December 18, 2012
The Tlaltecuhtli Monument
Ancient Mesoamerican art possesses the ability to inform, inspire, and awe any person that has the opportunity to look upon it, particularly the art of the Aztecs. Aztec art gives historians today a major clue into the rituals, beliefs, and daily lifestyle of this ancient civilization. Although many Aztec artifacts have been found in Mexico over the years (and are still being found to this day), one of the most prolific discoveries made of ancient Aztec art is that of the Tlaltecuhtli monument found less than a decade ago, which has provided important clues to further knowledge of the Aztec. In my paper, I plan to explain the Tlaltecuhtli monument’s important historical relevance, and the process in which I have worked to recreate a much smaller replica of this monument, which will hopefully accurately depict the power and beauty of the original. The Tlaltecuhtli monument was discovered in 2006 by Leonardo Lopez Lujan, the leader of an archaeological expedition that aimed to discover new artifacts around the great pyramid-like structure of the Templo Mayor in Mexico City. The monument was discovered while work on a new foundation was being done at the foot of the Templo Mayor, and Tlaltecuhtli was sadly found split into four separate pieces. The enormous Tlaltecuhtli is approximately fourteen by twelve feet, weighing in at a colossal twelve tons! It was carved with pink andesite, and in its renovation traces of the original pigments used in the carving (including red, black and blue) have been found. Regrettably, the missing middle piece of the monument has not been located. The Tlaltecuhtli monument is not simply informative of the Aztec culture in and of itself; it was more or less a beacon for archaeologists, showing them exactly where to look for more artifacts. The other artifacts found near the monument, along with information carved into the monument itself, helped in unearthing clues to the existence of a well-known Aztec ruler, Ahuitzotl. A large number of elaborate artifacts were found soon after the discovery of the Tlaltecuhtli monument: “López Luján and his crew have discovered, in a deep pit beside the monolith, some of the most exotic Aztec offerings ever found. Removing a stucco patch in the plaza floor, the excavators came upon 21 white flint sacrificial knives painted red: the teeth and gums of the Aztec earth monster, her mouth open wide to receive the dead. They dug deeper and found a bundle wrapped in agave leaves. It contained an assortment of sacrificial perforators made of jaguar bone, used by Aztec priests to spill their own blood as a gift to the gods. Alongside the perforators were bars of copal--priestly incense, another spiritual purifier. The perforators and incense were carefully arranged inside the bundle, along with feathers and jade beads.”1 1. Draper, Robert. “Unburying the Aztec.” National Geographic 218, no. 5 (2010): 110-135. When the Tlaltecuhtli monolith was found, López Luján noticed that the god depicted held a rabbit, with ten dots above it, in its clawed right foot. In the Aztec writing system, 10-Rabbit is 1502--the year, according to the codices surviving from the era, that the empire's most feared ruler, Ahuitzotl , was laid to rest amid great ceremony.2 The Tlaltecuhtli monument itself clearly illustrates all the physical attributes the goddess Tlaltecuhtli is known for: a splayed, frontal figure with curly hair, an open-fanged mouth, and personified joints.3 I keep referring to Tlaltecuhtli as a “her”, but in reality Tlaltecuhtli is dual-sexed, historically referred to both as a male and/or a female. Because Tlaltecuhtli seems to be wearing a skirt-like piece of clothing in this particular monolith, I will continue to refer to Tlaltecuhtli as a she. Tlaltecuhtli’s function is an important one to the Aztec culture; she is a goddess that needs blood to quench her thirst. To quench such a thirst, the Aztecs sacrificed their own blood (and the blood of enemies) to feed Tlaltecuhtli along with other gods. The process of sacrifice was referred to as “nextlahualtin”, translating as “payment” or “pay for what is due”.4 As the Aztecs believed that the gods sacrificed their own blood to make humans, they believed that they needed to sacrifice their own blood as a payment, to guarantee the continuance of their existence. Designs suggesting Tlaltecuhtli’s fanged mouth can be seen lining the bottom of several bowls and vessels used for catching sacrificial blood, signifying Tlaltecuhtli’s devouring of the blood. Tlalecuhtli was believed to be sacrificed specifically to create the heavens and earth, which is why she is also obviously associated with the earth, making her placement at the bottom of these vessels the connection the Aztecs strived for: the connection during ceremonies to the earth, the sky, and the heavens.
