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.