A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The new tomb was discovered within Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon, which marks the northern end of the site. The sacred peak of Cerro Gordo looms in the distance. (© Justin Kerr)
A burial chamber containing what may be the remains of a retainer of an early ruler
of Teotihuacan, an ancient metropolis 30 miles northeast of Mexico City,
has been found within the Pyramid of the Moon, at the northern end of the
site's main thoroughfare, the Street of the Dead. Discovered by Arizona
State University (ASU) archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama, the skeleton, thought
to be that of an adult male who was bound and sacrificed, was buried in
a square chamber 11.3 feet on each side and five feet deep. He was surrounded by
more than 150 burial offerings, including obsidian and greenstone figurines,
obsidian blades and points, pyrite mirrors, conch and other shells, and
the remains of eight birds (hawks or falcons) and two jaguars, which may
have been buried alive. "The quality of the offerings," says
Sugiyama, "is exceptional, particularly in light of the more than
1,200 burials found at the site so far."
Mexico's first great city, Teotihuacan coalesced out of
a number of small hamlets in the early years of the first century B.C.,
after, as archaeologists believe, the discovery of a four-chambered lava-tube
cave in the Teotihuacan Valley. Caves played an integral role in Mesoamerican
religion, being places of emergence of gods and ancestors as well as portals
to the underworld, the world of demons and other potent beings. The Teotihuacan
cave may have held particular significance, its four lobes representing
the four parts of the Mesoamerican cosmos. It soon became a focal point
of ritual activity and settlement in the valley. Teotihuacan's Pyramid
of the Sun was built directly over the cave in the second century A.D.
As veneration of the shrine grew, so did the city. By the
middle of the second century A.D., its ground plan
had been worked out, and the first phase of construction of its most important
monuments was well under way. By A.D. 200, all major
construction at the site had ceased, and nearly all attention was paid
to building and improving the city's residential areas. From A.D.
200 to 600, Teotihuacan continued to flourish, with long-distance trade
becoming an important factor in its prosperity, and the site's influence
was felt throughout the Mesoamerican world. At its height the city may
have been home to as many as 200,000 people. Its success did not last.
Sometime sometime around A.D. 750 the city burned
to the ground, possibly torched by invaders from the city of Cacaxtla,
130 miles to the east (see "Star Wars of Ancient Mexico," November/December
Teotihuacan had lain in ruins for nearly six centuries
when the nomadic Mexica tribes, the Aztecs, wandered into the Valley of
Mexico. By their own accounts they were awestruck by the city's splendor,
believing Teotihuacan to be the birthplace of the gods (in Nahuatl, Teotihuacan
means "Place of the Gods"). In reality they probably knew little
more about the site than we know today, despite nearly a century of excavation.
The inhabitants of Teotihuacan were a multiethnic population who worshiped
a goddess, possibly the embodiment of Cerro Gordo ("Fat
Hill"), a sacred mountain just north of the site associated with the
goddess cult and the region's fertility. Prior to this discovery of the
new tomb, several mass graves, excavated between 1982 and 1989, had been
found around and beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (Quetzelcoatl)
at the southern end of the site. The 137 people buried there were apparently
sacrificed, their hands tied behind their backs, during the construction
of the pyramid. They appear to have been killed as part of a warfare cult
which, according to archaeoastronomer John B. Carlson, was regulated by
the position of Venus in the heavens during its 584-day celestial cycle.
Many of these individuals wore collars composed of imitation human maxillae
with teeth carved from shell, as well as several real maxillae and mandibles,
and were deposited in the pits with more than 2,100 pieces of worked shell
and numerous obsidian blades and points. Archaeologists also recovered
several slate disks resembling the pyrite inlaid mirrors worn by later
Aztec warriors and often depicted as part of Toltec and other highland
Mexican military costume. Sugiyama and Mexican archaeologist Rubén
Cabrera Castro of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia
(INAH) believe that those found with mirrors may have been warriors who
appear to have been seated facing away from the center of the pyramid as
if to guard whatever it contained. According to Sugiyama, the offerings
from the new tomb resemble those found in the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.
"I see a specific association between the two sets of offerings,"
he says. "Both were quite different from artifacts found in the sites
According to ASU's George Cowgill, "The latest discovery
is the oldest major undisturbed burial found at Teotihuacan," adding
that "while it is early in the excavation, this burial is associated
with that of an extremely important person in the early history of the
site. If the remains are those of a retainer, a royal tomb may be located
nearby, perhaps near the center of this temple construction. It is also
possible that this person was sacrificed as part of the building's dedication.
Material is coming out of the tomb hour by hour. We suspect that it will
be another three months before the excavation is complete."
"What has been found so far is entirely consistent
with Teotihuacan dedicatory caches," says Columbia University's Esther
Pasztory. "The most interesting finds are the stone or shell earspools,
which may have been imported from outside the Valley of Mexico, and the
greenstone figurine with what appear to be pyrite eyes. We have many of
these in museum collections, but only a couple are known from a secure
The grave, which dates to about A.D.
150, is associated with pyramid's fourth construction phase. What we see today is the fifth and last, built ca. A.D.
250. "The pyramid of the Moon," says Sugiyama, "started
out as a rather small temple beneath what is now the five-tiered platform
in front of the pyramid. After two additional construction episodes, the
builders embarked on the construction of the pyramid itself." The
construction method used for the pyramid may have protected the tomb from
looters, who have pillaged the site over the centuries. "The Pyramid
of the Moon," says Cowgill, "is difficult to dig because of the
loose rock used in its construction. While it is dangerous for archaeologists
to tunnel into the pyramid, the structure is resistant to looters."
Sugiyama and his team must brace and reinforce the tunnels as the excavation
progresses. "We began our work in June 1998," says Sugiyama.
"Since then we have tunneled through the east-west axis of the pyramid
at its junction with the five-tiered platform. We also tunneled south along
the north-south axis toward the platform's central staircase. We had to
stop, however, when we began hearing the footsteps of tourists climbing
the pyramid above our heads. During these excavations we were able to document
the structure's early history. It was shortly after we began tunneling
north along the north-south axis, just beyond the junction between the
pyramid and the platform, that we happened upon the tomb. We will continue
tunneling north until we reach the pyramid's center. We are now about 30
meters from the center, which we expect to reach sometime in June."
Sugiyama and his team suspect that a royal tomb may lay at the pyramid's
center. Only time will tell. "At that time," he says, "we
will know whether the sacrificed individual is associated with the grave
of a royal personage or simply part of a dedication."
According to Cowgill, scholars have long suspected that
there were royal burials in the Pyramid of the Moon, in keeping with the
Mesoamerican tradition known from sites such as the Maya cities of Copán
in western Honduras and Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico. The excavations have
been sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic
Society, Arizona State University, and INAH.
Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.