The National Museum of Anthropology (open 9AM – 7PM): entrance fee of $57, free entrance to the museum on Sundays for residents. Guided tours take place between 9.30AM and 5.30PM from Tuesday to Saturday. For more information visit the Wikipedia website.
The museum was built in 1964 and recently refurbished; it was designed by architect Pedro Ramirez Vásquez at the request of President Lopez Mateos.
“The most beautiful museum in the world” said André Malraux. It is without a doubt the most captivating feature when visiting Mexico for the first time.
Such a delight is guaranteed. The museum houses the famous Mexica Sun Stone also known as the Aztec calendar stone, giant stone heads of the Olmec civilization which were found in the jungle of Tabasco as well as treasures recovered in the Mayan region of Mexico.
Those who know little of Mexican history should begin by visiting this museum, the best of its kind and the ultimate in the world of museology. Spending a full day here is the only way to become truly acquainted with the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. The museum was inspired by the buildings of the Mixtecs, one of the greatest Pre-Hispanic cultures. This design has been reproduced with the four buildings surrounding a central patio. The patio is partially covered by a huge aluminum canopy that is supported by one pillar covered in carved stone. Water shoots out from the top and falls like rain, combining both freshness and beauty.
At the museum, amongst many other items, you can buy maps of the country in English (Collection Panorama Editoriales) and then read them whilst sat on the terrace of an excellent restaurant. You can even buy beautiful reproductions of jade stones from the pre-Hispanic era as well as silver objects belonging to the Pre-Columbian art collection. (Metro: Chapultec, then cross through the park along Reforma).
The twelve exhibit rooms on the ground floor found around the patio are dedicated to art collections from the Pre-Hispanic civilisations. It is the most important and remarkable archaeological collection in all of Mexico. Each room is organised according to region. You can therefore visit whatever interests you: the Pre-classic period (the Valley of Mexico City), Teotihuacàn and the Toltec culture, the Mexica room (in the centre between Toltec culture and the Oaxaca room) is dedicated to the Aztec civilisation, the Oaxaca room (Zapotecs and Mixtecs), the Gulf of Mexico (Huastecs, Totonacs and Olmecs) the Maya room and the room of Northern and Western Cultures.
The First Floor
A – An Introduction to Anthropology
This room presents us with the reason for the study of Anthropology by taking into account both the unity and the diversity of human beings as well as the various aspects of Anthropology: Physical Anthropology, Archaeology, Linguistics and Ethnography. The reproductions present a better understanding of the development of human life – from the first known sea creatures to the modern day man and his physical characteristics. Archaeology is the study of material remains of ancient civilisations and this room also presents remains that were found in Ancient America. The section is dedicated to Ethnography and portrays the diverse traditions and costumes of non-Western cultures.
B – Mesoamerica
The indigenous populations that once lived in Mexico were divided into two different cultural regions: the forager society in the North and the agricultural population of Mesoamerica, who gained an incredibly high level of civilisation. This region belongs to the North of the States of Sinaloa, El Bajio and Rio Soto La Marina and stretches as far as Ulloa in the Honduras and the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica. This room presents the audience with a summary of the cultural, archaeological and artistic aspects of Mesoamerica as well as agriculture and cultivation of vegetables, notably corn. A further characteristic is seen in the portrayal of the different forms of burial, which highlights the worship of the dead. Further aspects to be seen are architecture, pottery, and stonework and metalwork techniques together with their early knowledge of the trades, such as the use of calendars, scripture, codex manuscripts and natural medicines, amongst others.
C – Origins
As seen in this room, those originating from North and North-East Asia and a lower percentage from the Oceania region and Africa populated the American continent. In addition to the stone instruments used by prehistoric hunters, the remains of mammoth and other animals from the Pleistocene Epoch are exhibited in this room. Human skulls present an idea of the physical characteristics of this native population. Corn and other vegetables were domesticated by ancient Mexicans and a description of this process can also be found in this room.
