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“Conflicting Economic and Sacred Values in Aztec Culture”

turquoise aztec mask

In Aztec society jade, tropical feathers, gold, and turquoise, were prized for reasons that involved competing notions of “moral economy,” according to Igor Kopytoff’s definition of the term. For the Aztecs, these materials and objects made from them were valued both for their inherent sacred powers in traditional ideology, and for their powers as objects of wealth and prestige in a rapidly growing commercial economy. A reexamination of Aztec myths and tales reveals the state’s official stance — that sacred powers took priority and that only members of the high nobility were prepared by birth and training to manipulate these powers.  This, of course was a hard sell to other groups in Aztec society, and the official justifications, which are addressed to these others as well as the nobility, involve complex arguments, sometimes disingenuous, aimed at maintaining a type of status quo.


Emily Umberger received her PhD from Columbia University with a dissertation titled “Aztec Sculptures, Hieroglyphs, and History.” She earned her Master's Degree in Spanish and Latin American Art History from The University of Texas at Austin in 1973. Her principal teaching positions were at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, where she taught Spanish, Latin American Colonial, Precolumbian, and general Non-Western art history. She retired from the University of Arizona last year. 

She has published articles on the Spanish court artist Diego Velazquez and on Mexican colonial art and architecture. More numerous and recent are publications on the Aztecs, including two books co-authored with archaeologists and anthropologists, Aztec Imperial Strategies (1996) and Ethnic Identity in Nahua Mesoamerica (2008). Articles include studies of individual Aztec monuments, archaizing in sculptures and architecture, the calendar and its relationship to Aztec ideas about history, political metaphors in sculpture, and art in the provinces of the Aztec empire.  In her work she combines the data of art with that of archaeology, anthropology, and history.  Her present project is on the colony site of Calixtlahuaca with a team directed by the archaeologist Michael Smith of Arizona State University.