dusk near Cuernavaca

dusk near Cuernavaca

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

El Templo Mayor

Mexico City stands upon the site of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.  When the Spanish defeated the Aztecs in 1521, they destroyed Tenochtitlán and used the stones from the temples and palaces to build their own colonial capital atop the ruins.  Thus, anytime you dig beneath the surface of downtown Mexico City you are likely to run across the remains of the Aztec city. 

In 1978, the electric company was doing repair work beneath a street near the Cathedral of Mexico.  The workers come upon a large Aztec carving.  Archaeologists were called in, and the carving turned out to be a disc, nearly 11 feet in diameter and dating from the 15th century, with the image of Coyolxauqui, the moon goddess.

 This replica shows what the carving of the moon goddess would have originally looked like.  Archaeologists know from fragments of pigment left on the stones that Aztec sculptures were always painted.
According to Aztec mythology, the moon goddess was slain and dismembered by her brother, the sun.  You can see that the goddess's body has been cut into pieces.  The myth explained the phases of the moon.   
The excitement from this discovery provided the impetus for further excavation in the heart of the city.  It was known that this was the site of the "Templo Mayor", the main Aztec temple. Thirteen buildings were demolished, and archaeologists proceded to uncover the foundations of the temple  Today, within the shadow of the Cathedral,there is an important archaeological site, and one of the major tourist attractions of the historic center of Mexico City.  Excavation continues to this day... archaeologists are currently burrowing under the plaza to the side of the Cathedral.

When the Spanish arrived, the "Templo Mayor" dominated the city of Tenochtitán.  It covered an area of around 330 by 260 feet.  On top of the pyramidal structure were shrines to Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and of war, and Tlaloc, the rain god.  It rose to a height nearly as tall as today's Cathedral.  

Visitors to the "templo" may find the ruins quite confusing.  That is because the Aztecs, like the other Mexican civilizations before them, would buiid over existing pyramids.  The "Templo Mayor" actually consists of seven layers.  The earliest temple was built around 1325 when the Aztecs established their capital here.  As the Aztec Empire grew in power, succeeding emperors would build larger and more splendid temples over the existing structures.  The final and seventh temple was what the Spanish saw when they arrived in the 1500s.  What visitors see today are the foundations of the different temples.

Here you can see how archaeologists have exposed one of the layer of an older temple.  When the Aztecs superimposed a newer construction, they would cover the old temple with dirt and rubble.  As they did so, they would bury offerings, such as these statues found reclining against the old staircase.  The stonework at the left is part of the next layer of the temple which covered the previous layer.

The earliest temple was, according to accounts, built of earth and wood, so nothing remains of that level.  The second level was built between 1375 and 1427.  Archaeologists have uncovered part of that temple.  

Traces of the original paint can still be seen.  To the left is a "chac mool", a reclining figure.  Offerings (such as human hearts) would have been placed in the bowl which the "chac mool" holds over his stomach.

  There is also a sacrificial stone.  The victim would have been held down by his arms and legs over this stone.  The priest would cut under the victim's ribcage with an obsidian knife and remove the heart.

This altar is decorated with over 200 stone carvings of human skulls.

  This winding serpent once decorated the base of a staircase.

Archaeologists also uncovered a structure that once stood next to temple.  The building is called the House of the Eagles, and it was a place of prayer and meditation for the army's Order of the Eagles.  Intricate carvings on the stone benches within the house can still be seen.

During the excavation thousands of pieces of art and objects of offering were found.  To house these discoveries, a museum was built next to the archaeological site.  In my next post we will visit the museum.

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