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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Behind the Scenes: Retablos Fit for an Icon

When you walk into the museum store, you may notice the elaborate display wall at the entrance. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look with our Creative Merchandising Director on how it all comes together.

This season’s display is a tribute to Mexican arts and culture and features a life-sized retablo complete with a Catrina figurine. My inspiration were the detailed nichos, or retablos, that are such a central part of Latin American folk art. These retablos are usually under 12 or 18 inches in height but I wanted to create a seven-foot-tall reproduction. 

Starting with a metal wedding arch I found at the local party supply, I wired a support cage along the back and sides of the arch. Foam core cut to size was wired onto the side to create the retablo doors. Then the real work began: covering the structure with a few hundred giant paper flowers!

Arch

Each of these flowers was made by hand, and I gave countless lessons to curious patrons on how to make them. Here’s what you do:

Take five sheets of tissue paper. Starting from the short side, accordion pleat into three to four-inch folds down the length of the tissue. Fold the pleated paper in half and twist a pipe cleaner around the center to hold the folds in place. Cut each end of the folded paper in a rounded shape to create your petals. Open up the folds and very gently, starting from the top sheet, pull each sheet of tissue toward the center pipe cleaner.

flower pile

The flowers were tied onto the arch, inside and out, and paper roses hot-glued to the doors. Next, I had to create our Catrina.

Flowers

La Catrina is a popular figure on El Día de los Muertos. Originally a turn-of-the-century political cartoon by illustrator José Guadalupe Posada, La Catrina was popularized by artist Diego Rivera. Rivera’s famous mural Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central prominently features La Catrina between Posada, a young Rivera, and Rivera’s wife Frida Kahlo. The mural is a visual commentary on the history of Mexico with La Catrina representing that all are equal in the face of death.

Using an old mannequin from our Exhibits department, I spray-painted it bright red and then painted on a traditional calavera face.

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HeadCloseup

 I wanted our Catrina to reference artist and cultural icon Frida Kahlo and acknowledge her contributions to La Catrina’s popularity as well as Kahlo’s dedication to Mexican heritage. A rose headdress and Oaxacan blouse, similar to the huipil Kahlo was known for wearing, were added along with a white petticoat that resembles the Tehuana skirts she favored.

FullMannequin

The final piece of clothing is a very special item. This ornate, heavy overskirt belongs to a local los matachines dancer. With roots in both Medieval Europe and Native American dance, los matachines dance on important feast days with Dec. 12, the feast day of La Virgen de Guadalupe, being one of the most important. Our dancer was not able to perform this holiday and generously loaned us her costume.

los matachines

Finishing up the display wall involved climbing up 20 feet to hang more flower pompoms from the ceiling and adding folk art pieces to the wall.

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Wall

Our six-foot-tall papier maché skeleton guards the jewelry and retablos in the wall cases.

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Though a challenging project, this display is one of my favorites. Thank you to everyone who stopped by to ask questions while I was working out there. I enjoyed getting the chance to talk about our beautiful and moving exhibit on the Virgin. And it’s the proceeds from the museum store that make it possible for the Houston Museum of Natural Science to develop these exhibits, so we are always grateful for your support and patronage.

 

On Display in the Museum Store from Los Matachines De Durango

by Marina Torres

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With the opening of the Virgen de Guadalupe exhibit in December 2015, it was important to create a display to reflect the religious figure and the culture. Unfortunately for my oldest sister, she had to undergo knee surgery and would not be able to participate in the Virgen de Guadalupe festivities. However, this led her into letting us borrow and showcase the Matachine skirt she wears for the ritual dance in honor of the Virgen de Guadalupe.

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Catrina Display located in the Museum Store.

Los Matachines de Durango is a group of danzantes, line dancers sometimes called soldiers. A group of approximately 25 to 30 people perform for the Virgen De Guadalupe each year on Dec. 12, her birthday along with multiple dates around Christmas time. They practice throughout the year to make up new steps for the dance and to teach new dancers who join the group.

Matachines De Durango.

Matachines De Durango.

Key elements of the costume consists of the Naguilla, the skirt with the image of “La Virgen de Guadalupe” emblazoned on it, with carrisos, small flutes that create noise while the group dances. The Guaje, similar to a maraca, is carried with the left hand of the danzante and used as a percussive musical instrument to mark time during the dance. The Jara, similar to a wooden bow, is used in the choreography as the instrument that signals the dancers to start dancing or when the Monarca will change a step. Lastly, a red bandana symbolizes a crown.

Naguilla.

Naguilla.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

Guaje and Jara used in the choreography.

The ritual dance is led by the Monarcas, the captains which consist of three danzantes who stand at the head of the files and coordinate during the dance. El Viejo, the Grandfather, is the dance character who provides order and sometimes comedy in the group, and the dancers look to El Tamborero, the person who plays the large drum and makes up the main dance music for the matachines, to know when to start.

Monaracas.

Monaracas.

El Viejo.

El Viejo.

El Tamborero.

El Tamborero.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Danzante honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Guests adoring the Virgen de Guadalupe shrine.

Choreography.

Choreography.

Danzantes lined up.

Danzantes lined up.

