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The disc-shaped stone measured 12 feet in diameter and 3 feet thick. It was covered with pagan symbols. The Spanish had contemptuously buried it underneath the Zocalo, or central plaza of the city, soon after they toppled the Aztec empire in 1521. The new rulers also tore down the pagan grand temple and, at the opposite end of the plaza, built a large cathedral to worship their own deity.
Though the stone carries calendrical and astronomical decoration, it’s now thought that it wasn’t used primarily to keep time, but as an altar for human sacrifice. Mexican anthropologists refer to it as the Cuauhxicalli Eagle Bowl or simply the Sun Stone — for the sun god Tonatuih, whose visage appears at the center.
Soon after its 1790 discovery, the 25-ton stone was again ritually subjugated to the new religion, this time by embedding it in the wall of the cathedral’s western tower.
Based on the earlier Mayan timekeeping, the Aztecs used two different types of year. A ritual calendar of 260 days rotated 20 divine symbols into a “week” with 13 numbered days. After 20 weeks, each sign (associated with a god) had appeared in each of the 13 slots, and the cycle was complete.