Exploring the Ancient City of Teotihuacan

October 2, 2015
Objects found in the tunnel. / Photo: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Teotihuacan, Mexico
Objects found in the tunnel. / Photo: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Teotihuacan, Mexico

Professor Davíd Carrasco has been to "the place where the gods were created."

That's what the Aztecs called the monumental capital city of Teotihuacan centuries after its fall.

Teotihuacan, located about 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, with its long boulevard (also known as the Avenue of the Dead) and large pyramids, was inhabited from the first century AD through the seventh century AD, during which it became the greatest imperial city of pre-Hispanic Mexico.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, parts of its residential and ceremonial buildings have been excavated, and a major mapping project took place in the 1970s. One of the most intriguing digs is underway and is being led by the Mexican archaeologist Sergio Gómez. Gómez spoke about some of what he's found inside the tunnel (the count totals about 70,000 large and small objects) during a public talk at Harvard University on October 6.

HDS communications spoke with Gómez by email, as well as with Carrasco, the Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America and director of the Moses Mesoamerican Archive and Research Project, about the significance of Gómez's work and what it's like to visit the ancient city.

HDS: How many objects have you found through the dig? What have been the most significant and what have they told you about Teotihuacan and its people?

SG: During the process of exploring the tunnel we found more than 75,000 objects made of ceramics, jade, serpentine and other green stones of great value for Mesoamerican peoples. We discovered fifteen rubber balls similar to those used in the Mesoamerican ball game, hundreds of very large conch shells which had been imported from the Caribbean Sea. We found liquid mercury, thousands of objects made of pyrite, many bones of large felines, more than 4,000 objects of wood, and more than 15,000 seeds of different plants utilized for ritual purposes. As part of the main offering in the tunnel we found four large sculptures carved in green stone, three corresponding to women and one to a man. Perhaps the most surprising discovery were the fragments of skin, possibly human skin.

HDS: You've visited the excavation site in Teotihuacan multiple times, most recently this summer. What was your impression when you first saw it?

DC: I've been in excavations and tunnels in Mesoamerica before, inside pyramids and other ritual buildings with tunnels. Nothing compares with this tunnel; nothing that I've ever seen.

First of all, you've got to go way down underground. It's not like 10 feet or 15 feet underground. This goes way down. It's 40 feet underground and to get there you have to go down stairways and then you have to climb down a long ladder into this very cool, tight space. The first sense of how serious this is is the profundity just to get to the opening of the tunnel.

Speaking as a Mesoamerican scholar, this resonates with one of the key dimensions of the religious world view of these people and that is the sacred underworld. You really get a sense that you're going into an underworld, not just a tunnel.  When Gomez first descended into the shaft leading to the tunnel opening he discovered that the ancient people had actually filled the tunnel in to keep others from finding their way to the center, to the end of the tunnel. The ancient Teotihuacanos hid it, and that's a very powerful first kind of impression that you get when you go down into this tunnel.

HDS: Why would they hide this tunnel?

DC: There was nothing on the surface that the untrained eye would detect to indicate that there was this 105-meter long tunnel below. So, in fact, they found it accidentally. They lowered Gómez down by a rope tied around his waist and when he got to the bottom he saw the remnants of this tunnel that had been filled up almost 2,000 years ago. So, they had dug a tunnel then filled it back up, and in more than half a dozen places they had built walls. They were clearly trying to keep somebody out of that tunnel, which they did. There was no sign on the surface that it was there.

HDS: Why would they have done that?

DC: One is a physical reason; that they were trying to protect what was in the different chambers of the tunnel from looters of their own day.  Second, I think there is a religious or spiritual reason of trying to protect the actual ancestral objects and spirits that were buried there.

Archeologists are very impressed with how much human effort around 200 AD went into opening, then digging, then protecting this tunnel. Think about it. You go down 35 or 40 feet, and then you go more than length of football field through rock and dirt that ends up right below the center of a very pyramid dedicated to one of the great creator gods, the Feathered Serpent. The tunnel didn't just go anywhere. It went straight back form this entrance for over 100meters and when you get to end of it, it's right below the very axis of this great pyramid-temple.

HDS: What is so significant about this particular city?

DC: What's important about this city is not just what's underground; it's what’s on the surface. Teotihuacan was the imperial Rome of Mesoamerica. This city influenced, controlled, and intimidated hundreds of other communities, towns, villages, and cities over a huge territory of Mesoamerica, going all the way down to Honduras. Its influence was not only like Rome, great in its own time, but subsequent city states that rose to power, all the way up until the time of the Aztecs, all referred back to this great capital as a kind of cultural or cosmological place of origin, so it really is the center of the world and of space and time.

You've got huge pyramids there, pyramid of the sun, pyramid of the moon, this beautifully constructed street of the dead that goes on for a mile. You've got palaces, and it's the only place in Mesoamerica I believe where you've got big apartment houses where clearly a number of families lived together and they've been decorated with these marvelous murals on the walls. So, on the surface, this is an imperial majestic place and what we're learning from Sergio Gómez is some of what went on underneath the ground, out of sight from all of this for some reason.

Objects found in the tunnel. / Photo: National Institute of Anthropology and History, Teotihuacan, Mexico

HDS: What can learning about this group of people who lived so long ago tell us about living now?

SG: Our discoveries allow us to advance a better understanding of the ancient Mesoamerican cultures and understand better their religious thought, cosmological vision, and mythology. 

Each new discovery confirmed that the Teotihuacan society was exceptionally complex. This allows contemporary Mexicans to reflect on our past and to assess the immense value of the archeological and cultural heritage that our forebearers have left us. 

HDS: What is the lesson you hope students and others received when you spoke here at Harvard?

SG: The first lesson is that the effort and dedication of many years of work and investigation has finally begun to bear important fruit. Our work has not been easy, we have been confronted with many technical, administrative, and logistical problems, but our team work enabled us to overcome the problems we faced. I will show how we organized and carried out our plan of investigation, and how the collaboration of many specialists from different disciplines resulted in excellent results.

I hope to show not only the greatness of the Teotihuacan society, but to involve the students at Harvard in the passion of how an archaeologist works in a place like Teotihuacan.

HDS: What do Gómez's findings, the city itself, and the tens of thousands of objects he's uncovered mean for your work here with the Mesoamerican Archive?

DC: The Mesoamerican Archive is really dedicated to studying and interpreting the symbolic roles of cities in pre-Columbian Mexico. The archive first began with assisting in the interpretation of the excavation of the great Aztec temple in Mexico City. The Aztecs themselves in the fifteenth century were always referring back to Teotihuacan, which had risen and fallen over 1,000 years earlier.

In Aztec mythology, they claim the universe itself was created in Teotihuacan. That is the solar system they live in, the great cosmic balance in which they live in, that had gone through four previous creations, existences, and destructions, and that the fifth age began in Teotihuacan.

There are all kinds of questions we still don't know how to answer. One of the things that archaeology does is raise new questions for us, and that's the most exciting thing that can happen at a university.

–by Michael Naughton