Sunday, July 23, 2017

Teotihuacán: The elite living areas along the Avenue of the Dead

How the Teotihuacanos saw themselves. This greenstone funerary mask is one of many found at Teotihuacán. At one time, the eyes may have been filled with conch or abalone shell, giving the face an uncannily realistic appearance. The mask's full, parted lips and wide, narrow eyes represent a distinct style, recognizable by anyone familiar with this civilization. The Avenue of the Dead, between the Citadel and the Pyramid of the Sun, consists of a succession of long, rectangular plazas, each raised above the one before, leading toward the Pyramid of the Moon. Both sides of the Avenue are lined with small temple platforms and elite residential compounds. In this posting, I'll walk you through this area and show you some artifacts typical of those that would have been used by the elite figures who lived here. For a Google satellite view of this section of the Avenue of the Dead, click here.

Northwest San Juan River Complex

Small patio within the large complex. The view here is to the southeast. The Northwest San Juan River Complex is located along the west side of the Avenue of the Dead, just north of where it crosses the San Juan River. The river is lined by the trees you see at the top of the photo. The complex is laid out following the general design of Teotihuacán itself: north-to-south and east-to-west. The mixture of residences with small temples and other ceremonial areas reflects the nature of a society where religion was interwoven with all aspects of life. For a Google satellite view of this complex, click here.


Almena showing water droplets. The Spanish word almena translates as "battlement". However, in the pre-hispanic context, almenas were decorative features that lined the cornices of buildings. They often contained symbolic elements, such as these water droplets. Water was crucial to all aspects of pre-hispanic life, especially for growing the staple food, maiz (corn). The Northwest San Juan Complex appears to have been the site of festivities relating to the rain or storm god Tlaloc and other deities related to agriculture.


The remains of a plastered wall still show signs of red paint. The insides of elite dwellings were plastered with lime and then painted, with red being one of the most popular colors. The red paint most often used was specular hematite, which includes tiny particles of mica to add a muted sparkle. Sometimes the walls were covered with murals containing religious themes. Archeologists believe that the Northwest Complex was built between 150-200 AD, during the Miccaotli Phase when the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon were being constructed.


Remarkably realistic bust of a male Teotihuacano. Again, we see the lips and eyes that make this style so distinct. However, a non-Teotihuacán influence may also be present here. Only a few pre-hispanic civilizations ever mastered the technique of sculpture-in-the-round. Arguably, none were better at this than the Maya. Teotihuacán had strong trading links with the Maya world and there was a Maya presence within the city itself. The purpose of this sculpture is not clear, but it may have been used as a censer to burn copal incense.


Raised platform showing Teotihuacán's signature talud y tablero style. Another famously recognizable Teotihuacán style is called talud y tablero, seen on the sides of the platform above. This style was expressed as a vertical, recessed, rectangular space (the tablero), paired with a sloping wall below (the talud). You will find these features everywhere in Teohuacán. They can also be found in every place where Teotihuacán's influence reached, even as far away as the ancient city of Tikal in northern Guatemala. The pyramidal structure seen in the upper left, in the distance, is the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun.


Water pot, drinking cup, and small clay face. The clay pot is typical of those used to store water in residential areas. The cup may have been used to dip water from a pot like this. The small face appears to have been mass-produced in a Teotihuacán workshop by artisans using a mold. Little clay faces like this were manufactured and sold to be used as ritual offerings.


This sunken space within the complex may have been a cistern. I found several similar spaces within the complex. None of them had steps leading down inside, so they wouldn't have been used as living areas. The most likely purpose would have been to store water. Teotihuacán's builders created a sophisticated system of channels and drains to capture and channel rain runoff. The cistern may have been kept full in this way. Clay water pots, like the one seen previously, would have been filled here to supply the residents living in the immediate area.  The remains of two columns stand in front of the room on the left. These appear to have supported a roof which once shaded a small terrace overlooking the water pool.

Plaza C

This is the largest of the Avenue of the Dead's several plazas. The surface covers 7595 sq m (8306 sq yd). In the center is the stone base for a temple once made of perishable materials, but long since disappeared. There are three platforms on the west (right) side. On the east (left) side, there are four, including one that is a small pyramid. The size of the plaza, the central temple/altar, and the number of temples surrounding it, all clearly indicate an important ceremonial space. I took this shot from atop the staircase at the north end of Plaza C, looking toward the south.



Small ceramic pot used for offerings. The pot has been dated to the period between 250-450 AD, called the Tlamimiolpa Phase. During this time, the Citadel was constructed and Teotihuacán expanded its influence throughout Mesoamerica, both by peaceful trade and conquest.


Temple platform on the west side of Plaza C. The Avenue of the Dead is lined with temple platforms like this for its entire length between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Citadel. Various reasons have been proposed for this large number of roughly similar structures. One theory relates to Teotihuacán's ethnic makeup. It was a multi-cultural society, with enclaves of Maya, Zapotecs and other groups. At least some of these structures may have been devoted to gods particular to those groups.

Plaza B

Plaza B, the next in the string, has no central temple or altar. The view here is from the southern end of the plaza, looking north. The Pyramid of the Sun can be seen in the top center. In the upper left, at the base of the mountain, you can just make out the Pyramid of the Moon. In addition to lacking a central altar or temple, this plaza differs in other ways from those to its north and south. First, Plaza B is the smallest of the plazas, measuring 3723 sq m (4072 sq yd). Second, it is bordered with what appear to be residential spaces, rather than temples and pyramids. Plaza B is reached by climbing the broad staircase that forms the north end of Plaza C.


Dancer, wearing jewels and rattles. Public dances may have been one of the functions of Plaza B. The small figure above wears ear spools and a necklace. Both would have been made of jade in real life. The dancer is bare-chested and wears a short loincloth held up by a rather interesting belt. His lower legs are covered with rattles made from scores of seed pods containing small stones, and laced to his legs with leather straps. The plaza is large enough for hundreds of dancers to assemble. Imagine the sound of those thousands of rattles, as the dancers stamped to the rhythm of drums while conch shells mournfully wailed. Add the flickering light of torches and bonfires, with copal incense wafting through the air, and you have the makings of a first-rate spectacle.


