Archaeologists excavating Mexico City’s Templo Mayo have discovered a circular platform studded with snake heads that they hope might be a clue to finding an Aztec emperor’s tomb. It is 15 yards in diameter and dates to around 1469.
The team has been digging for five years looking for what would be the first tomb of an Aztec ruler ever found. The Spanish priests who accompanied Cortés and his troops to the Aztec capital then known as Tenochtitlan recorded that Aztec kings being cremated at the foot of the Templo Mayor on a structure called the “cuauhxicalco.” This platform could well be the cuauhxicalco, and if it is, then perhaps an imperial tomb is nearby.
There are no other extant sources that describe how the Aztecs buried their royalty, however, so the archaeological team doesn’t have a lot to go on. On the other hand, the Spanish conquistadors did provide themselves with a rare opportunity to see the death of three Aztec kings — Montezuma II, his brother Cuitláhuac, and Cuitláhuac’s nephew, Cuauhtémoc — within six years of their arrival, so an argument could be made they are expert witnesses.
[National Institute of History and Anthropology archaeologist Raul Barrera] said the platform, which is still being unearthed, was gradually uncovered over the preceding months. It is covered with at least 19 serpent heads, each about a half-yard (meter) long.
Barrera said accounts from the 1500s suggested the platform was also used in a colorful ceremony in which an Aztec priest would descend from the nearby pyramid with a snake made of paper and burn it on the platform.
Records indicate there were a total of five such platforms in the temple complex. One was found several years ago, but that platform was farther from the ritually important spot at the foot of the pyramid, where the most recent finding was made.
In 1997 archaeologists found underground chambers using ground penetrating radar very near the spot of the snakehead platform. They thought perhaps those chambers would prove to be the tomb of Emperor Ahuizotl who ruled at the end of the 15th century, but when they excavated all they found was a staircase and some offerings.