Codex (screenfold manuscript book) comprising 47 leaves with Mixtec imagery

An Indigenous reframing of the fall of the Aztec empire

Publication date: 18 June 2021

On the quincentenary of the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, Laura Osorio Sunnucks and María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi explain the importance of centring Indigenous voices when researching this part of history.

An Indigenous reframing of the fall of the Aztec empire

500 years ago, on 13 August 1521, the Aztec empire, in present day Mexico, fell to the Spanish conqueror, Hernán Cortés. The Aztec empire comprised three Nahua city states: Tenochtitlán, Tetzcoco and Tlacopan, with their capital, Tenochtitlán, located in present-day Mexico City. Tenochtitlán was taken and re-established as the seat of the Viceroyalty of Spain.

For many, this date commemorates the beginning of a period of Indigenous genocide, ruthless colonialism, forced religious conversion and the erasure of Indigenous knowledges and practices. This year, to commemorate the fall of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán to Spanish conquerors from the perspective of Indigenous Peoples in today's Mexico and Guatelamala, the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research at the British Museum (SDCELAR) has facilitated a research project led by Indigenous archaeologists and heritage specialists from the region. It will showcase their new interpretations of pictorial manuscripts (codices) and glyphs in the collection using contemporary Indigenous knowledge and languages.

Instead of 13 August (the official date of the fall of Tenochtitlán), the archaeologists have chosen 21 June as a date to commemorate this year. 21 June is the birthday of Lord 8 Deer 'Jaguar Claw', the protagonist of the Tonindeye (or Zouche Nuttall) Codex, which is a book in the Museum's collection depicting the genealogies of 11th and 12th century rulers of the pre-colonial Mixtec region. A copy of this book can be viewed in the Mexico Gallery.

Close up of leaves of screenfold manuscript book with colourful pictures
Detail of the Tonindeye (Zouche-Nuttall) Codex. Painted deerskin. Mexico, 1200–1521.

Pre-conquest Mixtec people, from what is now the states of Oaxaca and Puebla in Mexico, were named after their date of birth according to a ritual calendar of 260 days. Pictorial manuscripts such as the Tonindeye represent these days with animal signs and elements of the surrounding environment. Lord 8 Deer, who was born on the day of the deer sign, is most famous for uniting three Mixtec areas under his rule, Tilantongo, Teozacualco and Tututepec, all of which are located in Oaxaca, Mexico. The research group have chosen Lord 8 Deer's birthday as a way to recognise the cultural continuity of Mixtec Peoples, and to stress the urgent need to approach history from multiple Indigenous perspectives.

The legacies of the conquest of Tenochtitlan and the colonial administration that was put in place throughout Mesoamerica are still felt today. The Nahuas, who are the descendants of the Aztecs, continue to be the largest Indigenous group in Mexico, but there are many others in Mesoamerica, such as the Hñahñu, the Mixtec and the Maya. The members of the research group are predominantly Indigenous-language speaking archaeologists and artists from these cultures.

I’ve proposed to create educational materials with anti-racist content for children in the Hñähñu language. Hñähñu culture is one of the oldest in Central Mexico and its relations with the ancient city Teotihuacan have been explored by many generations of archaeologists, historians and linguists. However, Teotihuacan has never been excavated by Hñähñu archaeologists. The art collected from Hñähñu territories demonstrates Teotihuacan’s extended presence, the cultural diversity of the region, and the struggles associated with the urbanization process. Our project, led by Hñähñu women, tackles some of the same issues in contemporary Mexico and constitutes a bit of hope for a different future.

Rocío Vera Flores, Hñähñu archaeologist

Renaming items in the collection

Just as this project uses a new date to commemorate the fall of Tenochtitlán, our group has also placed emphasis on the names of items in the British Museum collection. The Zouche-Nuttall Codex was named after Baroness Zouche, who donated the item to the Museum from her private collection, and the American archaeologist who first wrote about the book, Zelia Nuttall. However, the Mixtec specialists working on this project, Maarten Jansen and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez, have suggested the book be renamed the Codex Tonindeye. Tonindeye refers, in the Mixtec language, to the book's content, which is about Mixtec ruling dynasties.

