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Under Mexico City

Templo Mayor

By ROGER ATWOOD

Monday, June 09, 2014

Mexico-City-Templo-Mayor-TodayTemplo Mayor When the Spaniards arrived in Tenochtitlan in 1519, the Aztec capital’s main shrine stood 150 feet high. Little still stands of that building today because the Spaniards demolished it and used its blocks to build their own cathedral, known as the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, within sight of the remains of the once soaring temple. Possibly unknown to the Spaniards, however, at least six earlier versions of the Templo Mayor still lay underneath the structure they destroyed, the result of each successive ruler building his own temple on top of the previous one.

 

Since the early 1980s, archaeologists have been delving into those earlier layers, gaining a look at how the Aztecs worshipped decades before the conquest. Because these remains had been buried since the 1400s, they are giving researchers an unprecedented look at classical Aztec society. One of the first artifacts they excavated was a monumental stone disk dating from an early phase of the temple’s construction, around 1400, depicting the moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, a figure from the Aztec creation myth. In the legend, the goddess was decapitated and dismembered at the hands of her brother Huitzilopochtli as punishment for disrespecting their pregnant mother. Archaeologists have concluded from the chopped-off human limbs and heads excavated near the temple’s base that the grisly scene was reenacted regularly at Huitzilopochtli’s altar on the summit. Rows of skulls made of stone and stucco, still visible today, had their counterparts in actual skulls excavated nearby.

 

Mexico-City-Moon-Goddess-DiscDisk depicting the moon goddessThe carnal nature of Aztec worship has long intrigued researchers, in part because its focus on blood-drenched sacrifice in the public square had few parallels in other Mesoamerican societies. Scholars suggest that the elites may have felt insecure in their power, and responded with these grandiose, intimidating rituals. “You get a sense of who ran society and how they made themselves loom large over it, monumentalizing themselves, and how they expressed power with these acts,” says Harvard University historian David Carrasco. Sacrifice was also closely linked to warfare—the victims were mostly battlefield captives—and thus to economic domination over neighboring states, explains archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma.

 

The greatest Aztec conqueror of them all, Ahuítzotl, was cremated upon his death in 1502 and his ashes placed in an urn at the base of the temple, according to sixteenth-century accounts. Archaeologists thought they might be close to finding his remains in 2006 when they excavated a stone inscribed with the year 10 Rabbit in the Aztec system (which corresponds to A.D. 1502) along with artifacts suggesting an elite burial. They now think that the urn with Ahuítzotl’s ashes had actually been dug up in 1900 by Mexican archaeologist Leopoldo Batres, who did not know he’d struck the Templo Mayor. At that time, the neighborhood around the buried ruins had few houses and a reputation for bad omens and ill spirits, likely a remnant of the site’s bloody history, says archaeologist Raúl Barrera.

Plaza Manuel Gamio

By ROGER ATWOOD

Monday, June 09, 2014

Mexico-City-Temple-Cremation-PlatformCremation platformDespite their reputation for violence, the Aztecs had a finely honed taste for the delicate, the exquisite, and the fragrant. They adored flowers, perfumes, brightly painted walls, and epic poetry. In 2009, archaeologists began uncovering artifacts and human remains beneath a quiet square adjoining the Templo Mayor site, known as Plaza Manuel Gamio. These excavations have already yielded a great deal of information about Aztec life, death, and worship. Included within the burials, beneath a volcanic stone used for human sacrifices similar to those described by the Spaniards, were five human skulls with holes bored into their temples. In the time of the emperor Moctezuma I, who reigned from 1440 to 1469, the skulls had been placed side by side on a stake and displayed publicly in a structure known as a tzompantli, or “skull banner.” Botanical remains demonstrated that the skulls had once been adorned with delicate cornflowers, cotton blossoms, and cactus thorns. Laboratory tests concluded that the five skulls belonged to three women and two men, all young adults whose skulls were perforated postmortem. Analysis of the isotopic content of their teeth indicates that three of them had spent their childhoods far from the Aztec capital, probably in southern Mexico, suggesting they were migrants to the city or prisoners of war.

