Post-Conquest Aztec Altar With A Burned Human Unearthed In Mexico City
Archaeologists in Mexico have excavated a 16th-century Aztec altar surrounded by sacred artifacts. While abstract trinkets and incense burners reflected the structure of the cosmos, a giant clay jar contained burned human remains. This was no ordinary Aztec altar, but a sacrificial altar.
Researchers from Mexico's National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered the 16th-century sacrificial Aztec altar near Plaza Garibaldi, in historic downtown Mexico City. Buried 13 feet (4 meters) below modern-day Mexico City, the human ashes are believed to have been part of a ritual marking the collapse of the Aztec civilization.
The Aztec Altar Was Connected to Five Chamber Rooms
The subterranean sacrificial Aztec altar featured a room adjacent to a patio, and a corridor connected with another five chambers, with their original stucco walls and flooring intact. One of the rooms contained a 13 by 10 feet (4 by 3 meter) fire pit at its center and is believed to have functioned like a kitchen.
The remains of the house near Garibaldi Plaza of a Mexican family that survived the Spanish invasion, where the Aztec altar was found. (Mauricio Marat / INAH)
A giant clay pot was discovered with hollow handles on each side of a wide opening. Painted red, black, and blue this sacred vessel doubled as a wind instrument. The archaeologists said that a representation of the head of a water snake “refers to the forces of the underworld.” The archaeologists found human ashes compressed into the bottom of the jar.
The archaeologists discovered Aztec offering artifacts like these in downtown, historical Mexico City, deposited after the conquest of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish in 1521 AD. (Mauricio Marat / INAH)
Offering Ashes And Flames To The Gods
Site archaeologist, Mara Becerra, revealed in an INAH press release that 13 incense burners were discovered around the jar of human remains. This “expresses a particular symbolism,” she said. Assembled on two distinct levels, one oriented east-west and the other one north-south, the researcher said the number 13 represented the levels of the sky in Aztec cosmology (cosmovision).
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Furthermore, when the ritual installation is interpreted as a whole it represents the “20 thirteens that made up the tonalpohualli, the 260-day Mexican ritual calendar,” according to Becerra.
Archaeologist Mara Abigaíl Becerra with religious items found near the Aztec altar found beneath Plaza Garibaldi, Mexico City. (Mauricio Marat / INAH)
The archaeologist also said the incense burners reflected the Nahua conception of the universe. The Nahua were the Middle American Indigenous population of central Mexico, to which the Aztecs of pre-Conquest Mexico belonged. While the various Nahua people groups warred over resource rich lands and waterways, they were bound together by their cosmic origins story. Becerra said the “openwork cross of the incense cups” represents the quincunx, which is a symbol of the axis mundi.
A Last Gasp Aztec Effort For Forgiveness?
Like most ancient discoveries, true value is only ever realized when interpreted in the correct archaeological context. Dating of the human remains determined the ritual site was functional in the Late Postclassic period, in the first century of the Spanish occupation, between 1521 AD and 1610 AD. This informed the researchers that the Aztec altar dates back to a time after Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital, was conquered by Spanish conquistadors.
Thus, having been dating to almost a century after the arrival of the Spaniards, it is now being considered that the burnt human remains may have been a last offering to the angered god that had sent the European devils from the east.
A straight divergent bowl of the Texcoco type, white on red, found at the Mexico City site where the Aztec altar was discovered. (Mauricio Marat / INAH)
The End Of Almost Everything Aztec
The Aztec empire was founded in 1428–40 AD. Tenochtitlán had formed strong blood and trading alliances with the surrounding states of Texcoco and Tlacopan and soon became the dominant power in all of central Mexico. The empire was still expanding in 1519 AD when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés captured the ninth emperor, Montezuma II, who ultimately died in Spanish custody.
Montezuma II had initially suspected that Cortés was a prophesied returning god, until however, the strangers from the east unleashed muskets and steel swords and deflected Aztec attacks with metal body armor.
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Montezuma II got it wrong. Hernán Cortés was no god, but more akin to a gold hungry demon of destruction. Cortés rallied the disparate tribes who had been conquered by the Aztecs in the previous two decades. And after a brutal two-year military campaign, on August 13, 1521 AD Tenochtitlán and its culture came to a very bitter end.
The discovery of the early 17th-century Aztec altar and jar of human remains demonstrates that even in the emerging Spanish culture that would consume Tenochtitlán there were still religious rebels who followed the old ways.
Top image: Figurine head found at the Aztec altar site at Garibaldi Plaza, Mexico City, which is a representation of the Aztec goddess Cihuacóatl. Source: Mauricio Marat / INAH
By Ashley Cowie