Archaeologists excavating a historic pawnshop in Mexico City have discovered the long-buried remains of an Aztec palace and a house built by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Per a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the former—a royal residence constructed for Moctezuma II’s father, Axayácatl—dates to between 1469 and 1481, while the latter postdates the 1521 fall of Tenochtitlan.
Workers spotted the centuries-old structures’ unusual basalt slab flooring while renovating the Nacional Monte de Piedad in September 2017. The building has stood in the capital’s central square since 1755, reports BBC News.
Subsequent archaeological work revealed a 16- by 13-foot room, likely part of Cortés’ home, made of basalt and vesicular lava stones. Nearly ten feet below this structure, experts led by Raúl Barrera Rodríguez and José María García Guerrero discovered a second basalt slab floor dating to the pre-Hispanic period. They concluded that these stones once formed a courtyard or open space in the Palace of Axayácatl.
The layered finds help tell the story of some of the most decisive moments in the Spanish conquest of Mexico. As Ed Whelan explains for Ancient Origins, Moctezuma, the Aztecs’ last independent ruler, allowed the conquistadors to stay in his father’s palace after arriving in the empire’s capital. The Spaniards returned this hospitality by massacring their hosts at a May 1520 religious festival. That same year, Moctezuma died on palace grounds under mysterious circumstances.
This series of events “undermined the relationship between Mexicans and Spaniards and triggered [an] open confrontation” that culminated in the conquistadors’ retreat from Tenochtitlan on June 30, according to the statement. One year later, the Spanish returned to the city, claiming victory after a three-month siege.
After the fall of Tenochtitlan, Cortés and his men forced the surviving Aztecs to destroy their old temples and residences and use the remnants of these razed buildings to erect a new city. The stone flooring found beneath the National Monte de Piedad suggests the Palace of Axayácatl suffered this fate: Per Ryan W. Miller of USA Today, the materials used to construct the conquistador’s home match those of the 15th-century palace’s foundation.
Barrera, a researcher at the INAH Directorate of Salvage Archaeology, says that such material findings speak to “the destruction that the main buildings of Tenochtitlan were subjected to, both for symbolic and practical purposes.”
In addition to the basalt floors, archaeologists found two statues—one of the feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl and another of the glyph that symbolizes “market”—in a corner of the building’s colonial room. These objects act as a reminder of the conquistador’s ransacking of Indigenous buildings and sacred spaces.
Around 1525, Cortés’ residence was converted into the headquarters of New Spain’s first cabildo, or local governing council. In 1529, Spain granted the building to the Marquessate of the Valley of Oaxaca, a noble title held by Cortés and his descendants until the 19th century. The property remained under the conquistador’s family’s ownership until 1566; Sacro Monte de Piedad, a predecessor of the modern pawnshop, acquired it in 1836.