 

Mexico-City-Copal-ResinCopal figurine Nearby, researchers found a statuette of a seated woman made entirely of copal, an intensely aromatic tree resin that, more than 500 years later in the PAU laboratory, still emits the sweet, eucalyptus-like aroma that perfumed the dead. And a few feet away, in a contemporaneous deposit, archaeologists found 47 sahumadores, or clay incense pots, all meticulously arranged in rows and showing signs of intensive use. The long, protruding handles of some pots contained tiny pellets that, when the pots were moved, made a sound like a rattlesnake. Aztec priests are believed to have packed these incense pots with coal, copal, and other aromatic substances for use in ceremonies that filled the senses and masked the odor of death. “They used incense to sweeten the air, but also to purify the space and please the gods,” says Lorena Vázquez, a PAU archaeologist. According to Vázquez, the pots also held some kind of protein, possibly human blood.

 


A more grisly find awaited archaeologists a few feet away—the skulls, jawbones, and vertebrae of about 500 people, including at least 10 children, in two tightly packed deposits. Before they were buried under an altar, the bones had been painstakingly prepared. They were stripped of their flesh and, judging from weathering stains, dried outdoors before burial, says María García Velasco, a PAU conservator. “These people weren’t thrown there like garbage,” she explains. “They were treated carefully, as befitting a ceremonial burial.” Surprisingly, Velasco adds, none of the skeletons analyzed thus far shows any sign of major trauma. PAU director Raúl Barrera believes that all the remains were buried at roughly the same time, and that they were all related to a single ceremonial event. Since both the human remains and the sahumadores were found under a stone-and-stucco floor, the event may have been a “closure” ceremony in which a part of the temple was built over and buried.

 

Mexico-City-Incense-Pot-SkullIncense pot (left), perforated skull Looming over the deposit was a 40-foot-wide circular platform carved with stone serpent heads, their mouths agape. Historical sources speak of the platform, or cuauhxicalco, as the place where the remains of the Aztec rulers were publicly cremated. Their ashes were then placed in ceramic urns and buried. A few feet away from the cuauhxicalco, Barrera found the withered trunk of an oak tree that grew in a kind of large flowerpot. Spanish accounts mention ceremonial trees planted near the Templo Mayor festooned with strips of colorful paper, and, according to Barrera, this was surely an example. Taken together, the bones, the tree trunk, the serpents’ heads, and the thousands of smaller artifacts that have been found are creating a rich picture of ceremonial life in the Aztec heyday.

Temple of Quetzalcoatl

By ROGER ATWOOD

Monday, June 09, 2014

Mexico-City-Temple-Quetzalcoatl-ExcavationTemple of Ehécatl-QuetzalcoatlArchaeological sites in Mexico City have street addresses, not GPS coordinates, as sites tend to elsewhere. At this particular address, behind the green door, next to the Calmécac, archaeologists uncovered the Temple of Ehécatl-Quetzalcoatl, a structure dating from about 1450. The temple, whose distinctive, round shape was described by Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún, was located about 80 feet north of where Spanish colonial maps had originally shown it to be. Ehécatl was a wind god sometimes depicted as a version of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent who had already been worshipped in central Mexico for more than 1,000 years by the time Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325. In fact, snake imagery abounded at the temple in antiquity. Spanish chroniclers described the building as having a conical roof made of straw, resembling a coiled snake. To enter, worshippers passed through a stone arch carved to resemble a snake’s mouth, complete with fangs. The Spaniards associated serpents with the Garden of Eden story, regarding the reptiles as evil, and usually destroyed snake images wherever they saw them. But, if the temple’s snake arch wasn’t destroyed by the Spaniards, it may still lie buried beneath a row of buildings behind the Metropolitan Cathedral, awaiting discovery.

 

Mexico-City-TEmple-Shecatl-Quetzalcoatl16 Guatemala StreetExcavation has shown that the Guatemala Street temple was bordered by a long outer wall, which the modern street directly above it follows exactly. This is no coincidence, but rather evidence that the Spaniards stuck closely to the original Aztec urban grid when they built their own city on the ruins of Tenochtitlan. Modern avenues also run along the same lines as causeways that once connected the ancient island city to the mainland.

School of the Ancient Elite

By ROGER ATWOOD

Monday, June 09, 2014

In 1985, an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale killed some 10,000 people and destroyed or compromised thousands of buildings in Mexico City. Some of those buildings happened to have been standing over Aztec civic and holy sites. More than two decades later, after workers demolished a building rendered structurally unsound by the quake, archaeologists dug down and found the ruins of an elite school near the Templo Mayor. Known as the Calmécac, which in the Nahuatl language spoken by the Aztecs means “school,” the complex was where Aztec nobility sent their children to be trained in war and worship. “The school’s proximity to the Templo Mayor shows the elite’s concern for educating young men for power,” says Harvard historian David Carrasco. The emperor Moctezuma II himself was a graduate.

