MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A sacrificial wolf elaborately adorned with some of the finest Aztec gold ever found and buried more than five centuries ago has come to light in the heart of downtown Mexico City, once home to the Aztec empire's holiest shrines.
The quality and number of golden ornaments is highly unusual and includes 22 complete pieces - such as symbol-laden pendants, a nose ring and a chest plate - all made from thin sheets of the precious metal, lead archaeologist Leonardo Lopez told Reuters.
Held in a stone box, the cache was discovered in April near the capital city's bustling main square, the Zocalo, behind the colonial-era Roman Catholic cathedral and off the steps of what was once the most important Aztec ceremonial temple, now known as the Templo Mayor.
"These are, without a doubt, the largest and most refined pieces of gold discovered so far," said Lopez, referring to the 205 offerings discovered over nearly four decades of excavations around the site, 16 of which have contained some gold.
Not long after the roughly eight-month-old wolf was killed, it was likely dressed with golden ornaments as well as a belt of shells from the Atlantic Ocean, then carefully placed in a stone box by Aztec priests above a layer of flint knives, according to Lopez.
The west-facing wolf represented Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec war god and solar deity. Wolves were believed to help guide fallen warriors across a dangerous river in the netherworld.
The Templo Mayor would have been as high as a 15-storey building before it was razed along with the rest of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan after the 1521 Spanish conquest of Mexico.
Measuring about 12-1/2 cubic feet, the trove was also filled with other layers of once-living offerings from the air, land and sea, all infused with spiritual meaning for the Aztecs.
"What they're doing is they're communicating with those levels of the environment that they live in because they know that they've been given the gift of life," said David Carrasco, a Harvard University historian of religion and Aztec scholar.
Excavations began in the densely-packed area after the demolition of two buildings that once covered the site.
The box was damaged in 1900 when a sewage line was laid down next to it, Lopez said, and city workers must have had no inkling of what lay inside if they even noticed it at the time.
"If they had seen the golden objects, they would have ransacked it right away," he said.
The Aztecs, who called themselves "Mexica," prized gold, though nearly their entire supply was looted by the Spanish and melted into bars for easier transport to Europe. Objects made of jade and feathers of the quetzal were considered even more valuable.
Quetzal birds are native to Central America and the male grows a long, brilliant green tail feather that was especially valuable to the Aztecs.
The golden wolf was buried during the 1486-1502 reign of King Ahuitzotl, the most feared and powerful ruler of the Mexica, who extended the empire as far south as present-day Guatemala. The reign of Ahuitzotl was particularly brutal, which may also explain the fate of the young wolf.
Lopez said tests on its ribs will be needed to confirm his theory that the animal's heart was torn out as part of the sacrifice, just as captured warriors were ritually killed on blood-soaked platforms of Aztec temples.
But this was no ordinary violence, noted Carrasco.
"These people didn't just kill these things. They didn't just kill people and throw them away," he said. "They took elaborate, symbolic care for them because they knew that the presence that they represented, the presence of god, had to be nurtured."
(Editing by Dave Graham and G Crosse)
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