National Geographic : 2010 Nov
guns and cannon and horses, would have been no match for the Aztec armies. Instead, Cortés's contingent arrived in Tenoch- titlan on the eighth of November escorted by thousands of Tlaxcalan and allied warriors. As awed as the Spaniards were by the spectacle of this gleaming city on a lake---"some of the sol- diers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream," one eyewitness recalled--- they were not daunted by their host's prowess. Rather, it was Moctezuma who seemed unsure of himself. According to Mesoamerican legend, the great bearded deity Quetzalcoatl---banished a er committing incest with his sister---would one day return by water to restore his lordship. is notion was not lost on Moctezuma, who presented Cortés with "the treasure of Quetzal- coatl," a head-to-toe costuming topped o with "a serpent mask inlaid with turquoise." But was Moctezuma really interpreting the Spaniard as the second coming of the feathered- serpent god, as has long been believed? Or was he cunningly out tting Cortés in the godly gar- ment of the soon-to-be sacri ced? e gesture was a nal Aztec ambiguity. erea er, the facts are unassailable. e streets of Tenochtitlan ran red, and in 1521 an empire was buried. "We're persuaded that sooner or later we'll nd Ahuitzotl's tomb," says López Luján. "We're digging deeper and deeper." But no matter how deep the archaeologist digs, he will never un- earth the core of the Aztec mystique. It will con- tinue to occupy modern Mexico's psyche---there to be felt if not seen, at once primitive and ma- jestic, summoning from ordinary mortals the power to turn swamps into kingdoms. j logic and the spatial distribution patterns. When Leopoldo Batres worked here [during the turn of the previous century], he was interested in the objects themselves. ey were archaeological trophies to him. What we've discovered in the 32 years we've been working here is that the objects aren't so important by themselves but by their connection in space." Every nding is a huge boon for Mexico since so many ne artifacts were seized by the con- quistadores and brought back to Spain, where they have been dispersed throughout Europe. Beyond their aesthetic value, the new discoveries highlight the Aztec's attention to detail---a pre- occupation owing to the high stakes involved. For the Aztec, the appeasement of the gods--- and thus the world's sur vival---depended on an ever growing, ever demanding empire that ultimately could not be sustained. As Carrasco says, " e irony of empire is that you push to the periphery and you push too far, until you become the periphery. You're so far from home that you can't support your warriors with food and transport and you can't protect your mer- chants. e empire becomes too expensive. And the Aztec couldn't manage it." arrived, Ahuitzotl's successor, Moctezuma II, was appar- ently plagued by visions and portents. Despite having continued his predecessor's expansionist ways, despite his great power and his gold and turquoise diadem and his 19 children and his zoo crammed with exotic animals and "dwarfs and albinos and hunchbacks"---despite all of this, the ninth Aztec ruler was beset by his own cosmic insecurity. In 1509, according to one codex, "a bad omen appeared in the sky. It was like a aming ear of corn ...it seemed to bleed re, drop by drop, like a wound in the sky." Moctezuma's worries were justi ed. " ere were more than 50,000 indigenous warriors revolting, wanting to keep their goods and wanting the Aztec attacks to stop in their com- munity," says Carrasco. Absent this appetite for an uprising, the 500 Spaniards who docked at Veracruz in the spring of 1519, even with their THE APPEASEMENT OF THE GODS DEPENDED ON AN EVER GROWING EMPIRE THAT COULD NOT BE SUSTAINED.