Origins » Aztec Food & Agriculture › Aztec Ceremonial Knife › Tarascan Civilization › Texcoco » History

Characters and historical events ››

  1. Aztec Food & Agriculture
  2. Aztec Ceremonial Knife
  3. Tarascan Civilization
  4. Texcoco
  5. Tenochtitlan
  6. Templo Mayor
  7. Sun Stone

Ancient Origins ›› Its historical characters and places

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[ 1 ]

Aztec Food & Agriculture

by Mark Cartwright

The Aztec civilization, which flourished in central Mexico between c. 1345 and 1521 CE, was able to provide, through a combination of climatic advantages, diverse artificial irrigation methods, and extensive farming know-how, an astonishingly wide range of agricultural produce that gave them one of the most varied cuisines in the ancient world.

Organization & Methods

In Aztec society, land could be owned by communities (calpolli) and parceled out to individual families for cultivation, or farmers could be resident tenants (mayeque) on large, privately owned estates. Rent was paid in kind to the landowners who were either Aztec nobles (pipiltin), warriors given the land as a reward for services rendered, or the king himself (tlatoani), who all managed their estates through intermediary administrators. On a smaller scale, it was also typical for commoners (macehualtin) to have their own garden plot (calmil), which could supply the family with food. At the bottom of the social strata were slaves (tlacohtin) who, besides working in other industries, were also widely engaged in agriculture.
Two groups of agricultural workers may be distinguished - the general farm labourers who tended the fields, planted, and irrigated crops, and the more specialised horticulturalists who had knowledge of seeding, transplanting, crop rotation, and the best times to plant and harvest. The latter information could be determined from the tonalamatl almanacs, and they not only considered climatic conditions but also auspicious periods and events after which planting and harvesting should take place.
To maximise crop yields, various measures were taken. For example, terracing to increase the area of farmland was widely used, especially from the reign of Netzahualcoyotl. Irrigation was also employed across the Aztec Empire, sometimes in ambitious large-scale projects, such as the diversion of the Cuauhtitlan River to water surrounding fields, but more commonly via artificially flooded fields known as chinampas (see below). Crops were also fertilized using a combination of sludge dredged from the canals constructed wherever Aztecs took up residence and with human excrement, purposely collected from the urban centres.
Still, despite these measures, crop yields could be significantly reduced by unfavourable natural events such as excessive rain and even snow or plagues of such pests as locusts and rodents. Accordingly, reserves of grain were accumulated to be redistributed to the destitute in such hard times.
The most famous & largest market was at Tlatelolco, which each day attracted 25,000 shoppers.
All manner of foodstuffs were cultivated, and non-food crops included cotton and tobacco, which was smoked either in a pipe or rolled into cigars. Once harvested, goods were sold in markets held in the central plaza of all towns. The most famous and largest was the market at Tlatelolco, which each day attracted 25,000 shoppers and as many as 50,000 at the special market held on every fifth day.


Chinampas were artificially raised and flooded fields used for cultivation, and they covered large areas of the Chalco-Xochimilco basin and greatly increased the agricultural capacity of the land. In fact, as many as six crops a year could be grown on the chinampas; no wonder then, that they continue to be used in the present day. Their use in Mesoamerica went back centuries, but it was not until the 13th and 14th centuries CE that they began to spread beyond the lake basin of Chalco-Xochimilco where they eventually covered up to 9,500 hectares (23,000 acres). The chinampas could feed an ever-growing population, which at the capital Tenochtitlan alone was at least 200,000 and perhaps 11,000,000 throughout the empire. Motecuhzoma I, in particular, embarked on an expansion project in the 15th century CE, probably as a direct response to the needs of a rapidly growing population.
Each chinampa field was remarkably similar in size and orientation. Measuring around 30 x 2.5 m, they were pegged out in marshy areas using long stakes. Each plot was bordered with a fence made of intertwined branches which, over time, became more solid as they collected mud and vegetation. The wall was further strengthened by the planting of willow trees at regular intervals. The planting area within the chinampa was filled with sediment and between each plot was a canal which gave access for canoes. The water was provided, and carefully controlled, by a combination of natural springs and artificial constructions such as aqueducts, dikes, dams, canals, reservoirs, and gates. One of the most impressive of these was the 16 km dyke built by Nezahualcoyotl on the edge of Tenochtitlan to block the salty water of Lake Texcoco and create a lagoon supplied by a fresh water spring.


The Aztecs also appreciated the cultivation of flower gardens and these were dotted around Tenochtitlan. The most famous example is Motecuhzoma I's exotic botanical garden at Huaxtepec, for which he imported such flowers as the vanilla orchid and cacao trees from the coast, along with specialist gardeners to ensure that they thrived in their new environment. The gardens were irrigated via springs, streams, and artificial canals and featured fountains and artificial lakes. The gardens at Huaxtepec and others such as the ones created by Netzahualcoyotl at Tetzcotzingo were also used to grow foodstuffs and were noted for having plants and trees of medicinal value. In fact, most Aztec upper-class residences had their own pleasure gardens with water features, orchards and herb gardens.

