The Aztec New Fire Ceremony

The Aztec New Fire Ceremony

The New Fire Ceremony, also known as the Binding of the Years Ceremony, was a ritual held every 52 years in the month of November on the completion of a full cycle of the Aztec solar year (xiuhmopilli). The purpose of it was none other than to renew the sun and ensure another 52-year cycle. The New Fire Ceremony, or Toxhiuhmolpilia, as the Aztecs themselves called it, was by far the most important event in the religious calendar because, quite simply, if the ceremony failed, then the Aztec civilization would end.

The Solar Calendar

The timing of the ceremony and the number 52 were significant as this was the exact coinciding point of the first days of the two Aztec calendars which were then in simultaneous use: the ancient Mesoamerican and sacred tonalpohualli 260-day cycle and the xiuhpohualli, the Aztec 365-day solar and ceremonial calendar. In addition, every second cycle (104 years) was given even more significance as on that precise date the tonalpohualli coincided with the 52-year cycle. The Aztecs saw such time cycles as a mirror of the ancient cosmic cycles which, in Aztec mythology, had created the world. The historian Jacques Soustelle describes well the reason a ritual like the New Fire Ceremony was of such concern to the Aztecs,

At bottom the ancient Mexicans had no real confidence in the future, their fragile world was perpetually at the mercy of some disaster: there were not only the natural cataclysms and the famines, but more than that, on certain nights the monstrous divinities of the west appeared at the crossroads, and there were the wizards, those dark envoys from a mysterious world, and every fifty-two years there was the great fear that fell upon all the nations of the empire when the sun set on the last day of the 'century' and no man could tell whether it would ever rise again (114).

Xiuhtecuhtli God of Fire

The ceremony was overseen by Xiuhtecuhtli, also known as the 'Turquoise Lord', the Aztec god of fire. His name reveals not only his association with turquoise but also with Time, as xiuhitl in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, meant both 'turquoise' and 'year'. Fire, as with many other ancient cultures, was considered a fundamental element of the universe, present in all things. Xiuhtecuhtli's pillar of fire was believed to run right through the cosmos from Mictlan, the Underworld, to Topan, the Heavens. The association between the sun and fire is made in Aztec mythology with the self-sacrifice of the gods Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl who threw themselves into a fire at Teotihuacan in order to produce the Sun and Moon respectively. As we shall see, in the New Fire Ceremony one particular fire was essential to the success of ensuring the return of the life-giving sun.

Preparation For The Ceremony

Preparation for the ceremony began with the extinguishing of all fires of any kind, from temples to household hearths - the latter being especially associated with Xiuhtecuhtli. Next, a thorough cleaning operation was undertaken with the streets being swept, old hearth stones were thrown away along with old cooking utensils, old clothes too, and even idols were ceremoniously washed and cleansed. Another ritual was to tie bundles of 52 reeds together, creating a symbolic xiuhmopilli. Pregnant women were locked in granaries and their faces were painted blue in the belief that they would not then turn into monsters during the night. Children also had their faces painted and were kept from sleeping to prevent them turning into mice. Finally, as darkness fell, the populace stopped all activities, climbed the roofs of their homes and waited with a hushed silence and baited breath for what was to come.

If the fire burned brightly then Xiuhtecuhtli had blessed the people with another sun. If not, the world would end.

The Ceremony

Then, just outside the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, high priests gathered at the summit of the sacred volcanic mountain south-east of Lake Tetzcoco, Mt. Uixachtecatl (also referred to as Huixachtlan or Citlaltepec and meaning 'thorn tree place', even if it is now called 'Hill of the Star'). The priests were magnificently dressed as the gods with fine cloaks, masks, and feather headdresses and led by the figure of Quetzalcoatl. Here, on a platform visible to the whole city below, the priests waited until midnight and a precise alignment of the stars which would signal the ceremony could begin. When the Tianquiztli (the Pleiades) reached their zenith and the Yohualtecuhtli star shone brightly in the very centre of the night sky, this was the moment a human sacrifice was made. The High Priest, probably dressed as Xuihtecuhtli and wearing a turquoise mask, cut out the heart from the living victim and a fire was kindled in the empty chest cavity using the sacred firestick drill, the tlequauitl. If the fire burned brightly, then all was well and Xiuhtecuhtli had blessed the people with another sun. If the fire did not catch, then the Tzitzimime would come without pity. These terrible monsters, armed with wickedly sharp knives, would roam the dark and sunless earth slashing and eating all humanity without exception. The world would end.

