Aztec Ruler's Tomb Found Under Mexico City

Eliza Barclay in Mexico City
for National Geographic News
August 9, 2007

The tomb of the Aztec Emperor Ahuizotl (ah-WEE-zah-tol) could be just below archaeologists' feet, according to data from ground-penetrating radar.

A dig in progress beneath the Great Temple of the capital city of Tenochtitlan—now buried beneath Mexico City—may reveal the first Aztec tomb ever to be discovered.

Raúl Martin Arana is an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History who is familiar with the dig.

"Chronologists tell us that there was a great ceremony for Ahuizotl's death and that his remains were deposited with many offerings in front of the Great Temple," Arana said.

In October 2006 researchers excavating near the temple uncovered a stone monolith carved with a representation of Tlaltecuhtli, an Aztec goddess known as the Queen of the Earth.

In the claw of her right foot Tlaltecuhtli clutches a rabbit with ten dots, the Aztec representation for 1502, the year of Ahuizotl's death.

"We don't want to speculate too much," Arana said. "But there is a good possibility that the monolith is the headstone covering the tomb."

Now a team lead by Leonardo López Luján of the Great Temple Museum has detected anomalies in radar surveys of the subsoil, according to Arana.

The anomalies could be rocks or empty space—but there is reason to believe they may be the tomb's chambers.

Watery Dig

Ahuizotl, whose reign began in 1486, was the last ruler of the Aztec Empire to die while in power.

He was succeeded by his nephew, Montezuma, who was taken hostage by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés in 1519.

Ahuizotl's son then took command of the empire and led the last, failed resistance against the Spanish in 1521.

The victorious Europeans eventually burned many of the Aztecs' books, destroying key ethnographic information.

What's more, the Spanish built Mexico City on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan, which was itself built on top of a lake.

The new excavation has therefore proceeded slowly, in part because the water table is very high at the site.

The work is also painstaking, with many miniscule objects believed to be offerings that must be carefully handled and documented.

"The Aztecs placed offerings very deliberately according to the structure they saw in the layers of the world, so the site must be excavated very deliberately," said Deborah Nichols, an archaeologist at Dartmouth College who has visited the site.

"It's not just about the objects but where exactly they are."

Despite the watery barriers, Nichols said, discovering Ahuizotl's tomb would provide researchers with a huge amount of new information about the Aztecs.

(Related: "Aztec Temple Found in Mexico City 'Exceptional,' Experts Say" [October 5, 2006].)

"This would be the first look at a royal tomb in all of Central Mexico," Nichols said.

"There are many things we haven't understood well—like the religion and symbolism of the Aztecs," she continued.

"Archaeological finds are the only way to explore this tremendously rich history."

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