Never, in the history of Mexican archaeology, has the tomb of an Aztec ruler been discovered. This is not for lack of trying. Since 1997, Mexico‘s INAH (National Institute for Anthropology and History) has been methodically searching the Templo Mayor, the spiritual center of the Aztec Empire that is now partially buried in the historic center of Mexico City, for just such a grave.
The history of Mexico City is in many ways the history of the Aztec Empire, a short-lived (1376–1525) but powerful dynasty of eleven rulers that continues to influence Mexican culture. Thanks to careful records kept by Catholic priests who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors as part of Mexico’s original occupation, as well as by Aztec scribes themselves, a great deal is known about their burial rites.
Almost all Aztecs were cremated, although those who had died of drowning, leprosy, during labor, or after being hit by lightening were buried. Lords were generally given a very public farewell, their bodies wrapped in shrouds emblazoned with the Nahuatl symbol for fire, and tied into a squatting position for cremation at the feet of a major temple. In typically gory Aztec fashion, slaves might have their hearts ripped out in the fallen lord’s honor, or perhaps his wives would be buried alive to serve him in the afterlife.
Various offerings, both luxurious and mundane, were often interred with the ashes—although some scientists worry that in the case of the tlatoanis, or emperors, the urns might not have been buried at all, but were instead kept elsewhere and lost forever during the Conquest. In 2006, however, archaeologists made a tantalizing discovery that led them to believe that the Templo Mayor did conceal at least one imperial tomb within its depths.
A pink andesite monolith, carved into the image of Tlaltecuhtli, an earth deity of specific importance, was dated 10-rabbit—which can be translated as 1502 AD, the year that the Mayan ruler Ahuízoltl died. The eighth Aztec emperor, Ahuízoltl was, perhaps, America’s most important military leader prior to the Spanish conquest, responsible for doubling the size of the empire and defeating several other powerful Mesoamerican nations. He was almost certainly cremated here.
The monolith, as well as the discovery of associated burial artifacts now displayed in the onsite museum, convinced archaeologists to redirect their excavations. Construction began on a new tunnel, which is part of a quest for the long hypothesized platform, described by Fray Bernardo de Sahagún in the early 1500s, where royal cremations might have taken place. Archaeologist Raúl Barrera told ABC News that, “it is believed to be on this same structure — the cuauhxicalco — that the rulers were cremated.” The royal urns may well be buried nearby.
INAH has just announced that the massive stone platform, studded with huge stone snake heads, has finally been found. Although the new excavation is currently off limits, INAH General Director Alfonso de Maria y Campos says that they plan to build a window on, and perhaps a walking platform around, the new find so visitors to the museum to see the fantastic platform without disturbing archaeologists.