The striking find is the largest bas-relief engraving found at the Templo Mayor to date. Luckily, it is very well-preserved.
While conducting excavations at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City (once home to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán), archaeologists discovered an amazing 600-year-old golden eagle sculpture.
The find was unearthed last February by researchers from the Templo Mayor Project under the leadership of Rodolfo Aguilar Tapia of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). With its dimensions of 41.7 x 27.6 inches, it is the largest bas-relief (or low relief) work found at the pyramid-shaped temple so far. It is carved out of tezontle – a reddish volcanic rock commonly used in both pre-Hispanic and modern Mexico.
“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,” Caroline Dodds Pennock, an Aztec historian at the University of Sheffield who wasn’t involved in the research, told Live Science.
The golden eagle, which is also known as itzcuauhtli (obsidian eagle) in the Indigenous Nahuatl language, is situated on the central axis of a chapel devoted to sun and war god Huitzilopochtli and a monument honoring moon goddess Coyolxauhqui. The researchers believe the engraving was carved into the floor in the mid-15th century, during the reign of Moctezuma I (1440–1469).
“It is a very beautiful piece that shows the great secrets that the Templo Mayor of Mexico Tenochtitlán has yet to reveal to us,” said 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.”
The original Templo Mayor was constructed under Itzcoatl (reigned 1427–1440). In order to create a more elaborate monument than his predecessor, Moctezuma later added to the temple by building over earlier structures, using materials and labor from neighboring tributaries. A later ruler, Ahuítzotl (reigned 1486–1502) followed his example, and together they created an ornate complex that eventually consisted of 78 separate structures.
“For the Aztecs, the Templo Mayor lay at the heart of the physical, mythical and spiritual universes.” Pennock explained to Live Science.
During Ahuítzotl’s reign, a second floor was built on top of the previous temple, leaving the eagle sculpture covered.
“That is why is it so well preserved,” Aguilar Tapia said in a statement. “It is an element that was never seen by the Spanish.”
The newly unearthed carving was one of 67 found on the south side of the temple, which is home to a range of artifacts associated with the god Huitzilopochtli. (On the north side of the temple, the etchings are dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain, water, lightning and agriculture.)
Legend says Huitzilopochtli commanded the Aztecs to establish their kingdom at a site where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake. The settlers witnessed this very sight upon arriving at an island on Lake Texcoco, and it lead them to found the city of Tenochtitlan.
The “bird of prey” was also frequently linked with Huitzilopochtli, and the position of the bas-relief may reflect an important myth surrounding the god.
“According to the Aztecs’ mythical history, Huitzilopochtli had vanquished his sister Coyolxauhqui and thrown her down a mountain, where she fell into pieces,” Pennock said. “This history was repeated through human sacrifice on the Templo Mayor, as the bodies of victims were thrown down the steps.”
Today, the golden eagle appears on the Mexican flag and other representations of it are scattered across Mexican lore. The new discovery is hoped to give archeologists a better insight on the eagle’s significance in Aztec culture.