Aztec Sun Stone

On this Day:

In 1790, the Aztec Sun (or calendar) stone was discovered in Mexico City.

Paper colorized print of the Aztec Sun Stone, Pacofender, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Aztec sun stone (Spanish: Piedra del Sol) is a late post-classic Mexica sculpture housed in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City, and is perhaps the most famous work of Mexica sculpture. It measures 358 centimetres (141 in) in diameter and 98 centimetres (39 in) thick, and weighs 24,590 kg (54,210 lb). Shortly after the Spanish conquest, the monolithic sculpture was buried in the Zócalo, the main square of Mexico City. It was rediscovered on 17 December 1790 during repairs on the Mexico City Cathedral. Following its rediscovery, the sun stone was mounted on an exterior wall of the cathedral, where it remained until 1885. Early scholars initially thought that the stone was carved in the 1470s, though modern research suggests that it was carved some time between 1502 and 1521.

The monolith was carved by the Mexica at the end of the Mesoamerican Postclassic Period. Although the exact date of its creation is unknown, the name glyph of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II in the central disc dates the monument to his reign between 1502 and 1520 AD. There are no clear indications about the authorship or purpose of the monolith, although there are certain references to the construction of a huge block of stone by the Mexicas in their last stage of splendor. According to Diego Durán, the emperor Axayácatl “was also busy in carving the famous and large stone, very carved where the figures of the months and years, days 21 and weeks were sculpted”. Juan de Torquemada described in his Monarquía indiana how Moctezuma Xocoyotzin ordered to bring a large rock from Tenanitla, today San Ángel, to Tenochtitlan, but on the way it fell on the bridge of the Xoloco neighborhood.

The parent rock from which it was extracted comes from the Xitle volcano, and could have been obtained from San Ángel or Xochimilco. The geologist Ezequiel Ordóñez in 1893 determined such an origin and ruled it as olivine basalt. It was probably dragged by thousands of people from a maximum of 22 kilometers to the center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

After the conquest, it was transferred to the exterior of the Templo Mayor, to the west of the then Palacio Virreinal and the Acequia Real, where it remained uncovered, with the relief upwards for many years. According to Durán, Alonso de Montúfar, Archbishop of Mexico from 1551 to 1572, ordered the burial of the Sun Stone so that “the memory of the ancient sacrifice that was made there would be lost”.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the viceroy Juan Vicente de Güemes initiated a series of urban reforms in the capital of New Spain. One of them was the construction of new streets and the improvement of parts of the city, through the introduction of drains and sidewalks. In the case of the then so-called Plaza Mayor, sewers were built, the floor was leveled and areas were remodeled. It was José Damián Ortiz de Castro, the architect overseeing public works, who reported the finding of the sun stone on 17 December 1790. The monolith was found half a yard (about 40 centimeters) under the ground surface and 60 meters to the west of the second door of the viceregal palace, and removed from the earth with a “real rigging with double pulley”. Antonio de León y Gama came to the discovery site to observe and determine the origin and meaning of the monument found. According to Alfredo Chavero, it was Antonio who gave it the name of Aztec Calendar, believing it to be an object of public consultation. León y Gama said the following:

… On the occasion of the new paving, the floor of the Plaza being lowered, on December 17 of the same year, 1790, it was discovered only half a yard deep, and at a distance of 80 to the West from the same second door of the Royal Palace, and 37 north of the Portal of Flowers, the second Stone, by the back surface of it.

— León y Gama, as cited by Chavero

León y Gama himself interceded before the canon of the cathedral, José Uribe, in order that the monolith found would not be buried again due to its perceived pagan origin (for which it had been buried almost two centuries before). León y Gama argued that in countries like Italy there was much that was invested in rescuing and publicly showcasing monuments of the past. It is noteworthy that, for the spirit of the time, efforts were made to exhibit the monolith in a public place and also to promote its study. León y Gama defended in his writings the artistic character of the stone, in competition with arguments of authors like Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, who gave lesser value to those born in the American continent, including their artistic talent.

The monolith was placed on one side of the west tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral on 2 July 1791. There it was observed by, among others, Alexander von Humboldt, who made several studies on its iconography. Mexican sources alleged that during the Mexican–American War, soldiers of the United States Army who occupied the plaza used it for target shooting, though there is no evidence of such damage to the sculpture. Victorious General Winfield Scott contemplated taking it back to Washington D.C. as a war trophy, if the Mexicans did not make peace.

