaca. We spent 4 hours, which was barely enough, even though I was already overwhelmed.

The second time, a couple of years later, was with la Sra. Cuevas and a frend of ours. We spent less time because la Sra. was feeling sick. We had come by Metro, but took a fast cab back to our hotel.

Don Cuevas

sparks said...

Great fotos. When there in '99 I only had a throw away camera and if light was low I could not control the flash. Of course no flash allowed so no fotos

Steve Cotton said...

Good eye. Teotihuacán is filled with relics that look like they came from other civilizations. Archaeologists have long debated whether the pieces were trade items or actually part of the base culture.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks. This is another place I could spend a lot of time.

Steve Cotton said...

Feeling sick in Mexico City? I can empathize. But that is another post.

Steve Cotton said...

The low light was a challenge even with my camera. I am starting to think seriously of stepping up to a DSLR.

Glorv1 said...

What a great post. I felt I was there. I very much enjoyed the tour. Thank you.

lauriematherne said...

Well done. I felt too like I was there with you.

LeslieLimon said...

I really am loving your posts about your trip. Feels like I was there myself. :)

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Gloria. Words every writer likes to hear.

Steve Cotton said...

Of course, there is a lot "there" there.

Steve Cotton said...

It could have been a tour of commenters.

Rick said...

Steve, I am thoroughly enjoying your reporting - just great!

Rick said...

I still like staying low-key with a very small but good camera. That way it is always in my pocket when I need it and never dangling from me when I don't.

Steve Cotton said...

Thank you very much. I am enjoying writing about my mini-journeys.

Steve Cotton said...

And that is the tradeoff. I had a great Nikon with a swivel lens that would fit in my pocket but also had a great zoom. Its other features were not that great. My FZ35 is almost as large as a DSLR, but without all of the features of an SLR. It is almost like getting married.

Trinidad said...

It is a good thing that you were able to see all of this at the museum before heading over to the ruins of Teotihuacan. At the actual site of the ruins there weren't very many signs explaining the history of the temples and I was very disappointed I had not read up on the site before my visit.

And that little old lady you mention would be me, or at least I would probably do something like that.

Steve Cotton said...

As it turned out, I was very sick when we got to the site. If I had not done my homework, I would have missed a lot of the experience.