Food & Drink

The Aztec diet was dominated by fruit and vegetables, as domesticated animals were limited to dogs, turkeys (totolin), ducks, and honey bees. Game (especially rabbits, deer and wild pigs), fish, birds, salamanders, algae (used to make cakes), frogs, tadpoles and insects were also a valuable food source. The most common crops were maize (centli, famously used to make tortillas but also tamales and gruel), amaranth (a grain), sage, beans (etl), squash, and chile peppers. Red and green tomatoes were cultivated (but were much smaller than the modern variety), as were white sweet potatoes, jícama (a type of turnip), chayote (vegetable pear), the nopal cactus, and peanuts. The Aztecs also grew many types of fruit including guavas, papayas, custard apples, mamey, zapotes, and chirimoyas. Snacks included popcorn and the sweet baked leaves of the maguey agave.
Not using oils or fats, most dishes were either boiled or grilled, and extra taste was added using condiments, for the Aztecs loved their sauces and seasoning. Examples of these include epazote, toasted avocado leaves, achiote seeds, and, of course, chile peppers either fresh, dried, or smoked. The other two popular flavours for the Aztecs were vanilla and chocolate. The latter came from the beans of cacao pods from the tree which was widely cultivated in extensive orchards near the coast. Beans were fermented, cured, and roasted. Then the beans were ground into powder and mixed with hot water as chocolate was usually consumed as a warm frothy drink. Bitter to taste, it could be flavoured by adding, for example, maize, vanilla, flowers, herbs and honey. So esteemed was chocolate that beans were used as money (even counterfeited) and demanded as tribute from subject tribes. Other popular drinks were octli (pulque to the Spanish), a light alcoholic beer made from the fermented sap of the maguey and pozolli made from fermented maize dough. These alcoholic drinks were, however, consumed in moderation, as being caught drunk could result in all manner of punishments, even the death penalty.
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[ 2 ]

Aztec Ceremonial Knife

by Mark Cartwright

The Aztec mosaic-handled knife currently in the British Museum, London dates to between 1400 and 1521 CE and is thought to have been used in religious ceremonies. Made from wood and flint the knife handle represents an Aztec warrior but the blade revealed no traces of blood under testing and so was probably not used to sacrifice victims, a common Aztec religious practice.
The ceremonial knife or ixcuac measures approximately 32 cm in length and 10 cm in height. The blade, made of flint, is inserted into the cedarwood (Cedrela odorata) handle and fixed in place with Protium resin and bound with a cord made from fibres of the maguey (Agave), a type of cactus. The flint of the blade has been repeatedly struck (knapped) to produce a very thin, semi-translucent blade which tapers to a sharp point.
The handle of the knife has been carved to resemble a crouching figure who wears the ritual costume of an Aztec eagle-warrior or cuauhtliocelotl, one of the most senior Aztec military ranks and also translated as eagle-jaguar. The figure is covered in mosaic made from small pieces of pale blue turquoise. Fine details such as eyes, teeth and fingernails are rendered using even smaller tesserae of dark green malachite and three different shell types: white conch (Strombus sp.), thorny oyster (Spondylus princeps) and mother-of-pearl (Pinctada mazatlantica). Other details picked out in malachite, conch and mother-of-pearl include jewellery such as bracelets, anklets, a chest decoration, and a nose ornament. The lips and gums of the smiling warrior are dramatically picked out using orange-red shell.
The mosaic tesserae are attached using pine and copal resin which is also used in places as a decorative inlay. Interestingly, the figure is himself clutching the knife with both hands. Typical of representations in Aztec art of eagle-warriors the figure wears a loincloth or maxtlatl, a winged cloak decorated with white stars and his head protrudes from a beaked headdress, also decorated with stars, representing the head of a bird of prey. The figure also wears something hanging down his back, perhaps made to represent a ray of the sun, a body closely associated with eagles and these particular warriors.
The knife is not unique as two similar types also survive with one now residing in the Museo Nazionale Preistorico ed Etnografico 'Luigi Pigorini' in Rome and the other in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. One of the roles of the elite eagle-warriors was to furnish sacrificial victims to 'feed' the sun with their hearts and blood so they make an entirely fitting subject for such ceremonial knives.
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[ 3 ]

Tarascan Civilization

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Tarascan civilization (also known as the Purépecha, after their language) dominated western Mexico and built an empire that would bring it into direct conflict with that other great Mesoamerican civilization of the Post-classic period, the Aztecs. Second only to the Aztec empire, the Tarascans themselves controlled, from their capital of Tzintzúntzan, an empire of over 75,000 square kilometres.

Cultural Origins

The history of the Tarascans has been pieced together from the archaeological record and local traditions, principally those related in the Relación de Michoacán written by the Franciscan friar Jeronimo de Alcala in the mid-16th century CE. Whilst the Tarascans owed a cultural debt to the earlier Bajio and Michoacán tribal civilizations, the Purépecha culture in fact had a history of over two millennia. The Tarascans were based in the central and northern Michoacán (meaning 'place of the fish masters') around the lake basins of Zacapu, Cuitzeo and Pátzcuaro. From as early as the Late Pre-classic period (150 BCE - 350 CE), Purépecha society developed into a more sophisticated culture with a high degree of political centralisation and social stratification by the Middle Post-classic period (1000/1100-1350 CE). According to the Relación the most important tribe were the Wakúsecha (from the Chichimec ethnic group), whose chief Taríakuri established the first capital at Pátzcuaro around 1325 CE.
The territory controlled by the Tarascans was now double the extent of previous generations and the production and trade of maize, obsidian, basalt and pottery correspondingly increased. The rising level of the lake in the Pátzcuaro basin also meant many low-lying sites were abandoned and the competition for resources became ever more fierce. So too, in the higher lands of the Zacapu, population concentration greatly increased so that 20,000 people inhabited just 13 sites. This period was marked by an increase in local state rivalries and a general instability amongst the ruling elite but the foundations of the great Tarascan empire were now in place.
The Tarascans managed to remain unconquered by the mighty Aztec empire.


