A Marvel Emerges in the Great Temple
An impressive monolith surfaces in the heart of Mexico City, bringing a new light of glory of the buried
October 14, 2006 - In 1978 it was the Coyolxauhqui (koh-yohl-SHAHU-kee) Stone. In the year 2006,
the Templo Mayor or Great Temple’s archeological area in downtown Mexico City has been shaken
again by the marvelous discovery of a huge large block of stone. What is considered to be an altar
dedicated to a feared deity in the Aztec pantheon, and recognizable character in Mexico’s
contemporary culture, was partially unearthed six years after anthropologic work began in a lot
contiguous to the temple. A new monolith of astonishing aspect has come into light in this famous,
historic, and archeological block.
On the concrete of many streets of Mexico’s Centro Histórico or Downtown’s Historic District, transients
walk surrounded by old buildings representing, not the Aztec’s capital, but the Spanish colony.
Implicitly, pedestrians realize that some feet below, underneath the symbols of conquest, the ruins of
a devastated and ancient city remain covered by centuries of darkness, anonymity, and enigma. In the
most profound mystery, vestiges of the empire that once dominated most of Mesoamerica represent
an underground, but not forgotten city. For Mexicans or anyone walking on the narrow downtown
streets of this populated metropolis, being aware of this duality –a city on the surface, and a city
below– is an awesome experience.
In the search for a buried empire, the incessant work of archeologists in the core of what used to be
the Aztec’s ceremonial hub, continues to unearth amazement and awe. Beneath downtown Mexico
City, the ruins of majestic Tenochtitlan (teh-noach-TEE-tlahn,) secretly breathe in an anonymous
darkness, demanding daylight and acknowledgment. History never dies; it just waits for the propitious
moment in time. And time for a new discovery of an old grandeur has come.
The preamble for this new major unearthing occurred in the year 2000, when a unique set of offerings
for Tlaloc (tlah'-lohk,) god of rain and fertility in Aztec belief, were found at the bottom of the steps of
the Templo Mayor, in the lot where an important property stood once. The house –known as “Casa de
la Ajaracas”– was situated right in front of the temple, and built during the Spanish colony period at
the same spot where two main causeways led Aztecs to the towns of Tlacopan (Tacuba) and
The lot of the Ajaracas house was originally a plot, subdivided later. The house had various owners,
and at the beginning of the XX Century, it was inhabited by Guillermo de Heredia, a renowned
architect. The property was declared a historic monument and remodeled between 1931 and 1932,
but in 1985, a strong earthquake in Mexico City damaged it so badly, that authorities condemned it
and demolished it in 1993.*
Before 2000’s exceptional discovery, the City’s government had ambitious plans to build a new City
Mayor’s office complex in this lot, located in the number 38 of Guatemala Republic Street in downtown
Mexico City. The project was called off when seven religious offerings were found there. One of these
offerings, a set classified by archeologists as Ofrenda 102, turned out to be a unique collection of bags
made of amate paper (Mexican bark paper,) a paper and wood headdress, copal figures, masks, a
garment in the shape of a vest, a tunic (perhaps priestly,) and other textiles. These objects were
interpreted as being related to the worship of Tlaloc.
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Six years later, in the spring of 2006, while some remodeling works were being done in the property of
the “Casa de las Ajaracas,” more discoveries were made. This time, archaeologists exposed, among
the most relevant, two serpent heads carved on a wall. The discovery was determined to be part of
the front side of platform number 6 of the northwest section of the Templo Mayor.
Then, in the first week of October, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) announced
that in the area surrounding the Ajaracas, archaeologists had made a major breakthrough since the
last 28 years. An impressive and unique Mexica (may-SHEE-kah) altar depicting Tlaloc and another still
unidentified deity**, perhaps related to rituals of Aztec agriculture, was found after they removed a
platform. In comparison with other altars previously found, the newly unearthed altar was described
as exceptional, due to its characteristics: its two adjacent friezes (that is, two decorative elements
contiguous to each other.)
The pre-Hispanic monolith, which current estimated, visible dimensions are 11.48 by 13.12 feet, and
27,226.8 pounds in weight, approximately, it is still mostly buried. On October 12, ten days after its
discovery, specialists from the Urban Archeology Program (PAU) announced that the monolith has at
least four fractures, and that they noticed it is also entirely carved on its sides. According to the
information provided by the PAU, the great stone corresponds to the period of Moctezuma I (mock-teh-
ZU-ma; also known as Montezuma I,) the sixth Aztec tlatoani (head of government, the army, and high
priest) who ruled from 1440 to 1469. Thus, the altar could have been created approximately 450 to
500 years ago, and is made of stone, and filled with rocks and clay.
The discovery of the altar doesn’t come as a surprise, since surprises have been the rule rather than
the exception within the framework of the Tempo Mayor Project. Aztecs were deeply religious people,
a religiousness reflected in their monumental works, particularly the Tempo Mayor, which was the focal
point of their spiritual life, and also the biggest structure of their capital, Tenochtitlan. Awfully
disturbed with the bloody human sacrifices that took place there, Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan
Cortes, destroyed most of the temple, knocked down the idols, and proceeded to raze the city in 1521.
