The artwork is
the largest bas-relief engraving found at the Templo Mayor to date
Eagles are enduring symbols
in Aztec lore. (Mirsa Islas / INAH)
Archaeologists conducting excavations at the Templo
Mayor, or Great Temple, in Mexico City (once home to the Aztec
capital of Tenochtitlán)
have discovered a 600-year-old sculpture of a golden eagle, reports
Ángela Reyes for CNN en Español.
Led by Rodolfo Aguilar Tapia of Mexico's National
Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), researchers from
Mayor Project unearthed the sculpture last February. The eaglecarved
out of tezontle, a reddish volcanic rock commonly used in both pre-Hispanic
and modern Mexicomeasures 41.7 by 27.6 inches, making it the
(or low relief) work found at the pyramid-shaped temple to date.
"It is a very beautiful piece that shows the great secrets that
the Templo Mayor of Mexico Tenochtitlán has yet to reveal
to us," says 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
As Ashley Cowie notes for Ancient
Origins, the sculpture was carved into the floor on the
central axis of a chapel devoted to sun and war god Huitzilopochtli
and a monument honoring moon goddess Coyolxauhqui.
Researchers think that craftspeople created the engraving in the
mid-15th century, during the reign of Moctezuma
Workers initially constructed the Templo Mayor under Itzcoatl
(reigned 14271440). According to Mark Cartwright of Ancient
History Encyclopedia, Moctezuma I and Ahuítzotl
(reigned 14861502) later added to the temple by building over
earlier structures. Both rulers sought to create a more elaborate
monument than their predecessor, using materials and labor from
neighboring tributaries to construct an ornate complex that eventually
constituted 78 separate structures.
The eagle was carved
into the floor at Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.
(Mirsa Islas / INAH)
Speaking with Live Science, Caroline
Dodds Pennock, an Aztec historian at the University of Sheffield
who wasn't involved in the research, says, "For the Aztecs, the
Templo Mayor lay at the heart of the physical, mythical and spiritual
During Ahuítzotl's reign, construction workers covered the
eagle sculpture with a second floor built on top of the previous
"That is why is it so well preserved," says Aguilar Tapia in the
statement, per Google Translate. "It is an element that was never
seen by the Spanish."
The golden eagle, which is also known as itzcuauhtli (obsidian
eagle) in the Indigenous Nahuatl
language, is rife with symbolism. Per the statement, the Codex
Borgiaa 16th-century painted manuscript featuring
calendars that purported to predict the success of marriages, military
campaigns and other endeavorscontains a similar image of a
golden eagle whose sharp-edged feathers mimic the knives used in
"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," Pennock explains to Live Science.
A model of the Templo
Mayor complex (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Local newspaper El
Comentario reports that the newly unearthed carving was
one of 67 found on the south side of the temple, which is home to
artifacts associated with the god Huitzilopochtli. Etchings on the
north side of the temple are dedicated to Tlaloc, the god of rain,
water, lightning and agriculture, notes the statement.
According to legend,
Huitzilopochtli directed the Aztecs to establish their kingdom at
the site where they saw an eagle perched on a cactus while eating
a snake. Upon arriving at an island on Lake Texcoco, the settlers
witnessed this very sight, spurring them to found the city of Tenochtitlan.
Today, an image of a golden eagle appears on the Mexican flag;
other representations of the eagle are scattered across Mexican
lore. The new discovery may help researchers gain an even better
understanding of the eagle's significance in Aztec culture.
Researchers plan to briefly remove the relief while they examine
the site but will return it to the temple once this process is finished.
"The Templo Mayor Project continues to shed remarkable insights
on Aztec culture," says Pennock. "This eagle adds another layer
to our understanding of the ways in which the Aztecs saw their mythical
history as at the heart of their belief and ritual."
Isis Davis-Marks is a freelance writer and artist based in New
York City. Her work has also appeared in Artsy, the Columbia
Journal, and elsewhere. Website: isisdavismarks.com