Built by Spanish colonialists, Mexico City was actually constructed right on the ruins of the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. The whole city, including the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan, was destroyed by the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes during his conquest of the Aztec empire. As a result, beneath the modern city lies a rich treasure trove of archaeological remains.
Various excavations have subsequently been conducted under the modern city, and an especially exciting find was announced in June 2017. The discovery was located in a side alley near the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, which was built by the Spanish and dates back to the 16th century.
The site, just off Mexico City’s main square, the Zocalo, is actually under what was formerly a 1940s hotel. That building was destroyed in the devastating earthquake of 1985, which killed at least 5,000 people. And after the destruction of the hotel, the owners spotted ancient remains and alerted the authorities.
What archaeologists had discovered were, in fact, the remains of an Aztec temple and ball court. The locations would have been used for both religious ceremonies and sporting events, and the temple itself still retains its semi-circular form. Originally some 110 feet across and 13 feet high, the impressive religious structure was built from around 1485 to 1580 during the pre-colonial era.
The temple and ball court specifically honored the Aztec god of the wind, Ehecatl. Indeed, this is confirmed by records written by the earliest Spanish visitors to Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. Those accounts also show that in 1528 the future conqueror of the Aztecs, Hernan Cortes, watched a ball game at the site as a guest of Montezuma, the last Aztec emperor.
As the god of wind, Ehecatl was very highly valued by the Aztecs. This is because the people believed that the wind brought them rain to nourish their crops. Archaeologist Eduardo Matos also told Reuters that the temple was probably constructed in the shape of a snake. It would, furthermore, have likely included a dramatic entrance built to resemble the snake’s nose.
The temple was built by Emperor Ahuizotl, the Aztec ruler who held power before the doomed Montezuma. Ahuizotl’s successor would subsequently see his empire collapse under the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors led by Cortes. Today, the temple ruins in fact even include some of the white stucco from its original construction.
Now as well as uncovering the temple, archaeologists also, as suggested, discovered a section of a ceremonial ball court. Relatively little is known about the sport that would have been played here, but historians believe it may have been a representation of the daily battle between the light of the sun and the darkness of night.
Furthermore, it’s believed that in addition to valuing the ritual significance of the game, the Aztecs played the sport for the sheer pleasure of it, much as we enjoy sports today. The Spanish were certainly fascinated by the game, for in 1528 they took Aztec ballplayers to Spain to give a display to their king, Charles V.
Interestingly, contemporary Spanish chroniclers in the 16th century wrote a strange tale about the ball game and Emperor Montezuma. The emperor is said to have played a game against the aging ruler of Texcoco, an ally of the Aztecs. As the story goes, Montezuma lost and this was taken to mean that the Aztec empire was doomed – a prediction that came to pass.
Meanwhile, back in the present day, the remains of the ball court include a section of the stands, from where spectators would have watched the game, and part of a staircase. Experts say that the complete court would have been something like 165 feet long – a little less than half the length of a football field.
However, the archaeologists also found something that highlighted a far more sinister side to the ball game. You see, there are signs that the sport involved gruesome human sacrifice – even of children. Among the finds at the site, for example, were no less than 32 separate sets of male neck bones. The vertebrae were found heaped together adjacent to the ball court.
Describing the macabre find, archaeologist Raul Barrera said, “It was an offering associated with the ball game, just off the stairway. The vertebrae, or necks, surely came from victims who were sacrificed or decapitated.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, Barrera expanded on the discovery. “There was a small oval-shaped well, within which there were 32 sets of cervical vertebrae – necks – from young adults, and there were also children,” he explained. “Above them, a series of skull fragments had been ceremonially arranged. Surely, these people were decapitated.”
Whatever the case, the origins of the ball game played by the Aztecs in fact date back to a much earlier time. Indeed, it probably developed about 3,500 years ago in ancient Mesoamerica. The earliest court to have been excavated is at Paso de la Amada in the modern Mexican state of Chiapas. It was built sometime around 1400 BC.
However, archaeological evidence linking the ball game with human sacrifice does not appear until much later. For example, among the earliest such links are the graphic illustrations of sacrifice on court-side panels in El Tajin, which date from between 850 AD and 1200 AD. One of the stone-carved panels shows a ball player being beheaded.
Further evidence of beheadings can be seen at the Aparicio archaeological site, which dates from 700 AD to 900 AD. Yes, an extraordinary carved stone relief portraying a decapitated ball player was found there. Gouts of blood flowing from the victim’s neck are strangely represented by writhing serpents.
Back in modern-day Mexico City, meanwhile, this outstanding archaeological find in the city’s downtown wasn’t necessarily cause for celebration for everyone. Indeed, the 1940s hotel that was mostly destroyed by the 1985 earthquake was left with just its facade standing. And not only have the hotel’s owners needed to wait for years to redevelop the site, but they’ve also had to fund the excavations. They will, however, be allowed to rebuild when the excavations are completed.
“We like it, because the [new] building will protect the ruins, so no rain, or sun, or hail will get in,” archaeologist Eduardo Matos told the Associated Press. “So [the ruins] will be perfectly protected and lighted, and the best thing is that [the property owners] will pay for it, not us.”
Modern sports such as rock climbing, sports car racing and boxing can lead to serious injuries and even fatalities. However, at least we no longer play sports in which human sacrifice is part of the game. It’s worth remembering that sporting life and death was very different for the 32 young men and children whose neck bones were found at the Ehecatl temple and ball court.