Sunday, October 03, 2010
Tlaltecuhtli Gets a New Home in the Templo Mayor Museum
It isn't surprising that Mexico City residents are continually unearthing ancient Aztec artifacts from beneath their feet. After the Spanish conquistadors razed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan in the early 1600’s, they built their colonial capital right on top of the ruins.
As far back as 1790, the now-famous Aztec Sun Stone was found underneath Mexico City’s Zocalo. Sometimes erroneously called the Aztec Calendar Stone, this enormous disk covered in cosmological symbols is thought to have been a sacrificial altar. It now occupies a prominent spot in the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park. Almost two centuries later, in 1978, electrical workers made an equally impressive find when they dug up a giant circular stone depicting the dismembered moon goddess Coyolxauhqui, one of the most important figures in Aztec mythology.
Until recently these two sculptures reigned as the largest Aztec artifacts to have been discovered. Then in 2006 workers demolishing two buildings at the corner of Argentina and Guatemala Streets in Mexico City’s Historical Center uncovered a richly carved slab that turned out to be bigger than either the Sun Stone or the Coyolxauhqui stone. Fashioned from pink andesite, the rectangular monolith measures 4.2 meters by 3.6 meters and is about 40 centimeters thick. Archaeologists have determined that the sculpture bears the likeness of the earth goddess Tlaltecuhtli who, according to myth, gives birth to all living things and also devours them.
Tlaltecuhtli’s appearance is anything but inviting. She is depicted in an awkward squatting position as if giving birth. Her facial expression is fierce, and blood streams from her gaping mouth. Instead of hands and feet she has menacing-looking claws. One of them clutches a date glyph corresponding to 1502 A.D, suggesting that the monolith might have been the tombstone of Lord Ahuizotl, a ruler of Tenochtitlan who died that same year. Tlaltecuhtli’s knees and elbows are human skulls, and her skirt is decorated with crossed bone designs. The sculpture was painted in four colors – white, black, ochre and red – and substantial amounts of the original pigments are still visible.
In 2007, the Tlaltecuhtli monolith, which was found in four parts, was taken to a temporary location on Argentina Street for study and restoration. Then almost three years later, on May 17th 2010, two cranes gingerly transported the mammoth sculpture to the Templo Mayor Museum adjacent to the ruins of the Great Temple that stood at the heart of Tenochtitlan. This monumental task took 31 hours to complete and was managed by employees of Mexico’s National Institute of Archaeology and History (INAH).
In order to fit Tlaltecuhtli into the Templo Mayor Museum, the building’s main doors had to be temporarily removed. In addition, the foyer of the museum was reinforced with special braces so that it could support the 12-ton sculpture. Tlaltecuhtli is thought to have been a cult deity worshipped by Aztec priests, and offerings associated with the earth goddess are displayed in glass cases surrounding the sculpture. The monolith has been placed in a reclining position, and visitors can get an eagle’s eye view of Tlaltecuhtli from the museum’s upper floors.
The Templo Mayor is located at Seminario 8, next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. The ruins and museum are open Tuesday through Sunday (closed Mondays) from 9 am to 5 pm. The entrance fee is 51 pesos (about US$4.50), which includes admission to both the Templo Mayor archaeological site and the adjacent museum.
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Templo Mayor, Mexico City - Images by John Mitchell