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From Commoners To Kings

Professor Elizabeth Brumfiel curated a Field Museum exhibit on the Aztecs that reveals the everyday lives of the men and women who built a great empire in Mexico.

by Elizabeth Henley (WCAS09)

Video: The Aztec World — Elizabeth Brumfiel, professor of anthropology at Northwestern, provides an introduction to The Aztec World, a new exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago. Brumfiel served as lead curator for the exhibit that will be displayed at the museum until April 19. See more videos from Northwestern News.

In her role as lead curator of The Aztec World exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago, anthropology professor Elizabeth Brumfiel quickly learned that "Americans seem to be obsessed with empires."

Every time an ad agency or web designer got involved in the exhibit before it opened last October, Brumfiel and fellow Chicago curator Gary Feinman of the Field Museum witnessed excitement about imperial elites such as priests and warriors but disinterest in the diversity of Aztec society within the empire itself.

Responding to Americans' fondness for empires while keeping the focus on the lifestyles of the farmers, artisans, merchants and women of Aztec society, the museum team invented the slogan "farmers that fed an empire."

"I was a little surprised at the outset by how easily things could fall back into the warriors' and elites' points of view," says Brumfiel, a specialist in the archaeology of Aztec civilization who has conducted excavations in Xaltocan, near Mexico City, for the past 20 years.

Sought out by the Field Museum for her expertise in the common people of Aztec society, Brumfiel was the ideal curator for an exhibit requiring extensive, in-depth knowledge of the everyday aspects of the Aztec empire.

"Thanks to her, we now have rich information about the rural provinces that fell under the control of the great urban concentrations [of the Aztec empire]," says Leonardo López Luján, senior researcher at the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City and one of the exhibit's Mexican curators.

Brumfiel helped to assemble the 300 artifacts that showcase the multifaceted aspects of Aztec civilization. The binational curatorial team traveled to museums throughout the United States and Mexico, scouring their collections in search of artifacts that could be sent to the Field Museum and would fit the exhibit's emphasis on the lives of everyday people in Aztec society. The exhibit features items from 29 different institutions, including about 200 pieces from 15 museums in Mexico.

In addition to López Luján, other key players in the search were curators Felipe Solís of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City and Juan Alberto Román Berrelleza, also of the Templo Mayor Museum.

The curators from Mexico City "really knew about objects not attached to national museums that regional museums in Mexico had," explains Brumfiel, which was helpful because "outsiders don't have contact with regional museums."

Just as the exhibit's artifacts clarify the everyday lives of those who lived in the Aztec empire, the exhibit's design also reflects the idea that not everyone in Aztec society was an elite.

"The design of the exhibit, a walk from the rural outskirts of Tenochtitlán [site of modern-day Mexico City] to the sacred center, serves the theme of diversity very well and gives coherence to the visitors' experience," says Brumfiel.

It is especially important to the curators that the exhibit focuses on the diversity within Aztec lifestyles so that people can understand the Aztecs in a more complex way.

"People have a narrow, stereotyped view of Aztec culture as a bloodthirsty, weird culture," says Brumfiel. But Aztec society "fits in a wider whole that's a very rich, human, humane way of living, and I think it's that full way of living that's missing in people's perceptions."

For example, "in Aztec society, there was a lot more parallelism" of men's and women's labor responsibilities, Brumfiel says. "There were male and female priests as well as male and female merchants, and selling in the market could be done by men or women. In child rearing, for the most part, women were in charge of raising female children, and men were in charge of raising male children."

Although there were negative aspects of Aztec society, such as its coercive tribute system and human sacrifice, Brumfiel mentions many positive developments, such as sustainable agricultural systems.

One example is the ridged field system that converted uncultivable swampland into series of ditches dug to create ridges, resulting in a very fertile agricultural system. The Aztecs also developed a system of hillside terraces by building walls across the slopes of hills to catch eroding topsoil and retain moisture.

Also, the Aztecs had a sense of humor. One exhibit highlight that hints at this humor is a rabbit-shaped drinking vessel used for drinking pulque, an alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant. To the Aztecs, rabbits were innumerable, says Brumfiel, and "there were as many ways of being drunk as there were rabbits in the world. The Aztecs referred to a person's reaction to alcohol as that person's rabbit."

Brumfiel wants visitors to walk away from this exhibit with broadened perspectives about the Aztec empire. According to Mexican curator López Luján, she has succeeded. "Thanks to Dr. Brumfiel, this complex world is now revealed to us and beckons us to continue studying it, seeking new perspectives," he says.

The Aztec World, which will only be shown at the Field Museum, runs through April 19.

Elizabeth Henley is a senior anthropology, geography and international studies major from Pentwater, Mich. She spent last summer conducting fieldwork for an Undergraduate Research Grant in the town of El Oro in Nayarit, Mexico.

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Elizabeth Brumfiel
Elizabeth Brumfiel in The Aztec World exhibit at the Field Museum.Photo by Andrew Campbell
This statue depicts Mictlantecuhtli's liver falling from his chest. The Aztecs believed that a person's liver housed his passion. Mictlantecuhtli reigned over the underworld. Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.none © Michel Zabé/AZA
A depiction of Tlaloc, the god of rain. Tlaloc is always recognizable because of his fanged teeth and goggle eyes. Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.none © Michel Zabé/AZA
corn goddess
The goddess of maize holds corn cobs and is surrounded by marigolds. This brazier would have been placed inside a temple and used for incense offerings. Reproduction authorized by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia.none © Michel Zabé/AZA