From the late Post-classic period (1350-1520 CE, also known as the Tariacuri phase in this context) the Tarascan capital and largest settlement was at Tzintzúntzan on the northeast arm of Lake Pátzcuaro. The Tarascans also controlled, through a highly centralised and hierarchical political system, some 90 plus cities around the Lake. By 1522 CE the population of the basin was as high as 80,000, whilst Tzintzúntzan boasted a population of 35,000. The capital was the administrative, commercial, and religious centre of the Tarascan empire and seat of the king or Kasonsí. Extensive irrigation and terracing projects were carried out in order to make such a large population sustainable on local agriculture but significant imports of goods and material remained a necessity.
A network of local markets and a system of tributes ensured there was a sufficient quantity of basic goods but there was also a ready supply of pottery, shells and metals (particularly gold and silver ingots), and also labour, to meet demand. At these busy marketplaces fruit, vegetables, flowers, tobacco, prepared food, craft goods, and raw materials such as obsidian, copper, and bronze alloys were bought and sold. The state controlled the mining and smelting of silver and gold (in the Balsas Basin and Jalisco), and the production of goods made from these precious materials came via skilled craftsmen who probably resided in the palace complex of Tzintzúntzan. There is some evidence of independent gold and silver production in the south-east and western regions, compatible with evidence of secondary and tertiary administrative centres. In addition, the Tarascans imported turquoise, rock crystal, and green stones whilst from local tribute they acquired cotton, cacao, salt and exotic feathers. The Tarascans were themselves the most important producers of tin-bronze, copper and copper-alloy bells (used in ceremonial dances) in Mesoamerica.
The Tarascan state also controlled land allocation, copper and obsidian mines, forests, the fishing industry and craft workshops in general. However, the degree of control is unclear and local communities and traditional tribal leaders may well have granted royal access to these resources. These diverse ethnic groups within the empire, although subject politically to Tzintzúntzan, also maintained their own language and local identities but in times of war their regular tribute to their Tarascan overlords was augmented by the supply of warriors.
According to the Relación de Michoacán the Tarascan nobility was divided into three groups: royalty, upper and lower nobility (the Wakúsecha elite). Royalty resided at the capital and the sacred site of Ihuátzio, which in fact had been the previous Tarascan capital. The funeral of one Tarascan king is described in the Relación where the dead ruler's entourage are sacrificed to accompany him in the land of the dead - 40 male slaves, his seven favourite female slaves, his cook, wine-bearer, toilet attendant and lastly, the doctor who had failed to prevent his death.


The Tarascan religion was led by a Supreme High Priest who was the head of a multi-layered priestly class. Priests were easily identified by the tobacco gourd they wore around their necks. Tarascan religion claimed the Pátzcuaro basin as the centre of the cosmos, or at least its power centre. The universe had three parts: the sky, the earth, and the underworld. The sky was ruled by the most important deity, the sun god Kurikaweri, whose wife was Kwerawáperi, the earth-mother goddess. Their most important child was Xarátenga, the moon and sea goddess.
The Tarascans also seem to have taken earlier local divinities and metamorphosed or combined these with wholly original Tarascan gods. In addition, the gods of conquered tribes were usually incorporated into the official Tarascan pantheon. Kurikaweri was worshipped by burning wood and offering human sacrifice and blood-letting, and pyramids were built in honour of the Tarascan gods, five at Tzintzúntzan and five at Ihuátzio. A peculiar feature of the Tarascan religion was the absence of such common Mesoamerican gods as a rain god (Tlaloc) and a feathered serpent god (Quetzalcoatl). Neither did the Tarascans use the 260-day calendar but they did employ the 18-month solar year with 20-day months.

Art & Architecture

A unique feature of Tarascan late Post-classical architecture is the monumental structures which combine rectangular and circular stepped pyramids known as yácata. These are shaped like keyholes but there were also regular rectangular pyramids. At Tzintzúntzan five such structures rest on an enormous platform 440 m long. The yácata were originally faced with close-fitting slabs of volcanic stone and excavations inside them have revealed tombs rich in artefacts. In front of the yácata sculptures were placed for receiving sacrificial offerings (chacmools) as in many other Mesoamerican cultures. At Ihuátzio there is also an example of a court for the Mesoamerican ballgame.
Tarascan pottery was also distinctive with its spouted jars with spur-shaped handles (sometimes taking the form of animals and plants), tripod bowls, miniature vessels and pipes with long stems, all highly decorated. The Tarascans were also highly skilled metalworkers, especially in silver and gold. In addition, they were expert workers of obsidian, notably earspool and labret jewellery, which was covered in gold sheet and inlaid with turquoise.

