General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 22 Sep 2017/11 Vulture
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Dr. Alfredo López Austin

Question for August 2010

Who was the first archaeologist to find out about the Aztecs? Asked by Longshaw Primary School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Alfredo López Austin.

The great pyramid of Cholula, c. 1810...
The great pyramid of Cholula, c. 1810... (Click on image to enlarge)

Cuando los españoles destruyeron los templos de los mexicas, sobre todo de la capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, los restos de los edificios quedaron semisepultados y las imágenes de los dioses fueron enterradas. Como los españoles seguían construyendo edificios, constantemente se encontraban piezas o cimientos del pasado. Por tanto, los hallazgos eran cosa muy frecuente. La actitud frente a aquellos objetos era muy variada; primero, se consideraban diabólicos y se volvían a enterrar y se destruían. Poco a poco se les fue reconociendo valor, y los hombres de ciencia pedían al gobierno que los conservara. Por último, se formaron museos donde se estudiaron y se resguardaron. Es muy difícil, por lo tanto, imaginar “un primer arqueólogo”.

... the same pyramid in (top) 1878 and (bottom) today
... the same pyramid in (top) 1878 and (bottom) today (Click on image to enlarge)

When the Spanish destroyed the Mexica temples, especially those in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the remains of the buildings, alongside the images of Aztec gods, ended up buried underground. Whenever the Spanish began constructing new buildings, they frequently discovered objects and foundations from the past. What they thought of these discoveries varied hugely: at first, they were considered demonized and were quickly re-buried or destroyed. Gradually their value was recognised, and learned men of the time asked the government to preserve the objects. Finally, museums were formed where the artefacts could be studied and protected. This is why it’s very difficult to point to a ‘first archaeologist’.

(Professor Michael Coe, also on our Panel of Experts, adds: The Spanish conquistadores and missionaries were the first to encounter the Aztecs. Aztec archaeology only began in the early 20th century.)

Picture sources:-
• The Cholula pyramid in 1810: from Vues des Cordillères, et monuments des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique (1816) by Alexander von Humboldt, downloaded from Canadian Libraries Internet Archive -
• The pyramid in 1878: Original wood engraving drawn by A. Slom, engraved by Maynard. 1878; downloaded from
• The pyramid today: from Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Alfredo López Austin has answered 6 questions altogether:

Why do the 20 day signs run ANTI-clockwise on the Sunstone?

Who was the first archaeologist to find out about the Aztecs?

Why was the statue of the earth goddess re-buried?

How were the stars created?

What toys did children play with?

What’s the most interesting fact you’ve come across about the Aztecs? (3)

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