The answer to the mystery of leaders’ ultimate fate could be revealed behind two doors at the end of a tunnel into a platform at Tenochtitlán’s Great Temple
Archaeologists in Mexico have found a passageway and two sealed chambers beneath one of the largest temples of the ancient Aztec capital, raising hopes that excavations will uncover a ruler’s tomb beneath the city.
The tunnel, only 18in wide and 5ft high, leads 27ft directly into a circular ceremonial platform at the Great Temple or Templo Mayor complex of Tenochtitlán, the ruined Aztec capital that overlaps with modern Mexico City. At the end of the tunnel the archaeologists found two sealed doors.
According to the Spaniards who wrote of the conquest of Mexico, the Aztecs burned their kings’ remains on the circular structure – suggesting to lead archaeologist Leonardo López Luján that the sealed portals may lead to tombs.
“Once we freed the passage from earth and stone, we knew it led directly into the heart of the Cuauhxicalco,” López Luján said, using the Aztec name for the large stone platform, meaning “eagle cup”. “At the end appear two old entrances sealed up with masonry.”
The passage is actually an extension of a tunnel unearthed in 2013, discovered when a researcher noted signs of a continuation. That year archaeologists heaved a three-ton rock away from the mouth of the tunnel, finding a large box in a hollow space beneath it. The box contained gold ornaments, stone knives and the bones of children and eagles.
The human remains included two skulls belonging to children, aged five to seven, as well as bones from a hand and two feet. The knives and three vertebrae found with the skulls suggested they were sacrificed, a ritual practice relatively common among Aztec people, in which young children were often the preferred victims.
“From what the sources say, the Cuauhxicalco was a structure of a funerary character, so we can speculate that behind these walls there might be two small rooms that contain the incinerated remains of several leaders,” López Luján said.
López Luján said he suspected any remains might be of Moctezuma I and his successors, Axáyacatl and Tízoc, given the dating of the structure, referring to three of the earliest Aztec rulers. The trio ruled sometime during the 14th and the 15th centuries.
The discovery of any Aztec ruler’s remains would stand as a historic achievement – what the civilization did after leaders died remains one of the most enduring mysteries of the Aztec people.
López Luján urged caution and patience, saying that the tomb hypothesis was only that. He noted that archaeologists’ hopes had been dashed many times before and said excavations on the doorways will begin in 2016.
Unlike the tombs of the classic-period Maya, who laid out their kings in occasionally lavish chambers, Aztec burials from after 1000AD have eluded archaeologists, said Rosemary Joyce, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“They keep digging down hoping they’re going to find the big guy,” she said, “but they’re running out of places to look in Tenochtitlán.”
Aztec images show dead rulers “bundled up in cloth, seated upright, with little crowns on”, she said, and indigenous people drew pictures of cremation ceremonies, but what they did with these ashes or bundles is unknown.
The clues together present a tantalizing case for the tentative hopes of a tomb. The eagles – associated with the cremation stone and the sun god Huitzilopochtli – could also suggest a leader who wanted their own associations with the deity. Joyce noted that the dual doorways could be a reflection of how the Aztecs governed: with two rulers, a tlatoani – translated as “emperor” but more literally “speaker” – and a cihuacoatl – a word with an ambiguous meaning, possibly “woman twin” or “skirt serpent”.
And while the Aztecs may have dispersed ashes or simply not buried them, Joyce agreed that the early rulers of Tenochtitlán may have constituted a special case for a people who, unlike the Maya, did not have a cult of their ancestors or necessarily inherit power through family lines.
“The remains of the first or founding generations of the Aztec rulers” may have deserved their own tomb, she said, comparing to the symbolism Americans use to venerate George Washington. “He’s not Barack Obama’s great-great-great-grandfather, but he is the father of the nation.”
Susan Gillespie, an archaeologist at the University of Florida, agreed with Joyce that researchers are not sure whether the Aztecs dispersed ashes or made any special arrangements for their leaders at all.
“It is not surprising that these cremains have not yet been found or identified,” Gillespie told the AP. “Archaeologists don’t quite know what they’re looking for.”