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First tomb of an Aztec ruler may have been found

August 05, 2007|Mark Stevenson | Associated Press

MEXICO CITY — Mexican archeologists using ground-penetrating radar have detected underground chambers they believe contain the remains of Emperor Ahuizotl, who ruled the Aztecs when Columbus landed in what became the Americas. It would be the first tomb of an Aztec ruler ever found.

The find could provide an extraordinary window into Aztec civilization at its apogee. Ahuizotl (ah-WEE-zoh-tuhl), an empire-builder who extended the Aztecs' reach as far as Guatemala, was the last emperor to complete his rule before the Spanish Conquest.

Accounts written by Spanish priests suggest the area was used by the Aztecs to cremate and bury their rulers. But no tomb of an Aztec ruler has ever been found, in part because the Spanish conquerors built their own city atop the Aztec's ceremonial center, leaving behind colonial structures too valuable to remove for excavations.

One of those colonial buildings was so damaged in a 1985 earthquake that it had to be torn down, eventually giving experts their first chance to examine the site off Mexico City's Zocalo, the plaza between the Metropolitan Cathedral and the ruins of the Templo Mayor pyramid.

Archeologists told the Associated Press that they had located what appeared to be a 6-by-6-foot entrance into the tomb about 15 feet below ground. The passage is filled with water, rocks and mud, forcing workers to dig while suspended in slings.

"We are doing it very, very slowly ... because the responsibility is very great and we want to register everything," said Leonardo Lopez Lujan, the project's lead government archeologist. "It's a totally new situation for us, and we don't know exactly what it will be like down there."

As early as this fall, they hope to enter the inner chambers -- a damp, low-ceilinged space -- and discover the ashes of Ahuizotl, who was probably cremated on a funeral pyre in 1502.

All signs found so far point to Ahuizotl. The site lies directly below a huge, recently discovered stone monolith carved with a representation of Tlaltecuhtli (tlahl-tay-KOO-tlee), the Aztec god of the earth.

In the claw of her right foot, she holds a rabbit and 10 dots, indicating the date "10 Rabbit" -- 1502, the year of Ahuizotl's death.

By then, Columbus had arrived. But the Aztecs' first contact with Europeans came in 1519, when Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors marched into the valley of Mexico and took hostage Ahuizotl's successor, his nephew Montezuma.

Because no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, the archeologists are literally digging into the unknown. Radar indicates the tomb has up to four chambers, and they think they will find a constellation of elaborate offerings to the gods on the floor.

"He must have been buried with solemn ceremony and rich offerings, like vases, ornaments ... and certainly some objects he personally used," said Luis Alberto Martos, director of archeological studies at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The tomb's curse -- water -- may also be its blessing. Lopez Lujan said the constant temperature of the pH-neutral water in the flooded chambers, together with the lack of oxygen, discourages decomposition of materials like wood and bone found at other digs around the pyramid, which was all but destroyed in the conquest.

"Imagine it -- this wasn't just any high-ranking man. The Aztecs were the most powerful society of their time before the arrival of the Spaniards," Martos said. "That's why Ahuizotl's tomb down there is so important."

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