Mesoamerica: The Post Classic


Aztec, Mosaic Serpent, c. 1400-1521 (photo By Z-m-k – The photographed object was exhibited in the British Museum, London [1], CC BY-SA 2.5,

The Post-Classic period, 900 ce – contact (1519) was characterized by more aggression. Metal work began to be made, with the techniques and knowledge probably traded up from South America. First cast and beaten objects are made of copper in technique similar to Peru and Ecuador. The lost wax casting technique was also used to make metal objects, with the wax form modeled by hand, and covered with clay, and then fired, causing the wax to melt and the mold to be formed. Hot metal would then poured in to form the object. In the direct lost-wax casting process, the object is always unique as the mold is broken in the casting process.


The Toltecs were a Nahua people who founded the city of Tula. The Toltec-Chichimeca were once nomadic people, who were lead, according to myth by the ruler Mixcoatl (the Milky Way) to the valley of Colhuacan in the 9th century. His son, Topiltzin, later identified as Quetzalcoatl, moved the capital to Tula. According to myth, he is then run out of town by the followers of Tezcatlipoca, the giver and taker of life and patron of warriors, for being too peaceful. He then sailed to the Gulf Coast where he either immolated himself or sailed away, possibly landing in the Yucatán as Kukulcán, the Feather Serpent who conquers the Maya. The Toltec empire rules all of central Mexico until Tula was burned and sacked in about 1150-1200 CE by invaders. Tula was then looted by the Aztecs for art to take to Tenochitlán as they claimed ancestry from the Toltec, and considered the Toltecs to be the greatest artists.


Site Map of Tula (photo By Susana Torres Sánchez – Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Tula was founded in about 800 CE. It covered about 5 square miles and had a population of 30-40,000 at its height. Archaeological expansion about 1000 CE correlates with the Tollan phase of Tula. The ceremonial center has a wide central plaza bordered by Pyramid C on the east, a ballcourt on the west, and Pyramid b on the north. Pyramid B was built in 6 stages. It is a stepped platform built of talud-tablero architecture fronted by a colonnaded hall with banquettes with polychromed bas reliefs of warriors on them. There were 2 rooms at the top, and the entrance was flanked by 2 feathered serpents. The first room’s roof was supported by 4 atlantean figures of warriors, with atlatls in one hand and an incense bag in the other. The second room was supported by 4 square pillars, carved on all sides with warriors. There was also an altar in this room supported by small atlantean figures. The Coatepantli  on the north side of Pyramid B was covered in bas reliefs showing jaguars and puma prowling along with heart devouring buzzards and eagles as well as Quetzalcoatl and warriors surrounded by abstract designs. There are also chacmools at this site, or reclining figures with dishes or receptacles, possibly for human hearts resting on their bellies. These are possibly avatars of the rain god. There are also a number of bas reliefs in the temple complex of coyotes. Most architecture was architectonic, meaning large stone slabs were designed to be fitted into continuous bands or friezes, or of columnar sculpture.

Toltec, Pyramid B, Tula, c. 1000 (photo By Ljuba brank at Slovenian Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Russ Bowling from Greenwood, SC, USA – Tula archeological site, CC BY 2.0,

Toltec, Atlantean from Pyramid B, Tula, c. 1000 (photo By Leandro Neumann Ciuffo – 1 Atlante, CC BY 2.0, and By AlejandroLinaresGarcia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Toltec, Coatepantli and Chacmol Tula, 900-1200  (photo By Susana Torres Sánchez – Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Susana Torres Sánchez – Own work (Own photo), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Chichen Itza Mexico

Aerial view of Chichén Itzá (photo By Dronepicr – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

In the Post Classic, the Yucatán was conquered by Toltec warriors. Chichén Itzá in about 987 is ruled by Kulkucán, the Feathered Serpent, who arrives by sea, and is seen as a god as well as a ruler. Here there is a hybridization of the Maya and the Toltec art styles. The Castillo is a four-sided pyramid dedicated to the cult of Kulkucán, which was built over a series of underground cenotes, or sinkholes, and streams, possibly linking it to the Underworld. At the top of 4 stairways is the corbel-vaulted temple decorated with chac masks mixed with Toltec warriors. Inside this pyramid is an earlier pyramid with a stone throne in the form of a jaguar and a chacmool. There are also undulating snakes that do down one staircase, and are illuminated on the spring and fall equinoxes. The Temple of the Warriors is a building on a stepped pyramid surrounded by colonnaded halls, that is very reminiscent of Pyramid B at Tula. There is a chacmool at the top of the stairs, and the entrance is flanked by feathered serpents. The altar is held up by atlantean figures. There is also a large ballcourt at this site, with 2 dance platforms on either side as well as a tzompantli or skull rack. The reliefs at the ballcourt show the sacrifice of the losing team by the victorious one. There is also a scared cenote at the site in which people and objects were sacrificed.

