The Templo Mayor was one of the main temples of the Aztecs in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. Its architectural style belongs to the late post-classic period of Mesoamerica. The temple was dedicated simultaneously to two gods, Huitzilopochtli, god of war and Tlaloc, god of rain and agriculture.
The site is part of the Historic Centre of Mexico City, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987. The temple, measuring approximately 100×80 m at its base, dominated a Sacred Precinct. The construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325, and it was rebuilt six times after that. The temple was destroyed by the Spanish in 1521. The modern-day archaeological site lies just to the north-east of the Zócalo, or the main plaza of Mexico City.
The Sacred Precinct of the Templo Mayor encompassed an area of almost 4,000 square metres and it was surrounded by a wall called the “coatepantli” (serpent wall). Among the most important buildings were the ball court, the Calmecac (area for priests), and the temples dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, Tezcatlipoca and the sun.
After the destruction of Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor was taken apart and then covered over by the new Spanish colonial city. The Temple’s exact location was forgotten, although by the 20th century scholars had a good idea where to look for it, based on the archaeological work done at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th.
Some excavation works were done at the end of the 19th century under the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral because at this time, the Temple was thought to be there. In the first decades of the 20th century, part of the southwest corner of the Temple was found and put on public display. However, it did not generate great public interest in excavating further as the zone was an upper-class residential area. In 1933, part of a staircase and beam were found. Fifteen years later, archaeologists excavated a platform containing serpent heads and offerings.
However, the push to fully excavate the site did not come until late in the 20th century. On 25 February 1978, workers for the electric company were digging at a place in the city then popularly known as the “island of the dogs.” It was named such because it was slightly elevated over the rest of the neighbourhood and when there was flooding, street dogs would congregate there. At just over two metres down they struck a pre-Hispanic monolith. This stone turned out to be a huge disk of over 3.25 metres in diameter, 30 centimetres thick and weighing 8.5 metric tons. The relief on the stone was later determined to be Coyolxauhqui, the moon goddess, dating to the end of the 15th century.
From 1978 to 1982, specialists directed by archaeologist Eduardo Matos Moctezuma worked on the project to excavate the Temple. Initial excavations found that many of the artefacts were in good enough condition to study. Efforts coalesced into the Templo Mayor Project, which was authorised by presidential decree.
To excavate, thirteen buildings in this area had to be demolished. Nine of these were built in the 1930s and four dated from the 19th century, and had preserved colonial elements. During excavations, more than 7,000 objects were found, mostly offerings including effigies, clay pots in the image of Tlaloc, skeletons of turtles, frogs, crocodiles, and fish, snail shells, coral, some gold, alabaster, Mixtec figurines, ceramic urns from Veracruz, masks from what is now Guerrero state, copper rattles, decorated skulls and knives of obsidian and flint.
These objects are housed in the Templo Mayor Museum. This museum is the result of the work done since the early 1980s to rescue, preserve and research the Templo Mayor, its Sacred Precinct and all objects associated with it. The museum exists to make all of the finds available to the public.
The Museum of the Templo Mayor was built in 1987 to house the Templo Mayor Project and its finds – a project which continues work to this day. In 1991, the Urban Archaeology Program was incorporated as part of the Templo Mayor Project whose mission is to excavate the oldest area of the city, around the main plaza.
The museum building was built by architect Pedro Ramírez Vázquez, who envisioned a discrete structure that would blend in with the colonial surroundings. The museum has four floors, three of which are for permanent exhibitions and the fourth houses offices for the director, museum administration and research staff. Other departments are located in the basement, where there is also an auditorium.
The museum has eight main exhibition halls, called “salas”, each dedicated to a different theme. Room 1 is dedicated to the goddesses Coatlicue and Coyalxauhqui, mother and sister to Huitzlipochtli respectively. The first finds associated with the Temple are displayed there, from the first tentative finds in the 19th century, to the discovery of the huge stone disk of Coyolxauhqui, which initiated the Templo Mayor Project.
Room 2 is dedicated to the concepts of ritual and sacrifice in Tenochtitlan. This room contains urns where dignitaries where interred, funerary offerings, as well as objects associated with self and human sacrifice – such as musical instruments, knives and skulls.
Room 3 demonstrates the economics of the Aztec empire in the form of tribute and trade, with examples of finished products and raw materials from many parts of Mesoamerica. Sala 4 is dedicated to the god Huitzilopochtli. His shrine at the Temple was the most important and largest. This room contains various images of him as well as offerings. Also located here are the two large ceramic statues of the god Mictlantecuhtli which were found in the House of the Eagle Warriors who were dedicated to Huitzilopochtli.
Room 5 is dedicated to Tlaloc, the other principal deity of the Aztecs and one of the oldest in Mesoamerica. This room contains various images of the god, usually done in green or volcanic stone or in ceramic. The most prized work is a large pot with the god’s face in high relief that still preserves much of the original blue paint.
Room 6 is dedicated to the flora and fauna of Mesoamerica at this time, as many species were associated with divine elements for the Aztecs. Also many of the offerings found at the Templo Mayor were or were made from various plants and animals. Related to Room 6, Room 7 contains exhibits of the agricultural technology of the time, especially in the growing of corn and the construction of chinampas, the so-called “floating gardens”. The last room, Sala 8, is dedicated to the archaeology and history of the site.