Monday, 30 November 2009

Montezuma's Revenge

We went to see the Moctezuma show at the British Museum this weekend, and pop in on the Staffordshire Hoard upstairs (which hopefully will find a better permanent home in the Midlands before too long), and highly enjoyable it was too. I was surprised how much came back from our honeymoon in Mexico a decade ago, and there was a pleasing combination of big artefacts, interesting details and thoughtful scripting, unafraid to flag up up areas of uncertainty and possible problems with some of the source texts for its story.

The Christianisation of Aztec artefacts brought back very clearly the sight of a young girl from a shanty town stealthily begarlanding a stone at the Mayan ruins of Coba while a Catholic Mass was performed in a nearby shack- the same fusing of traditions that gives us shrines to the Virgin Mary, and Christian holidays exactly where strangely similar pagan alternatives existed.

One particularly interesting detail that slowly emerged going around the show was the Aztecs' offering of images to the Chthonic gods (it's a lovely looking word isn't it? It just means underground but is worth learning for Scrabble) on the underside of things- on boundary markers, beneath sculptures, on the bottom of incense burners etc.
It shows a deep attachment to the power of the Earth and opens up an imaginative world we don't often engage with – it's easy for us to imagine people drawing patterns on a plain for Sky Gods to look at, but we rarely flip the idea over.

Do go if you get the chance.

One nerdy criticism I'd have is that the big AV projections didn't really do much for me- and I became suspicious of the sound design for them with constant repetition. There was a single plaintive trumpet note repeated which I became more and more convinced was actually from the famous old recording of King Tutankhamun's trumpet, and thus, while evocative and historical and all that, was somehow cheating.

You've probably heard Tutankhamun's trumpet yourself, possibly here, maybe on an old BBC Chronicle documentary, or perhaps more likely (given my readers) being used by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Delia Derbyshire built a piece around it, it stood in for the Atlantean trumpets in Doctor Who The Time Monster and was also used for the Magrathean answer machine in the radio version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I admire you for already knowing all that and am backing away slowly.

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