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Slice of Aztec Life Rarely Revealed Showcased in New Exhibit

October 21, 2008 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Video produced by Matt Paolelli

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A red ceramic flute with the face of the Aztec god of music and revelry attached to its end is among the artifacts found by a Northwestern University anthropologist whose research focuses on everyday life in the hinterlands of the Aztec empire.

When the flute was played, its music would have become a song flowing from the deity's mouth and the flute itself the god's body, with air moving in and out.

The flute is a great example of the largely unknown creativity and sense of humor of the subject people who lived in the provinces of an empire ordinarily known for its powerful armies, its magnificent capital and its practice of human sacrifice, according to Elizabeth Brumfiel, professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

Brumfiel has been conducting archeological excavations in the town of Xaltocan, Mexico, for the last 30 years. The excavations are the foundation of her fascinating look at the demands placed on the conquered people of a once independent, small kingdom and her path-breaking analysis of what the Aztec occupation tells us about the nature of empire.

Brumfiel's perspective will be well represented in the "The Aztec World," running from Oct. 26 to April 19, 2009, at the Field Museum.

She is the lead curator of the exhibit, which traces the rise and fall of the Aztec Empire with nearly 300 artifacts from museums across Mexico and the United States.

Originally a nomadic band, the Aztecs settled in the Valley of Mexico in 1325. In 200 years of continuous warfare, the Aztecs built an empire that stretched from central Mexico to Guatemala and included 6 million people. The Aztec capital Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish conquistadors and their Indian allies in 1521, after two years of fighting.

"If you only look at the great art, you get a very narrow slice of Aztec culture because you only see one perspective," Brumfiel says. "Aztec great art truly is great art. But it was all sponsored by the ruling class of Tenochtitlan and reflects its experiences and its concerns."

Brumfiel is interested in how the imperial domination of Xaltocan affected local production, regional exchange, women's roles and religious concepts.

She is particularly interested in women's lives under the Aztec occupation. "As it turns out, women worked a lot more under Aztec rule," she says.

Evidence of women's increased workload during the Aztec period includes an abundance of small spindle whorls, ceramic discs used to spin raw cotton into thread.

"The big increase in spindle whorls during this period suggests that people were forced to make more cloth as tribute demanded by the Aztec," Brumfiel says. "Cloth was extremely important to the state."

Women's cooking habits also changed. Women had to make more tortillas, a portable food that men could take on the road, and fewer stews, a more labor-intensive food.

"As one of the tribute requirements of the Aztecs, Xaltocan men were required to work in agricultural fields and on construction projects away from home," Brumfiel says. "They had to carry their provisions with them."

Less fine pottery and obsidian, volcanic stone used to make razor-sharp cutting tools, were found in the upper layers of the dig representing the Aztec occupation, suggesting a decline in the standard of living for rural people under Aztec rule.

Many accounts of Aztec life rely upon documents produced shortly after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in 1521. Produced by Spanish men or men of the native ruling class, the documents have little to say about the lives of commoners and women. Brumfiel's research, with its attention to the material evidence of everyday lives and thoughts of men and women, elites and commoners, provides a rich, sometimes revolutionary, supplement to the historical record.

Her findings stand in contrast to theories suggesting that central government is good for people. The thinking, she says, is that central government promotes the well being of entire populations, because it provides more supervision and coordination that allow more complex market systems and large-scale construction projects.

"The state certainly is good for the elites and often for members of the army," Brumfiel says. "The Roman Empire, for example, built roads, but for the armies, not for people to have a better life. A large percentage of the Roman population was slaves, and life was far from great for the majority of people. A similar comparison can be made for the people of the Aztec Empire."

On the other hand, Brumfiel said, the Aztec Empire did create great art, which, of course, will be a prominent part of the exhibit at the Field Museum.

One of Brumfiel's biggest concerns for the exhibit was how to make everyday objects appealing to the public. The secret to captivating her audience is the historical context that she provides for such objects as the small figurines that played such a prominent role in the lives of the Xaltocan population before and after the Aztec occupation.

"Before the Aztecs came, half of the clay figurines were men, and half were women," Brumfiel says. "But under Aztec rule, female figurines appear three times as often as male ones."

That was surprising because the Aztec society was male-centered and emphasized warfare.

"The concerns common people had about health, childbirth and family well-being became more pressing under Aztec rule," Brumfiel says, "perhaps accounting for the predominance of female to male figurines during this period."

Brumfiel's perspectives on relatively commonplace objects such as the flutes, figurines and spindles will go a long way in the exhibit to reveal a slice of daily Aztec life that largely has been ignored.

"The elites get the credit for everything," she says, "when, really, the Aztec Empire included a large heterogeneous population that created this rich, impressive civilization."

(Robert Joshua Calixto, a sophomore at Medill, contributed to this story.)
Topics: Research, Campus Life, People