El Templo Mayor; the Great Temple of the Aztecs in the Heart of Mexico City

By Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos | UNESCO Courier, July 1985 | Go to article overview

El Templo Mayor; the Great Temple of the Aztecs in the Heart of Mexico City


Moctezuma, Eduardo Matos, UNESCO Courier


El Templo Mayor The Great Temple of the Aztecs in the heart of Mexico City

ON the night of 21 February 1978, workers of the Light and Power Company were digging on the corner of Guatemala and Argentina Streets in the centre of Mexico City. After breaking the thick concrete surface and penetrating about two metres down, they encountered a hard stone which put a stop to further progress. On removing the clay adhering to it they found that the stone was covered with a series of reliefs, and decided to suspend operations until the next day. A telephone call to the Office of Salvage Archaeology of the National Institute of Anthropology and History led to the despatch of a team of archaeologists to identify the find. On 23 February it was established that on part of the stone was a piece of sculpture showing a face in profile with adornments on the head.

Salvage operations continued until the 27th under the supervision of the archaeologists. An enormous monolith, 3.25 metres in diameter, was uncovered. Its upper surface bore a sculptured representation of a decapitated, naked woman, whose arms and legs were separated from the torso. Clearly this was Coyolxauhqui, a lunar deity and sister of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war who, according to legend, killed his sister in single combat on the hill of Coatepec.

This discovery marked the start of the Great Temple Project. From the outset it was planned in three principal phases. This enabled us to apply the theory and methods that would give us a clearer picture of the chief temple of the Aztecs or Mexicas, who settled on the little islands in the lake of Texcoco around 1325 and later became subject to the lordship of Azcapotzalco, before achieving independence around 1428. They then became an expansionist community and conquered large areas of central America, until in 1521 they succumbed to the dominion of the Spaniards who under Hernan Cortes conquered Mexico during the sixteenth century and destroyed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, and with it the city's Great Temple--el Templo Mayor.

The project was carried out in three phases.

The first phase consisted in assembling all available information about the Great Temple, both from historical sources and from reports of previous archaeological investigations, either on the site or on nearby sites. On the basis of this information, a general plan covering both theoretical and practical aspects was drawn up.

The second phase consisted of the excavations proper, which were begun on 20 March 1978 and completed in November 1982. Suitable techniques were employed to ensure adequate control of the excavation process, the area being divided up into 2-metre-square grids. The site was also divided into three sections, each supervised by an archaeologist and his assistants. Support units included a team of restorers with a field laboratory, as well as biologists, chemists, geologists and other specialists from the Department of Prehistory. There were also photographic laboratories, a design section and a section for controlling the excavated material.

The third phase comprises the study and analysis of the material recovered in the preceding phase. After four years' continuous work, the first two phases have been completed, and we are now engaged on the third phase which will take longer.

We shall now summarize the results of nearly five years of excavations and of the investigations currently being carried out.

Architecture -- Until a few years ago the chief sources of information about the Great Temple were the accounts of sixteenth-century chroniclers. Now, thanks to archaeology, we have the temple before our eyes, and we can see that in fact the chroniclers' descriptions correspond very closely to what they saw or to what the indigenous people told them. Thanks to archaeology we have also been able to learn about very early periods in the temple's history, of which even the last generations of Mexicas knew nothing. …

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