D – The Pre-Classic Period
After a long period in which the ancient Mexican civilisation domesticated corn and other vegetables, a process which meant that they were less dependent on hunting, villages began to appear in 2500 BC. This room presents the development and the growth of agricultural societies which lived on the High Plateau region in Central Mexico as well as the ancestral, religious cult belonging to Mesoamerica. This stage is known by archaeologists as the Pre-Classic Period (2500 -100 BC). During this era, the landscape of the High Valleys belonging to Central Mexico was comprised of volcanoes, mountains, forests and lakes whose banks housed farmers. These farmers had built villages such as Tlatilco and Tlapacoya on the river banks. Many of the containers and small statues represent idolised saints belonging to this period. The clay figurines show naked women with complex facial and body make-up, demonstrating the cult protests to the feminine strength of nature. The small statues of Shamans, masks, the Acrobat vessel and another vessel said to represent the Priest of Atlihuayan all demonstrate the presence of Olmec culture in Central Mexico. From 600 BC. onwards, during the recent Pre-Classic Period the first pyramids appeared. Of these pyramids, one was dedicated to the worship of Huehueteotl, God of fire and the other was dedicated to Tlaloc, the rain God.
E - Teotihuacàn
In this room, very important objects found during the archaeological excavations in Teotihuacàn are exhibited. These objects portray the extraordinary development of this Pre-Hispanic town, the oldest town in all of Mesoamerica. Its importance and dominance are characteristics of the Classic Period of the High Plateau region in Central Mexico (100 BC.–750AD). The map of Teotihuacàn shows the original design of the city; central focus is placed upon The Avenue of the Dead as well as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. In the South, the Teotihuacàn citadel can be found. This was once home to the Government and also the location of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, of which a superb replica is on display in this room. Throughout its long existence, the town has progressively extended, with the addition of residential apartments, often called palaces amongst archaeologists. These units were comprised of houses and patios, decorated with murals, some of which have been reproduced and can be found on display in this room, notably those found in Tepantitla, including the famous representation of Tlalocan. The effigies of Chalchiuhtlicue, the representations of Huehueteotl, God of Fire, the stone barricades and columns are all examples of typical Teotihuacàn sculpture which decorated squares and buildings within the town. Daily life and rituals of this indigenous town, as seen in creation myths such as “place where Gods were born”, are expressed via the elegantly decorated ceramic tripod vessels, vases, Tlaloc jars and the monumental braziers. The Teotihuacàns were skilful manufacturers and marvellous craftsmen, who used chisels, polishers for the ground and polished axes. They made remarkable objects from obsidian, a substance which brought wealth and power to the town and which was also used for the sculpting of funeral masks glorifying the beauty of youth.
F – Toltec Culture
The Toltec Period, on the High Plateau of Central Mexico corresponds to the Post-Classic Period (750-1200 AD.) and comes ahead of the late Classic or Epiclassic Period (the end of Teotihuacàn), at a time when Xochicalco, Cacaxtlan and Xochitecatl flourished as well as the later dominance of Tula and other neighbouring cultures. This room exhibits the archaeological and artistic findings of these people. When visiting the museum, you can really appreciate the protests of ancestral cultures, such as those belonging to Quetzalcòatl as well as the beginnings of metalwork, all of which were controlled by the warriors who had formed powerful militarist States. In Cacaxtla, a section of the mural “La Batalla” has been discovered and in Xochitecatl, unusual figurines of women were found during an archaeological excavation in this ancient site, a site which is thought to be one of the most important female ceremonial sites in the High Plateau region of Central Mexico. In Xochicalco, pillars decorated with sculptured symbols or glyphs that have not yet been deciphered have been discovered as well as the remarkable macaws head, the animal associated with the Sun, which is sculpted on the goal of a ball court found on this site. Caryatid or Antlantis, a sculpted figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a pillar can be seen within this monumental column representing a divine warrior, thus conveying the dominant influence of the military elitists in this town created by Quetzalcòatl. The room also contains pillars of jaguars and of eagles, the bicephalous dragon, a Chac Mool which evokes the ornamental style of Tula. The metal objects of the Matlatzincas of Teotenango, containers originating from the volcano cultures and the serpents of Tenayuca complete this vision of a world which preceded that of Mexica.
