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Article suitable for older students

Dr. Leonardo López Luján

Question for January 2015

When you find something buried [in Mexico], how do you know it’s Aztec? Asked by The Blue Coat School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Leonardo López Luján.

Archaeologists at work at the Templo Mayor site, Mexico City
Archaeologists at work at the Templo Mayor site, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

When we excavate the subsoil under Mexico City and bring to light the remains of the ancient cities of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco, we archaeologists discover a huge range of very varied objects that had been brought there from the furthest confines of the [Mexica] empire - and even from still further afield.
We can identify Aztec objects by combining different types of information:-
First, we analyze the raw materials that the artefacts themselves were made of originally, such as obsidian, flint, jadeite, pottery, copper or gold. Depending on their chemical and mineral composition, we can determine the geographical area that the material came from, and hence establish whether these sources were or were not within Aztec territory.
Second, we study the shape, dimensions, function and style of the objects: usually this will allow us to distinguish Aztec objects from those of Teotihuacan, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya and other cultures.

The Templo Mayor archaeological site is right in the centre of modern Mexico City
The Templo Mayor archaeological site is right in the centre of modern Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

For example, if we find a ceramic dish inside a stone box, we will remove a tiny piece from one of the box walls and test it chemically using a process called Neutron Activation Analysis. If the scientist carrying out the test tells us that the fragment came from the bottom of Lake Texcoco (where the island city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco was located), we can be pretty sure that the object itself was manufactured there.
We then study carefully the shape, style and purpose of the dish. If it’s a round, shallow dish, some 20 centimetres in diameter, with three cone-shaped legs, painted orange and decorated with fine black lines, we can say with certainty it’s an Aztec object.

Notice the archaeologists excavating at different levels of the site...
Notice the archaeologists excavating at different levels of the site... (Click on image to enlarge)

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Cuando los arqueólogos excavamos en el subsuelo de la ciudad de México y sacamos a la luz las ruinas de las antiguas ciudades aztecas de Tenochtitlan y Tlatelolco, encontramos muchísimos objetos que son muy diversos entre sí y que fueron traídos de todos los confines del imperio y más allá.
Podemos identificar los objetos aztecas al combinar dos tipos de información. Por un lado, analizamos químicamente los materiales con que fueron elaborados dichos objetos (obsidiana, pedernal, jadeíta, cerámica, cobre u oro); dependiendo de su composición (elementos químicos y minerales) podemos determinar la ubicación geográfica de las fuentes de obtención de dichos materiales y determinar si tales fuentes estaban dentro del área de dominio azteca. Por otro lado, estudiamos la forma, las dimensiones, la función y el estilo de los objetos; por lo regular, estas características nos ayudan a distinguir los objetos aztecas, de los teotihuacanos, los zapotecas, los mixtecas, los mayas, etcétera.

Por ejemplo, si encontramos un plato de cerámica dentro de una caja de piedra, tomaremos una muestra diminuta de una de sus paredes para hacer un análisis químico que se llama neutron activation analysis. Si el químico que lo analizó nos dice que la arcilla venía del fondo del lago de Texcoco, donde se encontraba la isla de Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, entonces lo más probable es que el plato hubiera sido elaborado en esa isla.
Luego examinamos cuidadosamente la forma, la función y el estilo del plato. Si se trata de un plato circular, de unos 20 cm de diámetro, con tres patas cónicas, con poca profundidad, de color anaranjado y con decoración de líneas delgadas negras, podremos concluir con gran certeza de que se trata de un objeto azteca.

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

Dr. Leonardo López Luján has answered 4 questions altogether:

Which museum has the most Aztec objects in it?

Did the Aztecs bury things for future generations like us to find?

When you find something buried [in Mexico], how do you know it’s Aztec?

Were children allowed to go to the market by themselves?

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