Teotihucan: A Land of Pyramids, Secret Tunnels and Robots

Archaeology is a field of study where patience is a virtue. Having a bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. In popular culture, archaeologists are seen as people who discover “lost cities,” “mysterious pyramids” and “precious treasures.” In real life, things are much more exciting.

Consider a recent development in archaeological investigations in one of Mexico’s largest pre-hispanic cities, sporting some the largest pyramids in the Americas. Never lost to the sands of time, this Mexican metropolis had a street plan laid out in a grid, very much like modern U.S. cities, and it had ethnic neighborhoods, where people were buried in the traditional ways of their homeland. Some people in this city knew how to read and write, yet we don’t know what they said. Meet Teotihuacan, where it is said the “gods were born.” This is also the story of Sergio Gomez, a Mexican archaeologist who experienced luck, when he found the entrance to a tunnel in 2009, and then displayed extreme patience excavating it.

Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Image Wikimedia)

Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Image Wikimedia)

With a history going back to 100 B.C., Teotihuacan was one of two major civilizations that arose in the Basin of Mexico, home to modern-day Mexico City. The other civilization we know as the Aztec. Separated by more than 1,000 years, both civilizations stand out for their monumental architecture, especially their massive pyramids.

teoti4

The Aztec were fully aware of the existence of the ancient city of Teotihuacan. They even incorporated Teotihuacan ceramics as offerings in the Aztec Templo Mayor, a transfer of magic powers from an ancient power center to a new, nascent one. By 700 A.D. the city came to a violent end, but was never completely abandoned. In the centuries following the decline, migrants came and went as Teotihuacan’s pyramids continued to tower over small communities of newcomers. At present, Mexico’s capital is inching closer and closer. A modern Mexican community, San Juan Teotihuacan, now sits on top of what were once Teotihuacan’s neighborhoods.

teoti2

Map showing the location of Teotihuacan in central Mexico in relation to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

Teotihuacan deserves the label metropolis. It was laid out along a north – south axis, most famously known as the “Avenue of the Dead.” At the northern end of this Avenue, we find the famous Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

teoti5

Closer to the intersection of the Avenue with a second, East – West axis, there are the remnants of the city’s market, as well as a compound dubbed the “Ciudadela” by the Spanish. It was centered on the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, a sunken plaza large enough to hold most of the city’s inhabitants.

It was here, in front of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, that a three-foot wide sinkhole appeared in the fall of 2003, the result of a torrential downpour. Sergio Gómez was the first person to enter this sinkhole, and found himself standing in a tunnel the extended underneath the Temple – the first person in centuries to have done so.

teoti3

Early in 2004, a team of 20 archaeologists started scanning the tunnel from the surface, using ground penetrating radar. This radar map was finished in 2005 and showed that the tunnel extended for about 330 feet (100 meters); it reached the center of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. It took until 2009 to receive government permission and funding to start working below the surface in the actual tunnel. Work was slow and progress was measured in feet per month. Shortly before writing this, the team got to the end of the tunnel. They had removed more than 1,000 tons of earth. Mixed in this dirt were approximately 75,000 artifacts. Among these discoveries were a statue of a jaguar, jaguar bones, pottery, obsidian knives, solid rubber balls, and Pacific Ocean conch shells.

The 75,000 artifacts will keep archaeologists busy for years to come. The tunnel itself requires more exploration as well. Two small remote controlled robots, named Tlaloque and Tlaloc II helped identify the presence of three buried chambers at the end of the tunnel, which still need to be investigated. Some archaeologists wonder if these chambers might contain the burial of one of the elusive Teotihuacan rulers.

"TLÁLOC II-TC"

Teotihuacan is slow to reveal its secrets. Archaeologists are still trying to come to grips with the ways in which it governed itself. Maya archaeologists are fascinated by the so-called Teotihuacan entrada, an intriguing episode in the history of Maya cities where there is clear evidence of Teotihuacan influence. To a large extent, the city and its namesake civilization remain a mystery. I wonder if future archaeologists will ever say similar things about our own cities…

Further reading

Berrin, Kathleen, and Esther Pasztory, 1993. Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Cowgill, George, 2015. Ancient Teotihuacan. Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. (Case Studies in Early Societies). New York: Cambridge University Press.

