The Mexican wave starts here

22nd November 2002 at 00:00
Walk through the doors of the Royal Academy this winter and you will enter the world of the Aztecs. Yolanda Brooks introduces the exhibition, and Ian Mursell suggests some resources.

The RA and the Mexican government have created the largest Aztec exhibition ever seen outside Mexico. With more than 380 artefacts, Aztecs goes beyond human sacrifice and chocolate to give a full perspective on the civilisation that dominated Mexico between 1325 and 1519. "There have been some smaller Aztec exhibitions but nothing on the scale of ours," says co-ordinating curator Adrian Locke.

"We have deliberately set about creating an overview of Aztec life and so we have various themes running throughout the exhibition, ranging from the cultures that influenced the Aztecs and their relationship with the natural world, through to the role of priests, sacrifice and what happened to the Aztecs after the Spanish arrived. The Aztecs exhibition is a 3-D representation of Aztec life."

Most of the exhibits on display come from Mexico City institutions, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia and the Museo del Templo Mayor, but some artefacts have been borrowed from European and American collections. One of the most striking exhibits is the life-size terracotta sculpture of Mictlantecuhtli - the Lord of Death. It is one of a pair and was only discovered in 2000 at the Templor Mayor (the Great Temple) in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

There are sculptures of gods, people and animals as well as ceramics, turquoise mosaics and works of art made from gold.

One of the most important elements of the exhibition is the large collection of pictoral manuscripts known as codices. Aztecs boasts the largest display of codices seen together under one roof.

If a tour of the exhibition isn't enough, two organisations, Mexicolore and Quetzal, will be offering 37 key stage 2 workshops from November 25 until mid-March. Pupils will be encouraged to take part in the sessions by dressing up, recreating a market scene and an Aztec ceremony. They will also be able to handle artefacts, view slides, listen to music and visit the galleries in small groups with a guide. The workshops run from 10.15am to 1pm and are available for classes of up to 30.

A teachers' guide and three student publications have also been produced to accompany the exhibition: the Student Guide (14 to 18), the Aztec Activity Trial (eight to 13) and RA Kids' Activity Sheets (under-eights).

Aztecs runs until April 11, 2003. Tickets cost pound;3 (12 to 18), pound;2 (nine to 11) and pound;1 extra for workshops. For group bookings Tel: 020 7300 5995 Email: Aztecs is sponsored by the Mexico Tourism Board and is part of the Mexican Cultural Festival running throughout the UK over the next five months.

* It is now more than 10 years since the Aztecs were first introduced to the primary history curriculum at key stage 2 as an option under Explorations and Encounters, so it is no surprise to find a plethora of beautifully produced books and study packs for pupils and teachers. Here are some unusual (or simply unusually cheap) resources and ideas for teaching about the Aztecs.


* It is always worth checking the excellent Dover range of copyright-free black and white graphics books from the United States (look under American Indians in the subject list). As a guide to price, change the dollar figure to pounds. All Dover books can be ordered direct from the UK distributor, David amp; Charles Ltd in Devon. For schools all prices include pamp;p.

Tel: 01626 323200.

There are several titles on ancient Mexico, including: Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico by Jorge Enciso, which has 153 pages of highly reproducible ancient motifs depicting gods, serpents, priests, dancers, florals, geometrics and more (pound;9.95).

Ancient Mexican Designs by Gregory Mirow has 48 pages of motifs, including calendar signs, gods, animals, mythological characters and more, taken from bas reliefs, codices, glyphs, pottery figures and murals (pound;6.95). Ancient Mexican Stickers by Carol Belanger Grafton has 23 self-adhesive designs, in colour, from Mixtec artwork (pound;1).

* The British Museum has reprinted its excellent A4-sized Aztecs Activity Book by Penny Bateman (a former Museum of Mankind education officer). They are very child-friendly and generously illustrated (British Museum Company, pound;2.75). Posters

* Still available, though little known, is the giant (three-foot square) The Aztec Cosmos by Celestial Arts depicting the Aztec Sun Stone. It is beautifully produced and comes with an illustrated 32-page explanatory booklet about Aztec calendar systems (pound;16.99 plus pound;3.49 pamp;p).

