Archaeologists in Mexico have unearthed one of the largest and most impressive collections of Aztec artifacts ever found, just northeast of the central plaza of Mexico City. This incredible Aztec artifact treasure trove includes more than 2,500 wooden items of all shapes, sizes, and uses, plus many other artifacts that were left behind by residents of the Aztec Empire’s capital city of Tenochtitlan.
Researchers from the Instituto Nacional de Antropologìa (INAH) found the huge deposit that contained these artifacts at the foot of a landmark structure known as Templo Mayor, which was the centerpiece of an important Aztec ceremonial and religious building complex. All of the artifacts found at the site are now in the possession of the INAH-run Templo Major Project .
A Trove of Aztec Offerings
The wooden objects retrieved from the vicinity of Templo Mayo were offered as gifts to the gods by people who lived in the Aztec capital city between 1325 AD, when construction on the religious complex began, until its destruction at the hands of Spanish invaders in 1521.The latest excavations by INAH-affiliated archaeologists have produced a broad spectrum of highly valued personal objects made from wood, including earrings, masks, ornaments, headdresses, figurines, pectorals, scepters, jugs, earmuffs, darts and dart throwers, and stylized artistic carvings, which were brought to the temple by priests, citizens of Tenochtitlan, and pilgrims from elsewhere who visited the holy site.
Two of the thousands of wooden Aztec artifacts that were recently found near the ancient Temple Major site in central Mexico City. (Mirsa Islas Orozco / INAH)
Samples of ancient plants and animals, copper and gold objects, ceramic pieces, and flint tools were also recovered during these excavations. But it was the amazing collection of wooden objects that set these digs apart.
Uncovering the Priceless Aztec Artifacts of Templo Mayor
Excavations began at Tempo Mayor in 1978, under the auspices of INAH’s Templo Mayor Project. The Templo Mayor was a pyramidal structure around which other temples, buildings, platforms, and public facilities were constructed, and the site as a whole was considered the most important religious shrine in the entire Aztec Empire .
During the various digs that took place there over the years, wooden objects were only occasionally recovered. Wood is an organic material, and as such it often breaks down when buried for too long in the soil. Even when wooden artifacts were recovered from the Templo Mayor complex , they would often decay and crumble into pieces shortly after being removed from the ground.
What made the difference in this case is that the buried cache of wooden objects found at the foot of the temple were submerged in water. In this environment the items didn’t decay at the usual rate, and in fact were remarkably well preserved.
To protect these Aztec artifacts from open-air decay, the INAH archaeologists used a special preservation technique that involves the application of synthetic sugars (lactitol and trehalose). The microorganisms that cause wood to decompose are essentially allergic to these sugars, and to protect themselves they will shut down all biological activity when substances like lactitol and trehalose are present.
After this treatment was completed, the wooden items from Templo Mayor were then rinsed off and placed inside a heat chamber which produces temperatures of up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). The wood was slowly dried out inside the chambers, after which it emerged free of any potentially destructive organisms.
This process proved to be the ideal solution. The wooden objects found at Templo Mayor are now safe and will be preserved indefinitely, giving Aztec scholars all the time they need to study and analyze this astounding bounty of ritual and ceremonial Aztec artifacts.
A tiny portion of the visually stunning and well-preserved range of Aztec artifacts, especially wooden ones, which were recently found at the Templo Mayor complex in central Mexico City. ( INAH)
A Unique Collection from a Unique Culture
Templo Mayor was dedicated to two Aztec deities: Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. The 2,500-plus wooden items were offered as sacrifices or gifts to these gods, by priests and by the most religiously devout.
Scanning electron microscopy technology was used to look more closely at the surfaces of the wooden items. These penetrating scans revealed traces of some of the coloring that was used to decorate them (blue, black, white, and red paints were the most common), which is a testament to how well-preserved these objects really were.
The wooden items in this massive collection were made primarily from different species of pine. Some were carved from other species of softer woods, including white cedar, cypress, ahuehuete, aile, and tepozán.
“Trees in Mesoamerica, especially some species, were considered a xis mundi, [meaning] they were sacred,” explained Templo Mayor Project archaeologist Víctor Cortés Meléndez. According to Meléndez, ritual items like those recovered during the recent excavations were made by highly skilled carpenters and carvers who dedicated themselves to such tasks. Some of these individuals managed to survive and continue their work even after the great city of Tenochtitlan had been destroyed by Spanish conquistadores.
Many of the wooden pieces feature images of sacred animals. The items chosen usually had some sort of relevance to agricultural practices or warfare, as might be expected given the nature of the gods to whom they were offered.
“It is a collection, I would dare to say, unique in its kind. It is one of the richest in all of Mesoamerica,” the director of the Templo Mayor Project, Leonardo López Luján , told El Pais . “These types of objects normally do not survive to this day, among other things, because this was an island surrounded by a lake. The conditions caused these objects to survive well over 500 years.”
“Another [reason for its uniqueness] is the collection’s richness and diversity,” he continued. “And, on a symbolic level it is exceptional, because we are in the capital of the Mexican empire … Mexico City, capital of 21 million inhabitants. Then the capital of New Spain, the most important European city overseas, with 170,000 inhabitants. Further down, you have Mexico-Tenochtitlan, with about 200,000 inhabitants. We are excavating in a privileged place such as Jerusalem, Istanbul, Alexandria, in Egypt or Rome itself.”
Excavations will continue at the Templo Mayor site for some time to come, as archaeologists seek more knowledge about Aztec civilization and society at one of its most sacred and spiritual locations.
Top image: An amazing wooden mask found among the latest Aztec artifacts’ discoveries at Templo Mayor in central Mexico City. Source: Mirsa Islas Orozco / INAH
By Nathan Falde