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Largest Aztec temple was decorated with over 100 starfish

This imprint preserves details of the internal structure of the starfish, as well as its overall shape. It's one of 164 starfish recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City.
Enlarge / This imprint preserves details of the internal structure of the starfish, as well as its overall shape. It’s one of 164 starfish recently unearthed at the Templo Mayor site in Mexico City.


Aztec priests at Tenochtitlán offered a whole galaxy of starfish to the war god Huitzilopochtli 700 years ago, along with a trove of other objects from the distant edges of the Aztec Empire. Archaeologists from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recently unearthed the offering on the site of the Templo Mayor, the main temple in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, in what is now Mexico City.

Ahuizotl, coast to coast

The offering included 164 starfish from a species called Nidorella armata, known less formally as the chocolate chip starfish because it’s mostly the color of cookie dough, but it has dark spots. (It shares the nickname with the other chocolate chip sea star, Protoreaster nodosus, which provides an excellent argument in favor of scientific names.) Nidorella armata lives along the Pacific coastline from Mexico south to Peru, where it hangs out on shallow-water reefs of rock and coral.

For Tenochtitlán, the nearest source of chocolate chip starfish would have been nearly 300 kilometers away from the Aztec capital. Chunks of coral found in the same offering came from about the same distance away but in roughly the opposite direction—the western end of the Gulf of Mexico. At the time, these items came from the farthest eastern and western edges of the Aztec Empire, places that the Aztec ruler Ahuizotl had only recently conquered.

Ahuizotl took the throne in 1486, and he jumped straight into two major projects: renovating the capital, including the Templo Mayor, and expanding the borders of his empire. His campaigns nearly doubled the size of the Aztec Empire, stretching Aztec rule west to the Pacific coast of Mexico and southeast to Guatemala. All that conquest meant that the Aztecs could easily bring starfish from the Pacific and corals from the Gulf of Mexico, along with an assortment of marine shells (and even pufferfish) to Tenochtitlán to lay before their gods.

Conquistadors ruin everything

Back in the capital, Ahuizotl ordered the reconstruction of large parts of the city. His efforts included expanding the Templo Mayor, which in Aztec terms meant building a new, bigger outer layer over the top of the previous temple. (The prior construction was often ritually “killed” before the new one could be consecrated.) That’s convenient for modern archaeologists, who can date each layer of construction at the Templo Mayor.

The oldest part of the temple dates to around 1325, when a group of people called the Mexica migrated into the area surrounding what is now Mexico City. There, according to Mexica lore, their leaders saw an eagle perched on a prickly pear and eating a snake; it was the sign their priests had told them to expect from Huitzilopochtli, and it’s an image you might recognize from the modern Mexican flag. At the site, the Mexica built a city called Tenochtitlán, and from there, they ruled the Aztec Empire.

Huitzilopochtli shared the Templo Mayor with the rain and farming god Tlaloc; each god had his own shrine at the top of the pyramid, reached by separate staircases. Ahuizotl’s expansion, where archaeologists found the starfish offering, is the sixth layer of the Templo Mayor. Only one more layer would be added before the temple’s destruction.

Ahuizotl was the eighth ruler of the Aztec Empire and the last to rule before the Spanish conquistadors, led by Hernán Cortés, arrived and changed everything. Cortés arrived during the reign of Ahuizotl’s nephew, Moctezuma II, who died fighting the invaders. Moctezuma’s brother, who took the throne next, died of smallpox, a disease brought by the Spaniards. The throne passed to Ahuizotl’s son, Cuauhtémoc, who surrendered to Cortés in 1521, only to be tortured for the whereabouts of mostly nonexistent gold and silver. Cortés had Cuauhtémoc, the last ruler of the Aztec Empire, executed in 1525.

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