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Feathered headdress

The stunning feathered headdress, a replica of an Aztec artifact, showcases the rich culture and long-distance trade of the Aztec empire. Made from quetzal feathers and gold, it reflects the importance of costume in Aztec rituals. After the Spanish conquest, this artistic tradition continued, but with a shift towards Christian iconography.

Feathered headdress, Aztec, reproduction (National Anthropology Museum, Mexico City) Original: Feathered headdress, Mexico, Aztec, early 16th century, quetzal, cotinga, roseate spoonbill, piaya feathers; wood, fibers, amate paper, cotton, gold, gilded brass (World Museum, Vienna)

A conversation with Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris

Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano) - [Voiceover] We're in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, looking at an amazingly beautiful feathered headdress. - [Voiceover] This is a replica of a feathered headdress that's currently in the museum in Vienna, sent to Europe by Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador who defeated the Aztecs. - [Voiceover] So, Cortes comes in with his army of Spanish soldiers, conquers the Aztec people, and is overwhelmed by the beauty of much of what he sees, especially these feathered objects, and sends a lot of them back to Spain to Charles V. I can see why he would send these objects back. There's nothing like it in Spain that I can think of. - [Voiceover] And even though this is a replica, it gives us a really good sense of what some of these feather objects would have looked like. And you have these stunning quetzal tail feathers, which only come from the male quetzal, and we see so many of them, and usually the bird only has two, three tail feathers. So these come from a lot of different quetzals, a kind of bird that you find in Central America. Places like Costa Rica. So what this is speaking to is the long distance trade that's happening as well as tribute items that are sent back to the Aztec capitol of Tenochtitlan. - [Voiceover] So the Aztecs have an empire with lots of cities that they've conquered, and what they exact from those cities is luxury goods, and that includes feathers, that includes textiles, cacao, shells, and they're all coming to the capitol of the empire, which is actually here in what is present-day Mexico City, but was then Tenochtitlan, did I say that right? - [Voiceover] Almost, Tenochtitlan. - [Voiceover] So the feathers, we have to imagine, as part of an entire costume, and in so much Aztec art, we see not only the feather headdress, but we see paper ornaments, we see other kinds of elaborate aspects of costume that were part of rituals, part of performances. - [Voiceover] Costume was incredibly important to the Aztecs, as it was to many Meso-American cultures. And what's unfortunate for us is we're seeing this here as a static item. But imagine feathers with this beautiful iridescence, shimmering in the light and moving with wind, and being danced and able to transform the ruler wearing this into something else entirely. If you see where you're supposed to place this on top of your head, and then you see the extent to which the feathers radiate outwards, it's almost like your identity becomes less important than what you're wearing. - [Voiceover] You're completely subsumed by this costume. - [Voiceover] And besides these gorgeous quetzal feathers, what we have here are pure gold ornaments as well as other colors of feathers like a beautiful turquoise blue. - [Voiceover] The people who made this lived in a special quarter of the capitol. - [Voiceover] They were called in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, amanteca, feather workers. And they were highly regarded, and after the Spanish conquest when people like Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquistador, encountered objects like this, they were so impressed, that this is actually a type of artistic production that doesn't cease with the conquest, but what we do see is a shift in subject matter. Instead of say, making ritual headdresses like this, we see objects that display Christian iconography. Very close to the feathered headdress here in the museum, we see a replica of a chalice covering that is made of feathers, and if we're looking at the subject matter, it looks very Aztec. We see water glyphs, and what looks like a ray of fire and a strange kind of mouth, or symbols that are very unfamiliar to us, in other words. And this is the beginning of a reinterpretation of Christian iconography using Aztec glyphs. - [Voiceover] So we have a coming together of these two cultures, a hybrid art form. A chalice is something that we see in Christian rituals, it's the vessel that contained the wine that becomes the blood of Christ during Mass. And so this coming together of these two very different cultures, but Aztec culture forced to become a Christian culture by the Spanish. (jazz piano)