<p>While the fractured stone was still in situ, archaeologists used laser-driven pulses of light to produce a green 3-D image of it. In an adjacent shaft lay six offerings of artifacts.</p>

While the fractured stone was still in situ, archaeologists used laser-driven pulses of light to produce a green 3-D image of it. In an adjacent shaft lay six offerings of artifacts.

Photograph by Guido Galvani and Maria Såanchez Vega, courtesy Mayor Project, National Institute of Anthropology And History, Mexico

Unburying the Aztec

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.

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).

After years of painstaking excavation, López Luján and his crew have discovered, in a deep pit beside the monolith, some of the most exotic Aztec offerings ever found. Removing a stucco patch in the plaza floor, the excavators came upon 21 white flint sacrificial knives painted red: the teeth and gums of the Aztec earth monster, her mouth open wide to receive the dead. They dug deeper and found a bundle wrapped in agave leaves. It contained an assortment of sacrificial perforators made of jaguar bone, used by Aztec priests to spill their own blood as a gift to the gods. Alongside the perforators were bars of copal—priestly incense, another spiritual purifier. The perforators and incense were carefully arranged inside the bundle, along with feathers and jade beads.

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