A massive stone serpent head from the Aztec Empire, estimated to be over 500 years old, resurfaced from beneath Mexico City after a powerful earthquake rocked the region in September 2022. The earthquake, measuring 7.6 in magnitude, significantly impacted the area, causing both damage and changes in the local topography, eventually leading to the remarkable discovery.
This snakehead was found approximately 15 feet below the foundations of a law school building at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and its discovery was a collaborative effort involving the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), UNAM, and other experts. Weighing approximately 1.2 metric tons (around 2,645 pounds), the sculpture measures 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) in length, 1 meter (3.3 feet) in height, and 85 centimeters (33.5 inches) in width.
The sculpture’s remarkable condition after centuries of being buried underground is a testament to its resilience. Traces of vivid pigments, including red, blue, black, white, and ocher, still adorn about 80% of its surface. The sculpture’s preservation is attributed to a layer of mud that shielded its painted exterior. These fragile pigments, derived from mineral and plant sources, are particularly susceptible to environmental factors.
A dedicated team of experts, led by María Barajas Rocha, a well-known conservationist, has been actively working to preserve the sculpture’s vibrant colors. The restoration efforts are conducted with great care, recognizing the fragility of these colors. Rocha explained that the goal is to gradually remove the moisture that has accumulated within the stone over the centuries, ensuring that the color remains intact and no damage occurs.
To ensure the preservation of this remarkable artifact, a humidity-controlled chamber has been established in collaboration with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). The sculpture will remain within this controlled environment until early 2024. The chamber facilitates the gradual release of moisture accumulated over the centuries, minimizing the risk of color loss, cracks, or salt crystallization.
The Mexica, commonly known as the Aztecs, were a prominent Mesoamerican civilization that thrived in central Mexico between the 14th and 16th centuries. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan is now situated in present-day Mexico City, and was a hub of artistic and cultural activity, with numerous serpent sculptures believed to have once surrounded Aztec temples.
The Aztec snake deity, most famously embodied by Quetzalcoatl, held significant importance in Aztec culture and was associated with diverse aspects of life, including knowledge, creation, wind, and fertility.
Archaeologists Patricia Ledesma and Salvador Pulido have appealed for patience and understanding from the media and the public during the stabilization and conservation process. Simultaneously, UNAM’s National Science Laboratory team is conducting an in-depth analysis of the carving’s materials, while archaeologist Moramay Estrada Vázquez, the rescue project coordinator at the former School of Jurisprudence, is researching the sculpture’s historical context, iconography, and symbolism.