G – Mexica
Mexica was controlled by the town of Tenochtitlàn, as created by Huitzilopochtli, the Mesoamerican deity of war throughout the Post Classic Period (1300-1521 AD.). A town which produced monumental sculptures of Aztec Goddess Coatlicue and of the Mexica Sun Stone as seen in this room (the most important in the entire museum). Here, the visitor can gain an understanding of the final historic period of indigenous civilisations which coincided with the militarist society who imposed its authority by war and heavy tolls upon many regions in Ancient Mexico. The sculpture of hominoids informs us of their physical characteristics, clothing, ornaments and the unusual military dress, in the forms of either an eagle or a jaguar. An ancient manuscript recounts the migration myth of Mexicas up to the point in time when they founded their capital. You can also see effigies of their governors and sculptures such as the Stone of Tizoc, which portrays their devotion to war and to the Sun. The models of Mexico, the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlàn and its temple “Templo Mayor” reveal the sacred buildings and evoke the ancient towns of Tenochtitlàn and Tlatelolco which were destroyed after the conquest of 1521. The model of the Tlatelolco market recreates the commercial activities: buying and selling of animals, vegetables, seeds, silver, gold, jade stones and turquoise, textiles, medicinal plants and slaves. The fragments of sculptures found in the ground underneath the city of Tenochtitlàn can be seen in this room: the Chac Mool, the Sacrificial Stone, the Altar as well as the Sun Stone which can be found in the middle of the room. The Sun Stone is the most important archaeological find for the Mexicans as it represents a second national symbol.
The representations of animals inform us of the wildlife found in this period and their inclusion in certain rituals, in particular snakes and jaguars whose force and power held much importance. Both daily and ceremonial life are related via the ceramic pieces whilst jewellery and ornaments such as the reproduction of the plume of feathers as found in the headdress of Moctezuma, a military commander, portray the elegance of the Mexica people. The obsidian vase represents an ape and is the most remarkable piece found in the museum.
The magnificent Mexica room is a must see! In the Mexica room, you will find the Aztec Calendar Stone or Mexica Sun Stone, a huge monolith made from basalt with a diameter of 3.35 metres and weighing 25 tons. The statue of Coatlicue, which portrays the Aztec Earth Goddess wearing a skirt of writhing snakes and a polished, obsidian Vase represents a pregnant female monkey. This room is dedicated to the Aztec civilisation and it is all the more fascinating as the sculptures to be found in this room are extremely striking.
The Aztec sun motif (motif solaire) is made up of eight triangles which represent the Sun’s rays: 4 of these rays turn towards each of the cardinal points, each of their sides ends in a curve and the other four are positioned between them.
In the center, the Image of Tonatiuh.
H – Oaxaca
In the Pre-Hispanic Period, two important cultures were dominant in the region of Oaxaca: the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs. This room displays the extraordinary archaeological and artistic findings of this period. These two civilisations developed over a period of over one thousand years BC, up to the European Conquest at the beginning of the 14th Century. The Zapotecs chose the Central Valleys in Oaxaca, where they built their most important towns, notably the vast town of Monte Albàn which was located in the surrounding area of the capital of State. Zapotec art is largely characterised by its ceramic forms: tripod vases, elegant goblets and above all, unusual urns with a large variety of representations of human-beings, priests, the Gods, in particular Cocijo, the Zapotec God of rain and animals, such as the jaguar.
The reconstruction of Monte Albàn Tomb 104 gives insight into the godliness of ancient inhabitants who gave many hundreds of containers and urns to the dead. The second part of the room is dedicated to the Mixtecs who inhabited the mountainous region and the coastline of Oaxaca. The Mixtecs decorated their ceremonial buildings and palaces with intricate fretwork designs, a style that used many thousands of small carved stones in the form of mosaics. The Mixtecs wanted to conserve the memory of their history by making Codex manuscripts and painted books, reproductions of which can be seen in this room.
The Mixtecs were recognised for their military achievements and for the skill of their artists and craftsmen, who have left us with some extraordinary objects made from silver and gold and who also worked just as skilfully with jade stone, jet stone, obsidian and quartz.
