When Archaeologists Explored A Ruined Aztec Temple, They Unearthed A Gateway To A Lost World

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As they work through the ruins of the Templo Mayor, archaeologists are on the verge of a massive discovery. This centuries-old complex once served as the primary place of worship for the Mexica people of the Aztec Empire, so it’s hardly a surprise that they’re about to find something interesting. However, this breakthrough could prove to be particularly significant. So much so, in fact, that the way we view this entire civilization could be forever altered.

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The Templo Mayor was built in the Aztec Empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlan, the ruins of which are today found in Mexico City. The place had been constructed in dedication to a pair of deities. These were Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc, who were associated with war and agriculture respectively.

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The site upon which the Templo Mayor was built was a central part of Aztec mythology. And the building itself served as an important symbol within the people’s belief system. As such, any new findings which could help to paint a picture of life in the empire are deeply significant.

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Certain aspects of the Aztec Empire and its workings remain shrouded in mystery today. Even so, a broad outline has been pieced together by historians over the years. The empire thrived from middle of the 14th century to the 16th century, encompassing the majority of the historical region of Mesoamerica’s northern area.

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Historians consider the Aztec Empire to be the final major civilization of Mesoamerica. It was a society built on proficient agricultural and trading practices, but it also flourished through military action. Aztec soldiers prevailed over those of nearby states, thus bringing the populace of these other places into the Aztec domain.

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The civilization can be traced back to the start of the 12th century, at a time when numerous city-states were dotted around what is today called Mexico. These realms fought one another for power and territory. And this ultimately led to a number of modestly sized empires emerging by the dawn of the 15th century.

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Among the most powerful of these empires were Texcoco and Azcapotzalco, who warred against one another in 1428. Texcoco emerged as the victor of this conflict, in part thanks to the help of a number of other cities. One of these was Tenochtitlan, which served as the Mexica people’s capital.

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At the end of the war between Texcoco and Azcapotzalco, a new political coalition was created. This saw the victorious Texcoco, Tenochtitlan and another city-state called Tlacopan come together as one. This so-called “Triple Alliance” soon expanded, with Tenochtitlan becoming particularly significant. Over time, it ended up becoming the capital of the new Aztec Empire.

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Tenochtitlan ultimately became a great city, at one point considered to be the largest in the Americas before the time of European colonization. By the beginning of the 16th century, it’s believed, Tenochtitlan was home no less than 200,000 people. This population, then, was split into a variety of different classes.

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At the ruling end were the teteuhctin, the leaders of Tenochtitlan. Below them were the pipiltin, the macehualtin, the mayeque and the tlacohtin. We can think of these groups as having been the nobility, the common people, the peasants and finally the slaves. The Aztec class system was generally quite rigid, though a certain degree of social mobility among the poorer classes is thought possible.

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Tenochtitlan was a hub of trade, with a variety of products passing through the city. Examples of such commodities could range from precious stones and metals through to tools and weaponry. Food products were also popular for traders, with beans, grain and tortillas frequently changing hands. Insects, too, were exchanged as food.

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The city exhibited a remarkable infrastructure for managing its water, too. Canals cut through Tenochtitlan, with the city itself encircled by special plots of floating land known as chinampas. These chinampas were vital contributors to Tenochtitlan’s impressive agricultural output. On top of all this, the city also had structures to prevent flooding and manmade basins for drinking water.

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The city wasn’t just a marvel in the more practical terms of trading and water management, however. Many artworks were created there, and it was architecturally significant, too. Perhaps the most impressive of all constructions in Tenochtitlan, though, was the Templo Mayor, the city’s primary place of worship.

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Religion was important within the Aztec Empire. In fact, the city of Tenochtitlan itself was established for religious reasons. You see, Aztec legend has it that people deriving from a mythological realm called Aztlán eventually moved to the area around Tenochtitlan. These people had supposedly found their way under the guidance of the deity Huitzilopochtli.

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Huitzilopochtli is just one of numerous Aztec gods. Along with Tlaloc, however, Huitzilopochtli was the most important within the culture. He was closely associated with the sun and war, while Tlaloc was aligned with rain. Both deities had temples constructed in their honor at the Templo Mayor complex in Tenochtitlan.

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Aztec deities were celebrated through a variety of means. Festivals and feasts were organized, while acts such as the burying of special objects also took place. Sacrifices were also made to the gods, often in the form of animals. Yet human beings, too, were killed for religious purposes, with even children offered up to the gods.

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The Aztec Empire was vast, with a population of around 11 million individuals. So, given that it was so large, it’s not surprising that it was often subject to revolts and conflict. These were usually dealt with easily, but in the early stages of the 16th century, things started to change.

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In 1515 the Aztecs suffered a defeat to their eastern neighbors — the Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo — on the battlefield. But then, matters got even worse. Soon after, the Spanish arrived on Aztec lands and attempted to conquer them. Beginning in 1519, the Spaniards fought the Aztecs for control of the territory – and they didn’t do so alone. In fact, they formed alliances with local Aztec adversaries.

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After three years of conflict, the Spaniards emerged as the victors on 13 August, 1521. That was the day in which the European colonizers and their Tlaxcalan allies seized control of Tenochtitlan. This, ultimately, was the start of Spain’s rule of central Mexican lands. Tenochtitlan had now become Mexico City.

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Before the Spaniards entered Aztec territory, the Templo Mayor was about 150 feet tall. Yet they soon started to dismantle the structure, making use of its stone in order to construct their own place of worship. This was the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, which still stands today.

