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Dig into Mexico’s history draws Stanford crowd

Leonardo Lopez Lujan gave his distinguished lecture, “In search of Tenochtitlan: 220 years of archaeology in downtown Mexico City” Thursday in which he discussed Mexico’s history and his archaeological findings (ALEX YU/Staff Photographer)

Beneath the second largest metropolitan area in the world sit the ruins of the largest Spanish colonial city of its time — beneath that lies an even older site, the city of Tenochtitlan, also one of the largest metropolitan areas of its time. For Leonardo Lopez Lujan, senior researcher and professor of archeology at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, such a history can yield amazing finds.

Lopez Lujan lectured last night on his field work as part of the Archeology Center’s Thursday lecture series.

“The archeology of Tenochtitlan is unlike any other in the field of Mesoamerican studies.” Lopez Lujan said. “It faces [the] same challenges as archeology in Venice, Rome and Jerusalem, whose vestiges lay beneath a modern city.”

Lopez Lujan’s most recent findings include a 13-ton statue of the Aztec goddess Tlaltecuhtli, who was believed to be the mother of life and a deity with a voracious appetite, requiring frequent sacrifices of human and animal blood and corpses. The statue was found at Templo Mayor, one of the main Aztec temples, located at the center of present-day Mexico City.

Archeology Prof. John Rick, who has major projects in South America and did graduate work in Mexico, was very impressed with Lopez Lujan.

“It’s spectacular. I’ve been to this site just shortly before the stone was removed, the stone monolith, but this updates my own experience in visiting that place,” Rick said. “This is a world-class talk, seeing world-class stuff<\p>–<\p>the latest discoveries with a top archeological intellectual who’s not only excavating, he’s interpreting this stuff with a depth of knowledge that is world-class — there’s just no other word for it.”

Because Lujan must work around the city’s 20 million inhabitants, new archeological sites are only uncovered during construction projects or upgrades to the city utilities. Only 0.3 percent of the five square miles spanned by Tenochtitlan at its height has been uncovered.

“We frequently find the remains of an ancient street or a pyramid or a temple or a palace, but the problem with excavating in a city is we can only open small windows into the past to look at what’s below the surface,” Lopez Lujan said. “We have only a few pieces of a gigantic puzzle that we know we will never be able to assemble completely.”

Lindsay Montgomery, a first year Ph.D. student in archeology, enjoyed the connections Lopez Lujan’s talk had with her own work in indigenous cultural heritage in the Southwest United States.

“I thought it was really interesting, especially in relationship with iconography and the gods,” Montgomery said. “In southwestern archeology there are some similar connections in burial rituals and god iconography, so it’s something to think about in terms of my work.”

Lopez Lujan’s position as a senior researcher of Mexico’s state archeology program gives him a unique perspective on the issues that Mexican archeology faces. In the question-and-answer portion of the talk, Lopez Lujan discussed issues ranging from looting to economic pressure for the government to permit concerts on temple and pyramid sites, in spite of the damage such large crowds could inflict.

Lopez Lujan’s passion for Aztec history was instilled in him at at the age of eight when he began working with his mother, who was an assistant to Mexico’s top archeologist. Lopez Lujan’s father was also an Aztec historian, and his son works in the same field.

Lopez Lujan said he and the people of Mexico feel strongly connected to their indigenous roots, and these discoveries help them strengthen their connection.

“I am mestizo, a mixture of Spaniard and native people, and many of the people who are digging in my team are native Mexicans,” Lopez Lujan said. “We are very proud of recovering our own pasts, and it was a very big privilege to come here to such an important university in the United States to share this past.”