Friday, October 18, 2019

Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno

Excellent guide to a fascinating civilization
For anyone interested in archaeology, the “Handbook to Life” series published by Oxford University Press is an excellent collection of comprehensive books on ancient civilizations. If your interests lie in Mexican history or the archaeology of the Americas, the 2006 volume Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno is an excellent resource loaded with fascinating detail.

The Aztec Empire is also known as the Triple Alliance because it was established by three city-states: Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan. While most of the book focuses on this central core of the Aztec civilization, the opening chapters give a broader overview of pre-Columbian Native cultures throughout Mexico. Aguilar-Moreno discusses the earlier civilizations that influenced the Aztecs, such as the Olmec, the Toltec, and Teotihucan. The origins of the Mexica, who would later settle in Tenochtitlan to become known as Aztecs, are examined from both mythical and archaeological perspectives. Also discussed are many of the other Native cultures throughout Mexico with which the Aztecs came into contact. The Maya are barely mentioned, however, because the series has another excellent book on that subject: Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World by Lynn Foster. The Spanish conquest is covered in depth throughout the book. The final chapter gives a concise history of Mexico from the demise of the Aztec Empire to the present, with special notice given to the present state of the Indigenous population.

After the opening historical and geographical overviews, the book delivers a series of thematic chapters examining different aspects of Aztec life. Topics discussed include warfare, clothing, food, astronomy and mathematics, economy and trade, and the role of women in Aztec society. The book is especially strong on the religion and philosophy of the Aztecs, giving you an idea of the underlying belief system that permeated every aspect of daily life, including the practice of human sacrifice for which the Aztecs are notorious. Aguilar-Moreno reveals a society in many ways more sophisticated than its European conquerors. The chapters on art, architecture, and literature are heavily illustrated with photographs and line drawings of archaeological sites, artifacts from the Museo Nacional de Antropología, and codices of Nahutl pictographic writing. The book concludes eloquently with a selection of Aztec poetry translated into English.

While it seems intended as a text for undergraduate courses, this book is perfectly accessible to general readers, armchair archaeologists, and Mexicophiles. Because of the textbook organization, there is a fair bit of repetition of information. For example, major battles discussed in the historical overview are also discussed in the section on warfare. Such repetition never becomes annoying, however, and only serves to reinforce the lessons learned, as any textbook should. The thematic presentation also strengthens the book’s usefulness as a reference guide.

This book was published in 2006, and there have no doubt been archaeological discoveries since then that may call some of the information here into question. But has a more comprehensive, well-organized, and accessible overview of the Aztec civilization been published since? Experts in the field might quibble with some of the details, but for the vast majority of interested readers this handbook is an excellent and educational read. If you require further information on any of the topics discussed, the book cites an extensive list of references for further study.
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