General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 20 Sep 2017/9 Jaguar
Text Size:

Huaxtec shell pendant in the British Museum

Click to see the latest Artefact in the Spotlight!

link of the month button
‘The Meeting: Two Points of View’ - John Pohl’s summary

Dr. Claudia Brittenham

How many books existed [among the Maya] before the Spanish Conquest? asked New Haw Community Junior School. Read what Dr. Claudia Brittenham had to say.

Search the Site (type in white box):

Article suitable for older students

WE RECOMMEND
Hidden World
Hidden World
‘The Hidden World of the Aztec’ by Peter Lourie, Boyds Mills Press, Pennsylvania, 2006; suitable for older children
Leonardo López Luján and his team excavating an Aztec monolith

IN THE NEWS: how the cactus stone was unearthed

The story of the ‘Porrúa Bookshop Stone’ is a classic and exemplary case of how meticulous research, thousands of miles from ‘home’, led a leading archaeologist to make an exciting discovery. (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Librería Porrúa building, Mexico City (photo by Leonardo López Luján)
Pic 1: Librería Porrúa building, Mexico City (photo by Leonardo López Luján)

The find was made in August 2005 under a 1950s manhole cover in front of the well known Librería Porrúa (a bookshop dating from the 19th. century, though the building itself dates back to the early 16th. century), at the intersection of Justo Sierra and Argentina streets in the historic centre of Mexico City (Pic 1).

Pic 2: Dr. López Luján (Librería Porrúa building visible in backgrouind)
Pic 2: Dr. López Luján (Librería Porrúa building visible in backgrouind) (Click on image to enlarge)

But, as archaeology team leader - and Director of the Templo Mayor Project - Dr. Leonardo López Luján (Pic 2) related at a lecture in the British Museum in July 2007, locating and excavating the stone had been a painstaking and arduous task...

Pic 3: Excavation work near the Templo Mayor, mid-2005
Pic 3: Excavation work near the Templo Mayor, mid-2005 (Click on image to enlarge)

Three years earlier, López Luján had been invited to Paris to help catalogue important historical documents held in the Musée de L’Homme; in the course of this work he came across clues to the unusual cactus stone monolith, whose existence had been noted in the first half of the nineteenth century, adorning a mansion on the corner of Relox and Montealeagre streets (since re-named).

Pic 4: The Castilla family coat-of-arms
Pic 4: The Castilla family coat-of-arms (Click on image to enlarge)

This impressive building originally belonged to Luis de Castilla y Osorio, one of Cortés’s lieutenants, who was appointed ‘Regidor’ (Mayor) of Mexico City in 1534 and served in the post for over 40 years. Luis was a direct descendant of King D. Pedro I de Castilla, whose coat-of-arms is shown in Pic 4.

Pic 5: Members of the Templo Mayor Project team at work
Pic 5: Members of the Templo Mayor Project team at work (Click on image to enlarge)

The stone was not in its original location within the sacred precinct of the Aztec capital: by the end of the colonial period, when the de Castilla building was being extensively remodelled, a new atmosphere prevailed in which Aztec artefacts recovered from under the city were admired for their historic and even aesthetic value, and incorporated into the architecture of the time (see another example, of a stone serpent, via the link below).

Pic 6: Catalogue to William Bullock’s exhibition, London, 1824 (from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries)
Pic 6: Catalogue to William Bullock’s exhibition, London, 1824 (from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries) (Click on image to enlarge)

Armed with his research notes in Paris, Dr. López Lujan returned to Mexico and searched for any references to the stone from historians and/or travellers who might have seen it embedded in the mansion’s walls. Sure enough, he found mention of it in the writings of Antonio León y Gama, a noted Mexican scientist and writer, and those of William Bullock, the English traveller, naturalist and collector who organised the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Ancient and Modern Mexico’ in the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, which opened in April 1824.