I – The Gulf Coast
The geographical environment of the Gulf coast of Mexico has favoured the growth of many diverse cultures, which chose this region for its tropical atmosphere, its many rivers and the richness of its natural resources. The most ancient culture is that of the Olmecs who lived in the South of the Gulf Coast throughout the Pre-Classic Period (1200-600 BC.). The first city centres began to appear, such as La Venta (Mexican State of Tabasco), San Lorenzo and Tenochtitlàn (State of Veracruz). They produced many huge sculptures, such as colossal heads and altars in which they revealed their many cosmogonist conceptions of the origins, history and structure of the world, in particular the representations of supernatural beings in which the characteristics of the jaguar were mixed with those of man. They modelled figurines in hollow ground for ritual usage and these figurines were called “Baby Face” representing an individual with childlike characteristics. The Olmecs worked with precious materials, such as jade, quartz, magnetite and obsidian. Through the use of these precious materials, the Olmecs produced ornaments, mirrors, figurines and other artistic objects in an easily identifiable style.
Throughout the Pre-Classic Period (600 BC.-200AD.) and the Classic Period (200-900 AD.) diverse, local cultures began to appear in the centre of the State of Veracruz. The Remojadas culture was known for its figurines and its clay containers and the Tajin culture, to which the town gave its name, was recognised for its decorated niches and fretwork design. Ball courts were fully developed by this civilisation, which also gave origin to objects such as yokes, axes, laurels and the stone engraving of unusual representations of sacred animals, hunters and of basic curling or interlaced designs.
The Wrestler of Uxpanapa, discovered in 1933 is generally referred to as « Wrestler ». According to a recent and much more convincing interpretation, it could represent a Shaman in one of the positions or one of the movements likely to lead someone into a trance.
In the Northern parts of the Gulf Coast, the ancient Huastec civilisation developed between the Pre-Classic and the Post Classic Periods (800 BC- 1521 AD.) in a vast region which stretches as far as San Luis Potosi. Its peak came at the end of this period, at a time when the Huastecs produced many remarkable sculptures such as the “Tamuin Adolescent”. The sculpture portrays Tlazolteotl, Goddess of Fertility alongside old men, likely to be farming deities, in the process of sowing seeds. Since the beginning, the potters moulded delicate figurines of women with enormous thighs. The coastal people used shells and conches as raw materials in order to produce splendid-looking jewellery and different types of ornaments, showing a high level of technical ability within the sculpting and the hollowing out of these objects.
J – Maya
This room exhibits some artistic and archaeological Mayan treasures. The Mayan civilisation inhabited a vast region in Central America covering the Yucatán peninsula and the State of Chiapas, including Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, parts of Honduras and Costa Rica. Mayan culture developed between the Pre-Classic and Post Classic Periods (1000 BC -1500AD.), creating city-states which today make up attractive archaeological sites. The most important of which are: Yaxchilàn, Palenque, Bonampak, Uxmal and Chichén Itzà. This room displays the remarkable sculptures, including pillars, lintels and stone slabs which represent the Halach-Uinic or the Mayan governors of these towns as victorious hunters or participants in the administration of the sacraments during ceremonies. The Mayans attempted to distinguish themselves physically, deforming their skulls, disfiguring their teeth, scarifying their faces and giving their sculptures drooping, almond-shaped eyes. This vision of beauty can be found in various designs, including stucco sculptures such as those found in the funeral quarters in Palenque and also found on the many clay figurines from Jaina, whose clothing and ornaments offer an insight into this historic society.
The grand stucco face, with the representation of the God of Sun makes up for one of the attractions of this room and is also an example of the magnificence of Mayan architectural decoration. This civilisation was highly recognised in all of Mesoamerica for its high level of skills. In fact, it had a perfected calendar as well as a scripture (currently in the process of being deciphered) that has enabled us to keep a record of its history. The Mayan people were great artists and craftsmen and in this room jewellery made from jade stone found in the tomb of Palenque as well as objects made from shell and quartz can be seen. You can also see the pieces of turquoise mosaic from Chichén Itzà and gold pieces found in the sacred well (Cenote).
