January 22nd, 2010


Moctezuma exhibition at the British Museum

Yesterday J took a day off work & we went out on an Adventure!

We've recently signed up as members of the British Museum, with the intention of going to more of the stuff that is on there. And the Moctezuma exhibition is finishing on Sunday, so we needed to go NOW if we were to go at all. Didn't get up much later than usual for a weekday (well 8 instead of 7, but that's not a real lie in), and after the normal morning internet-related distractions we got in the car & headed off to London. It was an uneventful drive in, and we got to Cockfosters at lunchtime - conveniently as it meant we could get toasted sandwiches and coffee at the cafe there (mmmm, bacon & cheese) to consume on the tube into central London.

Once at the museum we headed straight for the exhibition, we weren't sure quite how the free fast track entry for members would work (particularly as our cards haven't arrived yet) so wanted to make sure we had plenty of time if we had to wait about first. But we just got to walk straight in, so that was cool. The exhibition was at least as crowded as the Babylon one we went to last year, possibly even more so, and full of the same types of people - those who stand in the damn way! To be fair, hard to do otherwise, but the three old dears I got stuck behind for a while who were discussing their fathers' experiences in WWII were ... particularly annoying. Pay attention to the Aztecs, people, Aztecs!

However, unlike the Babylon exhibition, this one had the sort of focus I was hoping for - more history less myth. Moctezuma (known as Moctezuma the Younger) was the leader of the Mexica (the Aztec people's name for themselves) at the time when Cortez & his Spanish army showed up. So we started with a bit of scene setting for the Mexica - their creation myth, their history (briefly) from ~1300 through to Moctezuma becoming ruler in 1502. Then they showed us about life in the Mexica culture - including war & religion which seemed fairly intertwined, as they went to war to get captives to sacrifice to feed the sun and also war was divinely ordained and a sacred duty. Even tho human sacrifice was mentioned where appropriate it wasn't focused upon in the exhibition (yes, all I knew about the Aztecs before could probably be summed up as 'cut the hearts out of sacrificial victims and were conquered by the Spanish'). One of the festivals that was explained was their New Fire festival - every 52 years the calendar had completed a cycle & all fires were extinguished. Then the priests sacrificed someone & lit a new fire in this person's chest cavity which was taken round to all parts of the empire to relight the fires. Gruesome in parts, but rather neat in others. Bit like the Aztecs ;) Then there was a section on the arrival of the Spanish & how Moctezuma first greeted them with open arms, practically, believing them to be a returning god/hero that was prophesied. But then it all went to pot in the way it would be expected to - the Mexica were eventually conquered in 1521 and turned into New Spain. Tenochtitlan was turned into Mexico City. Moctezuma died in controversial circumstances - was he stoned by his own people who thought he was a collaborator? or did the Spanish kill him once he wasn't useful any more?

The Mexica artifacts they had on display were awesome - the artwork style for the stone stuff was very solid and very physical, like stone eagle basins with great powerfully carved feathers. Other things were more delicate & often more macabre at the same time - like the 'mask' (designed to be worn at the waist by a priest or deity impersonator) which was made by gluing mosaic pieces onto a human skull. Lots of blue mosaic work - some of my favourite things were of this sort, like the mask the exhibition used on its poster/book covers, and a fantastic double-headed serpent. The visual style was totally different to other stuff we've seen, very death obsessed with skulls and hearts a recurring motif and stylised in ways that look odd to Western eyes - I couldn't pick out the head on a representation of the earth goddess, but that was because her mouth was open to horizontal with teeth pointing to the sky so she could drink the sacrificial blood (see, death obsessed). I was also very interested to see a Mexica "sword" - basically a wooden cricket bat shape with razor sharp blades of obsidian down the sides. That'd do you a nasty damage if you were dressed as the Mexica were for war, but displayed next to some Spanish armour it was clear how they were outclassed and outgunned.

Such a shame the culture was cut off as it was just beginning to really get some traction, tho - the Spanish crushed it at a time where it was expanding. None of the written records from before the conquest survive, all that's left are the artifacts and things written after the fact - propaganda from both sides, often in Mexica style, whether Spanish or Mexica. There was a great (western style) painting from 200 years after the conquest "celebrating" it and making sure the story told was of the "inevitable" Spanish rule.

After all this death & destruction we took a break and met Pete for a coffee near the BM. It's been a while since we saw him & I think last time was at A&P's wedding where there wasn't really the time to talk as Pete was doing the photos. Good to catch up a bit, and as he works near enough to the BM to get there for coffee maybe we'll manage to do that more often :)

Then! Back to the museum! Well, you didn't think we'd go away without looking at anything Egyptian, did you? We looked at a selection of papyri in one of the mummy rooms, that neither of us remembered seeing before - several scenes from the different texts used at different times in burials. Including the scene (of the judgement of the heart) that we bought a copy of while we were in Egypt and now have hanging on our bedroom wall. Nice to see the actual original! And we had a look at some of the very early stuff too - J's been reading about Abydos, so we looked at some of the objects found in pre- and early dynastic burials there. Including some really delicately carved labels that are 5000 years old and show some of the motifs that recur through all Egyptian monumental art - the smiting of enemies, for instance.

And we had a quick trot through the European galleries as they were between us & where we were going - just a few brief stops to look at instruments of pointy death! Bronze age swords look particularly sharp and deadly. And the last stop in the museum was to look at the Staffordshire Hoard - which was a massive cache of Saxon gold discovered only last year. The pieces displayed in the BM aren't even cleaned up properly yet, and nothing is really known about it, whose it was, why it was there. Very interesting to see archaeology in the making :)

This time before we came into London we'd noted down the location of the Wagamama's near the BM, as we have lost it the last few times we've been in. Not sure how we'd failed to find it to be honest, I'm sure we'd even stood at the end of the (short) street it's on and looked down it but failed to spot it. Anyway, we successfully went for dinner there, and had much noodly goodness :D The equivalent place we have in Ipswich just isn't as good.

And then we had to make the long trek home, getting in about half ten feeling a bit fried. But a good day overall, and an excellent Adventure :)