The Aztec Threat

The contemporary expanding empires of the Tarascans and their southern/western neighbours the Aztecs eventually came into direct competition for territory and resources. Indeed, in a sense these two great Mesoamerican powers counter-balanced each other. The Tarascans, perhaps employing subterfuge and sabotage, did force the Aztecs to within 50 miles of Tenochtitlan in the 1470s CE which led to an agreement on a north-south frontier between the Lerma and Balsas rivers protected by fortifications placed strategically to command the vulnerable valleys. With this border secured the Tarascans continued their policy of expansion elsewhere. The best archaeological source of Tarascan military power and innovation is the fortress of Acambaro. Fortresses such as this one, the military strategies they employed and the use of metal weapons help to explain how the Tarascans managed to remain unconquered by the mighty Aztec empire.
Despite the hostilities between the two civilizations there is some evidence of trading between them, especially at strategic points such as the frontier trade city of Taximoroa but also through local tribes acting as middle men in the border 'buffer' zones. The archaeological record of cultural exchange in terms of artistic styles is, however, limited to a handful of pottery vessels found in the respective trading partner's territory.
When the Spaniards arrived in Michoacán in 1522 CE the Tarascans, who had previously ignored a plea of help from the Aztecs, came to relatively peaceable terms with the new masters of Mesoamerica and became a mere vassal state.
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[ 4 ]


Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Texcoco (aka Tezcoco or Tetzcoco), located near the eastern shores of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico, was the capital of the Acolhua people. It was a major power in the Aztec period and a member of the Triple Alliance along with Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan. Texcoco also produced one of Mesoamerica's most famous rulers, Netzahualcoyotl, who presided over a city which became a noted centre of culture and learning.

Early History

Probably settled earlier, it was not until some time in the 13th century CE that significant settlements sprang up on the eastern shores of Lake Texcoco. In semi-legendary local tradition various migrating tribes - the Chichimecs, Tepanecs, Mexica and Acolhua - arrived in the Valley of Mexico at this time and the latter group, led by their chief, Xolotl, headed for the land north-west of the lake and established themselves at Tenayuca. It was Xolotl's son Nopaltzin who was credited with mounting a reconnaissance expedition from Tenayuca and discovering the area around Mt. Tlaloc as a possible place to establish a new city. First the rock caves in the surrounding foothills were inhabited and then, eventually, great settlements would develop to become the cities of Oxtoticpac, Tzinaccanoztoc, Coatlinchan and Huexotla.
Tradition states that Nopaltzin's son Tlohtzin became ruler over the entire eastern area and founded a new centre at the Hill of Tetzcotzingo but, one generation later, his son Quinatzin moved the Acolhua capital to Texcoco which was closer to the lake and so better placed for trade. At this time economic power came to be concentrated into the hands of a small elite who also established trade and cultural links with the neighbouring Chichimecs. A feature of this elite dominance was the creation of special hunting areas around Mt. Tlaloc which were supplied with game by the local communities and given as tribute. Farming also became more sophisticated with the construction of canals for irrigation, terracing, and the 'sunken' gardens or chinampa which became a feature of Mesoamerican agriculture. These developments were traditionally ascribed to Tlohtzin whose father Nopaltzin had married a woman from Chalco (in the south) and so being brought up amongst these sophisticated farmers, Tlohtzin was able to pass this knowledge to the Acolhua. With an agricultural surplus, trade and prosperity became assured for the state of Acolhuacan and its capital Texcoco.

The Rise of Netzahualcoyotl

Under the reign of Netzahualcoyotl Texcoco became a noted centre for learning and culture.
The Mexica and their allies the Tepanec based at Atzcapotzalco (who were in fact the region's dominant force) were also prospering and, seeking to expand their territory further, they cast covetous eyes at Texcoco. The premise for the Mexica invasion of Acolhuacan was that the leader at Texcoco, one Ixtlilxochitl, who was a descendant of Xolotl and Nopaltzin, following his marriage to a princess of Tenochtitlan, declared himself as the new ruler of the Chichimecs. In 1418 CE Texcoco was conquered and Ixtlilxochitl was defeated and killed but his son Netzahualcoyotl (also spelt Nezaualcoyotl or Nezahualcoatl) survived him. Fleeing to Huexotzingo in the Valley of Puebla he would return in 1422 CE to Tenochtitlan to hone his warrior skills and eventually he returned to his ancestral home at Texcoco. However, seeing his potential as a threat to the status quo, a delegation was sent from Atzcapotzalco to assassinate the young ruler. The plot was uncovered but Netzahualcoyotl was once more forced to find refuge back at Huexotzingo. Netzahualcoyotl's fortunes changed for the better following the death of Chimalpopoca of Tenochtitlan and the rise of Itzcoatl (Netzahualcoyotl's uncle) as leader of the Mexica. An alliance between Tenochtitlan and Texcoco was offered and Netzahualcoyotl was on the road to greatness. He returned to Texcoco and began a war against Atzcapotzalco and the Tepanecs. Atzcapotzalco fell and the Tepenec king Maxtla was brought before Netzahualcoyotl who himself sacrificed his fallen enemy by ripping out his heart, an action performed with great ceremony before all the victorious warriors and nobles.

The Triple Alliance & Expansion

Texcoco now formed the Triple Alliance along with Tenochtitlan and Tlacopan. Texcoco, the second power of the trio, would control the eastern basin of the Valley whilst Tlacopan took the western area and Tenochtitlan ruled the north and south. Tribute taken from conquered states would be shared in a ratio of 2:2:1 between Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan respectively, and included huge quantities of cloth, food, feathers and rubber. The foundations for the Aztec empire, the last great Mesoamerican one, were now set.
Netzahualcoyotl officially became tlatoani or leader of Texcoco in 1431 CE and he now ruled a city with a population of around 45,000 and controlled a host of lesser cities dotted along the eastern side of the lake. Netzahualcoyotl was also known as something of a student of philosophy, literature and astronomy and was a celebrated poet.
Under the reign of Netzahualcoyotl Texcoco became a noted centre for learning and culture, indeed, of the four great councils of government, one was specifically dedicated to the promotion of science and the arts. The city of Texcoco, then, revolved around the king's great palace which covered over one square mile. As well as the usual pyramids, gardens, fountains, exotic animals and sumptuous apartments there were also dedicated quarters for historians and poets and even a library. The king also constructed a great temple to Tloque Nahuaque, 'the unknown god, creator of all things' which had nine stories symbolising the nine heavens. The top tenth floor was painted black and adorned with stars whilst the interior was sumptuously decorated in gold, gems and exotic feathers.
Texcoco also expanded and consolidated Acolhua control of the region and further developed the irrigation of hillside terraces, constructed a series of impressive aqueducts and laid out magnificent gardens, especially at Tetzcotzinco. Netzahualcoyotl even captured Tollantzinco as part of an evermore ambitious programme of imperial expansion which extracted tribute such as food and wood from the conquered cities. The Triple Alliance would also become more and more ambitious and attacked such states as Tlaxcala and Huexotzingo.
Netzahualcoyotl was, though, careful to give defeated rulers a role in the new empire and so avoid future dissension, hence many were made semi-autonomous district leaders. He is also credited with creating a legal code where 80 laws defined acceptable behaviour and outlined punishments for any offences, even those made by corrupt judges. Crimes covered by the laws ranged from theft to drunkenness and punishments from having one's head shaved to death by strangulation. In addition, the rigidity of the system was mitigated with the flexibility of the more traditional approach of assessing certain cases on their own merit and with a court of appeal consisting of twelve judges.
Netzahualcoyotl was deified after death and his body enshrined at the sacred site of Tetzcotzingo. The Triple Alliance continued, though, even when its founders had passed on the reigns of power to others such as Motecuhzoma II at Tenochtitlan and Netzahualcoyotl's son Netzahualpilli at Texcoco. In demonstration of the close ties between these allies Netzahualpilli participated in the coronation ceremony of the great Aztec king Motecuhzoma II in 1503 CE. Indeed, both Netzahualpilli and Totoquilhuaztli, the leader of Tlacopan, placed the gold and emerald crown on Motecuhzoma's head. In turn, the new king gave the regalia of office to his allied rulers and thus indicated that it was he and his city of Tenochtitlan that led the Triple Alliance.

The Spanish Conquest

However, the Alliance began to show signs of strain, especially following Motecuhzoma's perceived arrogance and his policy of diminishing the role and power of his two allies. Relations had never been quite the same since Netzahualpilli had ordered the death of one of his wives, as she happened to be the daughter of the Aztec king Axayacatl. More significantly, the Texcocans became ever more disaffected with the dominance of Tenochtitlan in the Alliance and this would even lead to Texcoco siding with the Spanish invaders and the election of a new chief, Ixtlilxochitl, with the support of Cortés himself. In 1521 CE Texcoco provided ships and men to aide the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlan which would bring about the downfall of the entire Aztec empire.
Few physical remains survive of Texcoco, now buried under the modern city of the same name. Some stone reservoirs, the aqueduct, steps and terraces survive from the irrigation systems of the magnificent gardens at Tetzcotzinco, a few illustrations from the various Codexes and some poems of Netzahualcoyotl also survive. This small legacy for such a great city and the general impermanence of life is, in fact, a much repeated theme in Aztec culture in general and elegantly described in the following poem attributed to the greatest ruler of Texcoco:
I, Netzahualcoyotl, ask this:
Is it true one really lives on the earth?
Not forever on earth,
only a little while here.
Though it be jade it falls apart,
though it be gold it wears away,
though it be quetzal plumage it is torn asunder.
Not forever on earth,
only a little while here.
(Miller, 238)
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[ 5 ]


Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

Tenochtitlan, located on an island near the western shore of Lake Texcoco in central Mexico, was the capital city and religious centre of the Aztec civilization. The traditional founding date of the city was 1345 CE and it remained the most important Aztec centre until its destruction at the hands of the conquering Spanish led by Hernán Cortés in 1521 CE, which led to the final collapse of the Aztec Empire. At the heart of the city was a large sacred precinct dominated by the huge pyramid, known as the Temple Mayor, which honoured the gods Huitzilopochtli and Tlaloc. The site, now Mexico City, continues to be excavated and has yielded some of the greatest treasures of Aztec art such as the celebrated Sun Stone as well as art objects the Aztecs themselves collected from the other great civilizations of Mesoamerica.

In Mythology

In Aztec mythology the founders of the city migrated from the legendary Aztlán cave in the northwest desert which involved a protracted journey that eventually led to Lake Texcoco. During this migration priests had carried a huge idol of the god Huitzilopochtli, who whispered directions, gave the Méxica their name and promised great wealth and prosperity if he was suitably worshipped. Along the way the Méxica settled at different spots, none of which really suited their purpose. A decisive event in the migration was the rebellion incited by Copil, son of Huitzilopochtli’s sister Malinalxochitl. This was in revenge for the goddess’ abandonment by the Méxica but with Huitzilopochtli’s help Copil was killed. The great war god instructed that the rebel’s heart be thrown as far as possible into Lake Texcoco and where it landed would indicate the place the Méxica should build their new home, the precise spot being marked by an eagle sitting on a prickly-pear cactus (nopal) and devouring a snake. This is exactly what came to pass and the new capital of Tenochtitlan was built, the traditional date being 1345 CE.
The name of the city derives from tetl meaning rock, nochtli, the prickly-pear cactus and tlan, the locative suffix. Of similar origin is the term Tenocha which the Méxica sometimes called themselves and the name of their quasi-legendary priest-leader Tenoch.
TenochtitlAn was one of the greatest cities in Mesoamerica with over 200,000 residents.

