The Aztec Calendar Stone: Dedicated to the Aztec Sun God

If the Aztec Calendar Stone was not a calendar, what was it?

Sun Stone or Aztec Calendar Stone, found in Tenochtitlan in 1789, Mexico, Azteca Civilization, 15th century
Sun Stone or Aztec Calendar Stone, found in Tenochtitlan in 1789, Mexico, Azteca Civilization, 15th century. De Agostini / G. Sioen / Getty Images

The Aztec Calendar Stone, better known in the archaeological literature as the Aztec Sun Stone (Piedra del Sol in Spanish), is an enormous basalt disk covered with hieroglyphic carvings of calendar signs and other images referring to the Aztec creation myth. The stone, currently on display at the National Museum of Anthropology (INAH) in Mexico City, measures about 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) in diameter, is about 1.2 m (3.9 ft) thick and weighs more than 21,000 kilograms (58,000 pounds or 24 tons).

Aztec Sun Stone Origins and Religious Meaning

The so-called Aztec Calendar Stone was not a calendar, but most likely a ceremonial container or altar linked to the Aztec sun god, Tonatiuh, and festivities dedicated to him. At its center is what is typically interpreted as the image of the god Tonatiuh, within the sign Ollin, which means movement and represents the last of the Aztec cosmological eras, the Fifth Sun.

Tonatiuh's hands are depicted as claws holding a human heart, and his tongue is represented by a flint or obsidian knife, which indicates that a sacrifice was required so that the sun would continue its movement in the sky. At Tonatiuh's sides are four boxes with the symbols of the preceding eras, or suns, along with the four directional signs.

Tonatiuh's image is surrounded by a broad band or ring containing calendrical and cosmological symbols. This band contains the signs of the 20 days of the Aztec sacred calendar, called Tonalpohualli, which, combined with 13 numbers, made up the sacred 260-day year.

A second outer ring has a set of boxes each containing five dots, representing the five-day Aztec week, as well as triangular signs probably representing sun rays. Finally, the sides of the disk are carved with two fire serpents which transport the sun god in his daily passage through the sky.

Aztec Sun Stone Political Meaning

The Aztec sun stone was dedicated to Motecuhzoma II and was likely carved during his reign, 1502-1520.

A sign representing the date 13 Acatl, 13 Reed, is visible on the surface of the stone. This date corresponds to the year 1479 AD, which, according to archaeologist Emily Umberger is an anniversary date of a politically crucial event: the birth of the sun and the rebirth of Huitzilopochtli as the sun. The political message for those who saw the stone was clear: this was an important year of rebirth for the Aztec empire, and the emperor's right to rule comes directly from the Sun God and is embedded with the sacred power of time, directionality, and sacrifice.

Archaeologists Elizabeth Hill Boone and Rachel Collins (2013) focused on the two bands which frame a conquest scene over 11 enemy forces of the Aztecs. These bands include serial and repeating motifs that appear elsewhere in Aztec art (crossed bones, heart skull, bundles of kindling, etc.) which represent death, sacrifice, and offerings. They suggest that the motifs represent petroglyphic prayers or exhortations advertising the success of the Aztec armies, recitations of which might have been part of the ceremonies which took place on and around the Sun Stone.

Alternative Interpretations

Although the most prevalent interpretation of the image on the Sun Stone is that of Totoniah, others have been proposed.

In the 1970s, a few archaeologists suggested that the face was not Totoniah's but rather that of the animate earth Tlateuchtli, or perhaps the face of the night sun Yohualteuctli. Neither of these suggestions has been accepted by the majority of Aztec scholars. American epigrapher and archaeologist David Stuart, who typically specializes in Maya hieroglyphs, has suggested that it may well be a deified image of the Mexica ruler Motecuhzoma II.

A hieroglyph at the top of the stone names Motecuhzoma II, interpreted by most scholars as a dedicatory inscription to the ruler who commissioned the artifact. Stuart notes that there are other Aztec representations of ruling kings in the guise of gods, and he suggests that the central face is a fused image of both Motecuhzoma and his patron deity Huitzilopochtli.

History of the Aztec Sun Stone

Scholars surmise that the basalt was quarried somewhere in the southern basin of Mexico, at least 18-22 kilometers (10-12 miles) south of Tenochtitlan. After its carving, the stone must have been located in the ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlán, laid horizontally and likely near where ritual human sacrifices took place. Scholars suggest that it may have been used as an eagle vessel, a repository for human hearts (quauhxicalli), or as a base for the final sacrifice of a gladiatorial combatant (temalacatl).

After the conquest, the Spanish moved the stone a few hundred meters south of the precinct, in a position facing upward and near the Templo Mayor and the Viceregal Palace. Sometime between 1551-1572, the religious officials in Mexico City decided the image was a bad influence on their citizens, and the stone was buried facing down, hidden within the sacred precinct of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.

Rediscovery

The Sun Stone was rediscovered in December 1790, by workmen who conducted leveling and repaving work on Mexico City's main plaza. The stone was pulled to a vertical position, where it was first examined by archaeologists. It stayed there for six months exposed to the weather, until June of 1792, when it was moved into the cathedral. In 1885, the disk was moved to the early Museo Nacional, where it was held in the monolithic gallery--that journey was said to have required 15 days and 600 pesos.

In 1964 it was transferred to the new Museo Nacional de Anthropologia in Chapultepec Park, that journey only taking 1 hour, 15 minutes.

Today it is displayed on the ground floor of the National Museum of Anthropology, in Mexico City, within the Aztec/Mexica exhibition room.

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst.

Sources

  • Berdan FF. 2014. Aztec Archaeology and Ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Boone EH, and Collins R. 2013. The petroglyphic prayers on the sun stone of Motecuhzoma Ilhuicamina. Ancient Mesoamerica 24(02):225-241.
  • Smith ME. 2013. The Aztecs. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Stuart D. 2016. The Face of the Calendar Stone: A New Interpretation. Maya Decipherment: June 13, 2016. Accessed June 18, 2017.
  • Umberger E. 2007. Art History and the Aztec Empire: Dealing with the Evidence of Sculptures. Revista Española de Antropología American 37:165-202
  • Van Tuerenhout DR. 2005. The Aztecs. New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Inc.
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Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Aztec Calendar Stone: Dedicated to the Aztec Sun God." ThoughtCo, Aug. 2, 2017, thoughtco.com/what-is-the-aztec-calendar-stone-169912. Maestri, Nicoletta. (2017, August 2). The Aztec Calendar Stone: Dedicated to the Aztec Sun God. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-aztec-calendar-stone-169912 Maestri, Nicoletta. "The Aztec Calendar Stone: Dedicated to the Aztec Sun God." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-the-aztec-calendar-stone-169912 (accessed November 18, 2017).