Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Windows on the Past Volume 61 Number 4, July/August 2008
Text and photographs by Jorge Pérez de Lara

"Ventanas Arqueológicas" offer a unique glimpse into Mexico City's ancient heart

As a child I was taught that Mexico City was built atop the remains of the ancient Mexica (Aztec) capital of Tenochtitlán. Along with my multiplication tables, I dutifully learned about Cuauhtémoc, the last Mexica tlatoani (ruler), who led the final resistance to the invading Spaniards in 1521. But for most of the city's almost 20 million inhabitants going about their daily business like me, the past is far removed from current life. The downtown area is made up of splendid but rapidly decaying colonial buildings, covered in equal parts by the patina of centuries and the filth of smog and neglect. Streets and sidewalks are obscured from view by legions of vendors who peddle everything from toys, to sneakers, to pirated CDs, many smuggled from China. There is little to suggest what the city may have looked like in the days when Aztec poets wrote about its grandeur. But an innovative program called Ventanas Arqueológicas (Archaeological Windows) is bridging the gap between past and present by allowing visitors into many previously inaccessible or forgotten archaeological sites.

[image] As a young man in the late '70s, one of my first jobs as a messenger involved a lot of walking around Mexico City's downtown area, which was not yet known by today's fanciful name "Centro Histórico." Back then for us Mexico City dwellers, the city's Aztec past was not tangible, but more the stuff of legend. But in 1978, when telephone company workers accidentally discovered a carved stone depicting the legend of Coyolxauhqui, daughter of the earth goddess, this began to change. The government decided to support further investigations that eventually led to the discovery of the area where the Templo Mayor once stood. Digs in the "Mariano" (northern) wing of the modern-day Presidential Palace have uncovered these steps, dating from 1427 to 1486, which originally led to the top of the temple's platform.

Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH), the national authority in charge of Mexico's cultural and historical patrimony, has created a twice-monthly tour, blending several previously visible sites with more recently excavated ones that, contrary to normal practice, were not filled in. For the many people who live in the city and have known its contemporary face for decades, and for first-time visitors attracted to its rich cultural offerings, looking through these windows is a unique opportunity for firsthand contact with the city's underground history.

The fall of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán to Spanish conquerors signaled the end not only of an era, but of a unique worldview. When we picture archaeology in Mexico, we often find ourselves thinking of the vestiges of the cultures that Western European religion, thought, and language attempted to supplant. It is easy to forget that our "new" capital city is almost 500 years old and has had ample time to produce its fair share of archaeological relics. Under the buildings we use today, there are buried layers that bear witness to lives that have come and gone well after the Aztecs, and are now all but forgotten. In one of the most dramatic archaeological windows, a modern art gallery has a glass floor, where visitors get to walk over the remains of a colonial home. The tilework of its luxurious bathing pools speaks to the splendor of the reborn city after the destruction of the Aztecs. [image]

More of Jorge Pérez de Lara's exclusive photos appear in the print version of this issue.

Jorge Pérez de Lara is a commercial photographer and freelance writer living in Mexico City.