The Aztec culture is a famous and ancient one, with roots dating back to 1200 B.C. When they were encountered by Spaniards in Mesoamerica in the 14th through 16th centuries, Aztecs were a wandering tribe of people that eventually settled in the Mexican valley where they founded Tenochtitlan. Today, that city is called Mexico City and is one of the most populated in the world. Artefacts recovered from Aztec culture in Tenochtitlan include pottery, jewellery, tools and ceremonial masks. Arts and crafts projects involving masks offer students an avenue for understanding this important culture and help them become aware of highly advanced non-European civilisations.
Aztec people created masks for use during religious ceremonies. Masks were also used after death and as decoration. They were placed over mummified heads to protect the deceased from dangers they may encounter in the afterlife. They often featured intricate patterns and bright coral and turquoise colours. In addition to talking with your students about the uses for Aztec masks, show them pictures of authentic masks to help them gain an idea of the intricacy involved in them.
Aztec mosaic masks
Making an Aztec mosaic mask is a simple way to help students explore the Aztec culture. Use a simple paper bowl or plate as the foundation for the mask. Allow students to trim or fold the mask into any shape they want. Encourage them to cut noses and eyes to glue or tape onto the base to add facial features and dimension to the mask. Use coloured modelling clay to create coral and turquoise shades similar to those used by Aztecs in their ceremonial masks. Allow the clay to dry overnight. The next day, cut the clay into small pieces to create mosaic tiles that can be arranged and glued to the paper foundation to complete the masks. Let tiled masks air-dry for two days.
Ceramic or wood masks
Since masks were often made of black stone, wood, obsidian or even human skulls, another Aztec art project could use clay to create three-dimensional masks. Have students look at pictures of Aztec masks and sketch out what they want to create. Then, help them use clay to form the shape of the mask. Allow the masks to bake in a kiln, and when dry, have students paint them with a dark base and raised, bright colours. Encourage students to try to replicate designs seen in actual masks such as closed eyes, large spoon-like ears and open mouths. Or, you may choose to introduce students to Aztec culture and wood carving by working on a long-term craft project that requires them to carve a mask out of a piece of wood.
Aztec mask printables
An appropriate assignment for young children may be to print off outlines of Aztec masks and allow children to colour them. First discuss Aztec culture with the children and talk about what masks were used for. Show them pictures of actual masks or bring in posters of masks and put them up in class. Print off the sheets and ask children to colour the masks like the ones depicted in the posters or pictures you provided. Or, you may want to print off a pre-coloured mask and allow children to cut them out. You can punch two holes (one on either side) and tie a piece of string through the holes for children to wear the masks.