Treasure trove of Aztec ritual offerings including a box of STARFISH, jaguar dressed like a warrior and sacrificial eagles are discovered in Mexico City – and could lead to emperor’s long-lost royal tomb

  • Archaeologists have uncovered offerings left for the Aztec emperor Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502
  • They were buried in sealed stone boxes within a ceremonial platform, just off a set of steps at Templo Mayor
  • Templo Mayor was the main temple of the indigenous Aztec people in their capital city of Tenochtitlan
  • Within the boxes was a sacrificed jaguar dressed as a warrior, that was clutching a sacrificed eagle
  • A bulge in the bottom of a boxes suggests something lies beneath, and could be the emperor’s remains

A bounty of Aztec treasures has been discovered by a set of temple steps in Mexico City, Mexico, that archaeologists believe were laid by priests over 520 years ago.

The cache includes a sacrificed jaguar that had been dressed as a warrior clutching a sacrificed eagle, as well as hundreds of starfish and coral branches.

These had all been sealed in stone boxes, and the experts believe they were laid as offerings to the emperor Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502.

They also spotted a mysterious bulge in the middle of one of the boxes, suggesting something solid lies beneath, which could be the emperor’s cremated remains.

‘We’re expecting a great discovery,’ said lead archaeologist Dr Leonardo Lopez Lujan.

The site is located at what is today known as the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the indigenous Aztec people in their capital city of Tenochtitlan. 

The ritual Aztec offering found in the exact centre of what was an important ceremonial circular platform at Templo Mayor, believed to be associated with the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli

Dr Lopez Lujan’s team began excavation of a circular ritual platform just by the steps of the Templo Mayor over two years ago, but work was paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured: A deposit of precious green stone fragments found it the platform. They are the first of its kind ever found and likely from a lapidary workshop

The offerings had all been sealed in stone boxes, and the experts believe they were laid as offerings to the emperor Ahuitzotl, who ruled from 1486 to 1502.

The exact date that the Aztecs, or Mexica, founded Tenochtitlan is unclear, but it is thought to have been around 1325 AD, and the Templo Mayor was built at around the same time. Pictured: Archaeologists excavate several ritual offerings off the steps of the Templo Mayor

Ahuitzotl was the eighth king of the Aztecs, who reigned between 1486 and 1502 AD.

He conquered tribes as far south as present-day Guatemala and in territory along the Gulf of Mexico, using such tactics as forced marches, ambushes, and surprise attacks.

Conquest brought enormous wealth to the empire, making his reign known as the Aztec Golden Age.

The capital of gTenochtitlan rew to such an extent that Ahuitzotl had another aqueduct built.

 Ahuitzotl is known primarily for having occasioned the greatest orgy of in Aztec history.

He is thought to have been killed when he hit his head on a stone lintel trying to escape the great flood that devastated Tenochtitlán in 1503.

Source: Britannica

The exact date that the Aztecs, or Mexica, founded Tenochtitlan is unclear, but it is thought to have been around 1325 AD, and the Templo Mayor was built at around the same time.

It was rebuilt six times to mark the reigns of various Aztec emperors, but had two temples that remained dedicated to two gods – Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.

The main temple towered as high as a 15-story building before it was destroyed following the 1521 Spanish conquest of Mexico, and they used the stone to build the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral.

Several decades after the conquest, chroniclers detailed the burial rites of three Aztec kings, all brothers who ruled from 1469 to 1502.

According to these accounts, the rulers’ cremated remains were deposited with luxurious offerings and the hearts of sacrificed slaves in or near the circular platform.

Rubble left from the temple’s destruction obscures much of its remains, but archaeologists have located over 200 offering boxes since excavations began in the first half of the 20th century. 

Despite the offerings, no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, making the potential discovery of Ahuitzotl’s urn ‘enormously important’, said Dr Lopez Lujan. 

The emperor headed campaigns that expanded his empire to modern-day Guatemala while linking Mexico’s Pacific and Gulf coasts, and celebrated his victories with bloody mass sacrifices.

Dr Lopez Lujan’s team began excavation of a circular ritual platform just by the steps of the Templo Mayor over two years ago, before they had to pause work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is thought that Aztec priests carefully layered offerings in a box within the centre of the elevated platform at a ceremony likely attended by thousands of rapt spectators amid the thunder-clap of drums.

‘Pure imperial propaganda,’ said Dr Lopez Lujan.

Before the pandemic, his team managed to carefully rifle through about a tenth of the box’s contents. 

They found the richly-adorned jaguar dressed as a warrior, with a spear thrower, copper bells tied around its ankles and a carved wooden disk on its back, adorned with the emblem of the Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli.

It also included more than 165 once-bright-red starfish and 180 complete corral branches, that had been fished from both the Pacific Ocean and off Mexico’s Gulf Coast.