Fortunately, this terrible tragedy never occurred, and after each ceremony, when the fire burned well within the victim's chest, the flame was used to light a huge pyre so that all could see the success of the ceremony in the city below. Then the flames were transferred to Tenochtitlan where they were used to light the fire at the temple of Huitzilopochtli on top of the Templo Mayor pyramid. Next, the fire at the city's Fire Temple was lit and from there, runners ensured that all the fires of the city were, once again, lit.

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Following the successful ceremony, hearth stones were renewed and offered incense and quails in thanks. Then, after a suitably pious morning of fasting, there was, understandably, a great deal of partying. The revellers wore new clothes, feasted on amaranth-seed and honey cakes, and drank pulque beer. A little later, Aztec rulers, buoyed by this divine endorsement of their rule, would embark on a series of state building projects such as Motecuhzoma I did in 1455 CE when he greatly enlarged the Templo Mayor at Tenochtitlan.

The New Fire Ceremony was successfully held in 1351, 1403, 1455, and again in 1507 CE. Curiously, although perhaps indicative of the belief that each cycle was a new beginning, the Aztecs did not specifically date different 52-year cycles. The calendar, as it were, was each time reset to zero. The last New Fire Ceremony, then, ushered in the 5th sun of the Aztec era, poignantly the last according to Aztec mythology and, with the arrival of the European invaders, so it turned out to be.

The New Fire Ceremony in Art

The New Fire Ceremony is referred to in various instances of Aztec and colonial art. Stone sculptures representing the xiuhmopilli bundles have been excavated at Tenochtitlan, each with a date stamp hieroglyph of the year they were produced. The ceremony of relighting the fires at Tenochtitlan is represented in an illustration in the Codex Borbonicus (Sheet 34), c. 1525 CE. Priests carry bundles to transfer the fire and they wear turquoise masks, as do other citizens, including women and children. Also included is an image of Montezuma (aka Motecuhzoma II), the Aztec ruler who presided over that final ceremony in 1507 CE.

One of the most famous of all Aztec artworks is the turquoise mosaic mask of Xiuhtecuhtli now in the British Museum. Perhaps similar to the masks worn by the High Priests in the Fire ceremony it has conch shell eyes and dates to the 14th century CE. Finally, the celebrated Throne of Motecuhzoma II was specifically sculpted to commemorate the New Fire Ceremony of 1507 CE. The throne has date glyphs carved on the front, a depiction of Xiuhtecuhtli and other gods at the sides, and the seat back carries a large sun disk.

The Aztec New Fire Ceremony by Gillian Hammerton

The Importance and Significance of the New Fire Ceremony in Aztec Society and Culture Ritual and religious life was very important in Aztecs Mexica.The New Fire Ceremony, or Xiuhtlalpilli, also known as the “binding of the years,” was an Aztec ritual of cosmic renewal, occurring every fifty two years involving both state and households . The Aztecs believed that the world having been created and destroyed and its renewal was cause for celebration. By Gillian Hammerton

Aztec Rituals and Religious Ceremonies

Aztec rituals and religious symbolism imbued the civilization’s life with religious meaning throughout the year. Every month had at least one major religious ceremony honoring a god or gods. Most of these ceremonies were related to the agricultural season, the sowing of corn or the harvest of fruits. In almost all major ceremonies an individual was chosen to impersonate the god, dressing as him or her. This person would be coddled as if he was the god until the time of sacrifice.

Whether the ceremonies celebrated or invoked fertility, sacred mountains, planting, renewal, trade or hunting, people fasted and feasted, dressed in their finest and danced to music in the great public plazas of Aztec cities. The priesthood organized and guided all the religious ceremonies, arranging for every necessary component and making sure they ran smoothly.

Human sacrifice was important, even vital, to the Aztecs. They embraced human sacrifice because their gods, all the gods, had sacrificed their blood and lives in creating the world and everything in it, including humans. To honor the sacrifice of the gods, man, too, had to sacrifice his blood and life. To this end, most Mesoamerican cultures featured human sacrifice, and most Aztecs went to the sacrifice willingly. We will discuss this in greater detail in another article.

Not every great ceremony or ritual required human sacrifice. In some Aztec rituals, priests and laymen would cut themselves and offer their blood to the gods. In others, small birds or other creatures were sacrificed. Nevertheless, many Aztec ceremonies required human victims.

