After a powerful earthquake roughed up Mexico City, a giant stone snake head arose from the rubbly soil still gleaming with its bold original colors.
At lunchtime on September 19, 2022, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck the Mexican states of Michoacán and Colima. Its heavy rumbles were felt 400 km (250 miles) away from the epicenter in Mexico City, causing damage to several dozen buildings.
Among the destruction, parts of the city's subsoil were disrupted, causing the stone carving to start poking out of the ground at a law school in the capital's historic center. Archaeologists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) were alerted to the find and excavated it from a 4.5-meter-deep (14-foot-deep) pit of soil.
Depicting a serpent's head, the giant sculpture measures 1.8 meters long, 1 meter high, and 85 centimeters wide (5.9 feet long, 3.2 feet tall, and 2.7 feet wide) with an estimated weight of 1.2 tons.
It’s estimated that the sculpture is over 500 years old, dating to around the end of the Aztec Empire. Despite half a millennium passing, it remains in remarkable condition and is still 80 percent covered in a rainbow of colorful pigments, including ochre, red, blue, black, and white.
To preserve its vivid beauty, the INAH has placed the relic in an air-tight humidity chamber where researchers will work to converse its color.
“These pigments, which represent a famous example of the color palette that the Mexica used to decorate their cult images and their temples, are extremely fragile due to the mineral and plant materials from which they were obtained," Barajas Rocha, who has led many color conservation projects at the INAH, in a statement.
“It is a sealed space, lined with plastic films and equipped with humidifiers and data loggers to read and control, at all times, the relative humidity of this ancestral representation of the snake,” Rocha added.
"Our goal is for the snake's head to lose the moisture that it accumulated over the centuries slowly and carefully, so that it comes out from the internal pores of the rock to its surface, since if the process is accelerated, color loss may occur. and even cracks or crystallizations of salts in the stone,” the expert stressed.
Snakes played a huge role in the artistic culture of the pre-Colombian Americas. One of the most significant representations of the serpent in Aztec mythology was the god Quetzalcoatl, which was often depicted as a feathered serpent. More broadly, the figure of the serpent was associated with fertility and rebirth, perhaps because snakes regularly shed their skin and embody the process of regeneration.