 

Mexico-City-Calmecac-SchoolSpiral roof decorationAn enormous structure in antiquity, even larger than the Templo Mayor, the school had a courtyard whose roof was adorned with a row of spiral ornaments representing snails, which were associated with the rain god Tlaloc. Spanish colonial-era drawings had suggested these adornments were small, even dainty, decorative touches. But when archaeologists discovered them, the ornaments actually stood a monumental eight feet tall and must have been visible from all over Tenochtitlan. Of the seven found by archaeologist Raúl Barrera, all had been removed in antiquity from their rooftop perches and laid below a floor. By the time the Spaniards arrived, they had been replaced with similar ornaments that the Spaniards later destroyed, of which no traces have been found. Since their rediscovery, the Calmécac roof ornaments have become one of the most distinctive motifs of ancient Mexico. Excavation at the Calmécac proved difficult. Eighteen feet beneath the city, the site continually flooded and had to have water pumped out, a problem that speaks to the city’s unusual geography. Tenochtitlan was built on a group of marshy islands in the center of Lake Tezcoco. These were gradually filled in with lines of tree trunks and soil using an ancient land-reclamation technique similar to that employed in Tenochtitlan’s contemporary city, Venice. As in Venice, canals crisscrossed the city. Archaeologists have found traces of some of them, as well as a pier that jutted into the lake in antiquity. Lake Tezcoco has been almost completely filled in over the centuries, but the soil underneath the city remains porous and damp, “like gelatin,” says archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. Although the city has been gradually settling at a rate of up to 20 feet per century into the lake bed, not so the Templo Mayor, which was built on sturdy landfill. It is therefore sinking at a much slower pace, causing it to gradually “rise” relative to its surroundings such that it will, eventually, regain the 150-foot height it had in antiquity.

 

Once the remains of the Calmécac were stabilized, archaeologists discovered walls and wide staircases, some with ancient footprints still in their stucco surfaces. They also uncovered dozens of artifacts that hint at student life in A.D. 1500, including well-worn ceramic plates, a clay spoon, and flint and obsidian knives that probably had both practical and ceremonial uses. PAU director Raúl Barrera has excavated only a small corner of the ancient school because most of it remains beneath busy Donceles Street and its taco stands and cantinas. Digging any further would endanger those buildings’ foundations, he explains, “and then, instead of us excavating, someone would have to come excavate us.”

Last City of the Aztecs

By ROGER ATWOOD

Monday, June 09, 2014

Mexico-City-Tlatelolco-Aztec-FoundationsAztec foundations and colonial church  

A half-hour walk north of the Templo Mayor, Tlatelolco was a rival Aztec city until it was absorbed into Tenochtitlan in 1473. Recent excavations have shown that Tlatelolco’s ceremonial complex was once almost as large and impressive as that of the main Aztec capital, although at the time of the Spanish conquest, the city was known mostly for its thriving market. Tlatelolco was the final redoubt of the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc before he was captured by Cortés in August 1521. Cortés later released Cuauhtémoc and allowed him to continue to rule but, fearing a conspiracy, had him executed in 1525. He was the last Aztec ruler.

 

Just over a decade ago, archaeologists made an intriguing discovery at Tlatelolco. Beneath a colonial church erected over Aztec foundations, they found a seven-foot-deep, 26-foot-wide basin that had been built on Cuauhtémoc’s orders. Known as a caja de agua, or “water box,” the basin was fed with water from Chapultepec Hill, some four miles away. A system of aqueducts ensured the city’s supply of potable water, as lake water was not suitable for drinking. This cistern was, perhaps, the last example of Aztec civic construction.

 

Mexico-City-Jaguar-FrescoJaguar frescoOn the basin’s walls, archaeologists discovered murals, once brightly colored but now faded with age. Painted just as the Spaniards were consolidating their power, the frescoes are a unique hybrid of Aztec and Spanish themes. They show scenes of canoes on a lake, people fishing, ducks, reeds, water lilies, frogs, herons, and jaguars. In one scene, a fisherman casts a net while, at his feet, a coiled snake tries to eat a frog. Snakes and frogs had deep symbolic associations for the Aztecs, and were depicted in the basin in a naturalistic, European manner. “These murals were painted at the moment of the conquest. In a way, they show the encounter of the European and Mexican cultures,” says archaeologist Salvador Guilliem. Tlatelolco, where the Aztec world made its last stand, was thus also the scene of one of the initial artistic expressions of modern Mexico.

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