Archaeologists from the Templo Mayor Project and the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have unearthed a stone chest known as tepetlacalli in Nahuatl, containing the ritual deposit of 15 anthropomorphic figurines that were placed as an offering at the Templo Mayor in Mexico City.
The Templo Mayor, once the centerpiece of the temple complex in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, and Tlaloc, the god of rain and agriculture. Its construction commenced after CE 1325, but it met its demise in CE 1521 when it was destroyed by the Spanish following the conquest of Tenochtitlan.
The anthropomorphic figurines found in the stone chest are crafted in the distinctive Mezcala style. The Mezcala culture thrived in what is now the northern Guerrero state of southwestern Mexico, spanning the Preclassic (700-200 BCE) and Classic (250-650 CE) periods.
Characterized by abstract, geometric designs, even in the facial features of anthropomorphic figures, Mezcala art holds a unique place in Mesoamerican history.
The connection between the Mezcala culture and the Aztecs reveals a complex cultural exchange. The Aztecs, led by Emperor Moctezuma I (1440-1469 CE), expanded their empire extensively and recognized the value of Mezcala artifacts.
They actively sought out these relics by excavating ancient Mezcala sites, some of which were more than 1,000 years old by the time the Aztecs pillaged them.
Offering 186, as the stone chest is now known, contained 14 male anthropomorphic figurines and one miniature female figurine. Carved from green metamorphic stones, the figurines vary in size, with the largest measuring nearly a foot in height and the smallest standing at just one inch.
One of the figurines still bore traces of facial paint representing Tlaloc, the Mexica god of rain. This discovery suggests that the Aztecs consciously integrated these ancient cult figurines into their own religious practices.
The stone chest was discovered under the platform of the Templo Mayor’s rear façade, within a layer dating to the reign of Moctezuma I. Alongside the figurines, the chest contained two rattlesnake-shaped earrings, 135 greenstone beads, and a vast array of 1,942 seashells, snail shells, and coral.
These seashells and coral hailed from the Atlantic shore, a region conquered by the Aztecs of the Triple Alliance—comprising the city-states of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco, and Tlacopan—under Moctezuma I.
This discovery paints a vivid picture of the Mexica culture’s reverence for symbolism and ritual offerings. Archaeologist Leonardo López Luján, director of the Templo Mayor Project, noted that the stone chest likely functioned as a sacred repository for the most cherished symbols of water and fertility.
Just as the Mexica stored their prized possessions like fine feathers, jewelry, or cotton garments in palm-frond chests within their homes, they used these “stone cases” for sacred sculptures, green stone beads, shells, and snails.