Legendary Cultures—Aztec Ancestors

Legendary Cultures – Aztec Ancestors

The Aztecs were not the first people to settle in Mexico. For 2,500 years before their arrival, the area had been home to many civilizations, including the Olmecs, Toltecs, and the people of Teotihuacan. The Aztecs were the last of these great cultures to settle there, and, as a result, were heavily influenced by the already established groups. In order to integrate themselves into the area, they adopted the native language, Nahuatl, and copied artistic styles and techniques from other Mesoamerican cultures. (Mesoamerica is the term used to describe the central region of the Americas inhabited by native civilizations before the arrival of the Spanish.) The warlike Aztecs also formed alliances with nearby communities to consolidate their military strength and expand their empire.

Perhaps the two greatest influences on Aztec art and culture came from the ancient cities of Teotihuacan and Tula. Before its decline in A.D. 700, Teotihuacan had been a wondrous city of about 200,000 people, with extensive temple complexes and specialized craft districts. Historically, it was a site of vital importance to the Aztecs, who revered it as the City of the Gods (“Teotihuacan”). They also incorporated a number of Teotihuacano gods into their pantheon (family of gods), including Tlaloc, the rain god, and Chalchiuhtlicue (“she of the jade skirt”), the goddess of lakes and streams. A principal deity, the ruler-priest known as Quetzalcoatl (“feathered serpent”), was adopted from the Toltecs.

Tula (“place of reeds”) and home to the Toltecs, thrived a few hundred years after Teotihuacan, and left a similarly influential legacy to later Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs believed the Toltecs were the founders of civilization and credited them with the invention of painting and sculpture. Aztec craftsmen held a privileged position in society, working for the nobility. Although they were extremely important, artists never signed their work, which was considered collective.

The Aztecs took their inspiration from Teotihuacan, Tula, Mixtec, Olmec, and other ancient Mesoamerican cultures, adopting everything from stone-cutting techniques to calendar systems. The discovery of objects from other Mesoamerican cultures during the excavation of the Templo Mayor suggests that, Aztec rulers brought artists from other areas, including goldsmiths from the Mixteca (near present-day Oaxaca), to work in Tenochtitlan. Over time they would develop their own original style and iconography, which sprang from a uniquely Aztec perspective on warfare, religion, and cosmology.


This burial mask is from Teotihuacan, a distinctive civilization that reached its peak around the sixth century, five hundred years before the Aztecs migrated from northwestern Mexico. The skilled craftsmanship and the exquisite mosaic patterning would have been greatly admired by the Aztecs, as it is by people today. This mask is acknowledged as one of the great treasures of pre-Hispanic art in Mesoamerica. Masks were commonly placed over mummy bundles to protect the deceased from the dangers of the afterlife. Made of stone, its surface is covered in bits of turquoise, obsidian, and shell.

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Teotihuacan, ca. 450,
Stone, turquoise, obsidian, and shell,
21.5 x 20 cm
Museo Nacional de Antropología, INAH,
Mexico City 10-9630
Photo: Michel Zabé, assistant Enrique Macías

1. Experts have determined that this mask was probably not meant to be worn by a living person, but was attached to a funerary bundle. What attributes of this mask lead to that conclusion?

2. In Aztec society craftsmen passed their skills on to their sons, who took up their trade upon reaching manhood. What tools and skills and materials would have been required to make this mask? In contemporary society what skills are passed from parent to child?

3. For hundreds of years, masks made from many different materials, have been fashioned by people in the Americas. Precolumbian people were known to use clay, gold, stone, obsidian, wood, bone, shell, turquoise, jade, hair, cloth, emerald, alabaster, coral, greenstone, diorite, onyx, and leather for masks. Where would they have found each of these materials?

4. The technique of mosaic has been used for decoration in many cultures and continues to be popular today. Where have you seen the mosaic technique?

Further Explorations

Mosaics can be executed in a wide range of materials from paper to marble. Some readily available and inexpensive choices include seeds, pebbles, small shells, buttons and beads. There are many excellent books that provide step-by-step instructions on the design and execution of this decorative art form.

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