One representative ceremony happened in spring, Tlacaxipehualiztli, which honored the god of vegetation, Xipe Totec. This fertility ritual required the sacrifice of captured warriors. Their skin was flayed from them after death, and the priests of Xipe Totec wore these human skins for the 20 days of the ceremony, which also featured gladiatorial battles and military ceremonies. In a May ceremony called Toxcatl, an individual was chosen to represent Tezcatlipoca, the god of fate or destiny. The victim was treated as and portrayed the god until the time of his sacrifice. During this 17 day-long festival, people indulged in feasting and dancing and small birds were sacrificed along with “Tezcatlipoca.”

At the end of every 360 day year was the time of Nemontemi, a period of five days to even out the 365 days of a solar year. This was a time of bad luck, and all stayed in their houses, eating little or fasting, waiting for the five days to pass. No religious ceremonies took place and no business was done.

Every 52 years, the two Aztec calendars would align and the New Fire Rites or Toxiuhmolpilia, took place. Again, all activities would cease and house and temple fires were doused. On Uixachtlan Hill, priests sacrificed a man and removed his heart. They started a fire in his chest, and from that fire, priests lit their torches and took them down the hill to the cities and the temples. In the dark of the night, Aztecs would watch the world’s fires lit again from the one sacrifice. New temple and house fires were lit by the priests. People bought new clothes, and replaced their day-to-day tools and utensils. A new cycle would begin.

Aztec rituals appear alien today to a Western observer, but the symbolism faithfully depicted their cosmological understanding of the universe.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Aztec and the New Fire Ceremony

In the pre-Columbian era, before the Spanish conquest, a variety of calendrical systems were in simultaneous use by the cultures of Mesoamerica, including both the Maya and the Aztec.

For the Aztec, two systems, the 260-day cycle (tonalpohualli) and the 365-day cycle (xiuhpohualli), were particularly important. The 260-day cycle comprised thirteen repetitions of twenty day names, and the 365-day period consisted of eighteen such "veintenas" (the Spanish name the original Nahuatl is no longer known) plus five nemontemi, or nameless days.

Because of the disparate lengths of the two cycles, the combination of tonalpohualli and xiuhpohualli dates formed an even longer cycle of approximately 52 solar years (365.25 days). After 18,980 days (the smallest number divisible by both 260 and 365 18,980 = 73 x 260 and 52 x 365) the calendar combinations would then repeat* if the world did not end first — which could only be prevented by human sacrifice.

The Last New Fire Ceremony

A complete calendar round of 52 years, and the associated New Fire ceremony, was known as xiuhmolpilli — The Binding of the Years (two such bundles comprised an Aztec century or an "old one"**). The last New Fire ceremony took place in 1507, in the reign of Motecuhzuma II (also known as Montezuma), in the veintena of Panquetzaliztli ("Raising the Banners").

That was the last time human sacrifice was made, at the temple of Huixachtlān on the top of Huixachtécatl (The Hill of the Star Spanish — Cerro de la Estrella), to keep the sun in motion lest the world end in the fall of the female star-demons, the Tzitzimimeh.

. they considered it a matter of belief that the world would come to an end at the conclusion of one of these bundles of years. They had a prophecy or oracle that at that time the movement of the heavens would cease, and they took as a sign [of this] the movement of the Pleiades. On the night of this feast, which they called Toximmolpilia [the Binding of the Years***] it so befell that the Pleiades were at the zenith at midnight with respect to the horizon in Mexico. On this night they made new fire, and before they made it, they extinguished all the fires in all the provinces, towns and houses in all of this New Spain. And they went in a solemn procession. All of the priests and servants of the temple departed from here, the Temple of Mexico, during the first quarter of the night, and went to the summit of that mountain near Itztpalapan which they call Uixachtecatl. They reached the summit at midnight, or almost, where stood a great pyramid built for that ceremony. Having reached there, they looked at the Pleiades to see if they were at the zenith, and if they were not, they waited until they were. And when they saw that now they passed the zenith, they knew the movement of the heavens had not ceased, and that the end of the world was not then. [Vol. 4, p143]

The Temple of Huixachtlān at Huixachtécatl

In the 16 th century, Tenōchtitlān, the island capital of the Aztec empire was reached across the waters of Lake Texcoco by a number of causeways. Now what remains of Tenōchtitlān lies beneath the streets of central Mexico city however, unlike the Templo Mayor, Huixachtécatl — The Hill of the Star — and Huixachtlan have remained exposed.

However, according to Ross Hassig 3 , it is likely that the temple of Huixachtlan was specially built for the New Fire ceremony of 1507, the ceremony having previously been held at the Templo Mayor in Tenōchtitlān. Hassig also notes the difficulties reconciling the location and timing of the ceremony with respect to the zenith passage Pleiades, but there is no doubt as to the importance of the New Fire ceremony to the Aztec the relocation to Huixachtécat, which was considerably higher than the Templo Mayo, may have allowed the ceremony to be "seen" by the increasing number of people under Aztec dominion.

For those not taking part in the ceremony itself there were many observances for what was, anthropologically, a "termination ritual": old pots were smashed and new ones readied for the new period, all fires were extinguished pregnant women were required to be hidden from view, and children were warned not to fall asleep lest they be turned into mice.

The end of an era was a fearful thing — especially since there was no guarantee that a new era would follow: the continuation of life required blood and sacrifice.

The ultimate origin of Aztec sacrifice in general and the New Fire ceremony in particular, was that the era in which the Aztec believed themselves to live, the Fifth Sun, was initiated when the god Nanahuatzin threw himself into the fire to create the sun however, on seeing that the sun was motionless the other gods sacrificed their blood to give him energy for his movement.

1 Sahagún, Bernardino de [Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. English & Aztec ] General history of the things of New Spain : Florentine codex / [2nd ed., rev.] (Santa Fe, N.M. : School of American Research Salt Lake City, Utah : University of Utah, 1950-1982.)
British Library Shelf-mark YA.1991.b.8408 (ISBN 087480082X)
2 Read, Kay Almere Time and sacrifice in the Aztec cosmos / (Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1998.) 98/25648 British Library Shelf-mark YC.1998.b.6799 (ISBN 0253334004)
3 Hassig, Ross Time, history, and belief in Aztec and Colonial Mexico / (Austin, TX : University of Texas Press, 2001.)

[References and quotations from the author's notes, bibliographic information via the British Library's online catalogue]

My thanks to Miguel Pérez Negrete for permission to reproduce material from his archaeology degree thesis El Templo del Fuego Nuevo en el Huixachtécatl (Cerro de la Estrella) .


The Celebration of the New Fire ceremony is described by Sahagun. During the last five days (called nemontemi [ 3 ] ) of the last year of the cycle, preparations for the ceremony began. These preparations involved abstinence from work, fasting, ritual cleansing, ritual bloodletting, destruction of old household items and observance of silence. [ 4 ] It was believed that during these days the world was in grave danger because of the instability inherent in the shift from one cycle to another. It was feared that female stellar deities, the Tzitzimime, would descend and devour the earth.

At sunset on the last day of the year, a procession of priests from the fire cult of Huehueteotl walked from the ceremonial center of Tenochtitlan across the eastbound causeway towards a mountain called Huixachtlan on the eastern bank of Lake Texcoco close to Colhuacan. [ 5 ] The summit of Huixachtlan was visible from most of the Mexico Basin. On this extinct volcano was a temple platform. At this time all fires in the Aztec realm were put out and everyone looked toward the mountain's summit. When the constellation called by the Aztecs "the fire drill" (Orion's belt) rose above the horizon, a man was sacrificed on the top of Huixachtlan and a fire drill was placed on his chest. When the first sparks of fire sprung from the fire drill, the New Calendar Round was declared begun and a huge bonfire was lit. From this bonfire torches were carried by runners to every ward of the city where the temple hearths would be lit. The first fires to be lit in this way were those at the twin temple Templo Mayor where the Tlatoani would participate, and later the fires at the Calmecac of Huitzilopochtli and subsequently the lesser temples and Calmecacs and Telpochcallis and lastly private households.

Aztec Sun Stone: Third and Fourth Eras

At the bottom left of the Aztec Sun Stone the square shows 4 Rain which, according to the Aztec beliefs, was the third era. This one lasted 312 years and was destroyed by a rain of fire during which humans were converted into turkeys. Finally, the bottom left square shows 4 Water which was the 4th era. This era had same number of years as the first era and lasted 676 years. This era ended as a result of a massive flood during which all the humans were converted into fish.

