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: Northwest Coast Transformation Mask

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.

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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.

This contemporary Bella Coola dance mask was carved by a member of the Lelooska family. The mask represents a Nuxalk people (Bella Coola) myth. In this myth, a young individual, belonging to a high ranking family, found himself afflicted by a terrible disease. It made him repulsive to all who saw him and made it impossible to get married.

One day, the young man walked off in the woods and happened upon a mysterious lake. In the lake was a supernatural being in the form of a loon. Taking pity on the youth, the loon swooped him up and dove down into the lake with him. When they surfaced, the young man discovered that he had been given supernatural power and great beauty. He married and brought much honor to his people.
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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: Pre-Columbian obsidian labrets

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.

labrets-4x6This 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.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or, in this case, in his lips. These are volcanic glass lip plugs, manufactured by Pre-Columbian people in Mesoamerica. They symbolize the great lengths Pre-Columbian people would go through to look beautiful. Imagine the high degree of craftsmanship required to manufacture these items. Volcanic glass is brittle and thus a challenge to work.
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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 larger and more detailed images of this rare specimen – as well as the others we’ve posted so far this year – in the photo gallery on hmns.org.