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"Past is present everywhere in Mexico," says López Luján. That is especially true of the Aztec Empire, virtually all of which resides just beneath the footsteps of a modern nation.

When word spread in 1978 that the Templo Mayor had been firmly located in the heart of the world's second most populous city, the resulting spectacle was more like a Broadway opening than an archaeological triumph. Jimmy Carter, François Mitterrand, Gabriel García Márquez, Jacques Cousteau, and Jane Fonda were among the dozens of celebrities who were treated to a tour of the dig site, some by Mexico's President José López Portillo, whose controversial decision to raze 13 buildings had made the excavation possible. And now it is happening again, with news circulating that one or more rulers may be entombed underneath the Zócalo's periphery. Today López Luján spends an inordinate amount of time chaperoning VIPs through the cramped and shrouded excavation site on the western edge of the pyramid. The Mexican press responds in droves to the latest archaeological revelations. Ordinary folks rap on the secure entrance to ask for a look; López Luján often obliges. The round-faced, good-humored, 46-year-old scholar understands the psychic pull. "Right now Mexicans realize they are living in a tragic present," he says. "But the past gives the people a way of saying they're somebody."

Unlike the Maya, Mesoamerica's other pre-Columbian powerhouse, the Aztec are exclusively identified with Mexico, and today it spares no opportunity to mythologize them. In the center of the Mexican flag is the Aztec eagle, which is also incorporated into the logos of the nation's two main airlines. There is Banco Azteca and TV Azteca, and the national soccer team wears uniforms featuring the iconic eagle and plays its home games in Estadio Azteca. And of course Mexico City itself—the nerve center of the nation—is an implicit homage to the city-state of Tenochtitlan and to Aztec indomitability.

But to see the Aztec in strictly iconic terms is to misunderstand them. To begin with, the mighty Aztec sustained their empire—the triple alliance of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan—for less than a century before it was eviscerated by European conquerors. For all the fear and loathing the rulers instilled in conquered regions, their dominion was ephemeral. They did not erect temples and disseminate cultural traditions across the countryside as the ancient Romans or Inca did. Instead, the Aztec maintained what some scholars call "a cheap empire," one in which the conquered were permitted to continue governing themselves so long as they ponied up tributary objects—a protection scheme buttressed by periodic shows of force. The Aztec chose to express their ingenuity largely in the epicenter of Tenochtitlan. Yet the great city was in many ways a repository of customs, images, and spiritual practices borrowed from previous civilizations. As López Luján's father, the Mesoamerican scholar Alfredo López Austin, puts it, "The most common misconception is that the Aztec were a completely original culture. They weren't."

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