A Vision of La Virgen: Interview with Ferguz, Mexico City’s Pintor Espiritual

translation by Ivan Perez

Felipe Gonzalez, known in the art world of Mexico City as Ferguz, is one of millions of North Americans inspired by the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, but his fine art pushes the world-famous Mexican icon to its limits. Using a variety of media to create shimmering minimalistic variations on the traditional image, Ferguz’s work is a captivating dance of color, texture and historical context. An example of his approach appears in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s newest exhibit, La Virgen of Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas. When Ferguz came to see it in context during opening weekend, we jumped at the chance to sit down and ask him about his work.

ferguz1

HMNS: Tell us about the piece of art that you have in the exhibit.

Ferguz: It is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I painted from my point of view. The painting has a base color of Mexican pink or a type of fuchsia, which I mixed with gold to represent the splendor of the Virgin, and towards the bottom of the painting where the cherub is located, I added my self-portrait as a way to integrate myself into the painting. It was a way for me to make the piece more contemporary and also more minimalistic.

HMNS: Why is la Virgen de Guadalupe so inspirational to you? Why did you choose to paint la Virgen?

Ferguz: She’s always been an inspiration to me. I believe that Mexican Catholicism is really strong, as is the faith that is evoked by her, and as the saying goes, “Faith can move mountains.” I’ve always been attracted to religious and spiritual themes, and my art has always reflected that.

ferguz2

HMNS: How does it feel to have your work in a museum, especially in a natural science museum?

Ferguz: It is a huge privilege and an honor that I have been asked to have my work shown here. This is a huge and well-known museum and it is an honor to be here during the opening.

HMNS: Is HMNS well-known in Mexico?

Ferguz: Yes, everyone knows this museum because of the dinosaurs and the T. rex and because of the big exhibitions that come through.

HMNS: Do you feel that a more Hispanic population will be attracted to the museum with la Virgen de Guadalupe being here?

Ferguz: Yes, I believe so. It’s a theme that, in Latin America, is followed by many people. The opening date, and the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is also very special, which coincides with my birthday, Dec. 12. This is one of the reasons why La Virgen is such an inspiration to me. So yes, I believe that the Hispanic community will have a positive response, and I hope that this exhibit will attract them to museums, so it’s really good that the museum has decided to talk about this subject during this important date and to this community, which is very large.

ferguz3

HMNS: Can you tell us about the process for your artwork? What materials do you use and what makes your artwork special?

Ferguz: The piece is oil on canvas and it’s a process that I enjoy tremendously. I enjoy the work that is involved, and I have been doing art for over 10 years professionally and I am totally dedicated to it. I am proud of my work, and I am proud to be here showing it.

HMNS: Can you tell us a little more? How do you come up with the ideas?

Ferguz: I work with sketches, but Picasso said that inspiration should come to you when you are in the process. When I am working on one piece, I get inspiration for the next one. When I developed this piece for La Virgen, but with my voice, from my point of view it was a win because I love the topic and I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something contemporary, but with a minimalist point of view. I also wanted to use a base color of Mexican pink with the incorporation of the Virgin and I wanted to include myself in the piece and be a part of this exhibition, so I included a self-portrait that expresses the innocence of childhood and a time when humanity still feels a deeper sense of spirituality, which is why I decided to include myself in the painting.

ferguz

HMNS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ferguz: I would like to thank the museum for this great opportunity. Thank you very much.

La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas is now open, and Ferguz’s work is available for purchase in the Museum Store.

HMNS Winter Trend Report: La Virgen de Guadalupe

Sourcing product for special exhibits is one of the favorite things about my job, but as a lover of Mexican art and culture, La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas has been especially fun.