In August 1885, the stone was transferred to the Monolith Gallery of the Archaeological Museum on Moneda Street, on the initiative of Jesús Sánchez, director of the same. Through documents from the time, it is known of the popular animosity that caused the “confinement” of a public reference of the city.

In 1964 the stone was transferred to the National Museum of Anthropology and History, where the stone presides over the Mexica Hall of the museum and is inscribed in various Mexican coins.

Before the discovery of the monolith of Tlaltecuhtli, deity of the earth, with measurements being 4 by 3.57 meters high, it was thought that the sun stone was the largest Mexica monolith in dimensions.

From the moment the Sun Stone was discovered in 1790, many scholars have worked at making sense of the stone’s complexity. This provides a long history of over 200 years of archaeologists, scholars, and historians adding to the interpretation of the stone. Modern research continues to shed light or cast doubt on existing interpretations as discoveries such as further evidence of the stone’s pigmentation. As Eduardo Matos Moctezuma stated in 2004:

In addition to its tremendous aesthetic value, the Sun Stone abounds in symbolism and elements that continue to inspire researchers to search deeper for the meaning of this singular monument.

— Eduardo Matos Moctezuma, The Aztec Calendar and Other Solar Monuments

The earliest interpretations of the stone relate to what early scholars believed was its use for astrology, chronology, or as a sundial. In 1792, two years after the stone’s unearthing, Mexican scholar Antonio de León y Gama wrote one of the first treatises on Mexican archaeology on the Aztec calendar and Coatlicue. He correctly identified that some of the glyphs on the stone are the glyphs for the days of the month. Alexander von Humboldt also wanted to pass on his interpretation in 1803, after reading Leon y Gama’s work. He disagreed about the material of the stone but generally agreed with Leon y Gama’s interpretation. Both of these men incorrectly believed the stone to have been vertically positioned, but it was not until 1875 that Alfredo Chavero correctly wrote that the proper position for the stone was horizontal. Roberto Sieck Flandes in 1939 published a monumental study entitled How Was the Stone Known as the Aztec Calendar Painted? which gave evidence that the stone was indeed pigmented with bright blue, red, green, and yellow colors, just as many other Aztec sculptures have been found to have been as well. This work was later to be expanded by Felipe Solís and other scholars who would re-examine the idea of coloring and create updated digitized images for a better understanding of what the stone might have looked like. It was generally established that the four symbols included in the Ollin glyph represent the four past suns that the Mexica believed the earth had passed through.

Another aspect of the stone is its religious significance. One theory is that the face at the center of the stone represents Tonatiuh, the Aztec deity of the sun. It is for this reason that the stone became known as the “Sun Stone.” Richard Townsend proposed a different theory, claiming that the figure at the center of the stone represents Tlaltecuhtli, the Mexica earth deity who features in Mexica creation myths. 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.

Yet another characteristic of the stone is its possible geographic significance. The four points may relate to the four corners of the earth or the cardinal points. The inner circles may express space as well as time.

Lastly, there is the political aspect of the stone. It may have been intended to show Tenochtitlan as the center of the world and therefore, as the center of authority. Townsend argues for this idea, claiming that the small glyphs of additional dates amongst the four previous suns—1 Flint (Tecpatl), 1 Rain (Atl), and 7 Monkey (Ozomahtli)—represent matters of historical importance to the Mexica state. He posits, for example, that 7 Monkey represents the significant day for the cult of a community within Tenochtitlan. His claim is further supported by the presence of Mexica ruler Moctezuma II’s name on the work. These elements ground the Stone’s iconography in history rather than myth and the legitimacy of the state in the cosmos (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

Did you hear about the Aztec who used to work at the Sun Calendar factory?

He was fired for taking a couple of days off…

Second, a Song:

At Smarthistory, we’re on a mission to open museums and cultural sites up to the world, one video at a time. We’re creating world-class resources on art and cultural objects for learners from around the globe, for free.

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Smarthistory brings you into the conversation (per https://Smarthistory.org).

Here is Smarthistory’s video on the Aztec Sun Stone, narrated by Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris. I hope you enjoy this!

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn03u3-U1fk)

Thought for the Day:

“The Sun Stone, the famous Aztec calendar, is unquestionably a perfect summary of science, philosophy, art and religion.” — Samael Aun Weor

Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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