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Aztec Temple Found in Mexico City "Exceptional," Experts Say

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
October 5, 2006
 
Archaeologists working in the heart of Mexico City have discovered an altar and a monolith that date back more than 500 years to Aztec times.

The finds may be one of the most significant Aztec discoveries in years.

The altar depicts the Aztec rain god Tlaloc and was uncovered last weekend at the Aztec main temple, Templo Mayor, near mexico City's central Zocalo Square.

The 11-foot (3.5-meter) monolith, which is still mostly buried, is potentially the more important discovery. Some archaeologists speculate the stone slab could be part of an entrance to an underground chamber.

"This is a really impressive and exceptional Aztec monolith," said Leonardo López Luján, an archaeologist at the Museo del Templo Mayor.

Human Sacrifices

The Aztec empire encompassed much of modern-day central Mexico. It reached its height about 500 years ago.

The Aztec were a deeply religious people who built monumental works. Templo Mayor, or the Great Temple, was the biggest pyramid of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

Spanish conquistadors destroyed the temple when they razed the city in 1521. Mexico City is built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan.

The temple was first excavated in 1978 after electricity workers found a giant carving of an Aztec goddess at the site. Remains of the lower portions of the temple complex, buried underneath the city, have since been unearthed.

A team of archaeologists led by Álvaro Barrera discovered the altar and monolith on the western side of the temple site.

The altar, which probably dates back to the kingdom of Motecuhzoma I (1440-1469), is made of stone and earth and covered with stucco. It has a frieze of the god Tlaloc and another figure depicting an agricultural deity.

Tlaloc, the god of rain and fertility, was greatly feared among the Aztec, who drowned children to appease him.

(See a related National Geographic magazine feature on "Mexico's Pyramid of Death.")

"This is another fabulous discovery from the Great Temple precinct, and there are bound to be many more buried objects yet unearthed," said Susan Gillespie, an Aztec expert at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

"What is significant about this find is the early date of the altar frieze, evidenced by the cruder style of the bas-relief compared to the many late Aztec sculptures that have been recovered," she added.

"With such finds archaeologists can begin to more firmly trace the changes in state-sponsored religious practices at the Great Temple."

(Read related story: "Ancient Pyramid Found at Mexico City Christian Site" [April 2006].)

Imperial Style

The giant monolith, meanwhile, is believed to be standing in its original position. The rectangular piece is still partly buried, and archaeologists can only see one of its sides.

López Luján estimates that the stone, which he says comes from the Chiquihuite stone formation north of Mexico City, could weigh as much as 12 tons (11 metric tons).

The monolith corresponds to the last phase of the Aztec empire, from 1487 to 1520.

"It is a typical monument of Aztec imperial style," López Luján said.

The upper face of the monolith has deep carvings.

"Taking into account its position, the form, and what I can see from a side, it should represent the Earth God (Tlaltecuhtli), the Earth Goddess (Tlaltecuhtli, Coatlicue), or a nocturnal deity such as Itzpaplotl of Coatlicue," López Luján said.

Some archaeologists speculate it could lead into an underground chamber.

"The importance of the monolith is what we are going to discover," Alberto Diaz, a member of the archeological team, told the Reuters news agency.

"It's likely that it is part of a chamber, of some offering. We won't know until we get close. First we have to get the stone out."

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