I want to illustrate the importance of the context of objects. Ancient objects are often considered as art objects, fine examples of ancient art and craftsmanship. While there is nothing wrong with this, it is a very limited view of artifacts and finds. A broader perspective considers the context of objects--where they were found and what they were found associated with. This enriches our understanding of artifacts and ancient art objects greatly.
Consider this circular stone object. Becuase it is upside-down in the photo, here is a right-side-up drawing of the reliefs on the sides: (drawing by Hanns Prem).
If we interpret this object without context, here is what we learn. This is an Aztec sacrificial altar, about one meter in diameter. Its form and the style of the carvings conform to the Mexica style of Tenochtitlan. The relief emblem is the symbol of precious blood. If one had to guess, the most likely place of origin would be Tenochtitlan. The object provides an additional example of Aztec sacrificial altars and give us a few insights into the symbolism of blood and sacrifice.
Now let us consider this object in context. The photo below shows the location of this altar as it was excavated in the 1930s by José García Payón in front of structure 3 at Calixtlahuaca:
What else can we say about the object now that we know where it came from?
(1) An object in the Mexica style was used at Calixtlahuaca in the Toluca Valley. This brings up a number of questions: Was this stone lugged all the way from Tenochtitlan, or was it carved locally? Who carved it--a local artist familiar with the Mexica style, or a Mexica artist who went to Calixtlahuaca? How can we explain the implied interaction between Calixtlahuaca and Tenochtitlan? There are interesting and important questions, but they had no meaning until we knew where this altar came from.
(2) A sacrificial altar was excavated, and presumably had been used, at a temple dedicated to Ehecatl, the god of wind. Most prior archaeological evidence of Aztec human sacrifice has come from rectangular temples dedicated to other gods, not the circular temples of Ehecatl. So it seems that sacrifice may have been part of the cult of Ehecatl, which may be a new interpretation. (I must admit my somewhat limited knowledge of Aztec religion here; I hope that some of the experts will evaluate this statement and set me straight it it is not correct).
(3) Human sacrifice, at a temple built in the Aztec style using an altar carved in the Mexica style, was practiced in provincial areas like Calixtlahuaca. This find corroborates other evidence excavated at Calixtlahuaca by García Payón.
It is clear that context provides a much richer and more extensive interpretation of objects like this than when they are presented and considered in isolate as art objects.
I am thankful to Arquitecta Ana Luisa Elías Moreno of the Centro INAH Toluca for this photo from the 1930s excavations at Calixtlahuaca. I already had a copy of the first photo at the top, showing the alter in place, but it was not completely certain where at the temple the altar was found. The photo from the INAH office confirms this.