for National Geographic News
After nearly 30 years in the field, archaeologist Leonardo López Luján may be on the verge of the discovery of a lifetime: the only known tomb of an Aztec king.
An air of excitement has been thickening around Mexico's Templo Mayor (Great Temple) since 2006, when excavations near the temple revealed a stone monolith with a carving of an Aztec goddess.
Recently the anticipation intensified with the discovery of a richly decorated canine skeleton near a sealed entrance.
The animal was found wearing wooden earflaps mounted with turquoise mosaic, a collar of greenstone beads, and golden bells around its four feet.
But López Luján, a senior researcher at the Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico City, remains cool and cautious.
The skeleton could be that of a dog or a Mexican wolf—a question López Luján's team hopes to clear up with DNA testing.
"It would be very important if it turns out to be a dog, as it would tell us that we are close to arriving at a funeral context," he said.
The skeleton "could represent the dog that accompanied the deceased to the other side and helped them to cross a river called Chicnahuapan, one of the dangers before arriving at the ninth and deepest level of the underworld," López Luján said.
Many ancient Mesoamerican cultures, including the Aztec, believed that dogs escorted their masters to the afterlife, he added, and archaeologists have discovered many dog skeletons alongside Mesoamerican human remains.
The Templo Mayor canine skeleton was found next to a stone box that contained the remains of a golden eagle, flint sacrificial knives, crustacean shells, and balls of copal resin—tree sap thought to have been used in various substances, such as incense, medicine, and glue.
Recent excavations also uncovered unbroken plaster seals made of lime and sand.
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