Written by Alan Yuhas
Archaeologists in Mexico say they have found the first temple dedicated to a deity called the Flayed Lord, an important god in the Aztec Empire whose worshippers were said to wear the skin of sacrificial victims.
Artifacts related to the god were found in the central state of Puebla, at a site built by the Popoloca people, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement Wednesday. The Popolocas built in the area over several centuries, beginning around A.D. 900, and were assimilated into the sprawling Aztec kingdom.
At the temple, which the institute said was probably built between A.D. 1000 and 1260, the archaeologists found artifacts related to the god, Xipe Tótec, including two stone skulls and a stone torso that had an extra hand hanging off its left arm. Scientists said the extra hand suggested the god was wearing the remains of a sacrificial victim.
Noemí Castillo Tejero, the archaeologist who led the project, was not available for an interview, but the institute said that the excavation at the complex, called Ndachjian-Tehuacan, had also uncovered two altars nearby, in a layout that appeared to match Aztec accounts of rituals associated with the cult of Xipe Tótec.
Those accounts, from around the time of the Spanish invasion in the early 1500s, say that worshippers of Xipe Tótec sacrificed people, usually prisoners of war, by having them fight a series of combatants in a kind of gladiatorial ritual — or by killing the prisoners with arrows. The worshippers then flayed the victims, and priests were said to have worn their skin.
“Part of the logic there is that this was, among other things, connected to renewal and the re-emergence of life, probably something like snakes sloughing off their own skins,” said John Henderson, a professor of anthropology at Cornell University who was not involved in the research.
The deity himself is often portrayed as wearing the skin of a sacrificial victim, Henderson said, and he was impersonated by actual priests who also wore skins. The temple, he and other experts suggested, may have been used to store such skins.
Henderson emphasized that a long period passed between the use of this building and the written descriptions of the rituals, and that the Aztecs — who took control over the region around A.D. 1450 — oversaw a complicated, cosmopolitan empire that adopted other cultures, languages and ethnic groups, such as the Popoloca people.
Various depictions of Xipe Tótec, for instance, have been found around Mesoamerica, though until now archaeologists had not found a temple that seemed dedicated to him.
“Finds like this will help us understand how they used religion as one of the ways to create a multiethnic empire,” said Rosemary Joyce, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, who also did not take part in the research.
Joyce compared the cultural practice to that of the Roman Empire, which incorporated religious beliefs from the territories’ outlying people. “It’s really important that we’re beginning to get more information about people other than the Mexica,” she said, using the indigenous word for the rulers of the Aztec Empire.
She also warned against taking all Aztec artwork that portrays violence as proof that it was carried out as shown.
“We don’t really look at a Christian church and think that people are being crucified there,” she said. “We need a lot more archaeology from the site to understand the whole.”