Aztec Secrets Unearthed in New Science Channel Special
LOST PYRAMIDS OF THE AZTECS highlights rarely seen archeological sites, as experts conduct excavations and attempt to build an Aztec pyramid. The special premieres Sunday, June 28 at 8P ET on Science Channel.
Considered by some to be one of the most powerful civilizations the world has ever seen, the Aztecs thrived 700 years ago in a society built on ingenious engineers and ruthless warriors. And while the civilization’s legacy can be seen today in pyramids and ruins across Mexico, archeologists are only now beginning to scratch the surface of Aztec ingenuity.
In a new Science Channel premiering Sunday, June 28 at 8P ET, LOST PYRAMIDS OF THE AZTECS, audiences will gain unprecedented access to rarely seen ancient sites and follow experts as they conduct excavations that could reveal new insight into the civilization and attempt to build a replica Aztec pyramid.
One of the experts featured in the special is Dr. David Walton, an archeologist who leads the efforts to build the replica. He took time to talk with Discovery.com about his work and the Aztecs.
Discovery: What inspired you to study the Aztecs?
Walton: I first learned about the Aztecs in my high school Spanish classes, and during my college years I was always captivated by ancient peoples of the Americas. In my first year of graduate school, I went to Mexico for an excavation project and I visited the Templo Mayor. I was awestruck by the monument’s power, even in its ruined state, and the craftsmanship of the artifacts used in its ritual offerings. Overall, the archaeology of the Aztecs is super cool and the people of Mexico are culturally vibrant and welcoming of those who wish to learn more about their heritage.
Discovery: What makes these pyramids and temples so significant to Aztec culture?
Walton: Pyramids and other temples were the most visible power statements of the Aztec political empire and its state religion. More specifically, the Templo Mayor precinct in the capital, Tenochtitlan, was considered the center of the cosmic universe. Pyramids and temples were powerful places where priests and state officials directed the offering of sacred objects and materials, the most potent of which was human blood obtained through ritual bloodletting or the sacrifice of captives, to nourish and influence the actions of their gods. Physical idols of the gods were often kept in shrines atop these monuments, and priests were able to directly communicate with them. Slave labor was used to build many monuments of the ancient world, but that is not the case here for Aztec pyramids and temples. Instead they were built by guilds or groups of laborers and skilled craftsmen as part of a regional economy that involved labor requirements in service to the state. Aztec pyramids and temples were built with civic pride by the Aztecs for the Aztecs.
Discovery: What made you want to build a replica of an Aztec temple? What were some of the challenges you faced in the process?
Walton: In archaeological research sometimes excavated architecture gets consolidated and conserved using a blend of ancient and modern construction techniques. However, prior to our experiment I had neither seen nor heard of an attempt to build a full Aztec-style temple from start to finish. The thought that I could be one of the first people to help design and build an Aztec temple using ancient building techniques was really cool. It felt like something out of a childhood dream or video game was coming to life. Some of the challenges included figuring out the material sources and production methods for Aztec mortars, stuccos, and color pigments. It was also challenging to figure out which Aztec temple to use as the subject for our replica because exact dimensions of the earliest stages (and thus smallest stages) of Aztec temples are mostly unknown. We settled on creating a scale model of Construction Stage 3 of the Templo Mayor because archaeologists are confident about its dimensions. When it came time to build our replica, the sheer amount of strenuous labor time required to complete it became apparent. Our construction workers are true strongmen who would make Aztec builders proud to call them their descendants.
Discovery: Can Aztec ingenuity be found in modern society? If so, what are some examples?
Walton: Absolutely. One prominent example is the chinampa agricultural system, which continues to create ingredients for traditional Mexican dishes served in homes and restaurants throughout parts of Mexico City. Next, the Aztecs were experts at carving volcanic stone (tezontle) into building materials, and these types of building materials and construction techniques are still used today albeit with metal tools. Finally, the Aztecs built one of the most impressive cities the world has ever known, Tenochtitlan, on an island surrounded by a lake. It was so impressive that the Spanish conquistadors remarked they had seen nothing like it in Europe. The legacy of Tenochtitlan lives on today in the vibrance of Mexico City.
Discovery: What are we learning about the Aztecs today that we may not have known about 5 or 10 years ago?
Walton: While the Templo Mayor Project under the direction of Dr. Leonardo López Luján continues to make discoveries about Aztec rulers and ritual practices, there has been a lot of research focused on other sites beyond the capital. We know much more about Aztec households and how their economies worked. The two industries that have received the most attention recently are obsidian tools (my specialty) and maguey fiber textiles. The best written source for the public to get an overview of recent Aztec archaeology would be The Oxford Handbook of the Aztecs (2017). I also encourage the public to learn about the work being conducted on the Republic of Tlaxcallan, perhaps the greatest enemy of the Aztec Triple Alliance.
Discovery: How could an advanced civilization only rule for around 200 years? Aside from the Spanish invasion, were there other factors that led to the Aztec downfall?
Walton: The Spanish conquest of Mexico is often told as a story with major inaccuracies. Chief among those inaccuracies is that the Spanish conquistadors came to Mexico with only a couple hundred men, but they were able to conquer the Aztecs because they had horses and superior warfare strategy and technology. This simple version makes the Spanish conquistadors, particularly Hernán Cortés, seem like geniuses compared to the Aztecs, yet it ignores the most important fact that ultimately led to the fall of the Aztec empire: the Spanish conquistadors created an alliance with perhaps the Aztecs’ greatest local enemy, the Republic of Tlaxcallan and its respected Otomí warriors. It was largely the size and ferocity of this military force comprised of indigenous warriors that led to a successful siege of the Aztecs’ island capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. During the siege, residents were also suffering from diseases brought by the Spanish conquistadors during their earlier stay and attempt to take the capital from within.
Discovery: What do you hope audiences will get out of LOST PYRAMIDS OF THE AZTECS?
Walton: I hope audiences will see why it is important for governmental organizations like the USA’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) to receive and distribute ample funding for archaeological research that involves international collaboration. We can learn the most about ancient societies by bringing together experts from different countries, universities, and fields of study to make projects like this. Societies of the ancient Americas have never received equal coverage in popular media compared with their peers in Africa and Eurasia. I hope our experimental approach to Aztec pyramid building demonstrates that ancient Americans built monuments and urban societies that are just as impressive as those of the Old World. Ultimately, I consider LOST PYRAMIDS OF THE AZTECS to be the best available documentary presentation of Aztec archaeology on the market today. I hope it inspires people to visit Mexico and see these sites for themselves someday.
Don’t miss LOST PYRAMIDS OF THE AZTECS this Sunday at 8p ET on Science Channel, or stream the special on SCI GO. You can also keep up with the conversation by using #LostPyramids on social media.