Drawing from codex depicting animal, plant, human and two huts
Xiuhpohualli of Tenochtitlán (Aubin Codex). Paint on paper. Mexico, 1576.

There are not only Mixtec researchers in the group, but also participants from Central Mexico who speak Nahuatl and participants from the Maya area, which goes beyond Mexico to Guatemala. The researchers from Central Mexico have focused on another pictorial manuscript known as the Codex Aubin. This manuscript was named after Joseph Aubin, who owned the book in the 1800s and published a reproduction in 1893. Raul Macuil Martínez, a Nahua archaeologist, has proposed that the book – which uses the pre-Columbian annual calendar cycle – be referred to as the Xiuhpohualli of Tenochtitlán. 'Xiuhpohualli' refers to the pre-Columbian calendar used by Nahua Peoples. This process of renaming makes clear that the interpretation and representation of these items is of profound relevance to descendent Peoples.

This is very important work, since it emphasises the origins of the Xiuhpohualli de Tenochtitlan as well as language in which this and other historical documents from the period were written. In this endeavour, the participation of Nahuatl speakers is vital, since we are the intellectual descendants of our ancestors who wrote the Xiuhpohualli. Our work opens up a broad range of analytical and reflexive possibilities. That is, we will see the Indigenous world from within it.

Raul Macuil Martínez, Nahua archaeologist

Reframing the Yaxchilán lintels

The Maya researchers have been studying the Yaxchilán sculptures or 'lintels' – which are named after the archaeological site on the Mexico-Guatemala border called Yaxchilán. Two of these relief sculptures are on display in the Mexico Gallery, but they used to be lintel sculptures above the doorway of a temple structure in Yaxchilán. The story told in the Yaxchilán lintels is about a religious ritual undertaken by a woman ruler, Lady K'abal Xook, who was a Maya leader in the 7th–8th century AD. She is shown letting her blood in order to engage with a serpent-bodied figure, who is interpreted to be from the ancestral world. You can learn more about the lintels in our blog 'Storytelling through pictures'.

 Carved limestone lintel, showing a bloodletting ritual performed by Lady K'abal Xook
The Yaxchilan Lintel 24. Carved limestone. Mexico, AD 723–726.

For the research project on the lintels, Iyaxel Cojti Ren and her colleagues not only focus on womanhood in the pre-Hispanic Maya world, but also on the ongoing repression of Maya religion in Guatemala. Maya Peoples continue to practise rituals that derive from those represented in images such as that of Lady K'abal Xook. However, due to the legacies of Spanish colonialism, which happened at the same time as the era of witch hunts in Europe, these practices continue to be dubbed 'witchcraft', and ritual specialists are regularly persecuted and killed.

The Yaxchilan sculptures not only testify to the artistic sophistication of Late Classic Maya artists and scribes, they also demonstrate the religious and political roles that women performed in ancient Maya societies. Depictions of women in pre-Colombian Maya material culture are not abundant, but these lintels are undeniable evidence of the importance of women’s participation in various social activities.

Iyaxel Cojti Ren, K'iche Maya archaeologist

Carved limestone lintel, showing Lady K'abal Xook on the bottom right of the panel. She is in the hallucinatory stage of a blood-letting ritual. She sees a Teotihuacan serpent thought to be her ancestor
The Yaxchilan Lintel 25. Carved limestone. Mexico, AD 723–726.

This research interrogates and explores who is telling cultural stories in museums that care for collections from around the world, including the British Museum. Furthermore, by showcasing items that contain written narratives, our group emphasises the power of works to speak for themselves.

This project, organised by SDCELAR at the British Museum, invites us to reflect on knowledge productions, its meaning and the inherent cultural values of the 'collections' that are safeguarded at the Museum. This is the beginning of a long collaboration and relationship of respect between the Museum and descendent Mixtec communities.

Omar Sánchez Aguilar, Mixtec archaeologist

This project was presented in a free, online, week-long event beginning on Monday 21 June 2021: Lord 8 Deer's birthday. The range of presentations and performances that made up this event brought some of the culturally specific Mesoamerican narratives embedded in the Museum's collection to life.