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Untouched Tomb of Aztec King on Verge of Discovery?

Eliza Barclay
for National Geographic News
July 13, 2009
 
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.

Unlooted Tomb?

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.

The existence of multiple seals suggests that the tomb, if it's there, could be a collective crypt containing the king and his successors, López Luján said.

"Each time they buried a newly deceased [dignitary], they sealed the entrance with a plaster seal," he speculated.

That the seals are unbroken suggests that the potential tomb has not been looted.

If there is a royal tomb behind the seals, López Luján would expect to find the ruler's ashes in stone or ceramic containers as well as the remains of servants, accompanied by personal objects and more offerings from the funeral rites.

The tomb, López Luján says, would not be as large as that of Tutankhamun in Egypt or the Maya funeral chambers of Copán in Honduras, "because the Mexicas [Aztecs] never build arches or vaults. It might be a very small room full of offerings."

(Related: "Ancient Maya Tomb Found: Upright Skeleton, Unusual Location.")

Slow Going

Despite rising expectations, the archaeologist said he and his team must be patient.

Only by working slowly and methodically will the team be able to reconstruct the funerary customs and other artifacts that could shed light on the Aztec economy, political system, and religion as it existed before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s.

And now the workers must grapple with yet more challenges: the weather and a high water table.

"We have to go very slow," he said, "because now we are in the rainy season."
 

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