Templo Major, D.F., Mexico

Tzompantli, or plastered Skullrack in the Museum

The Templo Major was the ceremonial center at the heart of the Aztec Capital of Tenochtitlan, the place of the high priest of Tenoch, which was located on an island in Lake Texcoco, in what is now central Mexico City. The site was rediscovered in 1978, when workers were doing excavations east of the Cathedral and north of the National Palace, and unearthed an eight ton statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

Further excavations showed that the site was the principal temple of the Aztecs, a large double pyramid, enlarged over at least 5 phases, that stood at the center of an enormous ceremonial district in the heart of Tenochtitlan. Teocalli, the sacred city at the center of the Aztec Empire, from about 1350-1519 AD, was an enormous city on an island on the western shores of Lake Texcoco, with a population estimated at 100.000 by the early 16th century, when the Spanish arrived and destroyed the city.

The site had been occupied since pre-historic times, as early as 10.000 BC, when humans first gathered on the shores of Lake Texcoco, and began farming and forming small settlements. In about 7500 BC the highland lake started to dry up, a process that has continued to the present day, when not much remains of the lake. From about 200 BC-650 AD the region was dominated by Teotihuacan, the great City of the Gods to the north-east, and then by the Toltecs, from Tula, until the 12th century. By this time the regional villages had become small city-states, that came to be dominated by the Mexica, invaders from the north, who founded the Aztec Empire from 1325-1519 AD.

The ceremonial center lies in the heart of Mexico City, around the Cathedral, and the enormous Zocalo, a huge central plaza. The site has sunken more than 10 meters below the surrounding city, in the soft, marshy subsoil of the dry lakebed, the massive masonry cathedral has also gradually sunken over the past 3 centuries. There are a series of temple platforms and courtyard compounds, dominated by the double pyramids dedicated to Huizilopochtli, the god of fire, and Tlaloc, the raingod, the twin deities who dominated the Aztec cosmos.

The Twin Pyramids on the West Side of the Site

The center of the archaeological site lies east of the Cathedral, and north of the National Palace, in the north-east corner of the Zocalo. This portion consists mainly of the large twin pyramids of Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc, standing side by side facing west, with broad central stairways ascending up the west sides. Only the tops of the pyramids are visible, at a level somewhat below the surrounding streets, most of the body of the massive mounds lies below ground. Looking from the pyramids to the south and west, there was an enormous ceremonial precinct, laid out on a grid, which contained many subsidiary pyramids, temples and palace platforms, around a huge central plaza with a round temple of Ehecatl, the god of wind, and the walled compounds of the jaguar and eagle warriors.

Stairway topped by Serpent Head on South Side

Most of the buildings at the site lie well below the surface, and there have been extensive excavations and selective trenching, in order to explore the remains. This view is looking to the west on the south side of the double pyramid, where there is a subsidiary platform with altars and benches, and a monumental stone serpent head. The cone-shaped object in the center, which flares out towards the top, appears to have been an incense burner. In the background are the buildings of the central administrative district of Mexico City, which tower several stories above the level of the top of the ancient pyramids.

Tzompantli, or Skullrack built into a Sidewall

Spanish accounts from the time of the conquest describe Aztec ceremonies and rituals as having been incredibly bloodthirsty, with human sacrifices performed by cutting the live heart out of the victim's chest with a dagger. One account claims that there were 50.000 victims in a single ceremonial sacrifice. While the logistics of such an event seem unimaginable, there is clearly some truth to these stories. There are several of these typical Aztec skullracks, rectangular frameworks lined with rows of human skulls, plastered over and built into the architecture, in the archaeological area of the Templo Major.

Altar Platform on top of the Double Pyramid

This view is looking to the east at the top of the temple platform on the west side of the great double pyramids of Huizilopochtli and Tlaloc. According to the historical accounts, this is the place where the ritual human sacrifices would have been performed. The priests used ceremonial daggers of obsidian, to cut the beating hearts out of victims chests, putting them in the bowl of the Chac Mool statue at the center of the platform, while the blood of the victims ran down the sloping sides, stairways and terraces of the bright red pyramids.

Monumental Basalt Statue of Coatlicue

The monumental basalt stone statue of Coatlicue, the goddess of death and the earth, was discovered during excavations in central Mexico City in 1978. The statue was of solid stone, and weighed 8 tons. It led to the unearthing and further excavation of the central ceremonial district of Aztec Tenochtitlan, and the double pyramid that was it's main shrine.
The gigantic stone statue portrays the figure of the goddess, standing on enormous bear claw feet, her body made of intertwined snakes, with the two serpent heads coming together at the top to form the head. The figure has a necklace made of human hearts and hands, with a skull pendant at the bottom, and her dress is made of interlaced trails of blood.
While the statue has a horrific aspect, in it's portrayal of blood and death, and human hearts and hands, and a figure made of scowling, writhing serpennts, it also has an intense energetic and dense, almost pulsating, life-affirming quality. Life and death are inseparable in the art and culture of Meso-America, they are dual aspects of a single entity, and this appears to be evident and inherent in the monumental figure of Coatlicue.

Andreas Kultermann -
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