The Monarca leads and signals the dancers when to start and they all start with honoring La Virgen de Guadalupe. Once the dancers greet and honor La Virgen, the Monarca signals the guests to pass through the lines to also honor and greet her. Once everyone greets La Virgen de Guadalupe, the Monarca signals the danzantes to begin their performance. Each choreographed dance takes between two and four minutes and each one represents a prayer. Each full performance may last from 30 to 60 minutes. This depends on the hostess who requested the Matachines to dance and how much time they want the performance done. During the performance, El Viejo will do his part in keeping the guests entertained with some dance jokes. After the hostess informs the Monarca that the celebration is at an end, the Monarca signals the danzantes to do the last honoring of La Virgen de Guadalupe in order to say goodbye for now and to keep watching over everyone who was there for the celebration.

Come watch the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Association perform a special Mother’s Day procession in honor of the Holy Mother with music, dancing, elaborate costumes and Aztec feather headdresses this evening at 6:30 p.m.

Editor’s Note: Marina is the Visual Manager for the Houston Museum of Natural Science Museum Store.

Crater Science Reaches New Depths at Chicxulub, Ground Zero for the End of the Dinosaurs

If there was ever any doubt whether an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs, field scientists continue to bring back proof from ongoing research in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last week, geologists working in the Yucatán Peninsula reached a major milestone in an offshore drilling project of the Chicxulub Crater, now known to be the remnant of a 66-million-year-old collision of a gargantuan asteroid into the Earth’s surface. Reaching a depth of 670 meters (2,198 feet) in the crater’s peak ring for the first time, the scientists brought up core samples of the original granite bedrock that occurred as a result of this Earth-shattering impact.

Discovered in 1978 by geophysicists Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, the crater has been the subject of study and controversy for some time, but this is the first time scientists have dug this deep offshore, into the inner ring of the double-ringed crater. From the core samples, taken from below 66 million years of sediment piled onto the original molten rock formed at the time of the impact, paleontologists now have a completely new data set to study the earliest moments of Earth after the Cretaceous.

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Wikipedia

With this evidence, we can now put to rest a point of contention regarding the exact border between the Cretaceous and the next age in the life of the Earth, the Paleogene, known as the K-Pg boundary. Prior to this project, paleontologists defined the K-Pg boundary with the appearance of foraminifera, fossils of small shelled creatures. In a sense, the drilling project took science back in time through rock layers never before investigated and passed the K-Pg boundary at ground zero. Because this layer of ancient rock is so thick and and so unique, the drilling team is considering re-naming it the “event layer.”

This news highlights a great number of phenomena in both natural history and astrophyics. Astronomers have studied peak rings in craters on the moon, Mars and Mercury, but never before on our own planet. The Chicxulub now offers a local opportunity to study this type of supermassive impact.

Apparently, peak rings form in a matter of minutes when an asteroid is so big, its impact liquefies rock, causing the center of the crater, while it’s in motion, to splash upward in a cone shape like a drop of water into a filled sink. This molten rock creates a distinct layer of minerals that only form from asteroid collisions. As the team continues to bore deeper, now working more slowly to study this unique type of rock, they will search for rock layers “out of order,” testing a proposed model for this type of impact. Theories state when these impacts occur, older rock layers are tossed above younger rock layers.

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Wikipedia

The discovery of Chicxulub is a fascinating story in itself, and shows how difficult this thing was to find. Essentially, the crater is so old, the only evidence of it is a trough that forms a faint semi-circle on the western portion of the Yucatán Peninsula and a system of thousands of cenotes, sinkholes formed as a result of the impact. (We’re still unable to explain why.)

Prospecting for oil drilling sites for the Mexican oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Penfield noticed a huge underwater arc 40 miles across in his geophysical data. He found another arc on land years later. Penmex suppressed specific data to the public, but allowed Penfield and Camargo to present the findings at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists conference in 1981, which was poorly attended.

In 1980, unaware of Penfield’s discovery, Alan R. Hildebrand, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, published the first paper proposing the Earth-impact theory and was searching for a probable crater. He and his team found evidence of an impact in shocked quartz, a type of deformed quartz created by intense pressure and limited temperature (the conditions of an impact crater), and tektites, beads of glass shaped like drops of water that form when molten rock is ejected into the atmosphere. Both of these materials occur in large deposits in the Caribbean basin.

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Wikipedia

Carlos Byars, reporting for the Houston Chronicle in 1990, connected the dots between Hildebrand’s theory and Penfield’s discovery, and Hildebrand and Penfield obtained Penmex drill samples stored in New Orleans for Hildebrand’s team to study. The samples matched Hildebrand’s theories.

Further research into the crater in the late 1990s using gravitational anomaly imaging showed the crater is a system of two concentric circles, the outer circle measuring 190 miles in diameter, nearly five times the diameter of the inner circle.

Personally, as a Texan, a Houstonian and a dinosaur nerd, I take pride in these developments. 1. The Chicxulub crater was discovered by a Mexican oil company. 2. A Houston reporter identified the crater as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Two points for Texas, a state steeped in petroleum science and Mexican culture.

For a grandiose, and slightly terrifying, example of how an asteroid impact can change the face of the Earth (the Chicxulub crater was created by a much smaller asteroid), watch this Discovery Channel simulation set to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.”