An earthquake last year revealed a big surprise beneath a law school in modern-day Mexico City: a giant, colorful snakehead from The Aztec Empire.
The Serpent’s Head dates back more than 500 years, to when the Aztecs controlled the area, which at the time was part of the flourishing capital city of Tenochtitlan. The sculpture was discovered after a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico City on September 19, 2022; the seismic event caused damage and changes in the topography, revealing the serpent’s head under a building that was part of a law school at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) said in Spanish statement.
The Aztecs built temples and pyramids and worshiped a number of deities, including Quetzalcoatl, who was often depicted as a snake. However, it is not clear whether this sculpture depicts him, the archaeologists said.
The sculpted snake is 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) long, 2.8 feet (0.85 m) wide and 3.3 feet (1 m) high and weighs about 1.3 tons (1.2 metric tons) , INAH said. Several colors – including red, blue, black and white – are preserved on the sculpture.
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The color is preserved on about 80% of the surface of the sculpture. To preserve it, an INAH team lifted the snake’s head out of the ground with a crane and built a moisture chamber around the sculpture. This chamber allows the sculpture to gradually lose moisture while preserving its color, Maria Rocha decksconservationist from INAH who worked extensively on the sculpture, the statement said.
While other serpent head sculptures have been found in Tenochtitlan, this one is particularly important because of its preserved colors, said Erika Robles Cortezarcheologist from INAH.
“Thanks to the context in which this work was discovered, but above all, thanks to the incredible intervention of the restorers-conservators led by Maria Barajas, it was possible to stabilize the colors for its preservation in almost the entire sculpture, which is extremely important because the colors helped us imagine pre-Hispanic art from a different perspective,” Robles Cortés said in an email to Live Science.
“The sheer size of the sculpture is impressive, as is its artistry,” but the survival of the colors is remarkable, said Francis Berdan, professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, San Bernardino, who was not involved in the excavation. “The survival of black, white, red, yellow and blue paint is particularly interesting—one gets a good sense of the visual impact of such sculptures when arranged around the city center,” Berdan said in an email to Live Science.
In addition to its preserved colors, the size of the snake’s head is remarkable, he said Bertrand Lobjois, associate professor of humanities at the University of Monterrey in Mexico, who was not involved in the excavation. “The first time I saw this snake head, I was dazzled by its size,” he said in an email.
Lobjois also praised the conservation work that allowed the colors to survive, noting that “the conservation process allows us to appreciate the naturalistic approach to figuration” used by Aztec artists.
This work is ongoing and will continue at the site next year.