The north end of Plaza B is spanned by another broad staircase. Beyond it is Plaza A, followed by two additional plazas, and then the Plaza del Sol in front of the Pyramid of the Sun. Rather than continuing on to the north, Carole and I decided to explore the West Plaza, which occupies the area just west of Plaza B. We left the northern plazas, with their additional temples and pyramids for another visit.

The West Plaza

The West Plaza is reached by way of an enclosed walkway. The steel grid path and chains prevent damage to the surrounding structures but, unfortunately, also obstruct close inspection of the residential dwellings lining each side. According to a nearby sign, this small plaza is "the finest example of space distribution in Teotihuacán." It includes a central altar with temples on three sides. The largest temple (seen in the background) faces across the altar to the open side and the entrance pathway. This physical arrangement has an architectural history that dates back to the very beginnings of urbanization at Teotihuacán. The approach to the West Plaza would have been along this street, lined on both sides by columns supporting covered terraces and behind them sumptuous residences. The patches of white on either side of the path are the remains of lime-based stucco pavement that once covered the area.


Residential structures line the west side of Plaza B.  Habitations extend north and south of the entrance walkway of the West Plaza. Above is a corridor that runs parallel to Plaza B, and perpendicular to the entrance walkway, connecting the rooms and apartments. Note the remains of the plaster on the walls in the foreground, along with patches of the red paint that once covered them. These were the residences of important individuals and their families.


A priest/noble of TeotihuacánArcheologists label figures like this "high-status individuals." Their elaborate head dresses and jewelry indicate authority and wealth. Like many pre-hispanic societies, Teotihuacán was a theocracy, run by a priestly ruling class. The power of these people was based in their deep knowledge of the cyclical movements of celestial bodies. They used this knowledge to calculate the change of seasons and to predict the coming of the rains and the correct times for planting and harvesting. The power of prediction provided them with awesome authority, because it positioned them as intermediaries between the common people and the gods. This ensured their wealth and political position. The knowledge that underpinned of all this was closely held within the families of the elite class. They perpetuated their rule by passing it on generationally and by placing restrictions on who had access to the most important rites and ceremonies related to the celestial movements. This was why there were walls surrounding the Pyramid of the Sun and the Citadel.


One of the interior patios contains a household altar. The altar can be seen in the background, between two pillars. Altars like this were used to worship family deities. However, they were also employed for other purposes.


Family altar containing a buried child. The 12 to 14 year old youth was buried in a bent posture within this altar. This was not a sacrifice, but the burial of a family member who died from disease or accident. Burials like this were common practice. It was also common to take the bones of family members and shape them into buttons, combs, spatulas, and many other small tools, all for daily use. Special tools were used to deflesh the relative's body soon after death, before the bones became too brittle. While all this seems macabre and even disrespectful to modern sensibilities, these practices appear to have been a way to maintain a connection with those who had passed into the afterlife.


The West Plaza altar and two of the three temples. The altar is square and uses the talud y tablero style on its sides. The main temple is in the upper right of the photo. The temple on the left is matched by its twin, facing it across the plaza, but out of sight in the photo. The focus of all three temples is the central altar, apparently the site of important ceremonies. However, there is more here than meets the eye. During the early Classic period (150-250 AD), known as the Miccaotli Phase, the plaza's level was several feet lower. Excavations have shown that the stairs of the main temple extend below the current level of the plaza, and the balustrades on either side of the stairs end in dramatic snake heads.


Snake head at the bottom of the left balustrade. Because they were below ground for most of the last 1,800 years, the snake heads have remained remarkably intact.The forked tongue extends down to the original level of the plaza. The plaza's current level is less than 1 m (3 ft) above the snake's head. The features are remarkably sharp and clean and some of the paint which once covered the head can still be seen. It is likely that the eyes were filled with obsidian (volcanic glass) at one time, making them glitter in the sun and in firelight. The stairs themselves were once painted with green circles, outlined in black, over a red background. Such circles are called chachihuites (jewels) and were used to represent water or precious objects such as jade. Archeologists left a hole in the surface of the plaza so that visitors can see the lower level with its snake heads.


Jaguar head on the right side balustrade at the current level of the plaza. This one shows much more wear, due to its long exposure to the elements. This above-ground head used to be that of a snake like the ones that were buried. However, the modification of the plaza during the later Tlalmimilolpa Phase (250-450 AD) included refashioning the snake heads at this level into jaguars. Significantly, the change in the plaza and the snake heads coincided with the building of the Citadel and the radical modification of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents. The serpent heads on the pyramid were destroyed or covered over by the addition of the Adosado Platform. Apparently something happened in which serpents were out and jaguars were in. See my posting on the Citadel for more on this.


Elaborate ceramic censer used in elite ceremonies and rituals. A human head, adorned with large ear spools, peers out from the middle. Atop the head is an incredibly elaborate head dress, which includes the beaked heads of birds on either side. I have seen very similar censers in various museums displaying Teotihuacán artifacts. The details differ somewhat, but the general design is the same. Apparently this type of censer was mass produced in pieces which were then assembled. Only the wealthiest and most elite people could afford a censer like this.


The West Plaza's left temple. It is likely that a perishable structure once existed on the temple's top level. Before the plaza was modified and raised, the left and right temples each had three stepped levels. The lowest levels are now below the floor of the plaza. The two levels shown above are in the talud y tablero style. The vertical panels of the tablero contain the remains of a low-relief sculpture of a figure wearing a large head dress containing birds and snakes. The figure, which is duplicated on several of the plaza's temples, carries in its hands budding shoots and flaming bundles. There is some dispute about the identity. Most likely, it is the storm god (Tlaloc) and, also very likely, he was the deity worshipped at the West Plaza.


