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Votive offering of obsidian knives discovered at Tlatelolco site, Mexico City.

Knife Offering Like No Other Discovered in the Great Basement of Tlatelolco

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Researchers have unearthed a very special votive offering in the ‘Great Basement’ of Tlatelolco, Mexico City. The offering was discovered inside a stone box or cist and includes a large collection of obsidian knives of various types, and also blocks of copal. The finding provides invaluable insights into the ceremonial practices of the Tlatelolca people between 1375 and 1418 AD. 

A Timely Discovery Amid Conservation Efforts 

This remarkable find coincides with the 80th anniversary of explorations at the Tlatelolco Archaeological Zonelocated in the very center of today’s Mexico City. 

Tlatelolco, a Mexica city founded in 1338, was established after a group split from Tenochtitlán and made a settlement on an island to the north. It remained independent until 1473, when it became dependent on Tenochtitlán after conflicts. 

Tlatelolco's market became a major commercial center for the region and the Triple Alliance, which included Tenochtitlán, Texcoco, and Tlacopan. Unlike its neighbors, Tlatelolco was divided into 19 neighborhoods, reflecting its cosmopolitan nature due to the influx of distant merchants and the active local merchants, known as Pochtecas. 

In the INAH announcementSalvador Guilliem Arroyo, the project director, emphasized the significance of the Great Basement, believed to be analogous to the House of the Tenochca Eagles of Tenochtitlan, and dedicated to Tezcatlipoca, the "lord of the smoking obsidian mirror", a major, if not  the primary Aztec god. 

The site of the votive offering of obsidian knives at Tlatelolco

The site of the votive offering of obsidian knives at Tlatelolco. (INAH) 

Details of the Stone Box Offering Container 

Archaeologists Francisco Javier Laue Padilla and Paola Silva Álvarez discovered the offering while investigating a crack near the central altar of the Great Basement. Beneath layers of basalt, tezontle, and pyroclastic rock, they uncovered a cist sealed with andesite slabs. The cist, measuring 70 by 45 centimeters (27.5 by 17.7 inches), dates back to the second construction stage of the Great Basement under Cuacuahpitzáhuac's mandate. 

At a depth of 2.8 meters (9 ft), the offering box contained pocket knives and obsidian knives, all likely originating from a single lithic core and crafted at one time. These sharp tools or weapons, potentially used for self-sacrifice rituals, were found alongside three blocks of copal, a resin commonly used in Mesoamerican ceremonies. 

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he offering box containing the obsidian votive offerings at Tlatelolco

The offering box containing the obsidian votive offerings at Tlatelolco. (INAH) 

Symbolic and Ritual Significance 

The discovery of these items suggests a deeply symbolic ritual involving the Tlatelolca priests and leaders. As the investigation of the offering box progresses, further materials may come to light. Researchers are employing advanced techniques, including photogrammetry for three-dimensional imaging and soil sample analysis, to gain a full understanding of the context and associated organic matter. 

Each element within the offering box carries significant symbolic weight, possibly linked to deities such as Tezcatlipoca. The detailed analysis of these items will increase our understanding of the incredibly diverse and complex Mesoamerican pantheon and the ceremonial practices of the Tlatelolca people. 

Tlatelolco archaeological zone and church of Santiago Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Mexico (Diego Delso/ CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Continued Discoveries in the Great Basement 

The ongoing excavations, funded through institutional insurance following a storm in 2022, are part of the Tlatelolco Project led by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). The project, established in 1987 by renowned archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, seeks to compare the archaeological remains of the lesser known Tlatelolco with those of its twin city, Tenochtitlan. 

The Great Basement remains an invaluable source of archaeological discoveries. Other excavation fronts within the site have yielded additional findings. Archaeology student Jessica González Raya uncovered Offering 28, consisting of burned ceramic comales (cooking plates). Meanwhile, intern Miguel Ángel Marín Hernández and student Germán Olivares Terrez are excavating a recently discovered mass grave, revealing approximately 470 human burials, many victims of the 1833 cholera epidemic. 

These ongoing discoveries underscore the rich historical and cultural significance of Tlatelolco, offering a window into the ceremonial and everyday lives of its ancient inhabitants. 

Top image: Votive offering of obsidian knives discovered at Tlatelolco site, Mexico City. Source: INAH 

By Gary Manners 

Gary Manners's picture


Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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