SpeakerBarbara A. Tenenbaum

Institution Library of Congress

SubjectHistoric and chronological description of the two stones

One day in 1790, workers were digging around the cathedral in the central square in Mexico City when they came upon two Aztec monoliths. The first remarkable aspect of this find is that it survived at all. Only a few decades earlier the discoveries would have been destroyed as indicators of devil worship and the like. The fact that they were preserved and prominently displayed is testimony to the Spanish enlightenment, begun much earlier, but fostered by Spain’s remarkable monarch, Charles III, who ruled from 1759-1788.

Both of these stone sculptures would be crucial to the articulation of what would later be called “creole nationalism,” a title for a system of beliefs that was only in the process of being dreamed of at that moment. Antonio de León y Gama undertook a scholarly analysis of this find and published the first part of his scholarship two years later, which we see here.

The more familiar of the two – the Aztec sun stone – is commonly but incorrectly known as the Aztec calendar stone. It is a carved depiction of the Aztec calendar of sorts, with the sun in the center. León y Gama was the first to look at this Mesoamerican calendar, separate and apart from European models, arguing that each came from very different understandings of time. The Aztecs believed that time came in 52 year bundles when the world was destroyed only to be recreated once more. By the time of Cortes’ arrival in 1519, it had already been created and destroyed four times.

The Coatlicue statue had a very different history. Known as the “Mother of the Gods” or “The Lady of the Serpent Skirt,” she was first considered to be quite hideous, particularly when compared to Greek and Roman relics, and indeed a Venus de Milo she is not. But, it doesn’t seem fair that the city government moved the statue to the grounds of the university and then the authorities reburied it for fear it would incite the indigenous peoples to pre-Conquest religiosity. It was exhumed for Baron von Humboldt and then reburied once again only to finally

reemerge in 1821, but hidden away under a stairway for much of the rest of the nineteenth century. Now, of course, she and the sunstone reside together in the Museo de Antropologia in Mexico City in Aztec Hall.