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Ancient Mexico: Maya, Aztec, and Teotihuacan

  • Image of "Mask, Diadem, and Necklace of the Red Queen, Maya late 7th century; found at Temple 13, Palenque; Palenque Site Museum, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier"

    Mask, Diadem, and Necklace of the Red Queen, Maya
    late 7th century; found at Temple 13, Palenque; Palenque Site Museum, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier

    Japanese Archaeology and Special Exhibition (Heiseikan) Special Exhibition Galleries
    June 16, 2023 (Fri) - September 3, 2023 (Sun)

    Among the thirty-five World Heritage sites in Mexico, the ruins of ancient cities are especially popular. For over 3,000 years, from the 15th century BC until the Spanish conquest in the 16th century AD, unique civilizations adapted to and flourished in Mexico’s diverse environments. This exhibition focuses on three major civilizations — the Maya, Aztec, and Teotihuacan — while presenting ancient treasures from leading Mexican museums together with findings from the latest excavations. The exhibition delves into the mystery and allure of these civilizations by examining ancient peoples’ prayers to gods and nature, and their unique worldviews and aesthetics.

Highlights of the Exhibition


Chapter One—Invitation to Ancient Mexico

The first hunter-gatherers to reach North America migrated from Siberia over 13,000 years ago. Some groups continued southward across the continent, taking a long and meandering journey that eventually brought them to the region today known as Mexico. Over the subsequent millennia, they adapted to their new home’s diverse ecosystems and established sedentary villages that subsisted on a wide range of plants and animals. As time passed, these grew into agrarian societies that supported the development of distinct ethnic groups across the region.

An early example of such a group is the Olmec civilization, which emerged along the Gulf of Mexico around 1500 BC. In parallel, other core settlements began to appear in the Central Mexican Highlands and the Oaxaca region. Their rulers oversaw the construction of monumental buildings and the development of astronomy, calendars, and writing systems. Eventually, these settlements gave rise to major cities. Some of the most prominent examples of ancient Mexico’s urban societies include the Maya, the Aztec, and the enigmatic civilization that inhabited the city of Teotihuacan.


Domesticated maize was a critical crop in the Americas along with chili peppers, pumpkins, and tomatoes. Maize played a fundamental role in urban societies. It was consumed as a grain and in fermented beverages and was also worshipped as a deity associated with rain and fertility.

Astronomy and Calendars

Mesoamerican societies made meticulous astronomical observations to forecast the rainy and dry seasons, which were of immense importance in crop cultivation. They accurately identified the cycles of the sun, moon, the planet Venus, and even solar and lunar eclipses. Early Mesoamericans developed several different kinds of calendars, including a 365-day calendar based on solar cycles and a 260-day ritual calendar believed to be based on the human gestation period.

Ball Games

Games using rubber balls were played in a variety of ballcourts. Depending on the rules, players might use their hips, gloves, or sticks to hit the ball. Ball games were played early on in Mesoamerican history, not just as spectator sports but as parts of religious rites involving human sacrifice and diplomatic ceremonies.

Human Sacrifice

The practice of human sacrifice in ancient Mexico was based on the moral concept that the gods sacrificed themselves to ensure the continuation of all things, and thus humans should also be willing to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others. As a show of power, some states employed more shocking methods of sacrifice, including decapitation and removing the hearts of living victims.


Chapter Two—Teotihuacan: City of Gods

The city of Teotihuacan was founded around 100 BC and flourished until close to AD 550. It was located in the Central Mexican Highlands, in a basin approximately 2,300 meters (7,500 feet) above sea level. The city had an urban area of nearly 25 square kilometers (9.5 square miles) and housed as many as 100,000 inhabitants. Teotihuacan was home to an enigmatic civilization, and much remains unknown about its ethnic groups, languages, and writing systems.

Archaeologists believe Teotihuacan was a major religious site and that its layout reflects the ideological worldview of its inhabitants. The Avenue of the Dead was the city’s central artery, and pyramids, ritual spaces, palaces, and other structures were meticulously placed around it. Recent research has gradually revealed a more complete picture of Teotihuacan. In its heyday, it was the bustling urban center of a multiethnic state, attracting people and goods from across the region. Teotihuacan was a cosmopolitan city that exerted influence on nearly every corner of the Mesoamerican world.

©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología. INAH-CANON
Circular sculpture with the face of death
AD 300–550
Sun Plaza, Sun Pyramid, Teotihuacan
National Museum of Anthropology
©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología. INAH-CANON
Avian effigy vessel
AD 250–550
La Ventilla, Teotihuacan
National Museum of Anthropology


Chapter Three—Maya: The Rise and Fall of City-States

Around the first century, dynasties associated with royal tombs and stone monuments with carved inscriptions began to form in the Maya region. From about AD 250 to 950, the region had a thriving urban culture, exemplified by its pyramids and other public architecture as well as its sophisticated calendars and group rituals.

