Turquoise at Templo Mayor

The capital of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan, was razed and rebuilt by the Spanish during their colonization. Templo Mayor was one of the buildings that was devastated. Archeologists fully uncovered the temple in 1979. The temple’s earliest construction dates to 1390 AD, while its most recent construction dates to 1521. The archeological site has transformed into a museum, where some artifacts contained turquoise. Turquoise was incorporated into the social activities that took place within the capital’s the market place, status, and religious beliefs.

Turquoise has a long history in Mesoamerica; it has been around since the Pre-Classic Era to the Late Post Classic Era, which is roughly 1500 B.C. to 1521 A.D. The stone was an item of commerce in Tenochtitlan, a major trade center. Typical trade routes would flood daily; on average the routes reached 20,000 people and easily doubled on Sundays. Luxurious goods, such as turquoise, jade, xcal obsidian, chocolate, salt, feathers, and shells were traded. These items were fashioned into various items. For instance, turquoise was made into helmets, ear plugs, masks, mirrors, sacrificial knives, scepters, shields, spears, staffs, and jewelry. These items would have been made for the elite.

Carmen Aguilera explains that “objects bearing turquoise were very expensive and could be worn only by gods, nobles, and priests.” So, elite used turquoise to display their power, wealth, and status. They also used turquoise as a gift in order to build new relations with other rulers. Turquoise was traded by traveling merchants, or the pochteca, as far north as New Mexico and as far south as the Yucatán Peninsula. Trading on such a wide scale, shows how luxurious items like turquoise shows the capital’s large network.

The capital was a major religious attraction too. According to Mark Cartwright, Templo Mayor was centrally positioned in Tenochtitlan; signifying that the temple was “the religious and social heart of the Aztec empire.” There was well-over a hundred offerings archeologist have uncovered at Templo Mayor. Most of the offerings had foreign origins. Among these gifts, turquoise was found; there were small turquoise beads, small unworked turquoise fragments, jet, alabaster, and greenstone discovered at Templo Mayor. Who were these offerings to, and why offer them turquoise?

Templo Mayor’s design gives insight into how the Mexica’s economy sustained itself. The temple was divided into two sections, each one exalted a deity. In the northern half, Tlaloc, a rain god who is associated with life and fertility, while the southern half is devoted to Huitzilopochtli, a solar god who was associated with war. According to Eduardo Moctezuma, the architectural layout of the temple suggests that “Templo Mayor contains two of the principal Aztec myths, reflecting Tenochtitlan’s two means of support: agricultural production and the military conquest of other communities to impose tribute obligations on them.” With this in mind, it makes sense why the original design of Templo Major was replicated in the Museum's layout; one half of the exhibit is dedicated to agriculture, while the other half of the exhibit is devoted to war.

While the Aztec capital was stimulated by agriculture and war, “Mesoamerican religion touched practically every aspect of social life. It regulated everything from the most insignificant daily acts to relations among the different political entities,” claimed Lopez Lujun. Turquoise, in particular, managed to permeated into the Mexica’s cosmology. Tlaloc and Huitzilopochtli were regarded as Mexica’s regional protectors, and turquoise symbolized these gods. For example, the blue-to-green color of turquoise was associated with Tlaloc. One of the artifacts from the museum was a depiction of Tlaloc wearing a turquoise mask. The mask is not merely turquoise because of his status but because turquoise symbolizes who he is. Likewise, the brightness of a turquoise stone was associated with Huitzilopochtli. Overall, turquoise played an intricate role in trade, status, and religious beliefs.