A turquoise two-headed serpent mouth ajar, heads pointing in different directions.

Room 27

Mexico

About 2000 BC–AD 1500s

Visiting the gallery

Opening times

Daily 10.00–17.30 (20.30 on Fridays)

Free daily eye-opener tour

12.45 in Room 24, 30–40 minute tour

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.

Gallery facts

By circa 600 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.

Gallery facts

The Classic Veracruz culture, which thrived about CE 300 to CE 1200, 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.

Mesoamerican timeline

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.

Timeline

1200 BCE – 400 CE

Olmec

Surrounding the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Olmec culture emerged in the late second millennium BCE. Key features of Olmec culture included impressive ceremonial centres with public plazas and earthen mound architecture.

CE 300 – 1200

Classic Veracruz

The focus of Gulf Coast civilization gradually shifted north to the regional capital and ceremonial centre of El Tajín. This was a dynamic centre of political and ceremonial development and a distinctive art style arose here and spread to other parts of Mesoamerica.   

CE 900 – 1450

Huaxtec

The Huaxtec people thrived in the Northern Gulf Coast, but were conquered by the Aztecs in the mid-fifteenth century. The Huaxtecs are probably what remain of the Maya expansion northward up the Veracruz coast.

250 BCE – CE 1000

Maya

By the early centuries CE, sophisticated farming systems supported large populations, leading to the growth of Classic Maya city states ruled by competing dynasties. The Maya created a form of hieroglyphic writing, which allowed the names, birth dates, marriage alliances, coronations, wars and the deaths of ruling lords to be recorded.

150 BCE – CE 750

Teotihuacán

Towards the end of the first millennium BCE the metropolis of Teotihuacán grew to dominate the political, economic and religious life of the central highlands of Mexico. As a very powerful city, its influence can be seen in the cultures across Mesoamerica, and the Aztecs in particular, though much later, viewed it with great importance.

200 BCE – 800 CE

Zapotec

The Zapotec civilisation, based in the site of Monte Albán, encompassed much of the southern highlands and were agricultural communities that grew up in the valleys in and around Oaxaca. 

CE 1200 – 1521

Mixtec

From around CE 1200, Mixtec peoples began to take control of key Zapotec sites through conquest and political alliances. Mixtecs were distinguished for being skillful craftsmen, who were widely recognised for their superb work in turquoise mosaic and in gold and producing elaborate pictorial manuscripts.

CE 1300 – 1521

Aztec

The Aztecs ruled from the island city of Tenochtitlán – the heart of the empire and a city with over 100,000 people – until they were conquered by the Spanish conquistadores led by Hernán Cortes in 1521. 

Accessibility

  • Some objects in this collection feature on the British Sign Language guide handset, available from the audio guide desk in the Great Court.
  • Some objects in this collection feature on the audio description guide, available from the audio guide desk in the Great Court.
  • Seating is available.
  • Step-free access.
  • View sensory map.

Visit Accessibility at the Museum for more information.