This summer, we traveled to Mexico City and met with officials at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The ancient basilica and chapels are beautiful, and seeing the art, both fine and folk, in context punctuated how meaningful the Virgin has been to so many lives and how integral she is to the culture.

trend1

Capilla del Pocito – Chapel of the Little Well.

With this in mind, we met with the Basilica’s retail director and chose some very special items to bring to the museum’s store. These rose petal rosaries made by nuns are deeply scented.

trend2

Scented rosaries made by nuns.

Our talented Creative Director, Kim Bloedorn, designed our beautiful souvenirs including mugs, refrigerator magnets, 3D postcards, bookmarks and more, featuring Her image surrounded by roses.

trend 3

Graphic design by HMNS Creative Director Kim Bloedorn.

Rising young artist Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz, is rapidly gaining a reputation for his sensitive portraiture of iconic figures. One of Ferguz’s compelling paintings of the Virgin will be in the exhibit on loan from a private collector. We had the opportunity to visit the artist in his studio and were able to commission some paintings the he created especially for the store. The photos do not do justice to the delicate colors and brushstrokes.

trend4

Fine art by Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz.

Mexico is known for its vibrant folk art and traditional craftwork. Detailed, hand-painted and punched tin nichos from San Miguel de Allende highlight images of the Virgin.

trend5

Nicho by San Miguel de Allende.

Traditional, brightly-embroidered blouses are from artisans in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Hidalgo.

trend6

Itzel white blouse.

Weaving has been a part of the culture and livelihood of the Zapotec people since about 5000 B.C. The Spanish conquest introduced wool fiber and the standing loom and the weaving process and designs have changed little to this day. Ancient art meets contemporary design in these handmade purses.

trend7

Zapotec tote.

Closer to home, I worked with local designer Rebecca Lankford to create a series of rosary-inspired necklaces. Rebecca’s faith is a large influence on her work and she was delighted to create jewelry that references how religion and design have been intertwined since humans first created art.

trend8

Ruby rosary necklace by Rebecca Lankford.

We have more handicrafts, souvenirs and art available in-store and online at museumstore.hmns.org. All proceeds from store sales go back to the museum and enable us to create these unique exhibits and educational programs.

Holiday How-to: Chocolate Leaves

My mom was a chemistry and home-ec teacher, so I grew up in a home where ingredients were carefully measured and food items were attractively arranged. While I got to help out in the kitchen as much as I wanted, I always liked being in the kitchen around the holidays. There were always new tricks or special touches added to dishes and along with these came short science lessons on why we were doing things that particular way.

One of my favorite things to help with in the kitchen were chocolate leaves. When done correctly, these are perfect little molds of the living leaf, just like the perfect molds and casts in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

A chocolate leaf is made by smearing melted chocolate onto a leaf and putting it into the fridge to harden. Sounds easy, right? It is pretty easy. Read on!

coco1

Activity: Chocolate Leaves

Materials:

Leaves (*See note in step 1.)

Chocolate candy melts

Parchment or wax paper

A cookie sheet or plate for your leaves to rest on as they cool

Procedure:

1. Pick your leaves. I like to use slightly waxy leaves so you don’t have to worry about fuzzy bits in your chocolate. NOTE: Learn about the plant you are picking leaves from before you decide to use them. Many household plants are decorative but poisonous.  Oleander is a great example of a plant that is pretty but poisonous. If you hate botany or don’t know about the Internet, getting pre-packaged basil or mint from the grocery store is a safe way to go. These leaves will be a little less firm, so you will need to be more careful with them.

2. Don’t pick leaves from poisonous plants. Seriously.

3. Wash your leaves with soap and water, rinse them thoroughly and then dry them completely. The chocolate won’t stick to wet leaves, so don’t rush this step. You will only be frustrated.

4. Put wax or parchment paper on a cookie sheet or plate. You want this to be something that will fit in the fridge with no problems.

5. Get out your candy melts. The melts come in a hundred colors. We are using chocolate colored ones in this tutorial. There will be instructions on the package on how to melt the specific brand of melts you purchased. In general, you will put the melts in a microwave safe bowl and microwave them a few seconds at a time stirring as you go. Don’t overheat the melts. They get gross and there is no coming back from that.

