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.

100 years – 100 Objects: Aztec Stone Figure

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now. For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and at 100.hmns.org – throughout the year.

aztecThis stone figure is a silent witness to one of the best known Pre-Columbian civilizations, the Aztecs. Aztec history chronicles a meteoric rise of a band of hunters and gatherers who, in few centuries, went from a nomadic lifestyle to that of city-dwelling empire builders. While their ascent to power was phenomenal, their demise was cataclysmic. Only three years after meeting the Spanish for the first time, Aztec civilization ceased to exist as an independent political entity.

The statue depicts Chalchiutlicue, a goddess of water (literally her name means “She of the Jade Skirt.”)

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

You can see more images of this fascinating artifact – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the 100 Objects section at 100.hmns.org

100 Years – 100 Objects: Palikur Tribe Headdress

The Houston Museum of Natural Science was founded in 1909 – meaning that the curators of the Houston Museum of Natural Science have been collecting and preserving natural and cultural treasures for a hundred years now.

For this yearlong series, our current curators have chosen one hundred exceptional objects from the Museum’s immense storehouse of specimens and artifacts—one for each year of our history. Check back here frequently to learn more about this diverse selection of behind-the-scenes curiosities—we will post the image and description of a new object every few days.

This description is from Dirk, the museum’s curator of anthropology. He’s chosen a selection of objects that represent human cultures throughout time and around the world, that we’ll be sharing here – and on hmns.org – throughout the year.

Amazonian tribes have made some of the world’s most amazing feather work ornaments. This headdress, belonging to the Palikur tribe, is symbolic of our growing world class collection of South American rainforest cultural artifacts.

Explore thousands of years of Native American history in the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas, a permanent exhibition at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

The Quest for High Bear

Currently on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science is a selection of mainly Plains Indian artifacts. They come to us from Mr. Gordon W. Smith, who put his collection together from 1925 through 1939. What makes this collection very special is not only the historic nature of the items (those that are on display were made for and used by American Indian people), but also the context. We have information on who made these and when and for whom. That is a treasure trove of information sadly often lost with objects of this nature.


Arapaho beaded vest
Early 20th century
Beads, thread, tanned hide, sinew.

The Arapaho live on the eastern plains of Colorado and Wyoming. The vests they create – such as this one – tend to be decorated with geometric designs; sometimes they depict the American flag.

The use of glass beads dates back to the arrival of the first European settlers, with some of the earliest beads being manufactured in Venice, Italy. They were used in commercial exchanges as well as in missionary work. This was the case with Father DeSmet, who worked extensively among the Plains and Northwest Indians.

Lone Dog’s winter count.
Tanned hide, paint
1801-1876, South Dakota

There are various ways to keep track of the past. Most of us would rely on written documents to refresh our memory; among American Indians oral traditions and pictorial records are of great importance. Among these pictorial records are the so-called winter counts. These drawings can be painted on either animal hide or muslin.

Winter counts are histories or calendars which record events with images, with one image representing a year. In Lakota, they are called waniyetu wowapi. The Lakota word waniyetu means “year,” which tends to be measured from first snowfall to first snowfall. It is often translated as “a winter.”

These winter counts were used in conjunction with an extensive oral history. Each year was named for an event, with the images serving as a reference source that could be consulted regarding the order of the years. The events used to name the years were not always the most important things that happened, but rather the most memorable. One such event, “The year the stars fell,” has been identified as the year 1833, when the Leonid meteor storm  was visible. Information courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian, Education Office.

Lakota dress
Buckskin, glass beads, thread
Ca. 1870

In its basic form, this is a typical dress worn by Plains Indian women. It consists of three assembled parts: the front, the back and the yoke. These three pieces give the garment a T- shape outline.  Very likely this dress was made during the winter months, when the cold forced people to stay inside and work on clothing.

This dress is a good example of the great diligence and talent on the part of the women who made it. It is estimated that it took 300,000 small glass beads to complete the decoration.

In February 1934, Ms. Olive Dean wore this dress to a costume ball in Washington, D.C.  She was awarded the first prize for the most outstanding costume by the two judges, Anna Ball, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s daughter and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr.

Osage friendship blanket
Wool fabric, silk ribbon, thread
Late 19th century

These blankets, sometimes also referred to as wearing blankets, are still being made today.

In the early 1800s, Osage women began to sew mosaic ribbon work patterns around the borders of wool blankets, transforming them into extraordinary robes. Girls and women wore these robes at weddings and other special events and the ribbon work ranged from relatively simple bands of ribbon work to richly patterned reverse appliqué ribbon work, a technique of sewing a cut out ribbon pattern on to a differently colored ribbon background. The bold compositions were created by splitting the cut out pattern into two colors and maintaining a strict symmetry. Free hanging tabs of ribbon often framed the bottom edge of the robe.

The blankets were wore around the women’s shoulders and positioned over their forearms so that the ribbon work draped as a cascade of color in front of them. Despite the extreme fragility of the ribbon to tearing and fraying and its susceptibleness to fading and running, Osage women celebrated this art form. They also sewed reverse appliqué bands of ribbon on shawls and skirts and at the shoulder of their blouses. Today women wear these blankets as important garments that are emblematic of their Osage identity. (Information courtesy of Eva Fognell, Curator. Thaw Collection of American Indian Art. Fenimore Art Museum. Lake Road. Cooperstown, NY.)

Amulet in the shape of a turtle
Tanned hide, sinew, beads, umbilical cord
Early 20th century

Upon the birth of a child, the umbilical cord was saved inside an amulet. These amulets would quite often take on the shape of a turtle, as is the case here, or a lizard. In both cases, these animals are seen as good omens for a long and safe life – since the lizard often survives by shedding its tail, the turtle can retreat into its shell for protection.