Like the Mayan calendar, the Aztec calendar consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 days and a 365-day civil cycle. The ritual cycle, or tonalpohualli, contained two smaller cycles, an ordered sequence of 20 named days and a sequence of days numbered from 1 to 13.

The rationale for Aztec human sacrifice was, first and foremost, a matter of survival. The keep the sun moving across the sky and preserve their very lives, the Aztecs had to feed Huitzilopochtli with human hearts and blood. More than 650 skulls and thousands of fragments found near Templo Mayor.

Religion may be defined as “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs,” [1] whereas ritual is “an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite.” [2] Archaeologists may study the material traces of religious ritual (for example, the ritual destruction of ceramic vessels during the Aztec New Fire ceremony [3] ) or the material correlates of religion as a totalized worldview (for example, Elizabeth Kyder-Reid's study of the Southern Redemptorists’ reconfiguration of landscape and artifacts to reflect their ideals of community and poverty in material form [4] ).

As in religious studies and the Anthropology of religion, many archaeologists differentiate between “world religions,” and “traditional” or “indigenous religions.” “World religions” are defined by Bowie (2000: 26) [5] as:

  1. Based on written scriptures.
  2. Has a notion of salvation, often from outside.
  3. Universal, or potentially universal.
  4. Can subsume or supplant primal religions.
  5. Often forms a separate sphere of activity.
  1. Oral, or if literate, lacks written/formal scriptures and creeds.
  2. ‘This worldly’.
  3. Confined to a single language or ethnic group.
  4. Form basis from which world religions have developed.
  5. Religious and social life are inseparable. [5]

However, Timothy Insoll (2004: 9) [6] has argued that these categorizations arise from a much-critiqued neo-evolutionary perspective. Strict dichotomies of religious forms may also contribute to skewing research toward state religions, leaving household religious practice, and the relationships between these, under-investigated (a trend noted by Elson and Smith, 2001 [7] ). Insoll (2004:9) argues that archaeologists may contribute to blurring the boundaries of world and indigenous religions.

The archaeology of religion also incorporates related anthropological or religious concepts and terms such as magic, tradition, symbolism, and the sacred.

Anthropology of religion Edit

Theory within the archaeology of religion borrows heavily from the Anthropology of religion, which encompasses a broad range of perspectives. These include: Émile Durkheim’s functionalist understanding of religion as serving to separate the sacred and the profane [8] Karl Marx’s idea of religion as “the opium of the masses” or a false consciousness, [9] Clifford Geertz’s loose definition of religion as a “system of symbols” that orders the world, [10] Victor Turner’s work on ritual, including rites of passage and liminality, [11] Max Weber’s religious types [12] and thoughts on the relationship between economics and religion [13] Claude Lévi-Strauss’ structuralist understandings of totemism and myth [14] and Mary Douglas’ idea of the division of “purity and danger”. [15]

Religion, identity, and practice Edit

Archaeological studies of religion increasingly recognize religion as an organizing principle in social life, rather than as a separate sphere of activity. They include religion as an axis of identity that structures social life and personal experience. Therefore, entire artifact assemblages (rather than specifically “religious” artifacts, such as rosary beads) can be interpreted according to the ways that they simultaneously create, display, and constrain notions of self according to religious ideas. For example, John Chenoweth (2009) [16] interpreted ceramic assemblages and burials according to Quaker ideals of plainness and modesty.

Because social identity is both imposed and negotiated through social practice, including material practice, archaeologies of religion increasingly incorporate practice-based theory. Building upon Anthony Giddens’ idea of structuration [17] and Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas of both practice [18] and cultural capital, [19] theories of material practice posit that people use material goods to negotiate their places within social structures. Examples of the archaeological interpretation of religion and ritual as part of social negotiation, transformation or reinforcement include Chenoweth’s work on Quaker religious practice, [16] Kyder-Reid’s work on the Southern Redemptorists, [20] and Timothy Pauketat’s work on feasting in Cahokia (Pauketat et al., 2002 [21] ).

Religion, power, and inequality Edit

Because religion and political power are often intertwined [22] [23] particularly in early states, the archaeology of religion may also engage theories of power and inequality. John Janusek’s study of Tiwanaku religion, for example, explored the ways that religion served to integrate societies within the Andean state. [24] Colonial regimes frequently justified expansion through a commitment to religious conversion archaeologies of coloniality may therefore intersect with the archaeology of religion. James Delle’s 2001 article on missions and landscape in Jamaica [25] and Barbara Voss’ work on missions, sexuality and empire [26] demonstrate how religion has intersected with colonial regimes.

