Archaeological Ethics: Moctezuma’s Headdress


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Archaeological Ethics: Moctezuma’s Headdress



Back to History

Characteristics about Moctezuma’s Headdress

Elaboration of the Moctezuma’s Headdress

Controversy about the Moctezuma’s Headdress




“I confide to your care my beloved children, the most precious jewels I can leave you. The great monarch beyond the ocean will interest himself to see that they come into their inheritance, if you present before him their just claims. I know your master will do this, if for no other reason, then for kindness I have shown the Spaniards though it has occasioned my ruin. For all my misfortunes, Malinche, I bear you ill will” Moctezuma.

The history of the countries is what represents us daily; traditions, mores and beliefs are signs of the countries, that unique which differentiate one for other. Some artifacts symbolize this uniqueness and the cultural heritage that many artifacts bring to the countries is immense, irreplaceable and full of beauty. Its legacy must be preserved in the best way and it is a responsibility of everyone to take care of these objects.

This project aims to explore the Mexican history specially the Aztecs and the reign of Moctezuma when the Spanish conquers arrive to Mexico headed by Hernán Cortés. With this conquer there is a special item that stand out from the culture and has been a figure of controversy for a long time now. This is the Moctezuma’s Headdress; nowadays its location is in the Nacional Museum in Vienna. This project also will touch the point of view of the Mexicans and if is fair enough to come back to Mexico or stay in Austria its country for the past years.

Back to History

Mexico is recognized as a vast country, rich from culture and history. From all the different cultures that Mexico has, an important and a powerful one is the Aztec culture.

The Aztecs were known as those who first settled in Texcoco Lake (what today we called Mexico City) guided by their god Huitzilopochtli (History, 2014). After many years of reign and growth, in 1519 Spanish ships came to the Mexican territory in search for gold or new territories to extend is power (Gonzalez y Gonzalez, 2009).

Spanish conquers first arrive to Veracruz, and slowly move to Tenochtitlan ruled by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. On the morning of November 8, 1519 the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II and the Spanish colonist Hernán Cortés had their first meeting; Moctezuma believed that Hernán Cortés was the ancient god Quetzalcóatl, and he was coming back for his territory (Cartwright, 2013). The Aztecs received their conquers friendly but after two years of living with the Aztecs the Spanish conquers destroy most of Tenochtitlan under the command of Hernán Cortés; Moctezuma was prisoner and killed, which is historically called “La noche triste”. This created that Spanish people escaped to Spain, with them, millions of Tenochtitlan artifacts were shipped outside Mexico. One of the artifacts involved was the Moctezuma’s headdress and together with many other artifacts they began its journey. This lead that many of them were lost in the travel or steal, there is no a certain amount of how many of them where involved and how many of them are lost today.

The first official apparition of Moctezuma’s headdress was on 1596 in an inventory of the Archduke Ferdinand II of Tirol (located in Ambras Castle (Schloss Ambras Innsbruck, 2014)), but because of the Napoleonic Wars these relics were moved to the Belvedere Castle in Vienna for their protection (Rivero & Feest, El Penacho del México Antiguo, 2012).

In 1878 the Moctezuma’s headdress was rediscovered by a geologist Ferdinand von Hochstetter, it was founded badly damaged and because of this, he ordered the restoration and replaced at the Museum of Natural History in Vienna (Rivero & Feest, Shared Heritage: The Ancient Mexican Feather Headdress in Vienna, 2012).

When the World War I began the museum closes his doors and reopens until March 1915, finishing this stage the objects were moved to the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna where there stay until October 19, 1940, having the beginning of World WarII, they were moved and saved in the vault of the National Bank in Austria. Until the end of the World WarII these artifacts were left in the National Bank, later they were replaced to the Museum of Ethnology, since then, its home.

At this time, a reproduction of the Moctezuma’s headdress was created by Francisco Moctezuma, but because of what was happening in the world and the amount of money that the Austrian government was asking for, he did the reproduction with a painting, this is actually on the National Museum of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

Characteristics about Moctezuma’s Headdress

Moctezuma’s headdress is part of the Mexican feather craft; is consider an important sign of nationalism because of its tradition, beauty, complexity, technology and the colorful of their materials that are from ancient species founded in many Mexican cultures.

The feather craft was created to represent the range for the upper rules, priests and successful warriors; they wear them as a sign of respect, wisdom and dignity. Since the moment of births through death, feathers have been part of the daily life of the Mexica, at the moment of the birth, deliver a feather symbolizes power, honor and welcome; for the death, feathers were part of the property that the deceased take with. (Rivero & Feest, El arte plumario en el Mexico del sigo XVI, 2012).

Elaboration of the Moctezuma’s Headdress

It was created in the XVI century by craftsmen called “amantecas”. At the front of the headdress we can appreciate four different colors from different types of species (green, brown, red and blue). At the back there are more green feathers crisscrossed perfectly to the structure, it has a height of 116 centimeters and 175 in diameter (Welt Museum Wien, 2014).

