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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Apocalypto — 150 AD

The study of the ancient Maya is relatively new compared to that of ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Our understanding of the Maya before the arrival of the Spanish may never reach the same level as we have for Old World cultures. However, major discoveries, utilizing new technologies paired with backbreaking archaeological work in steamy jungles and on freezing mountain peaks, continue to be made. That aspect, as well as the fact that Precolumbian cultures in general charted their own path, independent from the Old World, makes this such an interesting area to study.

Archaeologists drew on their knowledge of Classical archaeology when they started studying Precolumbian cultures. For example, they borrowed from Classic Old World archaeology by dividing Precolumbian history into three parts: the Preclassic, Classic and Postclassic. The underlying assumption here was that everything started out small and then grew into a more complex web of city states trading and fighting each other, only to succumb to the onslaught of the invading Europeans.

Humble beginnings, triumphant zenith and ultimate collapse. Simple enough, right? Not quite.

Creative Commons License photo credit: malias

There are major differences between Old and New World archaeology. Most known Preclassic Maya sites were small, with the beginnings of public architecture that would make later Maya sites so popular among tourists today. One site, however, left its humble beginning behind very quickly and grew into a huge city centuries before other Maya cities ever did. That site was El Mirador.

Located in the northern part of the Department in El Petén, Guatemala, El Mirador was first noted by archaeologists during pioneering mapping efforts in 1893. During the 1920s, the Carnegie Institutionwent from Campeche to Tikal and reported on their travels through the Mirador Basin. Subsequent aerial reconnaissance conducted in 1930 yielded the first photographs of these pyramids and the raised roads connecting them. In the 1960s, Ian Graham mapped the sitefollowed by additional mapping efforts in the 1970s and 1980s. One archaeologist who has spent most of his career working at El Mirador is Dr. Richard Hansen. Over the years, this project has seen tremendous growth, encompassing archaeology, biology, as well as community development.

Grand Jaguar 2
Creative Commons License photo credit: auntjojo

El Mirador can best be described with superlatives. Two of its platform-pyramid complexes are among the largest by volume in the world. Known as La Danta (or tapir) and El Tigre, these pyramids are 72 and 55 meters tall respectively. These magnificent buildings were part of a Preclassic community which some estimate may have had 100,000 inhabitants, perhaps even more. It is considered larger than the much better known Maya site of Tikal.  El Mirador may have been 38 sq. km in size. What makes this development even more interesting is the location: no major rivers in the vicinity, and as far away from the sea as one can get in Guatemala.

In is against this backdrop that archaeologists found evidence of a pitched battle fought on the top of El Tigre pyramid. Bone fragments were found together with hundreds of spear tips and arrow heads. Many of these projectile points were made from obsidian, or volcanic glass, which was traced back to a source in the Central Mexican highlands. Currently additional research is underway to help identify the two combatant parties.

It is tempting to see this event as part of a power struggle that played out during the early centuries of our era. We know that Teotihuacan, located in the Basin of Mexico, was meddling in Maya affairs during the fourth century AD. We know that central Mexican art forms, architectural canons and perhaps people were present at Maya sites such as Tikal, Copan and Piedras Negras. We do not really know what happened and why the city of Teotihuacan had extended its influence that far into Central America.

What remains equally enigmatic is why there would have been a battle. Is this an example of inter-site warfare? Was Tikal keen on disposing of a major competitor? Given the known chronology of Teotihuacan’s involvement in the Maya cities just mentioned, the suggested date of El Mirador’s demise, at 150 AD, may be a few centuries too early to make this a workable hypothesis.
This is just the beginning of this story. The last word on this topic has not been written yet. In the meantime, it is fascinating to get a glimpse into a single event – that of a violent conflict – fought at the top of a Maya pyramid now almost 2000 years ago. Apocalyptic indeed.

I would like to add one final point: the site of El Mirador and its architecture served as a source of inspiration for the Maya city portrayed in the 2006 Mel Gibson movie, Apocalypto. Dr. Hansen served as one of the movie’s advisors.

100 Years -100 Objects: Maya Tripod Blackware Vessel

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.

maya-tripod-vessel-1This Maya tripod vessel is symbolic for one of the high cultures of Mesoamerica. Its design reflects influence from a region about a 1000 km further West, in the Valley of Mexico.

Given the lack of wheeled transportation in Pre-Columbian days, the spread of Teotihuacan influence from Central Mexico into the Maya area is a testimony into the achievements of that period some 1500 years ago.

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

Terra Cotta Warriors: An army frozen in time

All eyes have been on China for the last few weeks as Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and many other Olympians have been shattering world records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Media coverage was intense – but this particular video on the Terra Cotta Warriors caught our eye, because we’re eagerly anticipating May 18, 2009 – opening day for Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardian’s of China’s First Emperor at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Here, Dirk gives us more context on these extraordinary treasures.
Dateline: 240 BC
Mighty Celtic tribes, far from being barbarians, rule over most of what is Western Europe today. Engaged in long distance trade with the Mediterranean, they will soon fall under the sway of an upstart from that region: Rome. Across the water on the northern shores of Africa another mighty empire blossoms: Carthage. It too will eventually fall under the sway of Rome. Further east, Egypt had long faded from its glory days and is ruled by descendants of a Macedonian general who served under Alexander the Great. The famous library in Alexandria is either in the planning stages or has just opened. Meanwhile, more than 7600 miles away, on a windswept hill in Oaxaca, traders from the city of Monte Alban set off to visit the big metropolis further north, Teotihuacan, to strengthen trade ties between these two cities.
China - Great Wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: mckaysavage

All of these cultures and all of these nascent empires are small fry, however, compared with what is happening in the Far East. There, in China, In 240 B.C. Ying Zheng, ruler of the Qin Kingdom, rose to power. He proclaimed himself First Emperor of the Qin, or Qin Shihuangdi.

Under Qin Shihuangdi’s rule, Chinese script was standardized, as were its currency and system of measurements. The territory was expanded into Vietnam. A huge central bureaucracy directed military and civil officials throughout the empire. This system of government remained virtually unchanged until the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
Qin Shihuangdi was obsessed with longevity. He sent emissaries to find an elixir of youth to ensure that he would live forever. Unfortunately, death caught up with him in 210 BC while he was traveling far away from the capital. His mortal remains were brought to his tombs, a trip which required his entourage to engage in a number of subterfuges to mask the smell of death in the convoy. It is said that a cart of rotting fish was pulled right behind the imperial sedan chair, to mask the decaying remains of the emperor.
In death, as in life, the emperor remains an imposing figure, leaving us with an incredible and imposing legacy. His tomb (for this link, hit cancel to start the video) has been located, but not yet excavated. According to historical sources, the emperor’s tomb was laid out in such a way to represent the entire empire, with huge pools of mercury representing rivers, lakes and seas. Gemstones set in the tomb’s ceiling represent the night sky. As was becoming a man of his rank, he was accompanied in his tomb by an army of servants and soldiers.
Creative Commons License photo credit:

In 1974, the same year in which Lucy was discovered, a peasant working the fields in the shadow of the imperial tomb, found fragments of a terracotta statue. This chance discovery led to one of the most magnificent archaeological discoveries of the 20th century; the army of terracotta soldiers. Approximately 8000 terracotta statues have been uncovered thus far. All of these require restoration and preservation, with some of these requiring up to one year’s worth of work before they can be displayed.

Until May 17, 2009, you will have to travel 8300 miles from Houston to go see these famous terracotta warriors in their Xi’an museum. However, starting May 18, there will be 20 statues in your own backyard. The Houston Museum of Natural Science will be hosting them until October 16, 2009. More information can be found here.