Archaeologists in Mexico City have uncovered an ancient ceremonial platform in the ruins of the Templo Mayo in the former Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
Covered in stone carvings and consisting of 19 serpent heads 0.5 metres in length, archaeologists are hoping that the latest platform discovery could lead to the resting place of one of the Aztec rulers. (For which no rulers have yet been discovered)
Excavated over a 9 month period, the platform is roughly 15 metres in length and dates from A.D. 1469. In 1997, archaeologists using a geophysical technique known as ground-penetrating radar (GPR) found evidence to suggest underground chambers close to where the platform discovery was made.
Archaeologist Michal Smith from Arizona State University said: “This would be quite an important find for Aztec archaeology, it would be tremendously important because it would be direct information about kingship, burial and the empire that is difficult to come by otherwise.”
The Templo Mayor was the heart of a complex consisting of two temples, five platforms and subsidiary buildings from the pre-Hispanic Aztec Empire. Its architectural style belongs to the late Post classical period of Mesoamerica. The temple was called the huey teocalli in the Nahuatl language and dedicated simultaneously to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture, each of which had a shrine at the top of the pyramid with separate staircases.
The temple, measuring approximately 100 by 80 m (330 by 260 ft) at its base, dominated a Sacred Precinct. Construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325, and it was rebuilt six times after that. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The modern-day archaeological site lies just to the northeast of the Zocalo, or main plaza of Mexico City, on the corner of what are now Seminario and Justo Sierra streets
Archaeologist Raul Barrera said: “The historical records say that the rulers were cremated at the foot of the Templo Mayor, and it is believed to be on this same structure — the ‘cuauhxicalco’ — that the rulers were cremated,”
Background of Templo Mayo:
After the destruction of Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor, like most of the rest of the city, was taken apart and then covered over by the new Spanish colonial city. The Temple’s exact location was forgotten, although by the 20th century scholars had a good idea where to look for it. This was based on the archeological work done at the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Leopoldo Batres did some excavation work at the end of the 19th century under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral because at this time, the temple was thought to be there.
In the first decades of the 20th century, Manuel Gamio found part of the southwest corner of the temple and his finds were put on public display. However, it did not generate great public interest in excavating further as the zone was an upper-class residential area. In 1933, Emilio Cuevas found part of a staircase and beam. In 1948, Hugo Moedano and Elma Estrada Balmori excavated a platform containing serpent heads and offerings. In 1966, Eduardo Contreras and Jorge Angula excavated a chest containing offerings that was first explored by Gamio.
However, the push to fully excavate the site did not come until late in the 20th century. On 25 February 1978, workers for the electric company were digging at a place in the city then popularly known as the “island of the dogs.” It was named such because it was slightly elevated over the rest of the neighborhood and when there was flooding, street dogs would congregate there. At just over two meters down they struck a pre-Hispanic monolith. This stone turned out to be a huge disk of over 3.25 meters (10.6 feet) in diameter, 30 centimeters (11.8 inches) thick and weighing 8.5 tons. The relief on the stone was later determined to be Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, dating to the end of the 15th century.
From 1978 to 1982, specialists directed by archeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma worked on the project to excavate the Temple. Initial excavations found that many of the artifacts were in good enough condition to study. Efforts coalesced into the Templo Mayor Project, which was authorized by presidential decree.
To excavate, thirteen buildings in this area had to be demolished. Nine of these were built in the 1930s and four dated from the 19th century, and had preserved colonial elements. During excavations, more than 7,000 objects were found, mostly offerings including effigies, clay pots in the image of Tlaloc, skeletons of turtles, frogs, crocodiles, and fish, snail shells, coral, some gold, alabaster, Mixtec figurines, ceramic urns from Veracruz, masks from what is now Guerrero state, copper rattles, decorated skulls and knives of obsidian and flint. These objects are housed in the Templo Mayor Museum. This museum is the result of the work done since the early 1980s to rescue, preserve and research the Templo Mayor, its Sacred Precinct and all objects associated with it. The museum exists to make all of the finds available to the public.
Early Stages of the Temple
Mexican pyramids were typically expanded by building over prior ones, using the bulk of the former as a base for the latter, as later rulers sought to expand the temple to reflect the growing greatness of the city of Tenochtitlan. Therefore, digging down through this pyramid brings us back in time. The first temple was begun by the Aztecs the year after they founded the city, and the pyramid was rebuilt six times after that. All seven stages of the Templo Mayor, except the first, have been excavated and assigned to the reigns of the emperors who were responsible for them.
Construction of the first Templo Mayor began sometime after 1325. This first pyramid is only known through historical records as the high water table of old lakebed prevents excavation. According to these records, the first pyramid was built with earth and perishable wood, which may not have survived to the present time.The second temple was built during the reigns of Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl and Chimalpopoca between 1375 and 1427. The upper part of this temple has been excavated, exposing two stone shrines covered in stucco on the north side. A chacmool was uncovered as well. On the south side there is a sacrificial stone called a “téchcatl”and a sculpted face.The third temple was built between 1427 and 1440 during the reign of Itzcoatl. A staircase with eight stone standard-bearers is from this stage bearing the glyph with the year Four-Reed (1431) These standard bearers act as “divine warriors” guarding the access to the upper shrines.
