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Aztec Palace Complex and Later Cortes Home Unearthed in Mexico City

Aztec Palace Complex and Later Cortes Home Unearthed in Mexico City

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Archaeologists have unearthed an Aztec palace complex in the heart of Mexico City . The recently unearthed palace complex in the capital of Mexico was built for an Aztec emperor but was also subsequently used as a residence by the infamous Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortes . This new Aztec palace complex is helping researchers to better understand the dramatic events around the fall of the Aztec Empire and the early years of the Colonial period in Mexico.

The discoveries were made by experts from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). They were working under the Nacional Monte de Piedad building, ‘a historic pawn shop in the middle of the capital's central square’ according to The Telegraph . Specialists have been working here for twenty years.

The National Mount of Piety building in Mexico City under which researchers discovered the Aztec temple complex

The National Mount of Piety building in Mexico City under which researchers discovered the Aztec temple complex. (Raúl Barrera R. / PAU-INAH)

Using breakthrough techniques and documentary evidence the researchers have determined that the Aztec palace complex they found was the original home or palace of Axayacatl. Axayacatl was the 6 th Aztec Empire emperor ( tlatoani), a great conqueror, and the father of the last independent ruler of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II (or Montezuma II). The Axayacatl Palace was where some of most decisive moments in the fall of the Aztec Empire took place.

Aztec Palace Complex Featured a Rare Basalt Stone Courtyard

Specialists dug a series of test pits on the north, east and west sides of the overall site. This led to the discovery of stone masonry wall. The wall was dated from the 18 th century AD and served as a foundation and basal platform for a series of building columns.

Detail of the southeast corner of the room of the house of Hernán Cortés and the first headquarters of New Spain

Detail of the southeast corner of the room of the house of Hernán Cortés and the first headquarters of New Spain. (Raúl Barrera R. / PAU-INAH)

Further investigations lead to the remains of the palace complex which is providing experts with new insights related to Axayacatl’s 16 th century palace. Raúl Barrera and his colleague José María García, who worked on the project, told Cultura that this ‘allowed us to deduce that the central courtyard was originally larger.’

Also uncovered during the investigations where a number of basalt slabs . This material would have been highly prized during the Aztec Empire. Specialists from the INAH stated that ‘it was part of an open space of the old Axayacatl Palace, probably a patio’ reports The Telegraph .

Aztec Palace Complex Graciously Given to Cortes by Montezuma

This Axayacatl palace was given to Hernan Cortes and his men by Montezuma as their residence when they arrived in Tenochtitlan. The Spanish conquistadors retreated to the fortified palace after they massacred many Aztecs during a religious festival in May 1520. During the subsequent siege of the palace, Montezuma II was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1520 in the palace grounds. His murder led to more bloody conflict between the Aztecs and the Spanish. Eventually, the Spanish escaped the palace and the following year they returned and attacked the Aztecs again.

Adjacent to the palace courtyard or plaza experts found a room made of basalt and tenzontle, a type of volcanic stone. The stones were dressed and measured 15 feet (5m) by 12 feet (4m) and stood upon a series of slabs. According to the research team ‘Further analyses led to the conclusion that this was the home of Hernán Cortés, once Mexico-Tenochtitlan fell in 1521’ reports Cultura.

Perspective of a one-quarter section of the house of Hernán Cortés, built on the remains of the Palace of Axayácatl

Perspective of a one-quarter section of the house of Hernán Cortés, built on the remains of the Palace of Axayácatl. (Raúl Barrera R. / PAU-INAH)

Destruction of Tenochtitlan and The Memory of the Aztecs

Cortes landed in Mexico in 1518, from Cuba. He initially only intended to explore the area and search for gold. However, after some conflicts with local tribes, he began to conquer territory.

However, during the La Noche Triste (Night of Sorrows), on July 1, 1520, the Spanish were driven out of the Aztec capital with serious casualties. After being forced out of Tenochtitlan, Cortez gathered a large army of Spanish and Mexican allies. He returned to the Aztec capital in 1521 and besieged it. His victory ended the Aztec Empire. After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Cortez and the Spanish took over the palace complex, rebuilt it, and added a chapel.

Historical evidence indicates that the Spanish set out to destroy the last vestiges of Aztec power and religion in the area. Local people were obliged to destroy their monuments and temples with their own hands. Barrera and García are quoted by Cultura as saying that ‘These premises, like so many other structures of the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan, were destroyed by the Spanish and their indigenous allies, almost to their foundations.’

Details from the site show evidence that Aztec stone and reliefs were used to make new Spanish walls

Details from the site show evidence that Aztec stone and reliefs were used to make new Spanish walls. (Raúl Barrera R. / PAU-INAH)

Based on the recent discoveries by the research team, it appears that the Spanish used recycled materials from previous Aztec structures to build their new homes and buildings. And this also included the newly renamed House of Cortes. Researchers have found pre-conquest dressed stones with carved reliefs in the Cortes home featuring images of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered-serpent god, and some Aztec glyphs .

The researchers told Cultura that the recent discoveries and the few extant remains of the Aztec era reveal that the destruction of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish was ‘both for symbolic and practical purposes.’ They not only took over the Aztec capital but also sought to obliterate their cultural memory.

Mexico City Becomes the Capital and Center of New Spain

The remains uncovered from the House of Cortes are modest. However, the researchers note that ‘those pre-Hispanic floors were the same ones that the Spanish invaders and their allies tread upon during their arrival to Tenochtitlan, on November 8, 1519’ according to Cultura.  From this building, the conquistadors created the new province of New Spain from which they ruled their empire in central and south America.

The former home of the Aztec emperor was in the possession of the Cortes family until 1566. It was in this year that Cortes’s son was involved in a plot against the government and banished from New Spain. It is expected that new finds relating to this dramatic period in Mexican history will be made at the recently uncovered Aztec palace complex, home to emperors and conquistadors.

Top image: Process of excavation of the Cortes house and the Aztec temple complex.         Source: Raúl Barrera R./ PAU-INAH

By Ed Whelan

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