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Gigantic Aztec Temple Unearthed in Mexico City

It was built in tribute to the wind god

This huge temple was lurking beneath the site of a hotel. (INAH)
smithsonian.com

When people walk down the streets of Mexico City, they might do so in search of a bite to eat or a glimpse at some of its coolest modern architecture. But they may not realize they're standing on top of thousands of years of history. And every once in a while, that history surfaces in an amazing archaeological find.

That’s what happened near the city’s Zocalo plaza, reports Reuters, where a huge Aztec temple and ball court—and a pile of human neck bones—were hiding just beneath the surface.

The incredible find was hidden beneath a side street where a hotel once stood, Reuters reports. Years of excavations finally revealed a temple that archaeologists say is more than 500 years old. INAH, the Mexican institute of anthropology and history, says in a Spanish-language press release that it was likely in use at least since 1481 until 1519. The temple—built to look like a coiled snake—was in honor of Ehécatl, a wind god worshiped by the Aztecs as the creator who breathed life into humankind.

That worship had a grisly side: Near a ball court found within the temple complex, archaeologists discovered 32 severed neck vertebrae. The body parts, officials believe, came from people who were decapitated as part of a sacrificial ritual in the temple. The INAH release writes that the ages of the bodies ranged from infants to juveniles.

The institute notes that the building would have stopped being used for worship once the Spaniards arrived in what is now Mexico City. Tenochtitlan, as it was known then, was the most powerful Aztec city-state. But when Spaniards moved in and conquered, they simply built a new city—and the hundreds of colonial-era buildings for which the interior of Mexico City is known—on top.

Though many of those ruins have gone missing, early colonists recorded accounts of the splendors that once filled the area. Bernal Díaz del Castillo helped invade the Aztec city in the 1520s. Forty years later, he recalled his amazement upon entering Tenochtitlan. “These great towns and [temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision…” he wrote. “Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.”

But Castillo’s observations were anything but a dream. They have since been borne out by archaeological excavations that have revealed magnificent temples and tens of thousands of artifacts. The new find, an INAH official notes, gives further credence to those early chronicles and offers a new look at a culture once literally paved over by a conquering force.

It took a full seven years to dig out the temple, the INAH says in its release. So what will become of it now? The Associated Press reports that the hotel that owns the property will build a new building above the ruins—but that the public will still be able to visit the snake-like site.

It’s certainly not the first time a seemingly mundane part of Mexico City has revealed an archaeological wonder. Last year, for example, another, even older temple to Ehécatl was discovered beneath a supermarket. Mexico’s history of civilization and colonization is complicated to say the least, but it’s never far from daily life. And it will take much more than wind to blow away the relics that sleep beneath its city streets.     

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