Toltec-Maya, El Castillo (Pyramid of Kulkulkán), Chichén Itzá, and interior, 8th-12th century, (photo By Kate McGahan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By No machine-readable author provided. Rudolp assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., Public Domain,

Toltec-Maya, Pyramid of the Warriors, Chichén Itzá, 8th-12th centuries (photo By Lmbuga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, and By Sheila Piña – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Toltec-Maya, Great Ball Court, Chichén Itzá, (photo By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK – Ball CourtUploaded by tm, CC BY 2.0, and By Anagoria – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Toltec-Maya, Tzompantli and Sacred Cenote, Chichén Itzá, (photo By HJPD – Own work, CC BY 3.0, and By Anagoria – Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Aztec, Detail, Folio 65 of the Codex Mendoza, 1542 (photo By The author is unknown. It was commissioned by Antonio de Mendoza. – Codex Mendoza folio 65, Public Domain,

The Aztecs were a group of Nahuatl speakers who formed an empire across Mexico, with few autonomous enclaves. The empire was characterized by a high degree of economic specialization. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán was built on an island in the center of Lake Texcoco, and had a population at the time of conquest of about 200,000, larger than any Spanish city of the same period. The Aztecs adopted the Toltecs as their ancestors, and arrived in the Valley of Mexico from the north in the 13th century. Their histories said they were Chichimeca who migrated from their mythical homeland of Aztlán between 1111 and 1300. They were told by their principal deity, Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and war, that they were destined to rule the world, and that they should change their name to Mexica after the Valley of Mexico. They settled on the island in about 1337, and were at their height of power in 1502. They were conquered fully by the Spanish in 1521, with help from those who had been conquered as well as the Tlaxcallans, who were their fiercest enemies. The city of Tenochtitlán was built on chinampas, the floating gardens, which also were used for agriculture. These produced as many as 7 harvests per year, and were supplemented by food paid as tribute from conquered territories.


Chinampa at Xochimilco (photo By Jflo23 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Clothing, weapons, feathers, stones, and sacrifices were also paid as tribute. The chimanpas were built up by cutting the water vegetation to form the plots, with mud from the bottom of the canals as the topsoil. These were anchored by planting willows. Throughout the city, there were flower filled inner patios and gardens.



Aztec, Map of Tenochtitlán, Codex Mendoza, Folio 2r, 1542 (photo By Public Domain,



Tenochtitlán was built on a grid pattern, with canals forming the streets. The high ground of the center of the city formed the administrative and sacred center, the Sacred Precinct. This was dominated by the double temple of Huitzilolpochtli and Tlaloc. This precinct was surrounded by places of the royal line. There was a great marketplace close to the temple with the transactions monitored by market inspectors. Cacao beans, cotton cloaks, and transparent quills filled with gold dust formed the currencies. The market people were obligated to provide war provisions to the state, mainly in the form of dried and processed maize. Aztec society was made up of 20 ranked clans with many lineages, called calpolli. These were groups of families related by kinship and proximity. The elite members provided the commoners with land and/or occupations, and the commoners gave services and tribute in return. These calpolli also had ritual functions with their own temples and gods, as well as an association with a day in the 260-day calendar. Noblemen were called pililtin. Priests and imperial administrators came from the aristocratic class. These had use of official lands as well as their own. Priests were equivalent to western philosophers, and were celibate. Social stratification was not entirely rigid as commoners could distinguish themselves on the field of battle, and be given lands and titles as rewards.   Rulers of towns and cities as well as the emperor were called teteuhctin. In conquered cities, the indigenous tecuhtli were left in place, as were the nobles, although they were demoted to lower and middle rank officials. Slaves were mostly people who could not meet their financial obligation, and so pawned themselves for a time. Sometimes needy families would pawn some of their members. Slaves though could become prosperous. The emperor and his family were above the clans, and laborers were below them. Aztec society was patrilineal, and the emperor was elected from a group of nobles and considered to be a god. The pochtecas were a separate class. The pochtecas were responsible to the palace, and paid their tribute directly to the emperors in the form of goods. This clan was accessible only through hereditary membership. One of the gods specific to this class was Yacatecuhtli, Nose Lord, a deity with a long nose, often shown holding a traveler’s staff and a woven fan. All men, including priests, bore arms for the state. Militarism colored all aspects of life and thought. War was glorified, and it was war that helped to create the empire, which was also fought to gain sacrificial captives. There was also universal schooling for both sexes from the ages of 15-20, with the sexes strictly segregated.


Model of Tenochtitlán, Central Precinct (photo By Model_of_Tenochtitlan.jpg: Steve Cadman from London, U.K.derivative work: Joyborg (talk) – Model_of_Tenochtitlan.jpg, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Religious practice was in the hands of priests who were both influential and numerous. Their chief responsibility was a series of ritual ceremonies that occurred annually as well as the 52 year New Fire Ceremony.


