Article

David Saavedra


Lost Treasure

A gold bar found in Mexico once belonged to a mighty ancient empire.

As You Read, Think About: Why do experts think the gold bar is such an important artifact?

June 30, 1520: A fierce battle breaks out in the capital of a great empire. The Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, is found dead. Aztec warriors chase Spanish invaders from Tenochtitlán (tay-nawch-teet-LAHN), their biggest city.   

The fleeing Spanish carry bars of gold and other treasures they stole from the Aztecs. Some soldiers drop the gold as they try to escape through the city’s canals. Weighed down by the loot, others fall into the water and drown. To the Spanish, that night becomes known as La Noche Triste, or “the Sad Night.” 

Now, nearly 500 years later, researchers have determined that a gold bar discovered in Mexico was part of the Aztec treasure lost on that historic night.

It’s June 30, 1520. A battle breaks out in the capital of a great empire. The Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, is found dead. Aztec warriors chase Spanish invaders from their biggest city. Its name is Tenochtitlán (tay-nawch-teet-LAHN).  

The fleeing Spanish carry gold bars they stole from the Aztecs. Some soldiers drop the gold as they try to escape through the city’s canals. Others are weighed down by the loot. They fall into the water and drown. To the Spanish, that night becomes known as La Noche Triste, or “the Sad Night.”

It’s now nearly 500 years later. Researchers have determined that a gold bar discovered in Mexico was part of the treasure lost that night.

A Great Empire

David Saavedra

The Aztecs were a wandering people who settled in what is now central Mexico beginning in the late 13th century. They built a powerful civilization that thrived for about 200 years.

“There were several million Aztecs,” says Michael Smith, an archaeology professor at Arizona State University. “They had a large, complex society.”

The Aztecs built vast temples and palaces, developed advanced methods of farming, and created a writing system using symbols. Aztec children went to school and studied history, art, and music. 

Tenochtitlán was the center of the empire. It was set on an island in a lake and had canals for streets. 

The Aztecs were a wandering people. They settled in what is now central Mexico beginning in the late 13th century. They built a powerful civilization that thrived for about 200 years.

“There were several million Aztecs,” says Michael Smith. He’s an archaeology professor at Arizona State University. “They had a large, complex society.”

The Aztecs built vast temples and palaces. They also developed advanced methods of farming and created a writing system using symbols. Aztec kids went to school and studied history, art, and music.

Tenochtitlán was the center of the empire. The city was on an island in a lake. It had canals for streets.

Surprise Visitors

In 1519, the Aztec Empire was at the peak of its power when conquistadors, or conquerors from Spain, arrived. They were led by Hernán Cortés (ehr-NAN kor-TEZ). Montezuma II was uncertain about the visitors, but he invited them to stay in his palace. The Spaniards weren’t very good guests, however. For one thing, they began stealing Aztec jewelry. 

“They wanted gold that they could carry back to Spain,” says Smith. “They had metalworkers melt down a lot of the jewelry and form it into gold bars.”

Soon the relationship grew sour, and the Spanish took Montezuma II prisoner. Historians aren’t sure exactly who killed him on June 30, 1520, but they agree that his death was the beginning of the end of the Aztec Empire. After fleeing Tenochtitlán that night, Cortés and his army returned about a year later. They soon conquered the Aztecs and established a new colony.

In 1519, the Aztec Empire was at the peak of its power. Conquistadors, or conquerors from Spain, arrived that year. They were led by Hernán Cortés (ehr-NAN kor-TEZ). Montezuma II was uncertain about the visitors. Still, he invited them to stay in his palace. The Spaniards weren’t very good guests, though. For one thing, they began stealing Aztec jewelry.

“They wanted gold that they could carry back to Spain,” says Smith. “They had metalworkers melt down a lot of the jewelry and form it into gold bars.”

Soon the relationship grew sour. The Spanish took Montezuma II prisoner. Historians aren’t sure exactly who killed him on June 30, 1520. Yet they agree that his death was the beginning of the end of the Aztec Empire. Cortés and his army left Tenochtitlán that night. But they returned about a year later. They soon conquered the Aztecs and established a new colony.

A Golden Clue

INAH/National Institute of Anthropology and History/Reuters

In 1981, a construction worker was digging at the site of a new bank in Mexico City. He pulled something unexpected from the mud: a large gold bar weighing about 4 pounds. 

Archaeologists studied the bar, but questions remained about its origin. Now, nearly 40 years later, experts have confirmed that it is stolen Aztec treasure dropped by the fleeing conquistadors. 

The bar was found in what had been a canal that Cortés and his soldiers used to escape. Experts analyzed the gold with a special type of X-ray and matched it with other gold Aztec artifacts from that time period. 

Smith says the gold bar is the first direct evidence of the events of La Noche Triste—and a connection to one of the great ancient civilizations.

In 1981, a construction worker was digging at the site of a new bank in Mexico City. He pulled something unexpected from the mud. It was a gold bar weighing about 4 pounds.

Now, nearly 40 years later, experts have figured out where the bar came from. They confirmed that it is stolen Aztec treasure dropped by the Spanish soldiers.

The bar was found in what had been a canal that the soldiers used to escape. Experts analyzed the gold with a special type of X-ray. Then they matched it with other gold Aztec artifacts from that time period.

Smith says the gold bar is the first real evidence of the events of La Noche Triste. Plus, he says, it’s a connection to one of the great ancient civilizations.

1. What were some achievements of the Aztecs?

2. How did the relationship between Montezuma II and Hernán Cortés change?

3. What is the section “A Golden Clue” mostly about?

1. What were some achievements of the Aztecs?

2. How did the relationship between Montezuma II and Hernán Cortés change?

3. What is the section “A Golden Clue” mostly about?

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