Beautiful painted pot with tripod feet, reconstructed from fragments. Pots such as this had many functions. One of these was to receive the freshly extracted heart of a sacrifice victim. While human sacrifice at Teotihuacán was not practiced on the industrial scale of the Aztecs, it was not at all uncommon. Human blood was viewed as one of the essential substances of the universe. Presenting a fresh, bloody heart to a deity such as the Storm God was considered be especially pleasing to him.

This concludes my posting. I hope you enjoyed it and found it interesting. If so, please leave any questions or thoughts in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, please leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim






Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Teotihuacán: The Avenue of the Dead & the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon

View to the north, up the Avenue of the Dead. The Avenue ends at the Pyramid of the Moon, seen in the distance, with the mountain called Cerro Gordo in the background. The Pyramid of the Sun stands to the right (east) of the Avenue. The Avenue of the Dead and its two great pyramids are the most famous parts of Teotihuacán, drawing thousands of visitors every year. When Carole and I visited in 2010, we briefly toured this section of the ancient city. I have since done a great deal of research about it and, in the meantime, archeologists made several important discoveries. In this posting, I will focus on aspects of the Avenue and the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon that I didn't talk about in my 2010 posting.


Scale model showing the northern section of the Avenue of the Dead. This is a section of a much larger model housed in the Museum of Teotihuacán Culture. The museum is located near the back side of the Pyramid of the Sun. The Avenue of the Dead is 40 m (130 ft) wide and runs north to south, bisecting the city. The preserved section is 2 km (1.24 mi) long. It extends from the base of the Pyramid of the Moon (top center of photo) to just south of the Citadel, located just below the bottom of the photo. However, the Avenue once extended another 3 km (1.86 mi) past the Citadel, through what are currently farm fields and private land. Teotihuacán was wide, as well as long, extending 4 km (2.5 mi) from east to west. At the Avenue's approximate center point, it was once perpendicularly crossed by another great avenue, also 40 meters wide. These two streets broke the city into quadrants. Within the four quadrants, many smaller streets ran parallel or perpendicular to the great Avenues in a carefully designed grid pattern. The Avenue of the Dead was key to Teotihuacán's overall urban plan and its builders lined it with important ceremonial and elite residential areas.


Construction tools used to build Teotihuacán. The two tools at the bottom were probably used for smoothing the lime stucco plaster that once covered most of the stone buildings. Similar tools are still used by cement workers in the 21st century. The large piece above them may be a model for the classic talud y tablero stonework that is Teotihuacán's architectural trademark. The talud is the sloping bottom section. Notice the red painted plaster that still covers part of it. The tablero is the rectangular, frame-like, vertical section. This style was imitated for hundreds of years after Teotihuacán's fall, by cultures as far away as the Maya of Guatemala. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.


More tools. The ones at the top are plumb bobs, used to set a vertical reference line for determining a true 90 degrees. The plumb bob dates back as far as the ancient Egyptians. It is fascinating to me that the Mesoamerican civilizations produced so many tools virtually identical to those created by Old World civilizations. This occurred even though there had been no contact between the two worlds since the mastadon hunters followed their prey across the Bering land bridge from Siberia to Alaska 20,000 years ago. The purpose of the two tools at the bottom is unclear. There was no sign at the exhibit and I would be happy if anyone can provide an identification. Several different kinds of stone were employed in construction. These included basalt, a very hard and heavy stone, and tezontle, a volcanic rock that is much smoother, lighter, and easier to work. Between 1 AD and 150 AD, Teotihuacáns used tools like these to build the Pyramid of the Sun, an astonishing achievement. It was the 2nd largest pyramid in the Americas at that time. La Danta Pyramid at El Mirador in northern Guatemala was (and still is) the largest, but it had been abandoned for some time when the Pyramid of the Sun was built. Teotihuacán's feat was especially remarkable because it was a society without metal tools, the wheel, or draft animals. Using only tools of bone and stone, with only human muscle for power, Teotihuacano architects, engineers, and workers built one of the greatest metropolises in the ancient world, including the largest pyramid ever constructed in the part of the Americas that now comprises modern Mexico.


 Chart showing the diversion of the Rio San Juan from its natural course. It originally passed diagonally from east to west through the site on which the Citadel was later built. Its original course is shown with the green line above. Between 150 AD and 250 AD, the course was diverted to run due west across the Avenue of the Dead, then south to parallel it, then west again before turning southwest to resume its former course. This required cutting down through solid bedrock to create a great canal, an immense engineering project. Aside from opening up the area where the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent would be built, and later the Citadel which surrounds it, the canal was designed so that the city's rainwater drainage system could feed into it. At the point where the canal crosses the Avenue of the Dead, archeologists have found traces of an ancient stone bridge. Altogether, the river diversion was another astonishing piece of work.


Sculpture from a structure along the Avenue of the Dead. The stone figure has a deformed face with a twisted nose and mouth. Cultures in Mesoamerica believed that people with deformities possessed special, supernatural powers. They were honored rather than abhorred. In addition to stone sculptures, the Avenue was decorated with painted murals, some of which can be seen in my 2010 Teotihuacán posting.


Pyramid of the Sun

View of the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun. The Avenue of the Dead is in the foreground. This is Teotihuacán's largest pyramid, measuring 260 m (852 ft) on each of its four sides. The structure currently stands 66 m (216 ft) tall. However, the pyramid was once topped by a temple made of perishable materials. In addition, when the Spanish arrived, they reported finding a huge statue at the pyramid's summit. This colossal figure measured 5.5 m (18 ft) tall, and 1.8 m (6 ft) both in width and thickness. In 1557, Archbishop Zumárraga gave orders to remove the statue and break it in pieces. It was Spanish policy to demolish "idols" when they found them and thus to wipe out "devil worship". This resulted in massive acts of cultural vandalism throughout the Spanish Empire. When the Spanish arrived in the 1520s, the city had been abandoned for almost 800 years. However, throughout that time it continued to function as a shrine, drawing pilgrims from all over Mesoamerica. The Aztecs were awed by the ruined city when they first encountered it in the 13th century. We got the name Teotihuacán from the Aztecs, but no one knows what the people of this city called themselves or their metropolis. In Nahuatl, the Aztec language, Teotihuacán means "where the gods were born". The Pyramid of the Sun also got its name from the Aztecs, probably because of their chief deity Huitzilopochtli, god of the sun and war. However, modern archeologists believe Teotihuacanos built the pyramid to worship a different deity.


