Archaeologists Unearth 600-Year-Old Golden Eagle Sculpture at Aztec Temple

The artwork is the largest bas-relief engraving found at the Templo Mayor to date

Obsidian Eagle
Eagles are enduring symbols in Aztec lore. Mirsa Islas / INAH

Archaeologists conducting excavations at the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, in Mexico City (once home to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán) have discovered a 600-year-old sculpture of a golden eagle, reports Ángela Reyes for CNN en Español.

Led by Rodolfo Aguilar Tapia of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), researchers from the Templo Mayor Project unearthed the sculpture last February. The eagle—carved out of tezontle, a reddish volcanic rock commonly used in both pre-Hispanic and modern Mexico—measures 41.7 by 27.6 inches, making it the largest bas-relief (or low relief) work found at the pyramid-shaped temple to date.

“It is a very beautiful piece that shows the great secrets that the Templo Mayor of Mexico Tenochtitlán has yet to reveal to us,” says Mexican Cultural Minister Alejandra Frausto Guerrero in a statement translated by Live Science’s Harry Baker. “Thanks to [the archaeologists’] effort and dedication, we can continue to recover our history and our memory.”

As Ashley Cowie notes for Ancient Origins, the sculpture was carved into the floor on the central axis of a chapel devoted to sun and war god Huitzilopochtli and a monument honoring moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. Researchers think that craftspeople created the engraving in the mid-15th century, during the reign of Moctezuma I (1440–1469).

Workers initially constructed the Templo Mayor under Itzcoatl (reigned 1427–1440). According to Mark Cartwright of Ancient History Encyclopedia, Moctezuma I and Ahuítzotl (reigned 1486–1502) later added to the temple by building over earlier structures. Both rulers sought to create a more elaborate monument than their predecessor, using materials and labor from neighboring tributaries to construct an ornate complex that eventually constituted 78 separate structures.

Archaeologists Unearth 600-Year-Old Golden Eagle Sculpture at Aztec Temple
The eagle was carved into the floor at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Mirsa Islas / INAH

Speaking with Live Science, Caroline Dodds Pennock, an Aztec historian at the University of Sheffield who wasn’t involved in the research, says, “For the Aztecs, the Templo Mayor lay at the heart of the physical, mythical and spiritual universes.”

During Ahuítzotl’s reign, construction workers covered the eagle sculpture with a second floor built on top of the previous temple.

“That is why is it so well preserved,” says Aguilar Tapia in the statement, per Google Translate. “It is an element that was never seen by the Spanish.”

The golden eagle, which is also known as itzcuauhtli (obsidian eagle) in the Indigenous Nahuatl language, is rife with symbolism. Per the statement, the Codex Borgia—a 16th-century painted manuscript featuring calendars that purported to predict the success of marriages, military campaigns and other endeavors—contains a similar image of a golden eagle whose sharp-edged feathers mimic the knives used in ritual sacrifices.

“The eagle was a sacred creature in Aztec thought, believed to have been present at the birth of the sun (hence, the blackened ‘singed’ wing tips) and was the symbol of one of the elite warrior orders in Aztec culture,” Pennock explains to Live Science.

Archaeologists Unearth 600-Year-Old Golden Eagle Sculpture at Aztec Temple
A model of the Templo Mayor complex Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Local newspaper El Comentario reports that the newly unearthed carving was one of 67 found on the south side of the temple, which is home to artifacts associated with the god Huitzilopochtli. Etchings on the north side of the temple are dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, water, lightning and agriculture, notes the statement.

According to legend, Huitzilopochtli directed the Aztecs to establish their kingdom at the site where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake. Upon arriving at an island on Lake Texcoco, the settlers witnessed this very sight, spurring them to found the city of Tenochtitlan.

Today, an image of a golden eagle appears on the Mexican flag; other representations of the eagle are scattered across Mexican lore. The new discovery may help researchers gain an even better understanding of the eagle’s significance in Aztec culture.

Researchers plan to briefly remove the relief while they examine the site but will return it to the temple once this process is finished.

“The Templo Mayor Project continues to shed remarkable insights on Aztec culture,” says Pennock. “This eagle adds another layer to our understanding of the ways in which the Aztecs saw their mythical history as at the heart of their belief and ritual.”