Pic 7: Eureka!
Pic 7: Eureka! (Click on image to enlarge)

Bringing the pieces of the puzzle together, Dr. López Luján and his team were able to pinpoint, in October 2004, the location of the stone. However excavating in the heart of a historic and frenetic metropolis such as Mexico City is far from easy, and ten frustrating months passed while permissions were sought from the city’s telephone, electricity and municipal authorities - the stone was surrounded by a mass of cables, pipes and other obstructing material underground and had to be approached with extreme caution.

Pic 8: A busy pavement is removed...
Pic 8: A busy pavement is removed... (Click on image to enlarge)

The stone is unusual in several respects: its size, beauty of form, and the fact that the Aztecs rarely sculpted plants, concentrating far more heavily on representing animals, human figures, rulers and gods.

Pic 9: The giant Aztec barrel cactus stone
Pic 9: The giant Aztec barrel cactus stone (Click on image to enlarge)

Carved from a solid piece of basalt rock, the stone measures 56cms high, 77cms in diameter and weighs some 600 kilos. It is clearly in the form of a giant barrel cactus (‘biznaga gigante’ in Spanish), commonly found in northern Mexico. Its finely carved features - particularly the plant’s ribs and needles - are outstanding.

Pic 10: Impressive specimen in ‘Barrel Cactus Valley’, Tehuixtla, central Mexico
Pic 10: Impressive specimen in ‘Barrel Cactus Valley’, Tehuixtla, central Mexico (Click on image to enlarge)

According to Dr. López Luján, the original basalt rock would almost certainly have been transported by canoe from the Xochimilco region (south) of the Aztec capital, and the piece dates from the imperial period of Aztec sculpture (late 15th or early 16th centuries).

Pic 11: Sacrificing the ‘mimixcoah’, Codex Boturini, p.4
Pic 11: Sacrificing the ‘mimixcoah’, Codex Boturini, p.4 (Click on image to enlarge)

For the Mexica (Aztecs) the barrel cactus was a powerful symbol of their tribal roots in the arid north of the country. According to the Aztlán Annals (Codex Boturini), shortly after leaving their mythical home of Aztlán the Mexica witnessed the falling from the sky of a group of ‘mimixcoa(h)’ or cloud-snake hunters, and were immediately ordered by their tribal god Huitzilopochtli to sacrifice three of them - stretched out over giant barrel cacti and mesquite bushes (Pic 11) - and to offer their hearts to the Sun.

Pic 12: The cactus stone, embedded, rather symbolically, in the foundations of a famous bookshop
Pic 12: The cactus stone, embedded, rather symbolically, in the foundations of a famous bookshop (Click on image to enlarge)

This ceremonial act was highly symbolic to the Mexica: it cemented their destiny as hunter-warriors, just at the time when Huitzilopochtli was to command them to adopt the specific name of Mexica over the old umbrella term of ‘Azteca’ (or peoples from Aztlán). It’s highly likely, therefore, that the Porrúa Bookshop Stone itself was used by the Aztecs as a ceremonial sacrifice stone, a constant reminder of their legendary beginnings.

Pic 13: Barrel cactus, Kew Gardens
Pic 13: Barrel cactus, Kew Gardens (Click on image to enlarge)

Special thanks are due to Leonardo López Luján and to Peter Lourie, whose beautiful school book ‘The Hidden World of the Aztec’ tells of how Peter joins his friend Leonardo on the archaeological digs near the Templo Mayor that led to the finding of the cactus stone.

Notes on picture sources:-
Main picture and pix 1,5,9 and 12 by Leonardo López Luján

Pix 2,3,7 and 8 by Peter Lourie

Pic 4 from www.genealogia-es.com/castilla/arbol1.html

Pic 6 from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries (www.sil.si.edu)

Pic 10 with the kind permission of Leticia Romero Romero, who works with a small project dedicated to barrel cactus conservation in the state of Puebla (follow link below)

Pic 11 from a hand-drawn facsimile edition of the Codex Boturini

Pic 13 by Maria Mursell

A similar tale: the colossal serpent

See the barrel among other cacti in a desert setting, Kew Gardens
Peter Lourie: ‘The Hidden World of the Aztec’
Feedback button

Here's what others have said: