We started our first day in the capital of Mexico with a visit at National Museum of Anthropology and History in Chalpultepek Park, called in Spanish El Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. When we entered the Museum, we found ourselves overwhelmed by the opulence and variation of the world’s greatest collection of ancient Mesoamerican art. I admit it is one of my most favourites museums in the world I have ever visited. As the exhibition is vast and its collections highly extensive, we allocated the whole day to explore it right (Semantika 2014). As a matter of fact, the museum edifice is built around a large courtyard, which is a pleasant and shady place to stay when you want to take a break or have lunch, so we did not leave the building before its closure (Ibid.).
“The museum [contains twenty-three] permanent exhibit halls. Archaeology [displays] are located on the ground floor and ethnographic exhibits about present-day indigenous groups in Mexico are on the upper level. […] On the left of the entrance, [there] are halls devoted to [different] cultural areas of Mexico [and each room is extremely impressive. Also] several of the rooms have recreations of archaeological scenes: murals in the Teotihuacan exhibit and tombs in the Oaxaca and Maya rooms, which gives the chance to see the pieces in the context in which they were found” (Semantika 2014). Some of the museum highlights are found on displays dedicated to the last of the great pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica, who furthermore founded the Mexico City itself. It is the culture of the Aztecs, originally known as the tribe of Mexica.
Archaeological journey through the Central Mexico to Tonalmachiot
When we entered the museum, first we turned right to study artifacts showing the cultures that developed in Central Mexico (Semantika 2014). Display units are organized there in a chronological order so starting on the right and making our way around counter-clockwise, we got a feel for how the cultures had changed over time (Ibid.). The archaeological tour of the Central Mexico culminates in the Mexica, aka Aztec exhibit, fulfilled with monumental stone sculptures, of which the most famous is undoubtedly the Aztec Calendar Stone, also known as El Piedro del Sol, which is the Sunstone in Spanish (Ibid.).
What is today known as the Aztec Calendar Stone should be rather called Tonalmachiot, where Tonal stands for the Sun and Machiotl for the Pattern (Aztekayolokalli 2012). The huge stone disc is hanging today on the wall, showing its most interesting topmost face and occupying a central stage of the room dedicated to the last prominent culture of Mesoamerica before the Conquest.
Disc of mysteries
The so-called Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, aka Tonalmachiot, is certainly the most iconic object from pre-Columbian Mexico (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013). It is probably one of the most famous and frequently studied excavated objects from the ancient world (McDonald 2013).
Nonetheless, despite of all the attention given to the round disc by various scholars and authors, it is still an object of mystery (McDonald 2013). Since the Calendar Stone was found, its enigma has caught human imagination and sparkled a fierce debate over its meaning but so far the disc has not revealed all its secrets to the modern viewer (Ibid.). The Aztecs did not write about it at all so it should be examined carefully on its own to be understood (Ibid.). It needs to be put in the context of what is known today about the Aztec Empire from the Spanish accounts and the Aztecs own history in order to acknowledge its significance (Ibid.). So what is this stone, known as the Piedra del Sol or Sunstone in Spanish and why is it so difficult to figure out the meanings of the images on the stone? (Ibid.).
Not Mayan but Aztec idea
It happens that the Calendar Disc is misinterpreted and perceived as a simple object, especially to people not aware of its true meaning (McDonald 2013). Actually, it is quite complex and enigmatic even to scholars (Ibid.). Surprisingly enough, the Calendar Stone has nothing to do with the so-called ending of times and the apocalypse foretold for 2012 (Ibid.). Although the Sunstone is believed to have been a “next logical step of the Mayan Calendar – proven by modern scientific means to be the most precise calendar system invented by humankind” (Aztekayolokalli 2012) – the Aztec Calendar is not Mayan and it is not a calendar for keeping track of time (McDonald 2013).
Although there are historical dates recorded in the Calendar Stone of the Aztecs, “unlike the Mayan calendar, which is very precise, the Aztec system was [not so, and] a certain date [in it] could refer to a couple of different times in a year. [Hence often disagreements] among scholars about when certain events occurred in the Aztec [Empire]” (Gillan 2019). After an historian of art, Dr Diana McDonald (2013), the Calendar Stone does, however, tell a story about the previous Aztec eras which apparently ended in destruction. Accordingly, the idea of different ages of creation and destruction is present there (Ibid.). Yet it is a particularly Aztec idea and not Mayan (Ibid.). The Maya were notable for their long count of time and dates found on their monuments were figured from a fixed event (point) in the past but the Aztecs were thinking in terms of the dates of the ages of creation (Ibid.). Probably the Calendar Stone is more connected with cosmic events and with human sacrifice than with telling exact time or foretelling future events (Ibid.).
Unearthed treasure of the past
The Calendar Stone was excavated on December 17, 1790 along with another masterpiece of the Aztec sculpture, a colossal statue of Coatlicue, which was a major deity in the Aztec pantheon (Aztekayolokalli 2012; McDonald 2013).
The both artifacts were unearthed on the grounds of Zócalo, the central square of Mexico City (McDonald 2013).The Zócalo in its previous incarnation was the central plaza of the magnificent Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (Ibid.). “After the conquest, the Spanish moved the [Calendar Stone] a few hundred meters south of [its original] precinct, in a position facing upward and near the Templo Mayor and the Viceregal Palace. Sometime between 1551-1572, the religious officials in Mexico City decided the image was a bad influence on their citizens, and the stone was buried facing down” (Maestri 2019), probably to deflect its powerful imagery (McDonald 2013). The Spanish also destroyed the main temple, the Templo Mayor, and stones from the Aztec period were re-used in colonial buildings, such as the Catholic Cathedral (Ibid.). Like the Sunstone, the whole Aztec statuary was buried in the mid-sixteenth century in the aftermath of the Spanish conquest and a terrifying smallpox epidemic (Ibid.).
By these means, the two most prominent pieces, the colossal statue of Coatlicue and the Calendar Stone had not been seen again until their accidental unearthing in the eighteenth century (McDonald 2013). Having been found, the Sunstone was first put on display at a tower of the Cathedral (Ibid.). “In 1885, the disk was moved to the early Museo Nacional, where it was held in the monolithic gallery. […] In 1964 it was transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Chapultepec Park, [where] it is displayed [today] on the ground floor, […] within the Aztec/Mexica exhibition room” (Maestri 2019).
The monument is an outstanding masterpiece; it is made of basalt and measures about 3,6 metres in diameter and is about 1,2 metres thick (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). Its weight reaches about 24 tons (Ibid.). “Scholars surmise that the basalt was quarried somewhere in the southern basin of Mexico, at least 18-22 kilometres […] south of Tenochtitlan” (Maestri 2019). The topmost part of the disc is intricately carved in hieroglyphs in low and high relief, creating a play of light and shadow (McDonald 2013; Gillan 2019). Additionally, it can have originally been multi-colourfully polychromed. After the author and heir of the Mexica culture, Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018), not only the Calendar Stone is a beautiful piece of art reflecting good artistic qualities but it also contains a significant message.
The greatest in its class
Surprisingly to most of the visitors of the Aztec section in the Museum of Anthropology, it turns out that the Calendar Stone is not the only disc produced by the Aztecs. In the same room, where the Sunstone is exposed, there are also other similar discs but smaller and carved less intricately (McDonald 2013). Unlike other Aztec round discs of a similar character, the Calendar Stone is irregular since it has got a ragged stone edge, looking to some people as if it were not completed (Ibid.). As it turned out later on it is not the case. El Piedra del Sol is also by far the largest and most complex example of this kind of stone sculpture and indeed of any Aztec sculpture (Ibid.). After Dr McDonald (2013) it can be described as the most intricate, beautiful and detailed enumeration of a cosmic scheme made by any ancient American culture.
The Empire of bloody rituals
The Aztec Empire itself had grown vast and influential in a fairly short period of time before Spanish conquistadors arrived and destroyed it in the sixteenth century (McDonald 2013). At that time, it was at its height and seemed to have been in power for a bit more than a century, at least according to their own accounts (Ibid.). One of the most important aspects of the Aztec Empire was its alliance with and conquest of many different neighbouring peoples from the Pacific coast to the Gulf coast of today Mexico, and in the mosaic of regions down to Oaxaca (Ibid.). These allied and conquered peoples were required to give tribute to the Aztec capital (Ibid.). At the center of Tenochtitlan many goods were exchanged in this way (Ibid.). The economy was based on the tribute in such things as valuable woven cloth, cacao beans, animal pelts, feathers, jadeite. All that was offered to the Aztec emperor (Ibid.).
Most remarkably, however, part of the tribute consisted of people, men and women who were destined for sacrifice (McDonald 2013). It is debated who these sacrificial victims were but many seemed to come from neighbouring regions and from the center of the Aztec Empire as well (Ibid.). Different kinds of people were offered to specific gods at designated times (Ibid.). Some high status captives were offered during important ceremonies on a special sort of stone disc, like the Calendar Stone, but smaller (Ibid.). These sacrificial vessels or platforms were termed Eagle Boxes or Cuauhxicalli in the Aztec language of Nahuatl (McDonald 2013; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). The sacrificial person was stretched with his back over the stone disc and held down by four attendants, each holding one limb of a victim (McDonald 2013). A priest made a quick incision in the chest with a special flint knife (Ibid.). Then he reached into his chest and removed the heart, which was then offered as the precious gift to the Sun, called by the Aztecs, the precious Eagle Cactus Fruit (Ibid.). Human blood would have been caught in the central depression that was usually carved into these stones (Ibid.). Probably it would have also served to hold sacrificial hearts (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019; Maestri 2019).
There was also another sacrificial use for this shape of stone (McDonald 2013). One of the most interesting sort of sacrifice was a kind mock combat, a gladiatorial contest between a captured warrior meant for sacrifice and an Aztec warrior (Ibid.). The tribute warrior or sacrifice was tethered to a round stone disc, rather like the Calendar Stone but again smaller, usually with a hole drilled through the middle (Ibid.). It was the base for the final sacrifice of a gladiatorial combatant and was called Temalacatl in Nahuatl (Maestri 2019). The sacrificial warrior was given a weapon which consisted of a sort of wooden club or sword studded with feathers, which was rather ineffective in fight (McDonald 2013). He then engaged in combat, obviously pretty limited by being tied to the stone with another warrior who had a real weapon, which was a club as well but this one was studded with sharp and cutting obsidian blades (Ibid.). This typical Aztec weapon was called a macuahuitl and it was capable of serious damage (Ibid.). So this kind of combat was pretty much unequal and one-sided but it was made to be a part of a religious rite (Ibid.). Moreover, bloody rituals conducted by the Aztecs certainly served to strike terror into the hearts of those who may have opposed their absolute rule (Ibid.).
Cuauhxicalli and Temalacatl objects are also the possible symbolic associations for the shape of the Calendar Stone (McDonald 2013; Maestri 2019). The large circular sacrificial stones were set on the horizonal as it is represented in the Durán Codex illustration and the Calendar Stone was likely meant to be horizontal as well (McDonald 2013). Having been carved, the Sunstone “must have been located in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán, […] and likely near where ritual human sacrifices took place” (Maestri 2019). Yet it is not clear if the Calendar Stone was going to be used as an actual Cuauhxicalli or Temalacatl, or just meant to look like one for symbolic reasons, which is supported by the fact that it is deprived of a similar depression or drilled whole in the middle (McDonald 2013).
13 Reed and gods’ sacrifice
The essential key to understanding the message of the Calendar Stone itself is, however, what is actually represented upon it (McDonald 2013). Some scholars have worked out that the Aztec Calendar was made in 1479 AD (Ibid.). It is because at the top of the stone, there is the date of 13 Acatl (13 Reed), which directly refers to this particular year (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Although some scholars claim the Calendar Stone was carved for Motecuhzoma II, aka Montezuma, the last Aztec tlatoani (emperor) whose reign was eventually disturbed by the Spanish conquest, the year 1479 AD actually fell during the time of the rule of the Aztec emperor, Axayacatl (1469-1481) (McDonald 2013).
Dr McDonald (2013) claims that the date associated with the construction of the Calendar Stone is also what makes the Calendar Stone so important and such a masterpiece. It is due to the fact that 13 Reed or 1479 was also the time of the gathering of gods at Teotihuacan, when they gave the beginning of the era of 4 Earthquake Sun (Ibid.). Emily Umberger, the archaeologist, believes that the date is also “an anniversary […] of a politically crucial event [for the Aztecs. The] birth of the Sun and the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli as the Sun [was] the political message [and] for those who saw the stone [it] was clear: this was an important year of rebirth for the Aztec Empire, and the emperor’s right to rule comes directly from the Sun God and is embedded with the sacred power of time, directionality, and sacrifice” (Maestri 2019).
In the creation of the new world, the gods sacrificed themselves in bloody rituals (McDonald 2013). Therefore, as it is observed in the case of Coatlicue statue, Aztec gods were usually represented dismembered or as sacrificial victims at the moment of death (Ibid.). This is also why the Aztecs continued human sacrifice; they felt in dept to their gods who had saved the whole creation and supported life on Earth (Ibid.). In this way, they just followed their gods’ example (Ibid.).
The Aztecs believed in extreme penitential suffering: self-sacrifice and human sacrifice, which was in all sense devoted to the gods (McDonald 2013). On the other hand, the sacrificial theme may really have served to control the populations of the Empire through terror and intimidation: seeing as many as thousand sacrificial victims having their hearts torn out on the top of the temple and seeing their heads displayed on skull racks must have had a strong effect on coercing cooperation (Ibid.). This sort of activity was like ruling with terror and probably only few societies have done it on this scale (Ibid.). Illustrations of such deeds still strike and make a powerful effect; open mouths with sharp teeth, blood and dismembered human limbs depicted in threatening and destructive sense, both in anthropomorphic and zoomorphic imagery created by the Aztecs, reveals a rather aggressive imperial and warlike culture (Ibid.). The Aztecs certainly believed that they were very survival depended on war penance and tribute to their gods (Ibid.).
Aztec bloody heritage
When it comes to the art of Mexico after the Conquest and even today, there are visible results of the Aztec heritage (McDonald 2013). The depiction of gods at death, or in the aftermath of gory sacrifice, probably had some influence in how Mexicans have seen and depicted the images of Catholicism (Ibid.).
In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, the sufferings of Christ are usually depicted in more realistic and almost brutal manner than in much of European sculpture and painting (McDonald 2013). They usually show Christ’s Passion with lots of blood, suffering and physical pain emphasize (Ibid.). The penitential aspect of religion is more important in today Mexico than elsewhere (Ibid.). The requirement of personal suffering for the sake of piety has not disappeared (Ibid.). The obliquity of skulls in Mexican art today is another evidence of the strong influence of the pre-Columbian culture (Ibid.). Except that skulls of sacrificial victims on skull racks from Tenochtitlan have been today replaced by ones created out of spun sugar for the Day of the Dead (Ibid.).
Grimace of the Stone’s face
Upon the Calendar Stone, there are a series of carved concentric circles, some cut much deeper than the others (McDonald 2013). These bands are in turn divided into rectangular compartments with smaller motifs inside them (Ibid.). In the center, there is a monstrous face, which appears to have its tongue sticking out (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) thinks this is not a tongue but a sacrificial flint knife, just like the ones used by priests. There are also dots or beads below the neck, which have been interpreted as drops of blood (Ibid.). Large claws that seem to be extending from the face grasp human hearts (Ibid.). This blood and sacrificial imagery seems to imply that the face is of a god, one who has been decapitated and sacrificed (Ibid.).
