The chance discovery beneath a nearly 2,000-year-old pyramid leads to the heart of a lost civilization
"the tunnel ran approximately 330 feet from the Ciudadela to the center of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent... the actual entrance... had apparently been intentionally sealed with large boulders nearly 2,000 years ago. Whatever was inside that tunnel... was meant to stay hidden forever."
"Teotihuacán translates as “the place where men become gods” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, who likely found the ruins of the deserted city sometime in the 1300s, centuries after its abandonment, and concluded that a powerful ur-culture—an ancestor of theirs—must have once resided in its vast temples."
"Teotihuacán itself was likely settled as early as 400 B.C., but it was only around A.D. 100, an era of robust population growth and increased urbanization in Mesoamerica, that the metropolis as we know it, with its wide boulevards and monumental pyramids, was built."
"Recent evidence suggests that the religion practiced in these pyramids bore a resemblance to the religion practiced in the contemporaneous Mayan cities of Tikal and El Mirador, hundreds of miles to the southeast: the worshiping of the sun and moon and stars; the veneration of a Quetzalcoatl-like plumed serpent; the frequent occurrence, in painting and sculpture, of a jaguar that doubles as deity and protector of men."
"Between A.D. 150 and 300, Teotihuacán grew rapidly. Locals harvested beans, avocados, peppers and squash on fields raised in the middle of shallow lakes and swampland—a technique known as chinampa—and kept chickens and turkeys. Several heavily trafficked trade routes were established, linking Teotihuacán to obsidian quarries in Pachuca and cacao groves near the Gulf of Mexico. Cotton came in from the Pacific Coast, ceramics from Veracruz.
By A.D. 400, Teotihuacán had become the most powerful and influential city in the region. Residential neighborhoods sprang up in concentric circles around the city center, eventually comprising thousands of individual family dwellings, not dissimilar to single-story apartments, that together may have housed 200,000 people."
"Judging by artifacts and paintings found inside surviving structures, residents came to Teotihuacán from as far afield as Chiapas and the Yucatán. There were likely Mayan neighborhoods, and Zapotec ones... Teotihuacán was probably one of the first major melting pots in the Western Hemisphere."
"In A.D. 750, nearly 700 years after it was established, the city of Teotihuacán was abandoned, its monuments still filled with treasures and artifacts and bones, its buildings left to be eaten by the surrounding brush. The former residents of Teotihuacán, if they were not killed, were presumably absorbed into the populations of neighboring cultures, or returned along the established trade routes to the lands where their ancestral kin still lived throughout the Mesoamerican world."
"They did have some kind of quasi-hieroglyphic written language, but we haven’t cracked it; we don’t know what tongue was spoken inside the city, or even what the natives called the place. We have a conception of the religion they practiced, but we don’t know much about the priestly class, or the relative piety of the city’s citizenry, or the makeup of the courts or the military. We don’t know exactly what led to the city’s founding, or who ruled over it during its half-millennium of dominance, or what exactly caused its fall."
"The tunnel under the Temple of the Sun had been largely emptied by looters before archaeologists could get to it in the 1990s. But Gómez’s tunnel had been sealed off for some 1,800 years: Its treasures would be pristine."
"The haul was tremendous. There were seashells, cat bones, pottery. There were fragments of human skin. There were elaborate necklaces. There were rings and wood and figurines. Everything was deposited deliberately and pointedly, as if in offering... This was not a place where ordinary residents could tread... The tunnel seemed to end in a spacious cross-shaped chamber, piled high with more jewelry and several statues."
Gómez told me about the work his team was doing to study the 75,000 or so artifacts they had already found, each of which needed to be carefully cataloged, analyzed and, when possible, restored. “I would estimate that we’re only about 10 percent through the process,” he said.
“This is where we keep the fully restored artifacts,” Gómez said. There was a statue of a coiled jaguar, poised to pounce, and a collection of flawless obsidian knives. The material for the weapons had probably been brought in from the Pachuca region of Mexico and carved in Teotihuacán by master craftspeople. Gómez held out a knife for me to hold; it was marvelously light. “What a society, no?” he exclaimed. “That could create something as beautiful and powerful as that.”
"Fifty feet in, we stopped at a small inlet carved into the wall. Not long before, Gómez and his colleagues had discovered traces of mercury in the tunnel, which Gómez believed served as symbolic representations of water, as well as the mineral pyrite, which was embedded in the rock by hand. In semi-darkness, Gómez explained, the shards of pyrite emit a throbbing, metallic glow. To demonstrate, he unscrewed the nearest light bulb. The pyrite came to life, like a distant galaxy. It was possible, in that moment, to imagine what the tunnel’s designers might have felt more than a thousand years ago: 40 feet underground, they’d replicated the experience of standing amid the stars.
If, Gómez suggested, it was true that the layout of the city proper was meant to stand in for the universe and its creation, might the tunnel, beneath the temple devoted to an all-encompassing aqueous past, represent a world outside of time, an underworld or a world before, not the world of the living but of the dead? Up above, there was the Temple of the Sun and the eternal day. Down below, the stars—not of this earth—and the deepest night."
"Gómez told me he had not been prepared for the sheer diversity of the objects he encountered in the farthermost reaches of the tunnel: necklaces, with the string intact. Boxes of beetle wings. Jaguar bones. Balls of amber. And perhaps most intriguingly, a pair of finely carved black stone statues, each facing the wall opposite to the entryway of the chamber...
Gómez gestured at the area where the twin figures once stood. “You can imagine a scenario where priests come down here to pay tribute to them,” he explained—to the Creators of the universe, and of the city, one and the same."
"Gómez has one more crucial task to undertake: the excavation of three distinct, buried sub-chambers located below the resting place of the figurines, the final sections of the tunnel complex as yet unexplored. Some scholars speculate that the elaborate ritual offerings on display here, and the presence of pyrite and mercury, which held known associations with the supernatural among ancient Mesoamericans, provide further evidence that the buried sub-chambers represent the entryway to a particular type of underworld: the place where the city’s ruler departed the world of the living."
"For Gómez, the sub-chambers, whether they are filled with more ritual relics, or remains, or something entirely unexpected, might be best understood as a symbolic “tomb”: a final resting place for the city’s founders, of gods and men."
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