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By David Alire Garcia
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A vast cache of Aztec ritual sacrifices found beneath downtown Mexico City, off the steps of what is arguably the Empire's most sacred shrine, offers new insights into pre-Hispanic religious rites and political propaganda.
Sealed in stone boxes at the foot of the temple five centuries ago, the contents of a box found smack in the center of a ceremonial circular stage broke records for the number of offerings from the Pacific Ocean and off Mexico's Gulf Coast, including more than 165 once bright red starfish and more than 180 complete exhibit branches.
Archaeologists believe Aztec priests carefully layered these offerings in the box within the raised platform for a ceremony likely attended by thousands of delighted spectators amid the thunderous clap of drums.
"Pure imperial propaganda," said Leonardo Lopez Lujan, senior archaeologist at the Proyecto Templo Mayor of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico (INAH), which oversees the dig, of the likely spectacle.
In the same box, archaeologists previously found a sacrificed jaguar dressed like a warrior and associated with the Aztec patron Huitzilopochtli, the god of war and the sun, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced excavations to pause for more than two years.
Previously unreported details include the discovery last month of a sacrificial eagle held in the jaguar's claws, along with miniature wooden spears and a reed shield found next to the west-facing cat, which had copper bells tied around its ankles would have.
The half-excavated rectangular box, dating from the reign of the greatest Aztec emperor, Ahuitzotl, who reigned from 1486 to 1502, now reveals a mysterious central bulge beneath the jaguar's skeleton, indicating that something solid was underneath.
"Whatever is under the Jaguar is something hugely important," said Lopez Lujan.
"We are expecting a great discovery."
Lopez Lujan, who is leading excavations at what is now the Templo Mayor, believes the box may contain an urn containing the cremated remains of Ahuitzotl, the emperor whose military campaigns expanded the empire into present-day Guatemala while connecting Mexico's Pacific and Gulf coasts. But he says at least another year of digging is needed to settle the issue.
To date, no Aztec royal tomb has ever been found, despite more than 40 years of digging around the Templo Mayor, where more than 200 sacrificial boxes have been found.
The temple towered as a 15-story building before it was destroyed in the years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521, with the rubble serving to obscure many of the most recent finds.
In addition to the central offering containing the jaguar, two other chests have recently been identified, both of which are scheduled to be opened in the next few weeks.
Other wild animals dressed as warriors, perhaps adorned with jade, turquoise, and gold, are likely.
The water offerings covering the jaguar may represent the watery underworld where the Aztecs believed the sun set each night, or possibly part of a king's journey after death.
Joyce Marcus, an archaeologist specializing in ancient Mexico at the University of Michigan, says the recently unearthed offerings shed light on Aztec "worldview, ritual economy, and the apparent connections between imperial expansion, warfare, military prowess, and the ruler's role" in sacred ones Ceremonies conquests and poured tributes into the capital.
"Each offering box adds another piece of the puzzle," she said.
Eventually, the skulls of a dozen sacrificed children between the ages of one and six were also discovered in a nearby pit, dating decades earlier but also associated with Huitzilopochtli.
The information gleaned from the excavations goes well beyond incomplete colonial-era accounts, which were also informed by the European invaders' own justifications for conquest, according to Diana Moreiras, an Aztec scholar at the University of British Columbia.
"We really get to know the Aztecs on their own terms," ​​she said, "because we're actually looking at what they did, not what the Spanish thought of them."
(Reporting by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Stephen Eisenhammer and Josie Kao)

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