Geography of the Aztecs
The excavation of a sacred pyramid is turning up clues to the empire’s bloody rituals—but so far, no sign of its most feared emperor.
By Robert Draper
Image above by Guido Galvani and María Sánchez Vega, courtesy Templo Mayor project, National Institute of Anthropology and History, Mexico
Photographs by Kenneth Garrett and Jesús López
On the edge of Mexico City's famed Zócalo plaza, next to the ruins of the Aztec sacred pyramid known as the Templo Mayor, the remains of an animal—perhaps a dog or a wolf—were discovered. It had been dead for 500 years and lay in a stone-lined shaft eight feet deep. It is likely the animal had no name, nor an owner. Yet the anonymous canine had evidently meant something to someone. It wore a collar made of jade beads and turquoise plugs in its ears. From its ankles dangled bracelets with little bells of pure gold.
The archaeological team, led by Leonardo López Luján, unearthed the so-called Aristo-Canine in the summer of 2008, two years into an excavation that began when foundation work for a new building revealed an astonishing object. It was a 12-ton rectangular monolith made of pinkish andesite stone, broken into four large pieces, bearing the mesmerizingly horrific likeness of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli (pronounced tlal-TEK-tli)—the symbol of the Aztec life and death cycle, squatting to give birth while drinking her own blood, devouring her own creation. It was the third flat Aztec monolith to be discovered by accident in the vicinity of the Templo Mayor, along with a 24-ton black basalt Sun Stone (excavated in 1790) and an 8-ton Disk of Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess (1978).
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