Contemporary archaeological findings have evidenced that the destruction perpetrated was not
systematic, but more concerned with obliterating native beliefs and customs, and with replacing or
concealing symbols and structures as a way of imposing the Spanish political, religious and social
systems. New buildings were built on top of semi-destroyed Aztec structures. Much was lost, but
Cortes, his army, and the enslaved Aztecs, within a total new context of dominance and conquest, and
in a dramatic shift of status quo, left many remnants buried under the new buildings of what became
Nueva España, or New Spain. Many leftovers of Aztec grandeur would remain hidden under the streets
of a new society. Today’s Mexico City is built on top of the ruins of Tenochtitlan.
Álvaro Barrera Rivera, supervisor of the Urban Archeology Program of the Tempo Mayor Project, cited
an important fact on October 14, noting that an excavation was made in the pre-Hispanic era,
precisely toward the end of Stage VII (1502-1521,) in the site where the monolith was found.
According to Barrera’s explanation, it seems that the altar was placed as a cover for the hole. “The
most probable factor is that something was deposited in the hole, and the floor was placed on top of
the piece; that is to say, before the Aztec’s contact with the Spaniards, not even the Mexicas
themselves could see the sculpture, because it was never exposed. After the conquest, the piece was
not visible either, and that’s why it made it until our days- concludes Barrera.”
Relevant archaeological findings of Tenochtitlan were found during the massive construction of the city
subway, known as Metro, which first phase was completed between June 1967 and November of
1970. The excavation of the exact site of the Tempo Mayor was organized eight years later, in 1978,
after a ditch digger named Mario Alberto Espejel Pérez, an employee of the Central Light and Power
Company, accidentally hit with his shovel on what he noticed was a carved stone. He was aware that
during the first phase of the subway’s construction, many discoveries from Aztec time came to light,
but was at the same time unaware of the significance he helped unleash when he found the carved
rock. This decorated monolith in relief turned out to be the Coyolxauhqui Stone. The finding of this
extraordinary monument led to the full-blown excavation of the Great Temple.
Since the unearthing of Coyolxauhqui, the on-going archaeological work in and around the area of the
temple became a familiar sight in downtown Mexico City. The magnitude of the newly discovered altar
in front of the Tempo Mayor has brought an excitement not seen in almost three decades, paralleling
the enthusiasm the god of the moon’s stone surfacing arose in Mexico, twenty-eight years ago. The
full details about the new monolith discovered are still to come, but based on what they already can
see and know, specialists augur another breakthrough in learning and confirming ceremonial aspects
of Aztec life, social customs, and spiritual and beliefs.
If what Álvaro Barrera supposes is confirmed, most likely Spanish conquerors missed the monolith,
which hypothetically may have prevented its destruction. Is there a slight possibility that the Aztecs
themselves deliberately hid it from the foreigners? Time and archaeological work will most likely reveal
the truth. However, it is also a fact that Cortes and its soldiers thought that by burying and concealing
them below their emerging New Spain reign, the vestiges of Aztecs would be lost forever. In their
destruction-construction mood, they announced the sunset for a savage and feared tribe, and their
own sunrise of Spanish dominion.
Hiding the symbols of Aztec splendor underneath a series of plots and other sites where they and
their descendants would eventually build their luxurious castles and homes, they probably considered
it an almost perfect conquest, where not too much evidence of their obliteration would be left behind.
As if it would be something destined, and precisely in one of these plots, an earthquake that occurred
21 years ago, condemned the house situated there to demolition. This fortuitous event yielded the
space and time for the emergence of an unexpected monolith. Today, rescued from its unsuspected
existence and in its cold inertia, this monumental stone speaks of the greatness and defeat of a
feared and admirable people.
NOTE: This article was prepared using information provided by Sam L. Bravo from the INAH Media Department, as
well as other sources such as magazines and books from the author’s personal library. HISI and BARRIOZONA are
grateful to the INAH and its staff for the valuable assistance received. Some of the images in the slide show are
those of INAH’s photographer Mauricio Marat.
* Information available regarding the history of the “Casa de las Ajaracas” is that of Manuel Velázquez from
** Renowned Mexican archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, coordinator of the PAU, stated that after a
conversation he had with archeologist Leonardo López Luján in regards of the possible identity of the deity, “it is
pointing to be a representation of Tlaltecuhtli (tlal-te-KWa–tlee; earth lord.)
The work to rescue the monolith, in charge of the Urban Archeology Program, is being conducted by archeologists
Alicia Islas Domínguez, Gabino López Arenas, Alberto Diez Barroso y Ulises Lina Hernández, and it includes a
interdisciplinary team formed by biologists, geologists, restorers, topographers, artists, physical anthropologist, and
of course, archaeologists. Contributing to this work also are Alfredo López Austin y Leonardo López Luján.
Story continues below.
Published by the Hispanic Institute of Social Issues in Phoenix, Arizona
|HISTORY IS ABOUT
HIDDEN FOR CENTURIES Before the
Aztec’s contact with the Spaniards, not
even the Mexicas themselves could see
the sculpture, because it is belived it
was never exposed.
Photo by William Gonzalez/Barriozona
HISTORIC DISCOVERY The magnitude
of the newly discovered altar in front of
the Templo Mayor has brought an
excitement not seen in almost three
Photo by Mauricio Marat/INAH
SITE OF AWE The discovery of the altar
doesn’t come as a surprise, since
surprises have been the rule rather
than the exception within the framework
of the Templo Mayor Project.
Photo by Mauricio Marat/INAH