The great Aztec Sun Stone was unearthed in Mexico in 1790 by accident and remains one of the most remarkable vestiges of the Aztec Empire ever found. When the viceroy had ordered repairs to the paving of the great Plaza Mayor to improve the drainage in the front of the cathedral, workmen had struck a large stone below the surface, almost in front of the viceroy’s palace. The Stone, a solid piece of gray-black basalt, measured twelve feet across and was almost three feet thick, and weighed about twenty-four tons.
It’s presence was explained by the fact that when Cortez dismantled the great city of Tenochtitlan he ordered all large statues and stonework too solid to be broken up to be buried so that no remnant of the great Aztec capital be left to remind the Aztecs of their former glory. The clergy also consider the sun stone a “sacrificial altar,” and wanted to bury with the stone, “the memory of the detestable acts perpetrated on it.”
Mexican historian Antonio de León y Gama, a historian who had spent a lifetime studying ancient documents and had mastered the Nahuatl language, was a vocal proponent for the idea that pre-columbian societies were much more advanced in matters of science than had previously been reported in Europe. He published a monograph in 1792 – ‘Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras que con occasion del nueve empedrado que se está formando en la plaza principal de Mexico’ – reporting the find and correctly recognized a sophisticated calendar depicted in the stone work. The Library of Congress have digitized the whole book.
To Leon y Gama the discovery of the calendar proved beyond a doubt that the pre-conquest Mexica had possessed an advanced and remarkable knowledge of mathematics and astronomy which they used to make accurate observations of the movement of the suns, planets, and stars to produce a calendar with 52 cycles each with 365 days, each divided in 18 months with 20 days in each month, where they added 5 days on regular years and 6 days on leap years. In his monograph explaining the sun stone, Leon y Gama tried to show how falsely the ancient Mexicans had been described as “irrational and simple-minded beings.” His explanation was too embarrassing for the Spanish clergy. Without elementary notions of astronomy, they continued to insist that the “calendar stone was a sacrificial altar,” arguing that the very fact that “intertwined recurrent cycles were put together in such a complex and aesthetic manner meant they were ornamental, using as evidence the fact that the same symbols appeared on earrings, necklaces and other purely decorative objects.”
The sculpted motifs that cover the surface of the stone refer to central components of the Mexica cosmology.
Leon y Gama pointed out, clearly and for the first time, that the Aztec and the European calendars are responses to very different concepts. This insight meant that he frequently hit the mark, despite occasional errors in his hypothesis, which were corrected throughout the course of the nineteenth century by later archaeologists. Leon y Gama recognized the great Aztec stone as a sophisticated calendar. He believed its central cloverleaf design represented the legendary Aztec epochs of the four suns. In the third circle he recognized the twenty Aztecs symbols for the days of the month and the hieroglyph for four-ocelot, the day when the sun stood at the zenith over Mexico City. As for the two enormous snakes around the outer edge, Leon y Gama believed they represented the Milky Way.
In the center of the Stone of the Sun is the face of the Sun, called Tonatiuh, was invoked by the names of “the shining one,” “the beautiful child,” “the eagle that soars.” At the sides appear his hands, tipped with eagle claws clutching human hearts, for the sun was looked upon by the Aztecs as an eagle. In the morning, as he rose into the sky, he was called Cuauhtlehuanitl, “the eagle who ascends.” In the evening he was called Cuauhtemoc, “the eagle who fell,” the name of the last, unfortunate, heroic Aztec emperor.
Around the figure of Tonatiuh there are sculptured in large dimensions are the symbols of the Aztecs four-epochs.
In the center of the monolith is the face of the solar deity, Tonatiuh, which appears inside the glyph for “movement” (Nahuatl: Ōllin), the name of the current era. The central figure is shown holding a human heart in each of his clawed hands, and his tongue is represented by a stone sacrificial knife (Tecpatl).
Four previous suns or eras
The four squares that surround the central deity represent the four previous suns or eras, which preceded the present era, 4 Movement (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōllin). The Aztecs changed the order of the suns and introduced a fifth sun named 4 Movement after they seized power over the central highlands. Each era ended with the destruction of the world and humanity, which were then recreated in the next era.
The top right square represents 4 Jaguar (Nahuatl: Nahui Ōcēlotl), the day on which the first era ended, after having lasted 676 years, due to the appearance of monsters that devoured all of humanity. The Jaguar Sun (Ocelotonatiuh) symbolized the first of earth’s four epochs. It was believed that this era the world was inhabited by giants that were devoured by jaguars. The jaguar is adorned with a “smoking mirror,” the symbol of the god Tezcatlipoca.
The top left square shows 4 Wind (Nahuatl: Nahui Ehēcatl), the date on which, after 364 years, hurricane winds destroyed the earth, and humans were turned into monkeys. The Wind God (Ehecatonatiuh) symbolized the second era. At it’s end humanity was destroyed by hurricanes and the survivors transformed into monkeys. The God of this era is Quetzalcoatl.
The bottom left square shows 4 Rain (Nahuatl: Nahui Quiyahuitl). This era lasted 312 years, before being destroyed by a rain of fire, which transformed humanity into turkeys. Tlaloc the god of rain and celestial fire reigned over this period. It was believed that humanity was then destroyed by a rain of fire. The men who survived were converted into birds.
The bottom right square represents 4 Water (Nahuatl: Nahui Atl), an era that lasted 676 years. The lower right is represented by the Water God-Atonatiuh. At the end of this era it was believed that Humanity was exterminated by a flood and the survivors turned into fish. This epoch is represented by a vessel of water, and the goddess Chalchiuhtlicue.
Placed among these four squares are three additional dates,
1 Flint (Tecpatl),
1 Rain (Atl), and
7 Monkey (Ozomahtli),
and a Xiuhuitzolli, or ruler’s turquoise diadem, glyph. It has been suggested that these dates may have had both historical and cosmic significance, and that the diadem may form part of the name of the Mexica ruler Moctezuma II.
The Aztec Stone of the Sun is now the showpiece in the Mexica room of the Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City. The Stone of Sun has become a national symbol of Mexico. Archeologist Zelia Nullal described the Stone of the Sun as “the most precious and remarkable monument ever unearthed on the American Continent,” and “one of most admirable and perfect achievements of the human intellect.” The idea that it is a calendar is not accepted today, rather it may be a marker of a date, with allegorical references to the cycles of time. Modern archaeologists, such as those at the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, believe it is more likely to have been used primarily as a ceremonial basin or ritual altar for gladiatorial sacrifices, than as an astrological or astronomical reference, but this is not the only theory as to its meaning or significance.
As Fray Bernardino de Sahagún observed: the Mexicans “are held to be barbarians and of very little worth; in truth, however, in matters of culture and refinement, they are a step ahead of other nations." We explore the history and legacy of the Nahua and Maya civilizations, both of which challenge our preconceptions.