Visiting the gallery
This room is organised to represent the distinctive regional cultures that flourished in what is now Mexico from around 2000 BCE until the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Spain in 1521.
Among the many cultures represented in the gallery are the Olmec, Maya, Aztec and Mixtec. The works on display range from relief sculpture to turquoise mosaics, gold filigree and jade figures as well as painted ceramics. The room was designed in collaboration with archaeologists in Mexico. It has a corbelled roof and deep red walls, evoking common aspects of the monumental architecture of Mesomerica.
By circa 1500 CE, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán had over 100,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest urban centres in the Americas and the sixth most populous city in the world at that time.
The Maya objects in this room are from Mexico but this culture, which is still very much alive, stretches through Guatemala, Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
One of the oldest cultures in Mexico, the Olmec thrived between 1500 BCE and 400 CE and is thought to have the oldest writing system in the Western Hemisphere, albeit still undeciphered.
The Classic Veracruz culture, which thrived about 300 CE to 1200 CE, is not one of the most well known in Mesoamerica, but it was a vigorous centre of political and ceremonial development and a distinctive art style arose here that spread to other parts of Mesoamerica including the Central Highlands where the Aztec (Mexica) would later rise to prominence.
The Zouche-Nuttall codex is a rare deer skin manuscript that pictorially depicts Mixtec genealogical and historical narratives. Like many objects in the British Museum and the Mexico Gallery, the codex was not archaeologically excavated, but instead was purchased. From Mexico, the codex appeared in a Dominican monastery in Florence in 1859 where it was bought Sir Robert Curzon, and later donated to the museum in 1917.
The Mesoamerican calendar is a system consisting of two distinct synchronised calendars and it was used to determine important social activities.
The ritual calendar of 260 days and the solar calendar of approximately 365 days synchronise like two cogs to create a calendar round of 18980 days (52 years). Once a calendar round has been completed, the count begins again. The calendar is still used by some communities in Mexico and Guatemala.
In Mesoamerican conception, time isn’t linear, as it is presented in the timeline below, but the past and future are enacted in the present.
1200 BCE – 400 CE
300 CE – 1200
900 CE – 1450
250 BCE – 1000 CE
150 BCE – 750 CE
200 BCE – 800 CE
1200 CE – 1521
1300 CE – 1521
- Some objects in this collection feature on the British Sign Language multimedia guide. This resource is temporarily unavailable. You can access a selection of BSL films on your own device.
- Some objects in this collection feature on the audio description guide, available on Soundcloud.
- Seating is available.
- Step-free access.
- View sensory map.
Visit Accessibility at the Museum for more information.