The fourth temple was constructed between 1440 and 1481 during the reigns of Moctezuma I and Axayacatl. This stage is considered to have the richest of the architectural decorations as well as sculptures. Most offerings from the excavations are from this time. The great platform was decorated with serpents and braziers, some of which are in the form of monkeys and some in the form of Tlaloc. At this time, the stairway to the shrine of Tlaloc was defined by a pair of undulating serpents and in the middle of this shrine was a small altar defined by a pair of sculpted frogs. The circular monolith of Coyolxauhqui also dates from this time.
The fifth temple (1481–1486) is dated during the short reign of Tizoc. During these five years the platform was recovered in stucco and the ceremonial plaza was paved.
The sixth temple was built during the reign of Ahuizotl. The Sacred Precinct was walled off and this wall was decorated with serpent heads. He built three shrines and the House of the Eagle Warriors. At the inauguration of this Great Temple in 1487, Ahuizotl ordered the sacrifice of many prisoners of war; an average of 1,000 victims a day were sacrificed over a period of twenty days. Each day blood ran like a river onto the pavement of the Great Plaza, and the stairs of the great pyramid were literally bathed in blood.
The Last Temple
The seventh and last temple is what Hernan Cortes and his men saw when they arrived to Tenochtitlan in 1519. Very little of this layer remains because of the destruction the Spaniards wrought when they conquered the city. Only a platform to the north and a section of paving in the courtyard on the south side can still be seen.
Most of what is known about this temple is based on the historical record. It was at the time the largest and most important active ceremonial center. Fray Bernardino de Sahagun reports the Sacred Precinct as having 78 buildings; however, the Templo Mayor towered above all of them.
The pyramid was composed of four sloped terraces with a passage between each level, topped by a great platform that measured approximately 80 x 100 meters. It had two stairways to access the two shrines on the top platform. One was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of water on the left side (as you face the structure), and one to Huitzilopochtli, god of war, on the right side. The two temples were approximately 30 meters in height, and each had large braziers where the sacred fires continuously burned. The entrance of each temple had statues of robust and seated men which supported the standard-bearers and banners of handmade bark paper. Each stairway was defined by balustrades flanking the stairs terminating in menacing serpent heads at the base. These stairways were used only by the priests and sacrificial victims. The entire building was originally covered with stucco and polychrome paint.
The deities were housed inside the temple, shielded from the outside by curtains. The idol of Huitzilopochtli was modeled from amaranth seeds held together with honey and human blood. Inside of him were bags containing jade, bones and amulets to give life to the god. This figure was constructed annually and it was richly dressed and fitted with a mask of gold for his festival held during the Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli. At the end of the festival, the image was broken apart and shared among the populace to be eaten.
In his description of the city, Cortés records that he and the other Spaniards were impressed by the number and magnificence of the temples constructed in Tenochtitlan, but that was tempered by this disdain for their beliefs and human sacrifice.
On 14 November 1521, Cortes seized the emperor Cuauhtémoc and ordered the destruction of all the religious relics of the Aztecs. He ordered a Catholic cross placed on the Templo Mayor. While Cortes left for Veracruz to confront Spaniards looking to arrest him, Pedro de Alvarado learned of a plan to attack the Spaniards, and staged a pre-emptive attack on the Aztecs in the Sacred Precinct while they celebrated a religious festival. Unarmed and trapped within the walls of the Sacred Precinct, an estimated 8,000–10,000 Aztec nobles were killed.
When word of the massacre spread throughout the city, the people turned on the Spaniards, killing seven, wounding many, and driving the rest back to their quarters. The Spaniards were trapped between two Aztec forces and 68 were captured alive. Ten of these Spanish captives were immediately sacrificed at the Temple and their severed heads were thrown back to the Spaniards. The others were sacrificed at the Great Temple that night, which could be seen from the Spanish camps. The sacrificed Spaniards were flayed and their faces — with beards attached — were tanned and sent to allied towns, both to solicit assistance and to warn against betraying the alliance.
After the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521, the lands controlled by the Aztecs became part of the Spanish empire. All the temples, including the Templo Mayor, were sacked, taking all objects of gold and other precious materials. Cortés, who had ordered the destruction of the existing capital, had a Mediterranean-style city built on the site. Essential elements of the old imperial center, including the Templo Mayor, were buried under similarly key features of the new Spanish city in what is now the historical downtown of the Mexico City. The Templo Mayor and Sacred Precinct were demolished and a Spanish church, later the main cathedral, was built on the western half of the precinct.
Header Image Credit : Mike Peel