MEXICO CITY, Nov 24 (Reuters) – An extensive cache of Aztec ritual offerings found beneath the center of Mexico City, near the steps of what would have been the empire’s holiest shrine, provides new insight into pre-Hispanic religious rituals and political propaganda.
Sealed in stone boxes at the base of the temple five centuries ago, the contents of a box found in the exact center of what was a ceremonial circular podium has broken records for the number of sea sacrifices from both the Pacific and the Mexican Gulf Coast , including more than 165 once bright red starfish and more than 180 complete bead branches.
Archaeologists believe that Aztec priests carefully layered these offerings into the coffin on the raised platform for a ceremony likely attended by thousands of excited spectators amid the thunderous clap of drums.
“Pure imperial propaganda,” Leonardo Lopez Lujan, chief archaeologist at the Proyecto Templo Mayor of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), which oversees the excavation, said of the likely spectacle.
In the same box, archaeologists previously found a sacrificed jaguar dressed as a warrior associated with the Aztec patron Huitzilopochtli, the war and sun god, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced an excavation hiatus of more than two years.
Previously unreported details include the discovery last month of a sacrificed eagle held in the jaguar’s talons, along with miniature wooden spears and a reed shield found next to the west-facing feline, which had brass bells tied around its ankles.
The semi-excavated rectangular box, dating to the reign of the Aztec’s greatest emperor, Ahuitzotl, who reigned from 1486 to 1502, now shows a mysterious bulge in the center beneath the jaguar’s skeleton, indicating something solid underneath.
“Whatever is under the jaguar is something hugely important,” said Lopez Lujan.
“We expect a big discovery.”
Lopez Lujan, head of the excavations at what is today known as the Templo Mayor, thinks the box could contain an urn containing the cremated remains of Ahuitzotl, the emperor whose military campaigns expanded the empire into modern-day Guatemala as he explored the coasts of connecting the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. . But he says it will take at least another year of digging to resolve the issue.
AZTEC WORLD VIEW
To date, no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, despite more than 40 years of digging around the Templo Mayor, where more than 200 offering boxes have been found.
The temple towered as high as a 15-story building before being razed to the ground in the years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, with the rubble serving to obscure many of the latest finds.
In addition to the central offering containing the jaguar, two additional boxes have recently been identified alongside, both of which will be opened in the coming weeks.
More ferocious beasts dressed as warriors, perhaps adorned with jade, turquoise and gold, are likely.
The water offerings covering the jaguar may represent the watery underworld where the Aztecs believed the sun set each night, or possibly part of a king’s journey after death.
Joyce Marcus, an archaeologist who specializes in ancient Mexico at the University of Michigan, says the recently unearthed offerings reflect the Aztec’s “worldview, ritual economy, and the obvious links between imperial expansion, warfare, military prowess, and the role of the ruler” in ceremonies that sanctified conquests and allowed tribute to flow to the capital.
“Each offering box adds another piece to the puzzle,” she said.
Finally, the skulls of a dozen sacrificed children between one and six years old were also discovered in a nearby pit, dating back decades but also related to Huitzilopochtli.
The information gleaned from the excavations goes far beyond incomplete colonial-era accounts that were also colored by the European invaders’ own justifications for conquest, said Diana Moreiras, an Aztec scholar at the University of British Columbia.
“We really get to know the Aztecs on their own terms,” she said, “because we’re actually looking at what they did, not what the Spanish thought of them.”
Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Edited by Stephen Eisenhammer and Josie Kao
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