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New Tomb at Teotihuacan December 4, 1998; updated March 2, 1999
by Angela M.H. Schuster


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."

[image] A greenstone figurine with inlaid pyrite eyes (Brad Lang) [LARGER IMAGE]

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.

[image] Plan of Teotihuacan (Lynda D'Amico) (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Location of the tomb within the Pyramid of the Moon (drawing based on Juan Acosta, 1978; trenches and location of tomb from author's notes) (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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 1993).

[image] Photo mosaic shows tomb finds, including greenstone figurines, obsidian blades, and human remains. (Left and middle, Brad Lang; right, Janet Montoya) (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Author's sketch of the layout of the tomb and associated artifacts (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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.

Archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama at the entrance to new-found tomb (Angela M.H. Schuster) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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 residential areas."

[image] Greenstone figurine with inlaid pyrite eyes (Brad Lang) (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Flaked obsidian figure (Janet Montoya) (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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."

[image] Carved earspools (Janet Montoya) (left) [LARGER IMAGE] Ceramic vessel (Janet Montoya) (right) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

"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 archaeological context."

[image] The remains of eight hawks or falcons, including this one, were found in the tomb along with the bones of two jaguars, one of which may have been buried alive. (Brad Lang) [LARGER IMAGE]

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."

Numerous obsidian bifacially flaked blades and stemmed points were recovered along with a conch shell (lower left). (Brad Lang) [LARGER IMAGE] [image]

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.

* For more general information on the site, visit Arizona State University's Teotihuacan Home Page.

Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America