Historical method and theory Edit

Historical archaeologists have made major contributions to the understanding of the religion and ritual of peoples who have remained underrepresented (or misrepresented) in the historical record, such as colonized peoples, indigenous peoples, and enslaved peoples. Mandatory religious conversion was common in many colonial situations (e.g. the Spanish colonization of the Americas), which led to syncretic religious practice, rejection or resistance to new religions, covert practice of indigenous religions, and/or misunderstandings and misinterpretations of both indigenous and colonizer religions (Hanks 2010 [27] Klor de Alva 1982, [28] Wernke 2007 [29] ).

This research combines archaeological and anthropological method and theory with historical method and theory. In addition to recovering, recording, and analyzing material culture, historical archaeologists use archives, oral histories, ethnohistorical accounts. Researchers read texts critically, emphasizing the historical context of the documents (especially regarding underrepresented peoples whose voices may be distorted or missing) in order to better understand religious practices that may have been discouraged or even severely punished. Combined archaeological, historical, and anthropological data sets may contradict each other, or the material record may illuminate the details of covert or syncretic religious practice, as well as resistance to dominant religious forms. For example, our understanding of the religious practice of enslaved peoples in the United States (e.g. Leone and Frye 2001, [30] Fennell 2007 [31] ) has increased dramatically thanks to research in historical archaeology.

Because archaeology studies human history through objects, buildings, bodies, and spaces, archaeologists must engage theories that connect anthropological and sociological theories of religion to material culture and landscapes. Theories of materiality [32] and landscape [33] serve to connect human activities, experiences, and behaviors to social practices, including religion. Theories of embodiment [34] also serve to interpret human remains as they relate to religion and ritual.

The archaeology of religion makes use of the same material evidence as other branches of archaeology, but certain artifact classes are particularly emphasized in studying religion and ritual in the past:

  • Human remains and burial assemblages can offer many clues to religious and ritual activity. [35] Human remains themselves are used in all branches of archaeology for information on sex, age, occupation, and disease. Methods of interment (including burial position, cremation, burial location, primary and secondary burials, etc.) contribute to understanding changing religious practice, as well as social difference within groups (e.g. Lohmann 2005 [36] ). Total burial contexts, i.e., the setting, artifacts, ecofacts, and human remains themselves, may provide evidence of religious beliefs about death and the afterworld.
  • Religious buildings, such as temple complexes, kivas, and missions, are often used to examine communal religious and ritual activity (e.g. Barnes 1995, [37] Graham 1998, [38] Reid et al. 1997 [39] ). Part of archaeoastronomy is the investigation of how buildings are aligned to astral bodies and events, such as solstices, which often coincide with religious or ritual activities. Archaeological examinations of religious buildings can reveal unequal access to religious knowledge and ritual. Religious buildings frequently contain religious iconography that provides insight into the symbolic dimensions of religious life.
  • Within landscape archaeology, sacred landscapes are an increasingly important focus of study (e.g. Clendinnen 1980 [40] ). Landscapes are imbued with sacred meaning throughout the world aboriginal Australiansonglines, and the related belief that mythical events are marked on the landscape, are one example. Human modifications to landscapes, such as Kyder-Reid's study of the Redemtorists’ modifications of their estate to emphasize communality, [41] may point to the enactment of religious views.
  • Religious iconography, symbols, [42]ethnographic texts and ethnographic analogy are important tools that archaeologists use to compare with the material record to examine religions in the past (e.g. Clendinnen 1980, [43] Elson and Smith 2001 [44] ). Though texts are not direct “windows to the past,” particularly for societies with few or no written records, they are valuable lines of evidence that may be contradicted or supported by the material record.
  • Common artifact classes such as ceramics have been increasingly reinterpreted within a religious framework. According to the idea of religion as a form of social practice and a total worldview, any artifact may potentially be used to embody religious ideas and ideals in material form. Patterns of artifact and ecofact use within ritual contexts may expose preferences or sacred meanings of certain materials the ritual use of pine among the ancient Maya is one example (Morehart, Lentz, and Prufer 2005 [45] ).