The main temple (pictured) towered as high as a 15-story building before it was destroyed following the 1521 Spanish conquest of Mexico, and they used the stone to build the Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral

It is thought that Aztec priests carefully layered offerings in a box within the centre of the elevated platform at a ceremony likely attended by thousands of rapt spectators amid the thunder-clap of drums. Pictured: The bones of a sacrificed young boy, uncovered in 2019

The approximately 9-year-old sacrificed boy was dressed to resemble the Aztec war god and solar deity, and a set of flint knives elaborately decorated with mother of pearl and precious stones (pictured)

Templo Mayor was rebuilt six times to mark the reigns of various Aztec emperors, but had two temples that remained dedicated to two gods – Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Huitzilopochtli, the god of war.

These aquatic offerings covering the jaguar may represent the watery underworld where the Aztecs believed the sun sank each night, or possibly part of a king’s journey after death. 

A roseate spoonbill, a pink bird from the flamingo family that was thought to represent their spirits in their descent into the underworld, was also found in the box. 

Other smaller stone boxes were located next to the jaguar offering, including one containing a top layer of copal bars that were used by Aztec priests for incense.

Another held 21 flint knives decorated to resemble warriors, including the same war god disk as was found with the jaguar but made of mother of pearl, as well as a miniature wooden spear thrower and shield.

Finally, an adjacent circular offering was found to hold an approximately 9-year-old sacrificed boy with a wooden war god disk, a jade bead necklace and wings made from hawk bones and attached to his shoulders.

 It is thought that both the jaguar and the boy would have had their hearts torn out as part of the ritual sacrifice.

Since work excavating the Templo Mayor restarted, Dr Lopez Lujan’s team has announced further discoveries, including that he jaguar was holding sacrificed eagle. Pictured: A carved relief sculpture of an eagle near where several ritual offerings have been found

They also found two additional boxes adjacent to the central jaguar-containing offering, with both set to be opened in the next few weeks, and are likely to contain more ferocious animals dressed as warriors. Pictured: The sealed stone box that contained the sacrificed jaguar

The archaeologists have spotted a mysterious bulge in the middle of one of the boxes, suggesting something solid lies beneath, and could be the emperor’s cremated remains

The skulls of a dozen sacrificed children between one to six years old were also discovered in a nearby pit, dating back decades earlier but also linked to the god Huitzilopochtli

Since work excavating the Templo Mayor restarted, Dr Lopez Lujan’s team has announced further discoveries, including that he jaguar was holding sacrificed eagle.

They also found two additional boxes adjacent to the central jaguar-containing offering, with both set to be opened in the next few weeks, and are likely to contain more ferocious animals dressed as warriors.

Lastly, the skulls of a dozen sacrificed children between one to six years old were also discovered in a nearby pit, dating back decades earlier but also linked to Huitzilopochtli.

With regards to uncovering an urn containing the cremated remains of Ahuitzotl, Dr Lopez Lujan says at least another year of digging is required.

Joyce Marcus, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan, says the offerings illuminate the Aztec ‘worldview, ritual economy, and the obvious links between imperial expansion, warfare, military prowess and the ruler’s role’ in conquests and the resulting ceremonies.

‘Each offering box adds another piece of the puzzle,’ she said.

WHO WERE THE AZTECS AND WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THEM?

The Mexica, later known as the Aztecs, were a migrant people from the desert north who arrived in Mesoamerica in the 1300s. 

This previously nomadic tribe was not welcomed by the local inhabitants who viewed them as inferior and undeveloped. 

Legend says that, as a result the Aztecs, wandered waiting for a sign to indicate where they should settle.

In 1325 AD this sign, an eagle and serpent fighting on a cactus, was seen at Lake Texcoco – prompting the Aztecs to found their capital city, Tenochtitlan.

By 1430 AD the Aztecs had assimilated aspects of the surrounding tribes and developed into a structured society.

Their military became powerful and campaigns were fought and won. 

The Triple Alliance was created with the lords of Texcoco – situated on the eastern shores of Lake Texococo – and Tlacopan – sometimes referred to as Tacuba, situated on the western shores of Lake Texococo – further strengthening Aztec power. 

The Aztecs went to war for two main reasons; to exact tribute and to capture prisoners. 

They needed prisoners because they believed that the gods must be appeased with human blood and hearts to ensure the sun rose each day. 

Conquering new regions brought the opportunity to capture slaves who were an important part of Aztec society. 

Prosperity and unity within the Aztec peoples brought confidence. Under a succession of rulers armies were sent further across Mexico.

By the start of the 1500s the Aztec empire stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific and into Guatemala and Nicaragua. 

The arrival in 1521 AD of Hernan Cortés with Spanish soldiers brought about the end of the empire.

Source: The British Museum 

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