Located in the tropical lowlands, Maya cities were unable to store food for prolonged periods, and political authorities had difficulty in controlling economies and maintaining large armies. Instead, they relied on public rituals and monumental construction projects to foster a collective identity. The main responsibilities of Maya rulers were to build ceremonial spaces and perform calendrical rituals. Rulers derived additional power and status through stone monuments with inscriptions honoring their achievements.

The Maya region was never politically unified, and city-states rose and fell as they fought for power. This occasionally included warfare, but rulers also forged friendly relations through trade and the exchange of diplomatic envoys.

©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Archivo Digital de las Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología. INAH-CANON
Toniná Monument 171
c. AD 727
Palace of Water, Acropolis, Toniná
National Museum of Anthropology
©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Foto: Michel Zabé
Mask, Diadem, and Necklace of the Red Queen
late 7th century; 
found at Temple 13, Palenque; Palenque Site Museum, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier


Chapter Four—Aztec: Great Temple of Tenochtitlan

The Mexica and other Nahuatl-speaking people from northern Mesoamerica arrived in the Central Mexican Highlands in the thirteenth century. They established the Aztec Empire and used the fear and awe that their sacred capital Tenochtitlan inspired in outsiders to assert political and economic hegemony.

The city center housed the great temple of Templo Mayor. It was flanked by two other temples that emulated the pictorial and architectural styles of Teotihuacan, which was by then no more than a memory from the distant past. The Aztec intentionally claimed the same mythological heritage as Teotihuacan as a means of associating themselves with a renowned civilization from the Classic period. They did this to invoke the protection of a great civilization from the past while also legitimizing their position as the rightful heirs to world domination. The Mexica not only used religious ideologies and military strength to solidify their rule but also drew on the powerful legacy of an ancient culture.

©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Museo del Templo Mayor
Eagle Warrior sculpture
AD 1469–86
House of the Eagles, Templo Mayor
Templo Mayor Museum
©Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-MEX. Museo del Templo Mayor
Tláloc pot
AD 1440–69
Offering 56, Templo Mayor 
Templo Mayor Museum


General Information

Period June 16-September 3, 2023
Venue Heiseikan, Tokyo National Museum (Ueno Park)
Hours 9:30-17:00
*Last admission 30 minutes before closing.
*Until 19:00 on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays (except for Sept. 3)
*Until 17:00 on September 3
*Regular exhibitions close at 17:00
Closed Mondays and July 18 (except for July 17 and August 14)

Visitors can view this exhibition without making reservations. Tickets may also be purchased at the ticket counter, but you may be asked to wait if the exhibition is crowded.

Adults: ¥2,200 (¥2,000)
University students: ¥1,400 (¥1,200)
High school students: ¥1,000 (¥800)
Junior high school students and under: Free

  • *Prices in parentheses indicate discount ticket prices for advance purchase.
  • *Persons with disabilities are admitted free with one accompanying person each (please present an ID at the ticket booth).
  • *Visitors with tickets for this exhibition may also view the regular exhibitions on the day of their visit at no extra charge.
  • *Advance tickets are available for purchase at museum ticket booths (during museum opening hours, excluding the last 30 minutes) and other major ticketing agencies from May 16 to June 15, 2023. SOLD OUT
Access 10-minute walk from JR Ueno Station (Park exit) and Uguisudani Station
15-minute walk from Keisei Ueno Station, Tokyo Metro Ueno Station and Tokyo Metro Nezu Station
Organizers Tokyo National Museum, NHK, NHK Promotions Inc., The Asahi Shimbun
With the Sponsorship of NISSHA Co., Ltd.
With the Support of Aeromexico
With the Assistance of Embassy of Mexico
With the Planning Cooperation of    
Secretariat of Culture of Mexico, National Institute of Anthropology and History
Catalog The exhibition catalog (2,800 yen) is available at the Heiseikan Special Exhibition Shop and at the museum shop in Honkan (Japanese Gallery).
General Inquiries 050-5541-8600 (Hello Dial)
Exhibition Website https://mexico2023.exhibit.jp/




Related Events

Children's Day in the Ancient Mexico Exhibition

Date: August 7, 2023
Time: 9:00-15:30 *Last admission 30 minutes before closing.

August 7 (Monday) is Children's Day in the Ancient Mexico Exhibition.
Only children and their guardians can view the exhibition.
Guardians (high school students and above) require tickets to the special exhibition.

* Adults (high school students and older) alone cannot enter the exhibition without children for this event.
* Regular exhibition will be closed.