Africa Edit

  • Evolving religious structure in Egypt (Baines 1987) [46]
  • Ritual and political process in Tanzania (Hakansson 1998) [47]
  • Tswana religion and Christianity in Botswana and South Africa (Reid et. Al. 1997) [48]

Americas Edit

  • Contemporary Maya shrines (Brown 2004) [49]
  • Landscape and Yucatec Maya religious practice (Clendinnen 1980) [50]
  • Christian missions in the Americas (Graham 1998) [51]
  • Religion and the State in the Andes (Janusek 2006) [52]
  • Religious architecture and religious transformation in colonial Peru (Wernke 2007) [29]
  • Early American slavery and African American religion (Leone and Frye 2001), [30] Fennell (2007) [31]

Asia Edit

  • Buddhism in India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia (Barnes 1995) [53]
  • Early Hinduism in Rajasthan (Hooja 2004) [54]

Europe Edit

  • Christianity and Anglo-Saxon burial practices (Crawford 2004) [55]
  • Religion in Minoan Crete (Herva 2006) [56]
  • Women and medieval burials (Gilchrist 2008) [57]

Australia/South Pacific Edit

  • Burials and religious practice in Papua New Guinea (Lohmann 2005) [58]
  • Dreaming cosmology and Australian seascapes (McNiven 2003) [59]

Modern religious use of archaeological sites Edit

Contemporary religious groups often claim archaeological sites as part of their heritage, and make use of archaeological sites and artifacts in their religious practice (e.g. Wallis 2003 [60] ). These practices and religious interpretations of sites may clash with archaeological interpretations, leading to disputes about heritage, preservation, use of sites, and the “ownership” of history (Bender 1999 [61] ).

Biblical archaeology Edit

Biblical archaeology is a field of archaeology that seeks to correlate events in the Bible with concrete archaeological sites and artifacts (Meyers 1984, [62] Richardson 1916 [63] ).


Xiuhtecuhtli's face is painted with black and red pigment. [16] Xiuhtecuhtli was usually depicted adorned with turquoise mosaic, wearing the turquoise xiuhuitzolli crown of rulership on his head and a turquoise butterfly pectoral on his chest, [26] and he often wears a descending turquoise xiuhtototl bird (Cotinga amabilis) on his forehead and the Xiuhcoatl fire serpent on his back. [27] He owns fire serpent earplugs. [12] On his head he has a paper crown painted with different colors and motifs. On top of the crown there are sprays of green feathers, like flames from a fire. [12] He has feather tufts to each side, like pendants, toward his ears. On his back he has plumage resembling a dragon's head, made of yellow feathers with marine conch shells. [12] He has copper bells tied to the insteps of his feet. In his left hand he holds a shield with five greenstones, called chalchihuites, placed in the form of a cross on a thin gold plate that covered almost all the shield. [12] In his right hand he has a kind of scepter that was a round gold plate with a hole in the middle, and topped by two globes, one larger than the other, the smaller one had a point. [12] Xiuhtecuhtli is closely associated with youthful warriors and with rulership, and was considered a solar god. [28] His principal symbols are the tecpatl (flint) and the mamalhuatzin, the two sticks that were rubbed together to light ceremonial fires. [29] A staff with a deer's head was also an attribute of Xiuhtecuhtli, although not exclusively so as it could also be associated with Xochiquetzal and other deities. [30]

Many of the attributes of Xiuhtecuhtli are found associated with Early Postclassic Toltec warriors but clear representations of the god are not common until the Late Postclassic. [27] The nahual, or spirit form, of Xiuhtecuhtli is Xiuhcoatl, the Fire Serpent. [31]

Xiuhtecuhtli was embodied in the teotecuilli, the sacrificial brazier into which sacrificial victims were cast during the New Fire ceremony. [31] This took place at the end of each cycle of the Aztec calendar round (every 52 years), [32] when the gods were thought to be able to end their covenant with humanity. Feasts were held in honor of Xiuhtecuhtli to keep his favors, and human sacrifices were burned after removing their heart.