Be sure not to miss the Maya room with its full size replica of the royal tomb of the Temple of Inscriptions in Palenque (Chiapas) and the famous Chac Mool from Chichén Itzà as well as the reproductions of murals from Bonampak and the to-scale model of a temple in Hochob, Campeche which is in typical “Chene” architectural style and can be found in the garden.
K – The North
In the Northern territory of Mexico, many different civilisations developed. Arid regions made for preferred areas for hunter-gatherers who adapted to this difficult environment, living in caves where they placed the dead surrounded by funeral offerings and gifts. Baskets, sandals and vegetable fabric fibres are displayed in this room as well as hunting weapons. In other regions, agricultural civilisations developed, in particular in Guanajuato and in San Luis Potosi and also in the Northern region of Oasis America, where the Paquime civilisation developed, also known by the name of Casas Grandes, where inhabitants built residential areas with the use of adobe and devoted their lives to agriculture, the trade of turquoise, copper and other materials, creating amongst other things, a particular type of ceramic decorated with geometric patterns.
L – The West
The room dedicated to Western Mexico displays the principal cultures which developed in this region of Mesoamerica. During the Pre-Classic Period (800 BC. – 200 AD.), the civilisations of Capacha and Chupicuaro appeared. These civilisations were of an agricultural importance and they had strong funeral tradition in the offering of figurines and ceramic containers which were decorated with characteristic geometric patterns. This together with the remarkable football players originating in El Openo in the State of Michoacàn, reveals the age of this historical sporting ritual. In this section of the room, figurines reproduced in clay are exhibited. These figurines represent the sacred people and animals of the Eastern regions (States currently known as Colima, Nayarit and Jalisco). These states were occupied by the Shaft Tomb tradition or the Shaft Tomb culture (las tumbas de tiro) during the recent Pre-Classic Period to the end of the Classic Period. In the residential sites, clumsily built stone buildings, platforms which support the houses and the temples as well as ball courts have been discovered. Underneath the houses, wells have been dug out. These wells were funeral quarters where the remains of the deceased were buried along with the various offerings and gifts, such as figurines and animals, notably the Mexican hairless dogs or the “xoloitzcuintles”, which were used to escort the deceased to their final destinations.
Originating from the State of Guerrero, the Mezcala civilisation is recognised for its figurines, masks and its models of stone built temples. The visit of this room ends in the world of the Purepecha people who built a large Empire similar to that of Mexicas and whose capital Tzintzuntzàn still has the remains of their ritual buildings, Las Yacatas. They built stone sculptures such as the Chac Mool of Ihuatzio (the State of Michoacàn) and they produced delicate ceramics with a finish that imitated that of wax polish. The Purepecha people were recognised for the goldsmith’s trade, making use of copper for weapons and tools which gave them advantage on the battle field.
On the first floor, The Museo Etnologico presents the Indian ethnic groups which still live in the country. The current indigenous people of Mexico have a traditional culture which gives them a strong identity. First and foremost, agriculture is of great importance to them and since the 14th Century and the Spanish Conquest, traces of syncretism (the attempted amalgamation of different religions and cultures) and the mix of Catholic liturgy with Pre-Hispanic rituals have made their festivals and ceremonies very appealing. In the many rooms on the first floor of the Museum, you can see the reproductions of the traditional indigenous habitats, in particular those made of wood, straw and mud. Each group of people had its own language and costumes with multi-coloured designs, made from woven-cloth. You can also admire the ceramics, masks and the furniture – all essential pieces produced by the craftsmen of Mexico.
- The reproduction of murals found in the Spanish district or barrio of Tepantlitla in the Teotihuacàn room.
- The exhibitions of Atlantes and the pearl-embedded statues of warriors in the Toltec room (see photo to the left).
- The mask of the Aztec Bat God (Dios Murciélago), Mixtec jewellery and the reproduction of the Monte Albàn Tomb 104 can all be found in the Oaxaca room.
You can also ask to use the services of an English-speaking guide or use the Audio guide devices in English. Touch screens (in Spanish only) have been installed in some areas throughout the museum.
Considering that there are many archaeological treasures, photos, frames and paintings to be seen, one day here is not enough.
Behind the galleries, you will find the outside patio and garden in which the stone pillars, statues and reconstructions of houses and painted murals are situated.
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