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The discovery of the images
The archaeological contexts of the House of the Eagles were so well preserved when it was excavated that it was not difficult to mentally reconstruct the original setting nor to imagine its evolution through the centuries. It all begins around AD 1469 when a small platform that was located on the north side of the Templo Mayor was covered with tons of clay from the lakebed to form the foundation of the building whose sumptuous interior we described in the previous section. We know that at least three of the internal entrances of the brand-new building were decorated with pairs of sculptures of dimensions slightly larger than life-size. The principal entrance of the north wing of the building was guarded by the two images of Mictlantecuhtli, the subject of this work. Both sculptures stood erect at the ends of long benches facing towards the south. The sculpture we have designated "Element 4" was located in front of the east doorjamb, while the other one, designated "Element 5", was located in front of the west doorjamb.
Soon thereafter, maybe two or three decades later, the Mexicas decided to once again enlarge the House of the Eagles, probably because its dimensions and the quality of its finishings were no longer appropriate for the splendor that Tenochtitlan had reached with the conquests of the last few years. The first step in this work consisted of a complex closing ceremony.
CAs was the custom in those days, a group of priests ritually closed this sacred space just before beginning the work of enlargement. Fortunately today we know the details of this complex ceremony, thanks to a meticulous archaeological excavation in the interior of the House of the Eagles and a wide variety of laboratory analyses. In the first ritual identified, the images of the Lord of the Dead and the two individuals dressed in eagle costumes that stood at either side of the principal entrances to the building were literally bathed with human blood. In fact, during the excavation of one of the ceramic images we removed the earth that covered it and found a wrinkled substance over the head, shoulders, arms and back. This was a thin layer of a maroon color with a distribution pattern similar to that of a fluid that had been poured from above. Immediately many samples of this strange maroon-colored material were taken, which was believed to be the remains of blood in a very bad state of preservation. An initial set of analyses detected great concentrations of iron and albumin, which are the principal components of blood. Later, Rocío Vargas of the Institute of Anthropological Investigations of UNAM carried out a series of studies using electrophoresis. These analyses led to the unquestionable identification of the presence of hemoglobin of human origin, thus corrobrating that the images of the God of Death had been bathed with great quantities of blood of sacrificed individuals. It should be mentioned that this same activity is clearly depicted in a scene from Codex Magliabecchiano (Plate 76r) which is amazingly similar to the ritual that took place in the House of the Eagles. (figure 6).
In the second ritual identified, the entrance was ceremoniously closed with a sculpture that represented a menacing rattlesnake. Subsequently, the stucco floors, the Tlaloc braziers, the rattlesnake, the multicolor benches, the ceramic images and the mural paintings were covered with a fine layer of lakebed clay. At this time several human mandibles were placed in front of the torso of each of the images, possibly to emphasize its ritual death and its final interment. Finally, all the rooms were filled with dirt and rocks, in order to form a solid platform that would serve as the base of the new building.
It is surprising that in the short period of time from that moment to the Conquest, the House of the Eagles was enlarged on three more occasions. This period of construction fervor would end suddenly as a result of the arrival of the Spanish; in AD 1521, following a long siege, the Mexica capital falls and is devastated. The House of the Eagles falls victim to the destruction; only its older and deeper stages are saved. Soon thereafter the first monastery of San Francisco would be built on its ruins.
Incredibly, the excavation work for the foundation of this religious construction stopped barely 5 cm above our sculptures. The centuries would pass and with them a long series of civilian buildings would successively occupy this same location. In the second half of the 20th century the sculptures were again on the verge of destruction when the workers of the Light and Power Company installed an electrical transformer less than one meter from Element 5.
The five long centuries that our images remained buried ended in 1994. In that year, as part of the fifth field season of the Templo Mayor Project, we decided to excavate several tunnels. JoséFrancisco Hinojosa suggested that we excavate one of these tunnels on the west side of the House of the Eagles with the objective of locating the principal north entrance. The excavation of the tunnel was extremely productive. In August of that year the two sculptures of Mictlantecuhtli once again saw the light of day (figure 7).
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Last Modified: November 30, 2000
Museo del Templo Mayor, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e História, México.
Seminario #8, Centro Histórico, Cuauhtémoc, México, D.F. 06060
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