By Rodrigo Pérez Ortega
This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
Raúl Barrera Rodríguez and his team had excavated almost the entire building in the heart of Mexico City. After digging twenty test pits, they had found evidence of the Spanish occupation and had reached the pre-Hispanic levels. But they were only finding slab floors and there was no sign of anything more exciting. “We were surprised we hadn’t found it yet, because we knew it was there,” said Barrera Rodríguez. The excavation season was coming to an end in two weeks and the team was growing anxious. Eventually, hundreds of skull fragments started to appear. They had finally found it—it being the Huei Tzompantli, a giant rack dedicated to the Aztec war and sun god, Huitzilopochtli, built with the skulls of several thousand human sacrifice victims.
A codex written after the conquest by a Spanish priest depicts Tenochtitlan’s enormous skull rack, which is referred to as a tzompantli. | Credit: 1587 Aztec Manuscript, The Codex Tovar/ Wikimedia Commons
Archaeologists discovered of vestiges of that pre-Hispanic palace and the remains of a house that was built after the palace. Hernan Cortes and his men stayed at the house. | Credit: Raúl Barrera Rodríguez / PAU-INAH
ARaúl Barrera Rodríguez (center) and other researchers analyze human skulls that were recovered from the Huei Tzompantli. Isotope and DNA studies are expected to reveal that victims came from all over Mesoamerica.| Credit: Ignacio Urquiza / INAH
No one had seen the Huei Tzompantli since the Spanish and their allies destroyed it after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, on August 13, 1521. (Though they are often called Aztecs, the residents of Tenochtitlan referred to themselves as the Mexica.) Spanish historical documents mentioned it, but experts warned that details of their accounts might be inaccurate. Finding it not only helped archaeologists have a better understanding of the controversial Aztec practice of offering human lives as tribute to their gods, it also helped them understand what the great Tenochtitlan, the axis mundi of the empire, looked like 500 years ago.
The discovery, which made headlines when it was announced in 2015, was just the latest one from the Programa de Arqueología Urbana (Urban Archaeology Program), or PAU, which features a sixteen-person team led by Barrera Rodríguez, an archaeologist at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). For the last thirty years, the PAU has dug into Mexico City’s past, unearthing everything from important Aztec buildings to colonial artifacts. And with every excavation more of Tenochtitlan is exposed in so-called archaeological windows—glass floors that offer a glimpse of the ruins underneath modern-day buildings of downtown Mexico City. These ruins are a constant reminder of the powerful empire that once ruled the Basin of Mexico and most of northern Mesoamerica.