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Aztecs (Mexica)*

Mosaic mask of QuetzalcoatlDuring the twelfth century AD the Mexica were a small and obscure tribe searching for a new homeland. Eventually they settled in the Valley of Mexico and founded their capital, Tenochtitlan, in 1345. At the beginning of the sixteenth century it was one of the largest cities in the world.

Warfare was extremely important for the Mexica people and led them to conquer most of modern-day central and southern Mexico. They controlled their huge empire through military strength, a long-distance trading network and the tribute which conquered peoples had to pay.

Stone sculpture in the British Museum collection reflects the Mexica's complex religious beliefs and the large pantheon of gods they worshipped. Their sophisticated ritual calendar reflected the rhythms of the agricultural year and their ceramic sculptures are noted for their visual impact. Musical instruments such as drums were decorated with intricate carvings, probably because of the importance of music during Mexica rituals.

Craftsmen also worked in gold, turquoise mosaic and feathers. Most pieces were destroyed by the Spanish invaders, but the Museum holds a number of turquoise mosaics, the most beautiful of which were produced by Mixtec craftsmen and sent to the Mexica as tribute.

Hernán Cortés and his small Spanish army arrived in 1519 and overthrew the Mexica ruler Moctezuma Xocoyotzin with relative ease. This was partly due to the latter's weakness, as well as the Spaniards' superior weaponry, their unfamiliar battle tactics and the devastation of the Mexica population by European disease. Mexico remained under Spanish rule until gaining independence in AD 1821.

*The people and culture we know as 'Aztec' referred to themselves as the Mexica
(pronounced 'Mé-shee-ka').

Image caption: Mosaic mask of Quetzalcoatl
Mexica/Mixtec, 15th-16th century AD. From Mexico

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