From: Mexicolore, 28 Warriner Gardens, London SW11 4EB Tel: 020 7622 9577 AudiocassettesCDs

* For Aztec music (all wind and percussion, a lot of which can sound strange to European ears) try the Pre-hispanic Mexican Music CD by Jorge Reyes, ParamNosica label, 2000, which was used by the BBC for its excellent Landmarks video on the Aztecs in the 1990s ($12.98 or about pound;8.50, plus pamp;p)

* If (like most people) you have difficulty pronouncing the names of Aztec gods (and other words), here is a cheap solution: order Tiahue! A Guide to Aztec (N huatl) Pronunciation, on cassette (new condensed version, 2002), pound;5.99 plus pound;1.25 pamp;p from Mexicolore (as above).

Artefacts, boxes and team visits

* The Mexicolore team have been running illustrated presentationsworkshops on Mexico and the Aztecs in schools for more than 20 years (price depends on distance from London). They also hire out large "Aztefacts" boxes (pound;30 per week plus carriage plus VAT). Full details from Mexicolore (as above).

Websites For pupils and teachers:

* Snaith Primary School An award-winning and long-established site on the Aztecs, with 10 information areas, plenty of downloadable material, sets of illustrations, and quizzes: http:home.freeuk.comelloughton13mexico.htm

* Nettlesworth Primary School Another site with plenty of clear, accessible information, easily navigable by pupils:www.nettlesworth.durham.sch.uktimeaztec.html

* ThinkQuest An American student-produced website, strong on detail, with good sections on Aztec life, gods, culture, technology and the Spanish conquest, plus a useful timeline. It is easy to navigate, but it is a pity that most pages lack illustrations.

http:library. 27981 For teachers:

* Royal Academy Supporting the Aztecs exhibition at the RA, its website has a page of useful links to more academic, but still attractively presented, sites including the Templo Mayor and Anthropology Museum, both in Mexico City (all pages are in English).

* Aztec calendar Not only does this site give you instant equivalents of today's date (and a converter for any date you care to type in) in the Aztec sacred (ritual) calendar - and a lot of background information besides - part of the site is linked to a women craftmakers' co-operative in Mexico that exports fairly-traded jewellery based on Aztec calendar day signs.

* Generally on the Aztecs This UK-based site, aimed at teachers, is regularly updated and lists recommended websites, resources, places to visit, as well as links to projects and unusual sources of information in Mexico itself - such as a site that monitors the activity of legendary Popocatepetl volcano, minute by minute. Five interesting facts about the Aztecs 1 The Aztecs had access to the "world's healthiest superfood": spirulina - a tiny aquatic plant offering the most powerful combination of nutrients (protein, vitamins, anti-oxidants, etc) known in any grain, herb or food. This edible blue-green algae (found in Lake Texcoco) produces 20 times more protein per acre than soybeans.

2 The Aztecs used wheels in children's toys (such as small wheeled dogs made of obsidian) yet never considered using wheels for transport technology. They dragged heavy rocks using ropes, rollers and platforms - pulled by humans, as they had no large pack animals.

3 The Aztecs never called themselves "Aztecs", but rather "Mexica" (the origin of the name Mexico). Other tribes called them "Aztecs", referring to the legendary home of the Aztecs in the far north of Mexico, Aztl n.

4 Many English food words are derived from Aztec vocabulary: chocolate, tomato, chile and avocado (which comes from the N huatl word eaguac tl meaning "a tree of testicles").

5 The last Aztec emperor Moctezuma II reputedly enjoyed a selection of some 200 dishes for dinner - including fresh fish brought hot-foot by a series of professional relay runners every day from the Atlantic coast, 250 miles from the Azteccapital. Little wonder that a Mexican, Dionicio Cern, won the London Marathon three times running, in 1994, 1995 and 1996.

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