Sometimes, years of painstaking excavation work are required to uncover the artifacts of the past – and sometimes, as with a recent earthquake in Mexico City, much of the hard digging work is done by nature.
The 7.6-magnitude earthquake occurred on 19 September 2022, near Mexico's west coast, killing two, and the rumbling was felt in Mexico City, around 400 kilometers (250 miles) away. The shocks damaged several buildings, including a law school near the city center.
It was from under this building's foundations that archaeologists from Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) recovered a huge stone snake head carving, dating back more than 500 years to the time of the Aztecs.
Measuring 1.8 meters (5.9 feet) long, 1 meter (3.3 feet) high, and 85 centimeters (33.5 inches) wide, the snake head is estimated to weigh around 1.2 metric tons (roughly 2,645 pounds). It's probably bigger – and a lot heavier – than the couch in your living room.
It's an astonishing find, which was carefully removed from the original site via crane. When discovered, the stone snake head was approximately 4.5 meters (14.8 feet) deep within the ancient Tenochtitlan site. It was clear that something special had been revealed.
With support from the National Autonomous University of Mexico and Templo Mayor Museum in Mexico, experts are continuing to work to examine and preserve the find – which has 80 percent of its original colorful surface intact.
The colors red, blue, black, white, and ocher are visible on the stone carving, and researchers have now placed it inside a humidity chamber in order to preserve the hues as much as possible. Made from mineral and plant materials, they are particularly fragile.
Color preservation work will continue into 2024, and the team in charge hopes that the moisture that the snake's head has built up across the centuries will slowly be released – at a pace that doesn't damage the finish of the stone.
The head is thought to date back to a time towards the end of the Aztec Empire, when the Tenochtitlan city state would have been thriving in the same area. The Aztecs used plenty of serpents in their artwork, not least because of snake-like deities such as Quetzalcoatl.
Of course, the durability of stone carvings and etchings means these works give us an invaluable window into the past. They can last for thousands of years, much longer than anything written down or painted on parchment or paper.
As for the Aztecs, new digs and discoveries are continually giving us new insights into how they lived and thought. Their dominance swiftly ended due to a combination of factors, including invading forces and the spread of disease.