From the first time that Tlaltecuhtli was described to me, I was instantly enthralled by the powerfully intimidating description of her, along with her role in the Aztec culture. I immediately knew within five minutes of seeing a picture of the Tlaltecuhtli monument of the Templo Mayor that I wanted this beautiful piece to be the subject of my final project. I decided to make the piece out of sculpting clay, as I already had most of the materials and tools needed for such an ontaking . I know that this is not comparable to the pink andesite that the Aztecs used, but I felt confident that I could accurately display the features of the monument with my previous experience with shaping clay. As I could not possibly replicate the monument at its original scale of approximately twelve by fourteen feet, I decided to make a one-twelfth scale, therefore making the piece approximately twelve by fourteen inches. I began the process by first finding a large enough base to carry the clay that I could also use to measure the sculpture’s dimensions. The sturdiest and smoothest portable working surface that I could find for my sculpture was the top of a plastic storage bin. Using a ruler and marker, I measured out and marked the dimensions of the monument on the base, and then drew lines defining the four pieces that the monument currently consists of. I then shaped the clay according to each individual quarter piece, working on one quarter of clay at a time. I can’t help but wonder in what way the Aztecs began chipping away at the stone to create the monument; did they draw out the basic image of Tlaltecuhtli and then begin to chip away at the stone or did they concentrate on one area until it was fully finished, going through a few feet at a time almost like a printer? As I could not determine their process, I decided to use the current “broken” state of the monument and make one quarter of the monument to work on at a time until it was completely finished. This method also seemed the most logical because the clay air-dries, and having one huge piece of clay out that I could not finish in one night would cause the clay to solidify before I was satisfied with the final shape of the piece. So, I started by working on the bottom left piece of the Tlaltecuhtli monument, being half of Tlaltecuhtli’s skirt, one of her giant feet with claws, and the skull- like features of the personified leg. I shaped out the piece of clay according to the outlines on the base, making the piece of clay about one inch thick in order to leave room for making indentations and depth. After smoothing out the surface of the clay with my fingers, I obtained the tools I needed to carve into the clay. I used five common household items to work the details into the clay: a toothpick, a wooden stick (made for shish kebabs), a metal skewer, a paperclip, and my fingers. After drawing out the initial lines of the image, I then began to carve into the clay according to the apparent depth of the monument’s features. Because I was working with a much smaller slab of material to imitate the very detailed designs of the Aztec, I needed a very small pointed tool to carefully remove excess clay. I used a toothpick for most of my sculpting, but also used the other tools for particular details. I repeated this process for the bottom left hand piece of the monument… and ran out of clay. This became a slight problem in the accuracy of replicating the original monument, as the original monument is currently mostly monochrome (it used to be painted as I have described before). When I obtained more clay for the sculpture, I realized it was a different shade of clay, a dark red compared to the greyish tan of the bottom two pieces of Tlaltecuhtli. I thought about spray painting over the entire piece to make the color uniform, but decided against it, as the paint has a potential to fill in the small detailed gaps I created to emulate certain detailed features. So, I continued with the new red- colored clay for the top two pieces, as I am a broke college student short on time and gas anyways. I decided, however, to translate my little “problem” into a new perspective on Tlaltecuhtli; I percieved the new red-colored clay used for the top half of Tlaltecuhtli to be the clear separation of her body, as it was torn apart to make the earth and the heavens. I repeated my sculpting process for the two top pieces, making sure all of the lines of each quarter were consistent with the pieces around it. As I was not measuring to scale every detail of the monument, my sculpture is not entirely accurate to the monument’s depiction. I was “eyeballing” the features of the sculpture, using my past experience with sketching to guide me through the process of defining lines of the figure. After finishing each piece, I lightly rubbed the surface with water to smooth out the edges of each indentation, as the pieces of clay that were removed would ball up and attempt to stick to the surface of the clay or fall into any crevices I had made. Ultimately, I feel that the end result of my sculpture still imitates the monument accurately enough to give it context, and I am very content with my final product. As my Tlaltecuhtli is at the scale of twelve by fourteen inches, the pieces of clay I used are very large, especially with each piece being around an inch thick. I made sure to place each finished piece of clay next to a small propane heater to quicken the solidifying process. After each piece dried, I also used a small hairdryer to blow away any small dried pieces of clay that fell into the cracks of the details, as it would take many more hours to painstakingly clean out every detail fully with a toothpick. Overall, I cumulatively spent about fifteen hours on the sculpting of my Tlaltecuhtli over a span of three nights. In conclusion, I must admit that this project has been extremely fun and challenging. I cannot begin to imagine how many hours were spent by many Aztec artists to create the thousands of other pieces that were sculpted and carved in their religious dedication to symbolism and connectivity to the heavens and earth for daily ritual, let alone the hours that must have been spent to create the monstrously larger than life Tlaltecuhtli. Either way, I am grateful that remains of such beautiful and detailed works of the Aztecs are still being found to this day. I know that I will now continually wait to hear for news of any newly discovered artifacts suggesting the image of Tlaltecuhtli, as I cannot stress enough how fascinated I am by this intimidating goddess that yearns for daily blood.
Draper, Robert. “Unburying the Aztec.” National Geographic 218, no. 5 (2010): 110-135.
Miller, Mary Ellen. The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec. New York: Thames
and Hudson, 2012.
Taube, Karl A. Aztec and Maya Myths. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Van Tuerenhout, Dirk R. The Aztecs: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO