“Why are violence and the sacred so intertwined? Why is death seen as necessary to renew life? To us the Aztec universe may appear irrational, terrifying, murderous in its brutality; and yet it is a mirror held up to our humanity which we ignore at our cost. For in the name of other ideals and other gods, Western culture has been no less addicted to killing, even in our century.” (Michael Wood, In Search of the First Civilizations)
Many visits to Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology and History have not diminished my sense of awe in the presence of a magnificent basalt sculpture known as the Aztec Sun Stone. Located on the ground floor in the Azteca-Mexica exhibition hall the museum’s showpiece is around 12 feet (3.7 m ) across, almost 3 feet thick and weighs around 24 tons. Often mistaken for the Mayan calendar, this circular monolith is neither Mayan nor is it a time keeping device. Various scholars estimate this grey-black solid disk was thought to have been carved sometime between 1479 and the reign of Montezuma during the early 16th century and then buried sometime after the Spanish conquest. It was re-discovered in 1790 during excavations in the Zocolo, Mexico City’s main central square and then mounted on a wall of the National Cathedral. Eventually, the Sun Stone arrived at the museum in 1964. The fact that 18th century scholars had referred to the circular sculpture as “Montezuma’s clock“, lent credence to a mistaken idea that this still mysterious stone is a calendar. Such a misperception is not surprising since people that we presently refer to as Aztecs did have a round calendar which was similar but not identical with the much earlier and more complex Mayan time keeping system. While the two civilizations shared a fractal understanding of time, space and transitions, with a 260 ritual calendar and 365 cycle similar to the Gregorian version, the Aztec system lacked the longer counts calculated and observed by the much earlier Maya and their even earlier Olmec predecessors.
It is important to understand that many misperceptions have plagued the still developing field of Meso-American studies and their well- intentioned researchers. First of all, the term Aztec only came into usage during the 19th century and Mexicans never referred to themselves by that name. Moreover, the hieroglyphic script of the Maya has only been recently and still incompletely deciphered.
Anyone who has spent any time in pre-Columbian archeological circles will soon realize that tribal warfare in these ancient civilizations is soon replicated in academic cabals. These scholars are apt to vigorously disagree about almost anything and are often fiercely competitive as well as territorial about their own self-described theoretical territory. We need to bear this in mind as we navigate the still uncertain realms of pre- Colombian studies. Nevertheless, it is generally agreed that the Sun Stone is so named because it contains symbols of the four “suns“ or ages in Aztec cosmology which precede our current age of the Fifth Sun. The central figure has been identified as either the sun deity Tonatiuh, or earth god Tlaltecuhtli or some combination of the two since both were believed to demand sacrifice of human hearts and blood. Upon closer examination we can see that this figure is clearly depicted with open mouth and protruding tongue fashioned in the shape of an obsidian knife. While the Sun Stone does contain a number of astronomical symbols, its actual function was as a cuauhxicalli, a sacrificial altar. In modern times, the image of the Sun Stone has become the iconic symbol for Mexico and also mistakenly for the Mayan Calendar. As such it appears on many a tourist tee-shirt and a multitude of souvenir items both worn and collected by many unaware of this altar’s true history and significance.