Carballo: When smallpox and other diseases spread through Mexico, it would have seemed to Mesoamericans that their known world was crumbling around them. If the specter of mass deaths due to pandemic disease were removed, European colonialism in Latin America might have looked somewhat more like how it unfolded in British India, French Indochina, or Dutch Indonesia. But the conquering zeal of the conquistadors was the product of a cultural and historical moment. Other Spaniards invaded throughout the Americas and across the Pacific to Guam and the Philippines. Pedro de Alvarado was convinced he could use the same template from Mexico to go invade China and was heading to the Pacific to give that a try before he got caught up in a native rebellion where he met his demise.
Read: How disease and conquest carved a new planetary landscape
Frum: The urban core of the Aztec empire has been overbuilt by one of the world’s hugest cities. I started visiting Mexico as a boy in the 1960s. I remember how exciting it was to see the Templo Mayor complex be gradually unearthed. Obviously, this cannot be repeated everywhere. But if you were granted magical powers to banish traffic and levitate the present structures, where would you want to dig, and why?
Carballo: This is one of the great paradoxes of Aztec archaeology. The former imperial capital was buried underneath Mexico City. As a result, even though the textual records are very rich, our archaeological understanding of the capital city is limited to a few select windows excavated within the modern metropolis. We have a much better archaeological understanding of pre-Aztec Teotihuacan, where we have much of the ancient city intact but only meager texts. For Tenochtitlan, as for Rome, many ruins came to light opportunistically through constructing the foundations of houses, sewers, and Mexico City’s metro. The largest window, as you note, is at the main temple, the Templo Mayor, currently being excavated by Leonardo López Luján and team. Thankfully, the cathedral was not built directly on top of it, or it would have never been excavated. The Urban Archaeology Program, directed by Raúl Barrera Rodríguez, is also important. This project has recently uncovered parts of Tenochtitlan’s ball court, a major school for priests, and a skull rack displaying the heads of sacrificial victims.
There are several other spots we know of only textually that would be projects of a lifetime. For treasure hunters, the best would be somewhere along the former Tacuba causeway, now a street of the same name, where Mexican forces attacked Spaniards while expelling them from the city. The fleeing foreigners are said to have been weighed down by loads of gold and other finery they were attempting to smuggle out but sunk to the bottom of the lake during the attack. Another great place to excavate would be the zoo and aviary that Moctezuma and other great speakers had near their palaces. They may have inspired European sovereigns to develop the same.
My interests lie more in the quotidian: what life was like for the majority of the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. If I had my choice, I would excavate in a neighborhood center that would show what the local houses, temples, plazas, schools, marketplaces, and other facets of urban life most people experienced looked like. In better understanding chapters of the human story not simply as great-man narratives, we need to know how most people lived and their active participation in creating history.