The City

Although the city was destroyed and over the following centuries extensively built over, the chroniclers of the 16th century CE, fortunately, recorded in great detail the buildings and works of art that had once made Tenochtitlan one of the greatest cities in Mesoamerica and, with over 200,000 residents, certainly the most populous. These records and the extensive and continuing archaeology at the site mean that we know more about Tenochtitlan than any other city from the great Mesoamerican civilizations.
As Bernal Diaz del Castillo, one of Cortés’ men put it on first seeing the city:
It was like the enchantments in the book of Amadis, because of high towers, rues (pyramids) and other buildings, all of masonry, which rose from the water. Some of the soldiers asked if what they saw was not a dream.
(Miller, 239)
Tenochtitlan covered, at its greatest extent, some 12-14 km² and was connected to the western shore of the lake and surrounding countryside by three causeways (running north, east and west) which included gaps traversed by removable bridges to allow boats to pass and which could be taken down in case of an attack on the city (something which never occurred until the Spanish arrived). There was also a stone aqueduct which brought fresh water to the city from springs near the Chapultepec Hill. The lake provided an important source of food but good agricultural land was scarce and this fact would necessitate re-claiming land from the lake and, eventually, military conquest to take land by force from neighbouring states. The surrounding chinampa or ‘floating gardens’ (mud rafts secured with willow trees) of their immediate neighbours were, therefore, seized and developed to meet the needs of the growing population in the city.
The city itself was laid out in a grid pattern with many canals permeating through the city. Besides the four main thoroughfares dissecting the city along the cardinal directions, most streets and canals were narrow, especially as there were no wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden so that goods were transported by porter or small boats and canoes. The canals, along with the many willow trees, flower gardens and white-plastered monuments gleaming in the sunlight, must have made for a picturesque city. As one Nahuatl poem describes:
The city is spread out in circles of jade,
radiating flashes of light like quetzal plumes,
Besides it the lords are borne in boats:
over them extends flowery mist.
(Coe, 192)
The heart of the city was the walled ceremonial precinct with its three entrances, impressive temples and pyramids from which the city spread out into four principal residential quarters. These had sometimes vast palaces such as Motecuhzoma I’s old residence and the palace of Axayacatl, smaller flat-roofed stone residences for nobles and officials, huge market places (where all manner of basic and luxury goods could be purchased such as jade, chocolate and vanilla), judicial chambers, treasure houses, store-rooms, structures such as the Dance House and the Aviary, and closely packed areas of workshops (working especially metal and obsidian but also basketry using the local reeds) and small adobe brick and reed homes where the lower classes lived, although these too could be interspersed with small gardens.

The Sacred Precinct

The sacred precinct at the heart of Tenochtitlan contained, according to one eye-witness, 78 separate structures. Amongst the most important were the Temple Mayor of Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli, which was flanked by the Eagle’s House (named after its stone decoration) on one side and the pyramid of Tezcatlipoca on the other. In front of the Temple Mayor stood the gladiator stone (where sacrificial victims were bound and attacked by ‘knights’), a stone tzompantli (skull rack) and an I-shaped ball court. In the south west corner stood the Sun Temple of Tonatiuh and a temple to Quetzalcoatl.
There was also a temple to the earth goddess Tonantzin and the Coateocalli building which housed, and in a sense spiritually captured, the statues of gods and various other artworks captured from conquered enemies. Finally, on the Tlaloc side of the Temple Mayor excavations have revealed a man-made mountain made of offerings and deposits which was designed to imitate Tlaloc’s sacred mountain.

The Temple Mayor

The Great Temple or Temple Mayor (called Hueteocalli by the Aztecs) takes centre stage in the sacred precinct. On top of the 60 m high pyramid platform, reached by two flights of steps, were two twin temples. The north side shrine was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and the other, on the south side, was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. The temple to Tlaloc marked the summer solstice (symbolic of the wet season) whilst Huitzilopochtli’s marked the winter solstice (symbolic of the dry season and a time for warfare). The monumental steps leading to Tlaloc’s temple were painted blue and white, the former colour representing water, the element so strongly associated with the god. In contrast, the steps leading to Huitzilopochtli’s temple were painted bright red to symbolise blood and war.
Sacrifices, including human ones, were carried out at both temples to feed and honour the gods. A typical sacrifice involved the victim having their heart ripped out, being skinned, decapitated and then dismembered. Following all that the corpse was flung down the steps of the pyramid to land at the base where a massive round stone depicted Coyolxauhqui, the goddess who was similarly treated by Huitzilopochtli in mythology.


When the Spanish arrived at Tenochtitlan, their leader Cortés had only 500 men and fewer than 20 horses at his disposal. However, by recruiting allies such as the Tlaxcalans, he was able to lay siege to the city which would eventually fall on the 13th of August 1521 CE. The great monuments were sacked and looted, works of art and precious objects were melted down and the Aztec civilization collapsed. What was left of the city was made into the capital of New Spain, as the Spanish called their new colony.


Excavations within the temples and buildings of Tenochtitlan began in the 20th century CE and have revealed the true complexity of the site’s history. There is evidence, for example, that the sacred precinct was built over much earlier structures, that the temples themselves were reconstructed and added to many times and within them were buried offerings, for example, the coral, shells and sea-life interred deep within the Temple Mayor.
The city was stripped of anything of value following its collapse but, nevertheless, several stunning works of art have been, almost miraculously, recovered from Tenochtitlan. These include the iconic Sun Stone (aka Calendar Stone), the great stone sculpture of Coatlicue, the Tizoc stone, the huge round stone depicting Coyolxauhqui which rested at the foot of the Temple Mayor, the Temple Stone - a stone throne probably used by Motecuhzoma II and decorated with gods and a sun disk, and finally, the blue ceramic anthropomorphic vessel depicting Tlaloc.
In addition to these magnificent works of Aztec art, excavation of the temples has revealed caches of art from many earlier Mesoamerican civilizations as far back as the Olmecs, illustrating that the Aztecs were appreciative and even reverent art collectors. Many richly decorated and finely made ceramic vessels have also been excavated which show that the Aztec artist was perhaps more skilled than had first been appreciated. The vast majority of these finds form part of the breathtaking collection of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, which has been, of course, constructed on top of the ancient site of Tenochtitlán.
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[ 6 ]

Templo Mayor

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Templo Mayor or Great Temple (called Hueteocalli by the Aztecs) dominated the central sacred precinct of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan. Topped by twin temples dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli and the rain god Tlaloc it was a focal point of the Aztec religion and very centre of the Aztec world. It was also the scene of state occasions such as coronations and the place of countless human sacrifices where the blood of the victims was thought to feed and appease the two great gods to whom it was dedicated.


The Templo Mayor was first constructed in the reign of Itzcoatl (r. 1427-1440 CE), improved upon by his successor Motecuhzoma I (r. 1440-1469 CE), and again enlarged during the reign of Ahuitzotl (r. 1486-1502 CE). These rulers, and others, each employed the resources and labour given in tribute by neighbouring states in order to build a more impressive monument than their predecessors.
The location was chosen with purpose as the temple was a stone improvement on the original shrine the first settlers of Tenochtitlan had built in honour of Huitzilopochtli in the Aztec founding legends. As the temple grew over the years, offerings and precious goods were ritually buried within its ever-expanding layers. The pyramid was reached via a sacred Processional Way constructed along an east-west axis. The Pyramid was similarly built on an east-west axis so that when at the top of the stairway one would face the east and see both Mt. Tlaloc and, on the equinox, see the sunrise exactly between the two shrines on the upper platform. Located at the centre of Tenochtitlan the Templo Mayor was the religious and social heart of the Aztec empire.
The Templo Mayor was a 60 metre high architectural mountain dedicated to The Gods TlaloC & Huitzilopochtli.

Dimensions & Form

The Templo Mayor was the most important structure at the centre of a large sacred precinct measuring 365 m (1,200 ft) on each side and surrounded by a wall which, because of its snake relief carvings, was known as the coatepantli or 'Serpent Wall'. The precinct may have contained as many as 78 different structures but the Templo Mayor was by far the tallest and must have dominated the city skyline. The temple was actually a 60 m (180 ft) high pyramid platform with four tiers and two flights of steps on the western side leading to a summit with two twin temples or shrines, the whole structure being faced with lime plaster and brightly painted. The north (right) side shrine was dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain and the other, on the south (left) side, was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Tlaloc was also associated with mountains and it is probable that the Templo Mayor was conceived as a literal architectural mountain in homage to this facet of the rain god, a man-made imitation of Tonacatepetl, Tlaloc's 'Mountain of Sustenance'. At the very same time, and with the typical Mesoamerican passion for duality, it was also a representation of Coatepetl, the sacred 'Serpent Mountain' where Huitzilopochtli vanquished the other gods.
The temple on the north side, painted with blue stripes, was dedicated to Tlaloc and marked the summer solstice (symbolic of the wet season) whilst Huitzilopochtli’s south-side shrine, painted red, marked the winter solstice (symbolic of the dry season and a time for warfare). Within each shrine was a wooden statue of the god. The monumental steps leading to Tlaloc’s temple were painted blue and white, the former colour representing water, the element so strongly associated with the god. In contrast, the steps leading to Huitzilopochtli’s temple were painted bright red to symbolise blood and war. Both flights carried sculptures of snake heads; those on Tlaloc's side had blinkers while those on Huitzilopochtli's were adorned with feathers.

Human Sacrifices

Tlaloc was seen as both a giver of essential rain in a frequently harsh environment but also as a destructive force when he sent storms, floods, and droughts. Double reason, then, for the Aztecs to do all they could to keep this fickle deity in a good mood. Huitzilopochtli was the supreme Aztec god and considered the god of the sun, war, gold, rulers, and he was patron of Tenochtitlan.
For the Aztecs the best way to gain favour with these two powerful gods was to honour them with a suitably impressive temple monument and to regularly offer sacrifices to satiate their lusty appetites and perpetuate the harmony between gods and humanity. Further, sacrifices were considered as due payment for the sacrifices the gods had themselves made when they created the world. These offerings could take the form of food, flowers, and precious goods (shells and coral, for example, have been excavated from Tlaloc's shrine) but also, at key times in the calendar especially, blood. The sacrifice of animals and non-fatal blood-letting amongst the priestly class were common practices but the Aztecs have now become infamous for their most dramatic and important choice of offering: human sacrifice.
A typical sacrifice involved the victim being stretched over a stone while a priest, armed with an obsidian knife, ripped out their heart and then decapitated and dismembered them. Following all that the corpse was flung down the steps of the pyramid to land at the base where a massive round stone depicted Coyolxauhqui, the goddess who was similarly treated by Huitzilopochtli in Aztec mythology after she had led a rebellion against the great god. Finally, the heads of victims were displayed on racks known as tzompantli which were set at the base of the pyramid.
Sacrificial victims were usually war captives but children were also sacrificed as their tears were considered a favourable link with the life-giving raindrops from Tlaloc. The priests who carried out this carnage, on occasion, ate the flesh of the victims, with the heart being the most prized, if it had not already been burned in offering to the gods. The Aztec ruler, privileged nobles, and those who had captured the victims in war also participated in this symbolic feast.

Major Ceremonies at the Templo Mayor

Sacrifices could also take place to commemorate important state events. One of the most infamous is the four-day butchering of captives when Ahuitzotl re-dedicated the temple and extended it even higher in order to celebrate his imperial triumphs in 1487 CE. Another important event was the New Fire Ceremony, held every 52 years - a complete solar cycle in the Aztec calendar - when the first flaming torch came from Mt. Huixachtlan and was used to light the sacred fire atop the Templo Mayor before being transferred to all subsidiary temples in the city.
The Templo Mayor was also a regular focal point during the celebrations of Huitzilopochtli's birthday in the ceremony of Panquetzalitzli in the month of the same name. Another important festival was held during the month of Toxcatl when an effigy of the god made from dough and dressed in his costume was paraded through the city and then eaten at the Templo Mayor. State funerals occurred at the site, notably the funeral cremation of three rulers: Axayacatl, Tizoc, and Ahuitzotl. Finally, coronations took place at the temple, notably that of the last true Aztec king Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin, better known as Montezuma, in 1502 CE.

Later History & Excavation

The pyramid was razed following the Spanish Conquest - the Aztecs had used it as a rallying point and defended it vigorously - and a Christian cross had been placed on top of it. Then over the centuries it was gradually built over and disappeared beneath 19th century CE colonial buildings in downtown Mexico City. Never forgotten, the site was half-heartedly excavated in the early 20th century CE and then systematically from the late 1970s CE. It was then discovered that the pyramid was in fact a succession of pyramids each built over a smaller predecessor and even the original primitive platform, dated with the aid of a stone hieroglyph to 1390 CE, was discovered.
So too, many artefacts, purposely buried by the Aztecs, have been excavated at the site, and these include fine pottery, figurines, jade and mother-of-pearl jewellery, animal skeletons which include fish, a crocodile, two golden eagles and a jaguar, and prizes from earlier Mesoamerican civilizations such as one Olmec mask and another from Teotihuacan. Three of the larger finds related to the temple are the 3.5 metre (diameter) stone of Coyolxauhqui from the pyramid base, a chacmool sculpture (used to burn victim’s hearts) from the shrine of Tlaloc, and a 12-ton rectangular monolith depicting the earth-goddess Tlaltecuhtli. The site continues to be excavated to the present day with regular new findings adding to the history of this greatest of Aztec monuments.
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[ 7 ]

Sun Stone

Origin and history
by Mark Cartwright

The Aztec Sun Stone (or Calendar Stone) depicts the five consecutive worlds of the sun from Aztec mythology. The stone is not, therefore, in any sense a functioning calendar, but rather it is an elaborately carved solar disk, which for the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican cultures represented rulership. At the top of the stone is a date glyph (13 reed) which represents both the beginning of the present sun, the 5th and final one according to mythology, and the actual date 1427 CE, thereby legitimizing the rule of Itzcoatl (who took power in that year) and creating a bond between the divine and mankind.
The stone was discovered in December 1790 CE in the central plaza of Mexico City and now resides in the National Museum of Anthropology in that city. The richly carved basalt stone was once a part of the architectural complex of the Temple Mayor and measures 3.58 metres in diameter, is 98 centimetres thick, and weighs 25 tons. The stone would originally have been laid flat on the ground and possibly anointed with blood sacrifices. When it was discovered, the stone was lying flat and upside down, perhaps in an attempt to prevent the final cataclysm - the fall of the 5th and final sun - as the Aztec world fell apart following the attack from the Old World.
The Sun Stone would originally have been laid flat on the ground and possibly anointed with blood sacrifices.
At the centre of the stone is a representation of either the sun god Tonatiuh (the Day Sun) or Yohualtonatiuh (the Night Sun) or the primordial earth monster Tlaltecuhtli, in the latter case representing the final destruction of the world when the 5th sun fell to earth. The tongue is perhaps also a sacrificial knife and, sticking out, it suggests a thirst for blood and sacrifice. Around the central face at four points are the other four suns which successively replaced each other after the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca struggled for control of the cosmos until the era of the 5th sun was reached. The suns are known by the day name on which their final destruction occurred. Beginning from the top right there is the first sun Nahui Ocelotl (4 - Jaguar), top left is the second sun Nahui Ehécatl (4 - Wind), bottom left the third sun Nahui Quiáhuitl (4 - Rain) and bottom right is the fourth sun Nahui Atl (4 - Water).
On either side of the central face are two jaguar heads or paws, each clutching a heart, representing the terrestrial realm. The band running immediately around the suns is segmented into the 20 Aztec day-names (hence the Calendar Stone name). Then there is a decorative ring surrounded by another ring depicting symbols which represent turquoise and jade, symbols of the equinoxes and solstices, and the colours of the heavens. The two heads at the bottom centre represent fire serpents, and their bodies run around the perimeter of the stone with each ending in a tail. The four cardinal and the inter-cardinal directions are also indicated with larger and lesser points respectively.
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Source: Ancient History EncyclopediaContent is available under License Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0