Pre-Columbian Star War Stories Emerge From Stones

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Pre-Columbian star war stories have emerged from 23 stone carvings unearthed near the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan, the ancient Aztec center that became Mexico City after the Spanish invasion in 1521.

Providing unique iconographic evidence for Aztec myths, the bas-relief sculptures lay embedded in a strip of floor in front of the Templo Mayor complex, Tenochtitlan's holiest shrine.

Far from being purely decorative, the artistic carvings show symbols of death and crude representations in line with the Aztecs' bloody rituals.

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"These carvings are a form of writing. They tell stories of star warriors, captives and human sacrifices," archaeologist Raul Barrera, the director of the excavation, said.

He estimated that the carvings were produced on red and gray volcanic rock some 550 years ago, during the fourth stage of the Templo Mayor's construction (1440-1469), in the reign of Moctezuma I.

Demolished by 16th century conquistadores who described it as "reeking like a slaughterhouse" because of the thousands of ritual killings the Aztecs performed there, the Templo Mayor, or Great Temple, was re-discovered in 1978 by workers digging for electrical lines.

To the Aztecs, named after the mythical place of Aztlan where they claimed to have originated, the temple was the center of the universe.

According to legend, its construction was divinely ordained in 1325, when the wandering tribe saw an eagle landing on a cactus with a snake in his beak (the image is at the centre of the Mexican flag today).

The complex consisted of a huge pyramidal base supporting two temples. Two grand stairways led up to the shrines: one was dedicated to the rain god Tlaloc, the other to the Aztecs' supreme deity Huitzilopochtli, the god of the sun and the war.

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Standing about ninety feet high, the temple dominated the sacred precinct, a walled holy city in the heart of Tenochtitlan.

According to Barrera, it's the first time that stones specifically arranged to narrate Aztec myths are found within this area at the foot of the Templo Mayor.

Related to the origins of this Pre-Columbian culture, the myths "include the concept of a star war" in which the sun obliterates the moon and the stars, Barrera said.

Indeed, the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth, possibly represented on the stone slabs, reads like a cosmic drama.

The story goes that the goddess of the earth and fertility Coatlicue (Serpent-skirt) was mysteriously impregnated by a ball of feathers while sweeping the temple atop the cosmic mountain, Coatepec (Serpent Mountain).

Upset that their mother had become pregnant, her four hundred male children, the star gods, and their sister Coyolxauhqui, the goddess of the Moon, plotted to kill both her and the unborn child – who was nothing less than the god Huitzilopochtli.

Springing from Coatlicue's womb fully grown and armed with a serpent made of fire, Huitzilopochtli decapitated and dismembered Coyolxauhqui and killed one by one his 400 brothers.

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Depictions of serpents abound in the carvings. Eight of them are represented with their mouth wide open, while a star warrior carrying his chimalli (shield) and a weapon for shooting darts is visible on other stone slabs.

Other stones show lines perhaps symbolizing blood spurts, a beheaded man wearing a feather headdress with an earflap, and a captive on his knees. He has his hands tied behind his back, while a tear falls from his eye.

The archaeologists aim to continue the excavation to determine whether any offering was laid beneth the stones.

Image: Serpent plaque; strip of floor with stone carvings; kneeling captive plaque. Credit: National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).