Mexico: Discovery of ancient tombstone sheds new light on early years of Christianity

The grave of a 16th Century Mexican priest accidentally discovered during building works sheds new light on the early days of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The tomb of a prominent priest has been discovered on the site of a former Cathedral.Reuters

A heavy stone slab covering the tomb of one of the first Catholic priests in Mexico has been unearthed at the former site of the first cathedral of Mexico City, built in 1524.

The tomb stone was accidentally uncovered when engineers were digging foundations for a lamp post, metres from the current cathedral built in the 1620s. It reveals more details about how the Spanish, who arrived in Mexico in 1521, reused the Aztec temples they found in the capital and turned them into cathedrals.

The discovery by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) may shed new light on evangelisation in the first decades of the conquest.

A view of the tombstone and possible tomb of Miguel de Palomares.Reuters

The slab – which is almost two metres long – shows that the cathedral was built on top of an Aztec temple, as it appears to have been sunk into the base that was once the temple's floor.

"The Spaniards, Hernán Cortes and his followers, made use of the pre-Hispanic structures, the temples, the foundations, the floors," said Raúl Barrera, an archaeologist at the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico.

"They even used the walls, the floors. They couldn't destroy everything all at once."

It appears that the Aztec temple floor was simply given a thin coat of lime whitewash before being used by the church.

The Spanish would build churches on top of Aztec temples to signal the domination of Catholicism over old Aztec gods. There were also practical movtivations, as the temples had solid foundations, flooring and walls.

The priest named on the stone is Miguel de Palomares, who was a prominent Spanish canon who integrated the first ecclesiastical council of Mexico in the sixteenth century. He died in 1542 and was buried within the old cathedral, near the altar.

Archaeologists have found stones near one end of the slab which are thought to be remnants of the altar, according to Barrera.

Archaeologists will confirm that the slab is Palomares' burial site after they lift the stone slab in the coming weeks and hope to find his remains.