6. When you have everything melted and creamy, hold the leaf by its stem. I like pinching it between my thumb and index finger and then using my middle and ring finger to support the leaf. Do what feels comfortable to you.

7. Dip your stirring spoon into the chocolate. Use the BACK of the spoon to spread the chocolate on the leaf. Make sure the chocolate is thick enough that it won’t break when you try to peel it. Place the leaves on the parchment as you work, and don’t let them touch.

coco4

8. The side of the leaf you use is up to you. If you are using mint and you put the chocolate on the back of the leaf, you will have some crazy patterns.  If you want something more subtle, use the front of the leaf. Coat the leaf almost to the edges. If you go too far, you will get ugly edges that are hard to peel. But don’t worry! Those leaves are the best to eat.

9. Put the tray of leaves in the fridge and wait a few minutes.

coco3

10. When the chocolate is set, peel the leave off the chocolate. You should have a perfect little mold of your original leaf. This may take a little practice. Work quickly as you have something designed to melt with heat in your hot little hands.

11. Done! You can store the leaves in the fridge until you are ready to use them. If the leaves got soft when you were working with them, put them back in the fridge to firm them up. Once they are firm, you can toss them in a plastic container.

coco2

Okay! So what’s the science here?

The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolatl for “bitter water,” referring to its original incarnation as a hot, spiced beverage in the Mayan and Aztec traditions. Traditionally, chocolate is a mixture of cacao powder, cocoa butter, and a sweetener. To make chocolate palatable and stable, we now mix milk solids, added flavors, modifiers, and preservatives.

Those candy melts? NOT CHOCOLATE! In this example, they are sort of chocolate colored, so they have that going for them, but they also come in a bunch of colors that are not known to nature so… not chocolate. They are mostly made of sugar and vegetable fats – not cocoa butter – and depending on the brand, they may throw in a little wax for better melting. Mmmmm… wax.

The advantage to the melts over the regular chocolate is that they do have the wax and the vegetable oil in them, which makes melting easier since the chocolate doesn’t need to be tempered. It hardens pretty quickly and sticks to whatever you dip in it, so it makes a great coating for cake pops or whatever crazy things show up on Pinterest this month.

Want to get super nerdy about your chocolate?  (I assume you do…) MIT has these tidbits available.

What’s in typical chocolate?

  • 10-20% cacao
  • 8-16% milk solids
  • 32-60% sugar
  • 10-20% cocoa butter
  • 2% theobromine and polyphenols

Cocoa Butter Chemistry

Fats and oils are organic molecules made up of three fatty acids chemically linked by an ester bond to glycerol. Fats are solid at room temperature, while oils are liquid.

Cocoa butter fats are made up predominantly by three major fatty acid molecules: Palmitic Acid, Stearic acid, and Oleic acid.

Oleic acid is unsaturated (has a double bond on its carbon chain), making it kinked and unable to pack well with other molecules. Because of this, a greater portion of oleic acid in the fat results in a lower melting temperature for the cocoa butter.

Chocolate makers can adjust the amounts of each fatty acid to produce a chocolate that melts only in the mouth, giving it a superior quality.

Tempering chocolate

The cocoa butter in chocolate can have several different crystal structures (three-dimensional patterns in which the fat molecules pack). There are six known chocolate crystal forms, or polymorphs. You can obtain each form by varying the fatty acid ratios and the temperature at which the chocolate is tempered (cooled).

Only a few of the polymorphs are considered good for gourmet chocolate because they give the right blend of snap (when you bite into the chocolate) and melting (when it warms up in your mouth). Melting is especially important because it controls how well the chocolate disperses and releases flavor onto your tongue.

Whether you will be constructing culinary masterpieces this fall or sitting back and enjoying the kitchen creations of others, we hope you have a happy holiday with you and yours!  (And when you’ve had a little too much togetherness, we will be open on Friday…)