The feathers were collected when the birds change of skin after certain care and without harming them. The creation of the “Penacho” was very difficult and it involved a lot of people to create this piece of art, from goldsmiths to artisans. It also had a lot of different techniques to its elaboration, like noodles and an especial art in form of mosaic. It contains 1,594 pieces of goldsmith (80% gold, 10 % silver, 3% copper) (Olvido Moreno, 2013). Its creation was extremely careful and it was guided by an expert called tlatoani, who was in charge of supervision and final details. Because of its structure it allows the piece to be flexible, resistant, dynamic and light; these created that anyone can wear it for hours without getting tired.

Controversy about the Moctezuma’s Headdress

Nowadays there are a lot of historic items and works of art displayed in museums around the world, but the real question is if those artifacts should return to its village/city/town of origin? And if they return to their origins what would the old country, which has it before, have it back? Those questions has become an important issue when archeologic items are founded or recovered, mainly because those artifacts were founded in other countries far from their origins.

The Moctezuma’s Headdress piece has been an incredible sign of controversy between Mexico and Austria for many years. It had been the center of views, discussions and negotiations between both governments, but without having success. Since Mexico fought against its independency, they have been trying to get it back. The latest to official requesting its return was the Mexican president Felipe Calderon. On February, 2010 he proposed, with the collaboration of the National Institute of Anthropology and History and the Museum of Ethnology in Austria, to develop a project in which their aim was to create a scientific analysis of the piece, with the purpose of determine its conditions and to know the proper procedures of restoration that will allow the transport of the masterpiece to Mexico (Conaculta, 2011). With this project there was also taking into consideration a loan by exchange of the float of Maximilian of Habsburg, which is exhibit in Mexico City in Chapultepec Castle, together with other artifacts that represent the government of Austria.

But after a hard and extensive research that last three years, in which specialist could review, analyze and investigate the Moctezuma headdress; the representatives of both countries (Maria Moreno from Mexico and Melanie Kim from Austria) announced that it cannot be moved from one country to other without affecting their structure (Amador, 2014). An advanced technology in which the vibrations of the travel are rejected to affect the piece of art is required. Until this technology is reached the best option is that the Moctezuma’s Headdress stays in Vienna Austria.

Based on the interview with the Dr. Moreno, the research helps the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna to change and improve the preservation and conservation of the master piece. Before the restoration the piece of art was exposed at 90º, like a painting, but then it change to a horizontal position 22.5º, this way tourists can have a better appreciation of this piece and also it would not affect its structure; finally she said that if it is kept under the conditions of light control, microclimate and control of vibrations, the bet is that we have “Penacho” for 500 years more (Olvido Moreno, 2013). What is for sure is Mexico and Vienna has already agreed to exchange goods that represent both countries, in order to rich culturally and historical these countries.


This headdress piece is a really important artifact that contains extended information about how were the Aztec culture and its traditions. Is a sign of beauty, wealth and power for the Mexican culture, it forms part of Mexicans, but we cannot deny that it also form part of Austrians because for all the history behind it. It represents the Mexican culture completely and improving in technology would really give the opportunity for Mexicans to get that cultural heritage with such a big importance and influence in the history of Mexico.

The exchange of the pieces will also be valuable for both countries, because it will bring value for Mexicans and Austrians and also it will not create conflict between the countries. The tourism that both pieces of art represent for the countries is huge and its one of the important aspects to consider, it can generate more because of the important and historical value of the objects.

From my point of view, I consider the fact that both are precious artifacts, they symbolize an incredible value of tradition and culture that are located far away from its roots. But considering the risks of moving them, this can affect its structure permanently, making it vulnerable and without opportunity to recover. The best option is to wait until technology is advanced at the point the travel can be done without affecting the artifact; creating a win-win situation in which both countries have something in exchange that will rich culturally, historically and touristic.

The Austrian-Mexican binational commission studying the Ancient Mexican Feather Headdress, February 2010


Amador, J. (2014, June 3). Mitos y verdades del Penacho de Moctezuma, documental de Jaime Kuri. Retrieved October 27, 2014, from Proceso:

Cartwright, M. (2013, October 10). Montezuma. Retrieved October 26, 2014, from Ancient History Encyclopedia:

Conaculta. (2011, January 17). Mexico negocia el retorno temporal del Penacho de Moctezuma. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia:

Gonzalez y Gonzalez, L. (2009). Los pueblos indigenas a la llegada de los españoles. In Viaje por la historia de México (pp. 10-13). Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Clío.

History. (2014). Mexico Timeline. Retrieved October 27, 2014, from History:

Olvido Moreno, M. (2013, September 7). El Penacho de Moctezuma. Restauraciones de los siglos XIX y XXI. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from Youtube:

Rivero, L., & Feest, C. (2012). El arte plumario en el Mexico del sigo XVI. Retrieved October 27, 2014, from Reseach Gate :

Rivero, L., & Feest, C. (2012). El Penacho del México Antiguo. Retrieved October 27, 2014, from Research Gate :

Rivero, L., & Feest, C. (2012). Shared Heritage: The Ancient Mexican Feather Headdress in Vienna. Retrieved October 28, 2014, from Research Gate:

Schloss Ambras Innsbruck. (2014). Ambras Castle. Retrieved October 27, 2014, from Schloss Ambras Innsbruck:

Welt Museum Wien. (2014). North and Central America: History of the collection. Retrieved October 29, 2014, from Welt Museum Wien:


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