Release the Hounds: Archaeology Edition

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There are lots of articles and essays about new archaeology finds that are of interest to modern Pagans, Heathens, and polytheists out there. More than our team can write about in-depth in any given week. Therefore, The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. Here are our favorite picks this month.

LA PAZ, Bolivia – Archaeologists in Bolivia are learning more about ritual items unearthed last year that are from the lost Tihuanacota civilization. They were discovered in the Kalasasaya region where the Tihuanacota are known to have lived between 300 B.C.E. and 1200 C.E. The ritual items include ceremonial metalwork, knives, and vases. The finds could help researchers to better understand the spiritual and cultural practices of the Tihuanacota civilization. Reuters has a short video that catalogs some of the extraordinary finds.

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MEXICO CITY, Mexico – A bas-relief sculpture of an eagle measuring  3.5 feet long and 2.3 feet wide carved of red tezontle, a type of volcanic rock common to the region, has been uncovered at the foot of the Templo Mayor, in the central axis of the temple dedicated to Huitzilopochtli.

Researchers from the Templo Mayor Project (PTM) of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) discovered the sculpture in February of 2020, but have only now made the findings public.

Templo Mayor (2015) – Image credit: Mike Peel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Secretary of Culture, Alejandra Frausto Guerrero said of the findings, “From what we have seen through photographs, it is a very beautiful piece that shows the great secrets that the Templo Mayor of Mexico Tenochtitlan has yet to reveal to us. I want to extend my appreciation to the INAH archaeologists who collaborate in this space, since, thanks to their effort and dedication, we can continue to recover our history and our memory.”

Guerrero noted the delay in continued work on the site, “Due to the health contingency, the field work has had to be postponed, however, it is clear that there is also an important work of research and academic reflection that has not stopped.”

This latest find is the largest of 67 similar carvings discovered within the Templo Mayor and is distinguished in importance not only by its size and detail but also by its location. In addition to its proximity to the central axis that crosses the temple of Huitzilopochtli and the sculpture of the goddess Coyolxauhqui, it is also near a circular building named Cuauhxicalco, which means “place of the eagle’s gourd,” and where the ritual cremations of the Tenochca rulers were conducted according to documents from the 16th century.

Researchers believe the sculpture may have been carved during the reign of Moctezuma I, which was from 1440 CE to 1469 CE.

“This floor is unique in the entire Templo Mayor as it contains bas-reliefs that allude to the dual conception of the building. On the south side, where we are exploring, there are elements like this eagle, linked to the mythical cycle of the birth of Huitzilopochtli; while to the north, the bas-reliefs located earlier —the first in 1900 by Leopoldo Batres, and the later by the PTM and the Urban Archeology Program (PAU) – contain representations associated with Tláloc, the water cycle and the regeneration of corn,” said Rodolfo Aguilar Tapia, an archaeologist with the PTM.

The significance of the eagle is connected to both war and sacrifice. The eagle image has been found represented in other places and texts, like Plate 50 of the Codex Borgia, which depicts a golden eagle posing on top of a mesquite tree, a tree that rises from a stark deity.

“The interesting thing is that this image is iconographically very similar to the bas-relief that we find in the field, in both representations the feathers end in the shape of sacrificial knives, which allude to the Nahua name of the bird: obsidian eagle,” Aguilar Tapia points out.

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SANTIAGO, Chile – New research published last week in the journal, “Nature Plants,” suggests that one of the main elements that made farming successful in the Atacama Desert in Chile by pre-Incans was their use of bird guano.

The Atacama Desert is very near the coast and the Pacific ocean but is considered to be one of the driest environments on Earth, and yet farmers grew successful crops that supported thriving nations.

Researchers tracked the shift towards agriculture as beginning around 1000 BCE., by studying the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in the soil, and specifically, in the remains of 246 plants from the region. They found nitrogen levels continued to rise, even significantly, from 1000 CE onward, suggesting a marked shift from crops grown for ritual use to those as a food source.

The only way such a continued and dramatic rise in the amount the nitrogen could be accounted for was the use of seabird guano, which would have had to have been brought overland from the coast.

Francisca Santana-Sagredo, a co-author of the study who works at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile and the University of Oxford told The Smithsonian Magazine, “The only plausible explanation then for their high nitrogen values was the consumption of fertilized crops with seabird guano. There is no other fertilizer that could reach these values.”

When the Spanish first began arriving in the area some 500 years later (1450 CE) they noted and documented the Incan efforts to harvest seabird guano, using pontoon rafts made from sea lion skins. They also noted that the Incans used llama caravans to transport the guano inland to settlements.

The guano would eventually come to be referred to as “white gold” due to its immense value.

Harvesting guano in the Chincha Islands – watercolor by Marcus Lowther (1820-1908) – Public Domain

The value of seabird guano was also documented in later history in the late 19th-century  when access to and control of the coast near the Atacama Desert resulted in the War of the Pacific between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia. The guano of the region was not only very useful in farming, but also in the production of gun powder. Ultimately, Chile was the victor in that conflict.