The Aztecs were one of the great pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica. Located in modern Mexico, the Aztecs built a mighty empire around their city of Tenochtitlan, the ruins of which can still be seen in downtown Mexico City. The Aztec Empire was at its height when the Europeans arrived in 1519, led by Hernando Cortes.
The term “Aztecs” is used to refer to a group of Nahuatl speaking peoples from central Mexico, including the Mexica, who founded Tenochtitlan. These people migrated into central Mexico in the 6th century. By 1427, the Aztec Empire had consolidated power in Mesoamerica, part of a Triple Alliance among the following:
- Tlacopan city-states
The Aztec Empire was ruled as a system of client states under puppet kings, largely held together through economics, rather than military conquest.
The Aztecs were also known for their arts. Many Aztec festivals had poetry contests, as well as musical performances. Their architecture included the great stone pyramids, from which human sacrifice was conducted. Many believe that human sacrifice is one of the more controversial legacies of the Aztecs. However, in their culture, victims often believed that such sacrifice was an honor. In 1521, the Spanish arrived, and destroyed the Aztecs, ruled at the time by Moctezuma II, the last of the Aztec kings.
The history of archaeology as it pertains to Mesoamerican cultures like the Aztecs has been developed over a long period of time however its appeal as a topic of research and the application of new perspectives continues to grow. Nevertheless, modern archaeology has done little to discredit much of the documented reports of the ritual of religious sacrifice in the Aztec culture. On the contrary, it has almost explicitly confirmed documentation that the ritual of sacrifice was a major aspect of how and why the Aztecs entered into war and conducted seasonal festivals, both of which were activities that have been used to define Aztec culture.
It is not insignificant that archaeological artifacts of the Aztecs have been unable to conclusively disprove many of the documented and historical accounts of religious sacrifice. The concept of confirming such aberrant cultural behaviors has formed the basis of many archaeological pursuits throughout history. Although many of the artifacts discovered have demonstrated the solidarity, wealth and organization of the Aztec culture, they have also corroborated what may be perceived as one of its worst or most horrific features. Among the descriptive artifacts confirming religious sacrifice is a four-foot high stone model of a pyramid that was discovered in the ruins of the palace of Montezuma.
According to Kubler, the artifact “codifies the mythical history of the sun together with the ethical conceptions of sacrificial warfare in a dense and massive symbolic exposition”. The ornamental elements of the pyramid include carved sacrificial symbols including eagles grasping human hearts and vessels where the hearts of human sacrifices would be deposited. The concepts of ritual war and human sacrifice are drawn together in the carved figures of the six gods of the Aztecs holding documented symbols of war.
Similar expositions of religious sacrifice have been found in the artifacts of Aztec sculpture. According to Kubler, images of animal and plant forms as well as human portraiture in Aztec sculpture display the emotional tone of imminent death or “attitudes of suppliant surrender”. Preserved picture writings of the Aztecs demonstrate similar examples of the proliferation and significance of religious sacrifice. Although the majority do not confirm the anthropological documentation of frequent mass sacrifices, specific examples include the depiction of the Aztec’s monthly ceremonies and a post-Conquest manuscript details the mass sacrifice of twenty thousand victims at the dedication of the great temple. Not all documentation of religious sacrifice by the Aztecs can be confirmed. For example, the early descriptions of the most prominent evidence of religious sacrifice – the skull racks that reportedly embellished Aztec temples - have not been as thoroughly documented archaeologically, largely because the structures have deteriorated to the point that their existence cannot be proven.