For over two hundred years scholars have not been able to agree on exactly what Aztec deity this is meant to portray (McDonald 2013). Dr McDonald (2013) says that it may be the Sun god, Tonatiuh or the consuming Earth Monster, Tlaltecuhtli, or a combination of both or even some other deity (Ibid.). Mazatzin Aztekayolokalli (2018) claims that the real meaning behind the Calendar Stone is hidden in the symbol of that central character but its face belongs not to the Sun god but to the Aztec goddess personifying the Earth. A very similar image from the Calendar Stone, has also been carved underneath the sacrificial Stone of Tizoc or on the Monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, discovered in Mexico City in 2006 (Aztekayolokalli 2018; “Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). However, this image belongs to the Earth Monster and not to the sun god.
Tonatiuh has been usually represented in profile, while wearing an eagle feather headdress and holding a shield as a solar disc (“Tōnatiuh” 2020). Portrayals of Tlaltecuhtli, usually referred to by scholars as the Earth Monster, can be seen carved by the Aztecs just in the same manner as it is visible in the Calendar Stone (Aztekayolokalli 2018). The Earth imagery is very present in Aztec carvings displayed by the Mexican Museum (Ibid.). Tlaltecuhtli is often depicted there as an anthropomorphic squatting toad-like creature with splayed legs and arms (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).
The goddess’ hands and feet are armed with massive claws (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019). Goddess’ body is covered in crocodile or serpent skin, which probably stands for the surface of the earth (Ibid.). The most characteristic is her full round face with huge golden earrings and a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and a long tongue sticking out of it (Ibid.). The latter is usually interpreted by scholars as a river of blood flowing from the mouth or a flint knife between her teeth (Ibid.).
After Aztekayolokalli (2018), however, the sticking tongue does not represent the flint knife and the need to be fed but it stands for speaking. The deity is speaking to humankind to whom it is bringing a message (Ibid.). As it represents the Earth, the goddess was usually carved onto the bottom of sculptures where they made contact with the earth, or on the undersides of Cuauhxicalli (“Tlaltecuhtli” 2019).
As the face is carved on the topmost part of the Calendar Stone and not onto its bottom, some scholars suggest that the image may actually stand for a collective representation of two different Aztec deities, Tlaltecuhtli and Tonatiuh (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).
Nahui-Ollin, knowns as the cosmic butterfly
The outline of the sign in which the face resides is the glyph for 4 Nahui-Ollin, which indicates 4 Movement (or Earthquake) and the date of destruction of the previous era (McDonald 2013). Furthermore, inside the glyph, there are four flanges in the forms of rectangles around the face, which are associated not only with the four previous eras or suns of the Aztec cosmos but also with the four cardinal points, four elements and four corners of the universe (Andrews 1998:21; McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).
The ensemble of 4 Nahui-Ollin and four rectangles symbolically paints the image of the wings of a butterfly (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Hence the whole image is called the Movement (Ollin) (Ibid.). Dr McDonald (2013) claims that in that context the central image is in fact 5 sun or era, meaning it is all about the coming destruction of the fifth world and so the end of the current time (Ibid.). At the same time, the glyphs inscribed in the four rectangles, they all portray the dates of destruction of the previous eras (Ibid.). It is believed they should be read from the right to the left as they go counter clockwise (Ibid.). Starting from the right side, there is the symbol of the Earth, standing for the North – a day sign of the Jaguar (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). On the left, there is the symbol of the Wind, meaning the West – a day sign of the wind (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018). Going further down, there is the symbol of the Rain, which also implies the South – a day sign of the fire, and finally on the right of it, there is the symbol of the Water – the East – a day sign of the water (McDonald 2013; Aztekayolokalli 2018).
Accordingly, there are four elements giving life and keeping it in harmony and balance (Aztekayolokalli 2018). Nevertheless, they also stand for a cataclysm while such a balance is interrupted. In this context, they represent all the natural forces responsible for a destruction of each of the four successive eras preceding the fifth world or sun, which is represented just in the middle of the cosmic butterfly. But what does the Calendar Stone say about the current era and its final destruction?
Featured image: Calendar Aztec Stone (detail). Source: Mia Forbes (2020). “Aztec Calendar: It Is More Than What We Know”. In: The Collector.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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