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When the Spaniards dismantled the Templo Mayor, however, they may have missed something. You see, the temple they were stripping was just the latest iteration of the Templo Mayor. In fact, no less than six other variations existed, with different Aztec rulers having their own versions constructed over preexisting ones. It was only at the beginning of the 1980s that contemporary archaeologists started to explore these older constructions.

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Among the initial discoveries made by archaeologists at Templo Mayor was a circular, carved stone, which was excavated in 1978. This dated back to the earlier days of the temple, and it portrayed a female deity called Coyolxauhqui. According to Aztec legend, she was a goddess of the moon, a figure who was killed by her own brother Huitzilopochtli.

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At the center of the Templo Mayor complex, the remains of a variety of human body parts were also discovered. These skeletal remnants ranged from dismembered arms, legs and even skulls. This may indicate that the killing of Coyolxauhqui at the hands of her brother was replicated by Aztec worshippers.

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Starting in 1978 and concluding in 1982, archaeological works at Templo Mayor were headed up by one Eduardo Matos Moctezuma. These early investigations were fruitful, with numerous objects in addition to the circular Coyolxauhqui stone being uncovered. Undertakings during this period ultimately led to the establishment of an official scheme known as the Templo Mayor Project.

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Apparently, over 7,000 artifacts were uncovered from Templo Mayor as a result of these archaeological works. And there was a great degree of variety among these items. For instance, the skeletal remains of animals such as frogs, crocodiles and fish were found. But there were also objects like ceramics, knives, masks and gold.

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More recent excavations at Templo Mayor proved to be successful, too. At the start of December 2015, for example, reports started to surface of a tunnel discovered in the site. This was a tight space which snaked towards a round platform and a pair of closed doors.

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Records from Spanish colonizers at the time of the Aztecs’ fall stated that the native inhabitants of the land set the remains of their rulers alight after they’d died. They would do so upon a round platform known as a Cuauhxicalco. As such, the archaeologists who recently discovered the tunnel and its own Cuauhxicalco hope that they’ll eventually find the resting place of Aztec kings.

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The head of these archaeological undertakings is Leonardo López Luján, who spoke about the tunnel. According to the Guardian in 2015, López Luján said, “Once we freed the passage from earth and stone, we knew it led directly into the heart of the Cuauhxicalco. At the end appear two old entrances sealed up with masonry.”

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According to reports, this passageway is actually a part of a larger tunnel which was found back in 2013. During this initial excavation, a container was uncovered within the passageway, hidden away behind a large stone. Inside lay golden artifacts, stone-carved knives and the skeletal remains of humans and birds.

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Some of the human remains inside the container belonged to minors who were between five and seven years old. The fact that knives had also been found indicates that the children may actually have been offered up as sacrifices. This, of course, wasn’t all that unusual within Aztec culture.

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López Luján elaborated on the potential significance of the platform that he and his team happened upon. “From what the sources say, the Cuauhxicalco was a structure of a funerary character,” he said. “So, we can speculate that behind these walls there might be two small rooms that contain the incinerated remains of several leaders.”

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As for who these rulers may have been, López Luján has his ideas. According to the archaeologist, it’s possible that Moctezuma I was laid to rest in this part of Templo Mayor, along with his heirs Axáyacatl and Tízoc. These three men were in power across the 14th and 15th centuries.

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If it turned out that the tunnel discovered by López Luján and his colleagues really did lead to the remains of Aztec rulers, it would be hugely significant. You see, the practices that were undertaken in the aftermath of an Aztec ruler’s death are still unknown. So, this discovery could potentially shed light on the subject.

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Rosemary Joyce is a professor from the University of California, Berkeley. Noting that the resting places of Aztec rulers has proven elusive to experts, she also spoke about the works going on to find such places. As she put it, “[Archeologists] keep digging down hoping they’re going to find the big guy. But they’re running out of places to look in Tenochtitlan.”

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Joyce did reference the fact that discoveries have been made which have alluded to the practices undertaken in the aftermath of a ruler’s death. Artworks depicting such kings “bundled up in cloth, seated upright, with little crowns on” have been found. And drawings of cremations have also been uncovered, but nobody knows where the actual ashes would have been deposited.

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Certain details inside the recently discovered passageway do indicate that Aztec rulers might be close by. In fact, the two doorways inside the tunnel could actually reflect the governmental structure of the civilization. That is, they might represent the emperor – who was known as the tlatoani – and a second person referred to as the cihuacoatl.

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It’s possible that the Aztecs may not have actually buried the ashes of their dead. Having said that, as Rosemary Joyce pointed out, perhaps the special status of rulers changed matters. It may well have led people to lay kings’ ashes to rest inside the Templo Mayor.

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Joyce suggested that the early leaders of the Aztec Empire may have been particularly celebrated. In this way, a comparison could be made to the way that Americans idolize their first leaders, like George Washington. As she put it in 2015, “[Washington is] not [then-president] Barack Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, but he is the father of the nation.”

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In addition to Joyce, another expert from the University of Florida stated how unclear it is if the Aztecs buried the ashes of their leaders. Speaking to AP, Susan Gillespie said, “It is not surprising that these cremains have not yet been found or identified. Archaeologists don’t quite know what they’re looking for.”

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For the time being, conclusions have yet to be reached on the matter. Indeed, shortly after the tunnel and Cuauhxicalco were found in 2015, lead archaeologist López Luján encouraged people to be patient. Answers would come down the line, but works such as this take time. Hopefully, though, we’ll soon learn if rulers were laid to rest in this grand temple.

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