Representation of the New Fire Ceremony from the Codex Borbonicus

This ceremony was celebrated at the close of every 52-year calendar round, and is the point at which the 5th sun could be destroyed. All fires were extinguished, and the priests watched from a hill to see the Pleiades cross the horizon, which meant the universe would continue. Fire was then rekindled in the chest of a sacrificed captive, and was then carried by runners throughout the empire. The gods were believed to have created the world through strenuous effort and dramatic sacrifice. Mortals were therefore in their debt, and were obliged to repay for fear their efforts would fail and the 5th sun would be destroyed. This could come at any critical juncture of the 52 year cycle, but could be forestalled by gifts of sacred energy. The mortals’ debt to the gods was repaid in blood, but the actual frequency of human sacrifice was inflated by the Spanish to justify colonization. The Aztecs also made use of the 365-day agricultural calendar with 20 months of 18 days and 5 nameless days, as well as the 260-day ritual calendar made up of 20 days intermeshed with the numbers 1-13. Spirits of warriors who died as sacrifices or in battle were believed to go instantly to the Paradise of the Sun God as did women who died in childbirth. All those who died in a manner associated with water, as well as those with dropsy or gout went to Tlalocan.

Aztec codicies dealt with history, astronomy and astrology, as well as lineages and tribute, through the use of pictographs and ideographs. Many of these were destroyed by the European invaders. The invaders also chronicled customs and beliefs, such as Sahagún, who worked with young nobles that would have become priests and produced the Florentine Codex, which gives one of the fullest accounts of Pre-Context Aztec life and ritual. Painting merged with calligraphy for codex illustration. Events are believed to be cyclical, and so everything that happens will happen again. Royal dynasties rewrote their own histories. There was a cosmic vision of the Aztec state and its place in the universe that could be rewritten as necessary.

The Aztecs produced and consumed much art. Art was comprised of 3 main components, a generalized, geometric propensity that was indigenously Aztec; a graphic, pictorial style borrowed from the Mixtec tradition; and architectural elements borrowed from the Toltecs. These other cultures were the intellectual and cultural forbearers of the Aztecs, and master craftsmen brought from these cultures were the primary producers of art. Humans and animals were generally depicted as naturalistic, while the gods were fierce and anthropomorphic, and generally portrayed with their attributes and in the color associated with them. Artisans worked in their homes as well as workshops. The arts of weaving and stoneworking were believed to have been taught to the Aztecs by Quetzalcoatl. The spectacular architecture was primarily religious, with huge stepped pyramids with wooden structures on top and large stone figures surrounding the base. The colossal figures were meant to be terrifying and reflect the power of the gods. Xochipilli is the god of summer and love, and is generally shown with hallucinogenic mushrooms and psychotropic plants on his regalia. Coyalxauhqui is the Moon Goddess, who fought a battle with her 400 star brothers against Huitzilopochtli meant to signify the victory of the sun over the moon and the stars. These were also brightly painted with mural frescoes. Small decorative and religious objects were also carved of wood or stone. Pottery was generally a black-on-orange were although other types were imported from different sections of the empire. Elaborate body decoration distinguished members of social levels as well as individuals, with body paint, jewelry, elaborate clothing, as well as perfumes and gum to freshen breath being used. Nobles also bathed, and held flower bouquets to their noses when they had to speak with the Spanish. The emperor would wear the most elaborate costume. Fiber arts of textiles were woven as well as embroidered, and decorated by tie-dying or with elaborate feather mosaics. Dance was also important, and both secular and sacred dances were done. Mosaics, such as the one on the top of the page, were also made of shell, turquoise, and semi-precious stones. Gold and silver objects were generally formed through lost-wax casting and repoussé. Jade was more valuable than silver or gold. The main subject matter of the arts was religion, since the goals of religion and politics were indistinguishable. Both were focused on repaying the debt to the deities, and fulfilling the promised destiny of world rule. Aztecs believed that all things were transient, and destined to be destroyed except for “flower and song,” art, meaning poetry, symbol, metaphor, and all with meaningful beauty. The tangible embodiment of the art will fade, but the essence will last forever. This art was given in return to the gods for favors, and was seen as a way for the creator of the art to gain immortality. Art was also given to those in society from whom you wanted favors. Art was believed to release the viewer from worry and care of everyday life if it engaged the mind and spirit.

Aztec, Coyolxauhqui and Mask of Xipe Totec, 1400-1521 (photo By miguelão –, CC BY-SA 2.0, and By Smuconlaw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

An estimated 24 million lives were lost in Mesoamerica between 1500 and 1600 due to disease, warfare, forced labor and massacres. Modern Mexicans and Chicanos looks to the Aztecs as a source of pride and authenticity.


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