El Templo Mayor, the Great Temple (Huey Teocalli), is the main religious building at Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Mexica, the dominant people in the cultural area of Mesoamerica during the late Postclassical period (1325–1521). According to sixteenth-century Nahua chronicles, after leaving their mythical place of origin, Aztlan-Chicomostoc, and wandering for a long time, in 1325 the Mexicas found the place that their chief god, Huitzilopochtli, had chosen for them to settle. Stories differ regarding the divine manifestations through which this revelation came. One tells of a double spring of water, one part flowing with blue water and another with red, a clear sign of duality—a principle of Mesoamerican thought by which all things had an opposite and complementary counterpart (sky to earth, water to fire, and so on). Another describes an eagle standing on a cactus, devouring birds with colorful plumage or a serpent (the image on Mexico's present-day coat of arms). In this holy place, the Mexicas founded their most important temple, consisting of a double pyramid-shaped base with four superimposed bodies and twin staircases ascending its main, west-facing façade, leading to two smaller temples on the top. The one on the north was dedicated to Tláloc, the rain god, and the one on the south to Huitzilopochtli, the sun and war god. At the time Tenochtitlan was founded, the Mexicas were a subjugated people who had to pay tribute to the Tepanecs in Azcapotzalco, but they freed themselves from that yoke shortly afterwards and began a series of wars of imperial expansion that would give them control of a territory extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic and from the Huasteca area to the region of Soconusco.
Archeological excavations between 1978 and 1982 brought to light the remains of the Great Temple, as well as another four structures in the sacred precinct of Tenochtitlan, in the heart of present-day Mexico City. It was possible to distinguish seven architectural enlargements of the Great Temple, successively built one on another. The oldest one found is thought to pertain to the reign of one of the first three Mexica governors, between 1375 and 1426, while the more recent one is attributed to Moctezuma II, who reigned from 1502 to 1520, the period when Europeans made contact.
Key archeological findings are the 124 offerings buried in the Great Temple and neighboring buildings, some of which comprise thousands of objects, well illustrating the splendor attained by the Tenochcas in their mere 300 years of imperial conquest. Materials and objects among them have been traced to exotic regions, reaching Tenochtitlan by means of tribute or commercial interchange, pieces manufactured locally and sometimes copying foreign styles, and even antiquities looted from other sites or perhaps conserved as relics. Study of these offerings has revealed that the objects were not randomly placed, but were set in pre-established patterns, to convey specific messages. One of their most important functions was to pay the deities for favors received. Excavations in what was the ritual precinct of Tenochtitlan continue in the early twenty-first century, mainly in the form of archeological rescue operations when public and private works are under construction in Mexico City. Investigation also continues on the archeological remains that have been recovered.
López Arenas, Gabino. Rescate arqueológico en la Catedral y el Sagrario metropolitanos: Estudio de ofrendas. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2003.
López Luján, Leonardo. The Offerings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, rev. edition, trans. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. The Great Temple of the Aztecs: Treasures of Tenochtitlan, trans. Doris Heyden. London: Thames and Hudson, 1988.
Velázquez Castro, Adrián. El simbolismo de los objetos de concha encontrados en las ofrendas del Templo Mayor de Tenochtitlán. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2000.
AdriÁn VelÁzquez Castro