The annual festival of Xiuhtecuhtli was celebrated in Izcalli, the 18th veintena of the year. [33] The Nahuatl word izcalli means "stone house" and refers to the building where maize used to be dried and roasted between mid-January and mid-February. The whole month was therefore devoted to fire. [14] The Izcalli rituals grew in importance every four years. [34] A framework image of the deity was constructed from wood and was richly finished with clothing, feathers and an elaborate mask. [33] Quails were sacrificed to the idol and their blood spilt before it and copal was burnt in his honour. [35] On the day of the festival, the priests of Xiuhtecuhtli spent the day dancing and singing before their god. [36] People caught animals, including mammals, birds, snakes, lizards and fish, for ten days before the festival in order to throw them into the hearth on the night of the festival. [37] On the tenth day of Izcalli, during a festival called huauhquiltamalcualiztli ("eating of the amaranth leaf tamales"), the New Fire was lighted, signifying the change of the annual cycle and the rebirth of the fire deity. [38] During the night the image of the god was lit with using the mamalhuatzin. [39] Food was consumed ritually, including shrimp tamales, after first offering it to the god. [37]

Every four years a more solemn version of the festival was held at the temple of Xiuhtecuhtli in Tenochtitlan, attended by the emperor and his nobles. [41] Slaves and captives were dressed as the deity and sacrificed in his honour. [42] Godparents were assigned to children on this day and the children had their ears ritually pierced. After this, the children, their parents and godparents all shared a meal together. [41]

Xiuhtecuhtli was celebrated often but especially at the end of every 52-year period. This was the time the 365-day solar and the 260-day sacred calendars ended on the same day and the Aztec celebrated the Binding of the Years with the New Fire Ceremony. [17] In order to perform the ritual, priests marched in solemn procession up the Hill of the Star on a peninsula near Culhuacán to wait for the star Yohualtecuhtli (either Aldebaran in the Taurus constellation or the Pleiades as a whole) to get past its zenith. Having ascertained this, they would tear out the heart of a sacrificial victim and kindle a flame in a small wooden hearth they placed inside the hole left in his chest. Priests used a drill method to generate this sacred flame. It was then carried on pine sticks to light the fires anew in every hearth, including the sacred braziers of perpetual fire, that numbered over 600 in the capital alone. [43]

A set of six postage stamps issued by the Royal Mail in 2003 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the British Museum featured a mask of Xiuhtecuhtli alongside other Museum objects such as the Sutton Hoo helmet and Hoa Hakananai'a. [44]

Other kinds of ceramic materials

In addition to ceramic vessels, Vaillant excavated a range of other ceramic artifacts including objects such as spindle whorls, flutes, whistles, rattles, and stamps. Spindle whorls provide insight on the local economy. Jeffrey and Mary Parsons have conducted studies showing that based on weight, whorls weighing under 11 grams are best suited for spinning cotton whorls weighing between 11 and 30 grams fall into the optimal range for producing fine maguey fiber and whorls weighing over 30 grams are best-suited for spinning corse maguey fibers. Frederic Hicks has reviewed the role of cloth in the Aztec economy. Generally, commoners wore clothes woven out of maguey while cotton clothing was reserved for nobles. The textiles produced for men and women's clothing include loincloths, capes, shirts, skirts, and thehuipil (a wide-sleeved woman's pullover garment). Maguey and cotton were also woven to produce shrouds, bags, armor, and bedding. Ethnohistorical documents tell us that spinning was an activity performed in the household by women of all social positions. At Chiconautla, the majority of whorls from excavated contexts (182 out of 224) are whorls that weigh less than 11 grams. Eight whorls weigh between 11 and 30 grams and 34 whorls weigh over 30 grams. In the Late Aztec Period, cotton clothing was in great demand. Garments were produced to fulfill tribute demands, to exchange for exotic goods, and to use in gift-exchange. Besides spindle whorls, cloth production could have incorporated artifacts like prismatic obsidian blades for making spinning implements and cutting cloth and salt, which was used as a mordant in dying cloth.

Sound devices made of ceramic including rattles, flutes, whistles, rasps and bells also were found at Chiconautla. A study by Robert Stevenson describes the role music played in Aztec society. It was an important accompaniment to rituals like prayers and sacrifices. Smoking pipes and figurines also commonly are classified as ritual items. Aztec pipes, used to smoke tobacco, are known to have been made of ceramic and bone.

Figurines found at Chiconautla represent humans (both males and females), animals, and objects like models of temples. Vaillant suggested that most figurines represent rain and water deities or female deities associated with fertility and probably were used within the domestic sphere of ritual. Christine Chen recently has reanalyzed the Chiconautla figurines and her results support Vaillant's original assertion. Out of 509 figurine fragments, 91% (462) are fragments of human figures. While only 209 of the 462 human fragments are identifiable by gender, 90% (188) of these are female figures.

Watch the video: Fire Ceremony