Earthquake reveals colored snake head sculpture

Snake head sculpture

This Aztec colossal sculpture of a snake head was discovered after an earthquake in Mexico City. © LANCIC/UNAM

Beneath Mexico City once lay Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztecs, of which ruins and other relics continue to emerge to this day. This was also the case during an earthquake a good year ago: tremors uncovered a colossal Aztec snake head sculpture beneath a building. The 500-year-old and around 1.80 meter tall figure is almost perfectly preserved, even remnants of the original painting can still be seen - a real rarity among Aztec sculptures, as archaeologists report.

Before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán was the largest city in the New World and one of the largest in the world. More than 100,000 people may have lived in this metropolis during Tenochtitlán's heyday. The city was built on several islands in Lake Texcoco and was connected to the mainland by five causeways. Around the central temple and the palaces of the Aztec rulers were four districts with houses, workshops and smaller temples. Today the lake has been drained and the entire former urban area of ​​Tenochtitlán is covered by the buildings of the modern city of Mexico City. This makes excavations more difficult, but means that Aztec relics are repeatedly discovered by chance - for example during construction work.

Earthquake exposes Aztec sculpture

This was also the case on September 19, 2022: On that day, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake shook Mexico City and caused extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure. A building in the historic city center that once housed the Law Faculty of the National University of Mexico also collapsed. Upon closer examination of the rubble, archaeologists from the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered a statue encrusted by ancient clay at a depth of 4.50 meters. The stone sculpture was 1.80 meters long, around one meter high and weighed 1.2 tons. It turned out to be a work of art from the Aztec period; archaeologists estimate its age at a good 500 years.

After recovery and closer examination, it was revealed that it was a colossal sculpture of a snake head - complete with finely crafted scales, mouth and impressive fangs. It is already known from other finds that snakes played a special role in the religious worldview of the Aztecs. The creator god Quetzalcoatl was usually depicted in the form of a feathered snake. However, according to INAH restorer María Barajas Rocha, the snake sculpture is special simply because of its size.

Snake head
Front of the snake head sculpture - the painting is still clearly visible. © LANCIC/UNAM

Paint residue on 80 percent of the surface

Even more exciting, however, is the fact that large parts of the painting on this snake head have been preserved. Because the figure was covered by a thick layer of clay for centuries, the pigments once applied by the Aztecs remained on 80 percent of the surface, as Rocha reports. Initial investigations revealed that these were predominantly red, blue, ochre, black and white colors. “These pigments are a typical example of the color palette with which the Aztecs decorated their cult images and temples,” explains Rocha. “However, because these dyes were obtained from mineral and plant raw materials, they are very fragile.”

In order to protect the pigments from chemical and physical decay, the Aztec snake sculpture has been stored in a special climate chamber since it was recovered. “Our goal is for the snakehead to only slowly lose the moisture it has absorbed over centuries,” explains Rocha. “Because if the sculpture dries too quickly, the paint residue can be destroyed and even the stone can be damaged by cracks and crystallizing salts.” Therefore, the Aztec snake is stored and examined in a sealed room with controlled humidity. Researchers carry out, among other things, analyzes of the pigments and the rock material and examine the execution of the stone carving work. Only when the precious pigments have been sufficiently stabilized and protected will the colossal Aztec snakehead be made available to the public.

Source: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH)

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