Ceramic pot depicting Tlaloc, the god of rain. Mainstream archeological opinion now holds that the Pyramid of the Sun was actually built as a temple to Tlaloc. That he was held in high esteem is evident throughout Teotihuacán. Images of Tlaloc abound in wall murals, statues, and ceramics like the one above. The Pyramid of the Sun was constructed so that, between the Spring Equinox and the first appearance of the Pleiades constellation, the sun passes along the pyramid's main staircase. The Pleiades was considered to herald the coming rains. In addition, the pyramid is surrounded by a 3 m (10 ft) wide moat which is a sign of an alteptl, or "water mountain". Finally, children were sacrificed and buried at the pyramid during its construction, another strong link to Tlaloc.


Sites of child burials. The burials were found at the corners of each of the stepped levels of the pyramid, except for the topmost. Why sacrifice children? The young possessed a purity and they could influence Tlaloc through their tears, which were associated with rain. Throughout Mesoamerica's long history, few gods were as revered and feared as Tlaloc. Rain, after all, was crucial to the growth of maiz (corn) the staple that underpinned all these civilizations, most particularly Teotihuacán. On the down side, rain could bring floods, mudslides, and lightning strikes. Tlaloc had to be handled carefully. Reverence for a rain god is probably is as old as the beginnings of agriculture. In Mesoamerica this may go as far back as 8000 BC. There does seem to be strong evidence that this great pyramid was built to honor Tlaloc. However, new evidence has recently come to light, somewhat complicating things.


Huehueteotl, the "Old, Old God". Huehueteotl is nearly always depicted in the same way. He is an old, wrinkled man who sits in a hunched position upon his crossed legs. As the God of Fire, he carried a brazier upon his head in which fragrant copal incense would burn. In 2013, a statue very similar to the one above was discovered in a cavity at the top of the Pyramid, along with stelae of green stone that were once part of the now-vanished temple. This discovery opens the possibility that the pyramid was initially dedicated to Huehueteotl. While reverence for a rain god is very ancient, methods to control and use fire are at least 300,000 years old. This long pre-dates agriculture and any concern about rain. It follows that belief in a fire god is similarly ancient. Huehueteotl (or some version of him) may be the oldest of all gods. Further, Teotihuacán was founded, at least in part, by refugees from the city of Cuicuilco (1400 BC -1 AD), south of modern Mexico City. Huehueteotl was a major god--perhaps the chief deity--in the culture that they brought with them when they fled the eruption of Volcan Xitle. Would it make sense that one of their first great projects in their new city was a pyramid dedicated to the Old, Old God, their ancestral deity? So, to which deity was the Pyramid of the Sun originally dedicated? Stay tuned...


Pyramid of the Sun, viewed from the rear (east) side. If you look very closely at the summit of the pyramid, you can see tiny dots that are tourists who have climbed its innumerable stairs. Without such reference points, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate just how huge the Pyramid of the Sun really is. In the center of the back of the Pyramid is one of the several giant buttresses the builders used to stablize the walls. At the base of the structure, you can see a tall, 10 m (33 ft) wide wall that extends around the whole platform on which the pyramid sits. The wall created a restricted area, exclusive to priests, nobles, and other elites.

Tourists descend the broad staircase. Keep in mind that this shot only encompasses one level, and part of another, of the five levels of the structure. Notice the protruding rocks. These were placed by the builders to support thick coats of mortar, with stucco on top. Images of various kinds, including animals, were painted in vivid colors on the stucco. Unfortunately, only fragments of these images have survived. The intended effect must have been stunning, even overwhelming. The interior of the pyramid was constructed with cut blocks of a stone called tepetate, as well as adobe. The surface was then covered with slabs of volcanic tezontle, followed by the mortar and stucco. 


Sculpture of a feline head that once adorned the adosado platform. A couple of hundred years after completion of the original pyramid, a four-level adosado (adjacent) platform was added onto the front, similar in style and chronology to the one built onto the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent at the Citadel. The platform was decorated with a number of sculptures similar to the one above. They were set into the vertical faces of the platform's stepped levels. The tenon that extends behind the head fitted into the wall. The feline heads were originally covered with stucco and painted in multiple colors.


A line of chalchihuites decorates this stone block found at the pyramid. Blocks like this formed part of the wall moldings. Chalchihuites are circular designs that symbolize fertility and abundance. They can also portray something precious, such as jade jewelry or water. The water theme would seem to fit theories about Tlaloc and the pyramid, particularly since the female goddess of lakes and streams, Chalchihuitlicue, was the consort of Tlaloc. These chalchihuites were once covered with stucco and painted red. 


The Sun Pyramid's famous tunnel. The entrance to it was discovered in the 1970s under the base of the staircase. Originally, the serpentine passage was thought to be a lava tube which was enlarged to form a ceremonial space. Now, archeologists believe it was entirely man-made. One theory holds that it was constructed before the pyramid was built. In fact, the earliest artifacts discovered within it date from the earliest period of construction. The tunnel was built 6 m (20 ft) under the earth and is 100 m (330 ft) long. It ends in a set of four chambers at the exact center of the pyramid, directly under the temple at the summit. The chambers are in the shape of a four-petal flower. This is a ubiquitous symbol in Teotihuacán, representing the four sacred directions. Caves possessed great significance in Mesoamerica. They symbolized both the birth canal through which all humans pass, but also an entrance to the underworld of death. In addition, caves were often a source of water and Tlaloc was believed to live in a cave in the mountains. A cache of artifacts was found near the center of the pyramid, including a disk made of pyrite and slate, with an obsidian human figure standing on it. Also included were projectile points, seashells, and stone blades. Some distance away, another cache was discovered containing clay pots dedicated to Tlaloc, skeletons of animals, greenstone human figures, and a beautiful greenstone funerary mask in the Maya (some assert Olmec) style. Finally, four sacrificial burials have been found in the tunnel, to date, including three that contained the bones of children.


Pyramid of the Moon

Pyramid of the Moon, from a point just north of the Citadel. The trees in the foreground mark the bridge where Rio San Juan crosses under the Avenue of the Dead. The broad staircase in the middle ground appears to be part of the Pyramid of the Moon but it is actually not. The stairs mark the beginning of a stepped series of plazas and staircases that comprise the middle section of the Avenue. They are part of an ingenious design employed by the city's planners to cope with the rise of the terrain as it approaches the base of the Pyramid. Across the Rio San Juan bridge, on either side of the Avenue, small stepped temples and elite residences line both sides of the street all the way to the plaza in front of the Pyramid. The site and orientation of the Pyramid of the Moon were intended, in part, to mimic the shape of Cerro Gordo, the sacred mountain that rises behind it. Cerro Gordo was associated with the goddess of fertility, an important deity at Teotihuacán.  


Pyramid of the Moon as it would have looked when complete. The stuccoed surface would have been painted in vivid colors, similar to the Pyramids of the Sun and the Plumed Serpent. Another similarity is the stepped adosado platform, seen in the foreground. It was added a century or so after the original structure was built. While not as large as the Pyramid of the Sun, this one is still massive by any reckoning. It stands 42 m (138 ft) high and its base covers 18,014 m sq (19,700 yds sq).  These dimensions make it considerably larger than the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. At the top of the drawing is an overview of the whole complex. This includes, in addition to the Pyramid, ten temple platforms that surround an open plaza. An eleventh structure is the small altar immediately in front of the adosado's staircase, which is known as the Teotihuacán Cross because of its internal structure. Not seen in the drawing is a large, four-sided altar with staircases on each side. It is located in the center of the plaza and the stairs are oriented to the four cardinal directions 


Pyramid of the Moon, viewed from the center of its plaza. To the left is one of ten temple platforms. Each has four stepped levels, with a single staircase leading to a now-vanished structure once made of perishable materials. To the right is the four-sided central altar. The square plaza is 142 m (466 ft) on each side. Unlike the plazas associated with the Pyramids of the Sun and the Plumed Serpent, access is not restricted by a surrounding wall. Archeologists believe, therefore, that this plaza was used to conduct large ceremonies open to the public. The Pyramid was built in six stages over 250 years. This process began with a rather small temple over which successively larger pyramids were built, with the largest completed in the 3rd century AD. The adosado platform was the final addition.


The stepped temple platforms of the east side of the plaza. Why there were so many temple platforms is not clear. However, nothing was ever random in the design of Teotihuacán. Nearly always, there is a relationship with celestial events and the cosmic calendar. Altogether, there are thirteen structures in this complex. These include the Pyramid itself, the ten temple platforms, and the two altars. According to broadly-held Mesoamerican beliefs, there were thirteen levels to heaven. In addition, the sacred 260-day calendar is broken up into thirteen 20-day months.


Steps leading to the top of the adosado platform are quite steep. Climbing this staircase is relatively easy. It is the descent that can be intimidating. And, you should remember that this is only the first of four staircases. Like the other two large pyramids at Teotihuacán, the Pyramid of the Moon contains the burials of sacrificed humans. Two tombs within the pyramid, discovered in 2002 and 2004 respectively, contained the remains of a total of 16 individuals, ten of whom had been decapitated. The large number of spear and arrow points placed around the bodies suggest a military connection. Also present were the bones of symbolically powerful animals such as an eagle, a puma, and a wolf, as well as ritual objects of jade and obsidian. In 2017, scientists discovered a tunnel, similar to the ones that run under the Pyramids of the Sun and the Plumed Serpent. It lies 10 m (33 ft) under the earth and runs to the center of the Pyramid. Using a method called electrical resistivity tomography to see through the ground, the scientists stumbled upon the tunnel while doing conservation work. The passage has not yet been excavated but archeologists are excited to see what it holds.

This concludes my posting. I hope you have enjoyed it and learned something you may not have known previously. Please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim 









Friday, June 23, 2017

Teotihuacán: The Great Citadel and its Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent

Plumed Serpent heads adorn the oldest pyramid within the Citadel, giving it a name. After stopping overnight in Tequisquiapan (see previous posting), Carole and I continued on to the famous ruins of Teotihuacán. This great city was the capital of the Classic Era (100 BC - 650 AD) empire. My posting this week focuses on the great Citadel, located at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead. In later parts of this series, I will cover the residential areas along Avenue of the Dead, the palaces on the periphery of the overall site, and Teotihuacán's two fascinating museums. The ruined city stands on the edge of a small town called San Juan Teotihuacán de Arista, located 40 km (25 mi) northeast of Mexico City. To find the town and its ruins on a Google map, click here.

The city and its great Citadel.


Site map of Teotihuacán.  This was our second visit to the ancient city. During our first, we were touring southern Mexico and our bus stopped at the huge site for only a couple of hours. Consequently, we just got to see the northern section of the Avenue of the Dead, including the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the Palace of Quetzalpapálotl. To check out that area of Teotihuacán, go to my 2010 blog posting entitled "Where the Gods Were Born". There was no time during our first visit to check out the area south of the Pyramid of the Sun. In order to cover as much ground as possible, we allotted two full days for our second visit. We decided to start with the Citadel and its Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent.


Model of the Citadel in the Museum of Teotihuacán Culture. The Citadel is surrounded by a wall that is 7 m (23 ft) high and 134 m (440 ft) on each side. On top of this perimeter wall are 15 small stepped-pyramids, four each on the north, south, and west sides, and three on the east. All these pyramids were once topped by temples made of perishable materials, but those are all gone now. The Citadel's only entrance is a broad staircase located between the middle two pyramids of the east side wall. In the photo above, the east wall extends from the lower left to the center right, with the Avenue of the Dead running parallel to it. The Plumed Serpent Pyramid is on the opposite (west) side of the sunken plaza from the entrance. On the left side of the Pyramid are ruins of workshops used to make religious objects and, on the right, housing for the priests of the Plumed Serpent cult. The model above doesn't show it, but a square altar stands in the center of the Sunken Plaza This model is part of a much larger scale model of the whole ancient city. The full model is as big as a modern tennis court and shows not only the excavated features but also unexcavated streets and structures extending out in all directions. To view all this, visitors walk on an elevated glass bridge. I definitely recommend a visit the Museum of Teotihuacán Culture (also known as the Manuel Gamio Museum) as your first step in exploring the city. The contents of the museum, and particularly the model, will help you better understand this ancient empire and its capital city.


Scepter found near the Citadel's Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. This wooden scepter, with its Plumed Serpent head, has been radiocarbon dated to 70 AD and was apparently left as an offering sometime prior to the construction of the pyramid. The photo shows only the head of the scepter. The whole piece is about 1 m (3 ft) long. Teotihuacán has been explored and excavated for more than 100 years. This unique object is the only wooden artifact ever found there. The natural environment of the area is not conducive to the preservation perishable materials.


Entrance stairs and perimeter wall temples

View of the Citadel entrance. The entrance staircase is in the upper right of the photo. Next to it, in the upper left, you can see one of the east wall's pyramids. There is an identical pyramid on the other end of the staircase. In the background is the Plumed Serpent Pyramid. This shot was taken from the second-floor restaurant looking east across the Avenue of the Dead.


Carole gazes north, up the Avenue of the Dead. She is standing at the base of the Citadel's entrance staircase. The purpose of the perimeter wall's fifteen small pyramids is not clear. Some speculate that the perishable structures on their tops functioned as administrative facilities. Others have theorized that they were for civil and religious ceremonies, possibly related to cyclical events.

The Sunken Plaza and its Central Altar


A large, square altar stands in the center of the Sunken Plaza. You are looking east here. The altar has stairways leading up from each side, corresponding to the four sacred directions: north, south, east, and west. This orientation links the altar to the overall design of the Citadel and of Teotihuacán itself. Ancient Mesoamericans believed that the cosmos had five sacred points. These included the four sacred directions, plus a point in the center where their lines cross. Teotihuacán was consciously designed to imitate the pattern of the cosmos. The Citadel stood at the sacred center point of the city and, by extension, of the cosmos. Today, the Avenue of the Dead runs south from the base of the Pyramid of the Moon to the Citadel. However, in ancient times, the Avenue (as well as the city) extended for a considerable distance to the south of the Citadel. A second avenue once ran from west to east, perpendicular to the Avenue of the Dead. These two avenues divided Teotihuacán into four "districts". The western avenue ends at the entrance of the Citadel. A line from that point would run through the center of the altar above to the center of the base of the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent. Teotihuacán was designed as a giant cosmic map, with the Citadel as its sacred center.


The Quetzalcoatl Pyramid has two sections, built at different times. The original pyramid, is on the left, its edges rounded by erosion. The newer section, called the Adosado (Adjacent) Platform, stands on the right. It was added centuries later and its edges are clean and sharp. To understand the sequence of construction, it is useful to review Teotihuacán's timeline. Archeologists have divided it into several phases.

  • Formative phase (800-100 BC). A time of small farms and villages. 
  • Patlachique phase (100 BC-1 AD). Beginning of urbanization. City grows to 5000 residents. 
  • Tzacualli phase (1-150 AD). Pyramid of the Sun is built. 30,000 residents. 
  • Miccaotli phase (150-250 AD). Both the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent are constructed. Population rises to 45,000. 
  • Tlalmimilolpa phase (250-450 AD). Adosado Platform is added to the Plumed Serpent Pyramid. The Citadel is created by surrounding the area with a perimeter wall topped by 15 small pyramids. 65,000 inhabitants.
  • Xolalpan phase (450-650 AD). Teotihuacán's power and influence peak. Population hits 85,000-100,000 (some have estimated as high as 200,000). 
  • Metepec phase (650-750 AD). Elite areas of the city are sacked and burned, probably by an internal revolt. Population declines from 70,000 to complete abandonment by the end of this phase.
Interestingly, the Adosado Platform was built so that its rear (east) wall completely covered the highly decorated face of the old pyramid. The Adosado section has severe lines and none of the elaborate decoration of the older pyramid.


View of the Adosado Plaform, looking south. The tourists on the top of the platform give a sense of its size. Some archeologists theorize that the Adosado structure was added after a military elite seized power from the priest-rulers during the Tlalmimilolpa phase. The priest-rulers had controlled the city up to that time and had built the original Plumed Serpent Pyramid to use as their power base. When the Adosado Platform was built, three of the four sides of the old pyramid were defaced of their decorations. The fourth side was totally covered by the east wall of the Adosado Platform. According to this theory, the decorations were removed because they symbolized the old priestly elite. Out with the old, in with the new. There is a fascinating side-note to this. About this same time, a group of Teotihuacanos traveled south to the Maya kingdom of Tikal (in today's Guatemala). There, they staged a coup, overthrowing the Maya king and installing their leader as head of a new dynasty. What followed was a burst of Teotihuacán-style architecture in Tikal and its allied cities and a new emphasis on worship of the Plumed Serpent. Some archeologists suggest that these people might have been followers of Teotihuacán's Plumed Serpent cult, led by the deposed priest-rulers.



View from atop the Adosado Platform

View over the Sunken Plaza toward the Citadel's entrance stair way. You are looking directly west, toward where the sun will set. This would have been important for ceremonies conducted either on the old Plumed Serpent Pyramid, or atop its Adosado Platform addition. The white tent in the foreground covers the entrance to a tunnel, discovered in 2011. The serpentine passage lies 15 m (50 ft) underground and extends 130 m (427 ft) all the way to the area under the old pyramid. Scientists have determined that the tunnel was sealed off approximately 200 AD, during the Miccaotli phase. They are hopeful of finding a royal tomb in one of the sealed chambers at the end of the tunnel. Although they have not yet done so, the search is continuing. Even without royal tombs, their discoveries, to date, have been extraordinary. The tunnel walls are inscribed with esoteric symbols and covered with metallic dust. The floor contains hundreds of small clay spheres covered with glittering iron pyrite ("fool's gold"). By the light of flickering torches--the way the ancients would have seen it--the appearance is one of traveling through the cosmos. In 2014, scientists opened one of the chambers at the tunnel's end. There, they found large quantities of mercury, along with statues wearing jade ornaments, weapons encrusted with precious stones, the remains of a jaguar, seeds from different plants and a box of carved shells and rubber balls. So far, a total of 50,000 objects have been recovered from the tunnel. Clearly these artifacts were for religious rituals, although the purpose of the mercury is unclear. The discovery of the rubber balls particularly interests me. Although the great majority of ancient Mesoamerican cities had ball courts for playing the sacred game, none have ever been discovered at Teotihuacán. In addition to the rubber balls, other ball game implements have been found elsewhere in the city. As yet, there is no explanation for the absence of ball courts.


View from the Adosado's top, looking north. This view gives a sense of the immense size of the Sunken Plaza. It is estimated that 100,000 people--the entire population of the city--could have assembled for great ceremonies within the walls of the Citadel. The small pyramids on top of the perimeter wall are reached by ascending the two-stage staircases and then crossing the broad top of the wall. Ceremonies of considerable size could have been conducted in front of any one of these small pyramids. In addition to religious and civic ceremonies, some archeologists think that the plaza may have functioned as the site of the city's market.


View from the top, looking south. Just in front of the south wall is a covered structure that protects a structure with an unknown function. There was no explanatory sign at the site and my research has revealed no information about it. It also does not appear on the scale model seen earlier in this posting. I would appreciate comments from anyone who can identify this structure.

The Plumed Serpent Pyramid 

View of the west side of the pyramid from the top of the Adosado Platform. This whole section was once covered by the Platform. Originally, the pyramid had at least six stepped levels and was topped by a temple made of perishable materials. Before the Platform was built, the carvings of the north, south, and east sides were stripped away. Only the west side decorations, seen above, have survived. Fortunately, those who constructed the Adosado Platform simply buried this side of the pyramid under the platform's east side. Thus, perhaps unintentionally, they preserved all these remarkable high-relief carvings.


View of the right-hand staircase balustrade and several of the decorated levels. The rich carvings served multiple purposes: to awe the viewer, to tell a story, and to serve as a religious calendar. At least two deities were worshiped here, one related to fertility and the other to war. Sculptures of the Plumed Serpent heads were placed at regular intervals up the balustrades on either side of the grand staircase. The Plumed Serpent also appears on each of the pyramid's stepped levels, alternating with an abstract figure, the meaning of which is much disputed. In addition, a long snake body writhes along the base of each level and there are numerous seashells--symbolizing water--carved into the stone walls.


These figures appear all across the vertical faces of each level. On the right is the famous Plumed Serpent. On the left is a strange, abstract figure with two circles in its center. These two figures alternate all across each stepped level. Separating the Plumed Serpent and the abstract figure are two conch shells with a scallop shell between them. Just below all this is the scaly body of a snake. At the place where the snake's body curves are more conches, scallops, and other shells. Note that all these shells are from salt water creatures. Although Teotihuacán is situated hundreds of miles from either the Gulf Coast or the Pacific, the ancient empire had a trading network with a very long reach. Each level of the pyramid duplicates all the elements that I just described. The entire pyramid, was once painted in vivid colors, traces of which remain after 1,500 years.


The Plumed Serpent is the easiest figure to decipher. It is one of the oldest religious images of Mesoamerica, going back to Olmec times (1500 BC- 400 BC). More than 650 years after the fall of Teotihuacán, the Aztecs gave the Plumed Serpent the name Quetzalcoatl. The name comes from quetzal, a bird with brilliant plumage, and coatl, meaning snake. It is not certain whether the Plumed Serpent meant exactly the same thing to the Teotihuacanos that   Quetzalcoatl did to the later Aztecs. However, Mesoamerican religious traditions were very stable and long-lasting and the Aztecs revered Teotihuacan, which in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs means "Place where the gods were born." According to the Aztec myth, Quetzalcoatl was one of the gods who created the 5th World, in which humans live. He delivered maiz (corn) to humanity and thus enabled the development of agriculture and civilization. He is also credited with creating the calendar system. The eye sockets of these sculptures were once filled with obsidian (volcanic glass), causing them to glitter in the setting sun and in the flickering of torches at night. The necklace of feathers, which shows traces of red paint, represents the leaves of plants and thus the harvest. The feathers may also represent the rays of the sun which, along with water, are another key element of fertility. The eyebrows curl back in a double spiral, representing duality, a key concept in Mesoamerican cosmology. Archeologists estimate that there were once a total of 260 Plumed Serpent heads on the pyramid, one for each day of the sacred calendar. Every Plumed Serpent on the pyramid has a gaping mouth. Some sort of marker may have been moved from mouth to mouth each day as the 260-day calendar moved through its sacred cycle. The pyramid thus could have served as a way to track the passage of cosmic time.


Alternating with the Plumed Serpents are these enigmatic figures. It was long assumed that the figure above represents Tlaloc, the rain god. The two prominent circles suggest the "eye goggles" nearly always associated with the rain god. Further, conch shells and other water symbols closely related to Tlaloc are found all along each stepped level. However, archeologists are a notoriously disputatious bunch. Some insist that this represents Cipactli, often depicted as a giant crocodile. The figure does seem to be covered with scales. Upon closer examination, the circles may not be eye goggles at all, but part of the decoration of the monster's hat. According to some authorities, the shape of the hat represents the Teotihuacán sign for the year. Taken together with the circles, the hat would symbolize war. When I looked closer, I realized that the eyes of the crocodile may actually be just below and on either side of the circles. If they are eyes, they have the same curling eyebrows as the Plumed Serpent. Cipactli and the Plumed Serpent appear together in some Mesoamerican creation myths, which may explain why they are shown together on the pyramid. Still another view is that this is the Fire Serpent, who carries the sun on its journey across the sky. The Maya name for the Plumed Serpent is Kukulkan. According to their myth, Kulkulkan cavorted with the Fire Serpent in a watery environment. The Maya believed the Plumed Serpent represented life and peace, while the Fire Serpent represented desert heat and war. This was yet another expression of cosmic duality. Finally, there is a theory that the figure is not a god/creature at all, but a symbolic headdress, worn on the back of the Plumed Serpent. I'll leave it to you which interpretation to believe.


Detail of the serpent body below the Plumed Serpent and his enigmatic friend. The serpent's scaly body curves along the base of each level, and each loop displays a variety of shells.


The long body ends in a dramatic snake head. A forked tongue extends from its mouth and the creature has the same curling eye brows as the Plumed Serpent and the Tlaloc/Cipactlit/Fire Serpent figure. The snake head has a nose that curls back, which is one of the notable characteristics of a Fire Serpent.

The Plumed Serpent Pyramid and human sacrifice

Locations of sacrificed human remains found at the Plumed Serpent Pyramid. The dark brown squares, rectangles, and the circle in the center show excavated burials. The shaded squares and rectangles show where archeologists believe additional people are interred, based on the overall pattern. The closer the graves are to the center of the pyramid, the richer their goods. The burials occurred between 150 AD and 250 AD, probably during the construction of the pyramid. Finding evidence of human sacrifices is not unusual at Teotihuacán or in Mesoamerica generally. In fact several such burials have been found at both the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon. It is the number of sacrifices at the Plumed Serpent Pyramid that is unusual. Counting the actual and hypothetical bodies, archeologists believe that 260 individuals were killed and buried either inside or immediately around the pyramid. The number 260 is significant because it represents the total number of days in the sacred calendar. That calendar is made up of 13 months of 20 days each and graves were found on each side of the pyramid that contained groups of 13 and 20 skeletons. Among Quetzalcoatl's many accomplishments, according to the much later Aztec myths, he was responsible for the creation of the calendar. Clearly, from the 260 Plumed Serpents that once graced the exterior of the pyramid, to the 260 humans sacrificed and carefully buried during its construction, cosmic time was central to the meaning and purpose of this pyramid.



Grave of nine male individuals found at the pyramid. Graves with varying numbers of sacrificed individuals were found within the general pattern. The individuals in the trench above wore elaborate necklaces and other jewelry, indicating high status. In addition, scattered in the grave were obsidian blades and arrowheads. It is not clear whether the blades were used during the sacrifice or whether the men were killed in some other way. Inspection of the skeletons hasn't revealed any obvious trauma or cut marks. Some authorities have speculated that they were strangled. What is clear is that they were not volunteers. The victim's hands are behind their backs, indicating that their wrists had been bound. Relief carvings, statues, and wall murals all over Mesoamerica show sacrificial victims--usually war captives--bound in this way.


Necklace worn by one of the sacrificial victims. The necklace's seven U-shaped pendants were crafted from conch and scallop shells. They imitate the maxillae, or lower jaws of human beings. Along with the shell designs found on the exterior of the pyramid, these necklaces may indicate a further emphasis on the water theme. However, archeologists also have noted that warriors sometimes wore jewelry like this to commemorate the number of men they had killed in battle. Most of the male remains found in the various graves were men of military age, which lends credence to this theory. Who were these people, and why were they chosen for sacrifice? Were they captives, taken in battle? Recent high-tech scientific analysis has only increased the mystery surrounding these burials.


Detail of the nine-person grave, showing the jaw-bone necklaces. Interestingly, some of the necklaces were made from real human teeth and jaws. If these were soldiers, did they keep and wear physical trophies from the men they had killed in battle? Note the obsidian arrowheads in the upper left. Their position in relation to the skeletons indicates that they were placed there as offerings and not used to kill the victims. Otherwise, the arrowheads would have been found within the ribcages or in other lethal locations. When scientists tested the skeletons, their DNA showed that nearly all were foreigners, i.e. they had not been born in Teotihuacán. However, the minerals of their teeth indicate that they had lived in Teotihuacán for considerable lengths of time before they were sacrificed. This suggests that they were not war captives, since such prisoners were usually sacrificed soon after their capture. Possibly they (at least the men) were foreign mercenaries in Teotihuacán's army. The high status jewelry, particularly if it does indicate war kills, suggests that they may have been part of an elite unit. But why sacrifice such valuable men? Were special victims, possibly chosen by lot, required for the dedication of such an important pyramid? Or, had they transgressed in some way, perhaps by participating in a mutiny or coup attempt? As each question about these burials is answered, more arise. After 100+ years of excavation, Teotihuacán is still full of mysteries.


Skeletons of four females sacrificed at the Plumed Serpent Pyramid. Their personal adornment included earflaps and necklaces fashioned from conch shells. Also found with the skeletons were slate disks and some obsidian points, positioned at the posterior, at about the height of the thigh. Like the men, their personal ornamentation indicates that they may have been high status individuals.

So, in sum, Teotihuacán's Citadel played a very significant role in the city. It functioned as an administrative center and as the gathering place for huge public markets. It was designed to be the physical center of the city, dividing it into four districts. By extension it was also the center of the Teotihuacán Empire. The Citadel played a much more fundamental role, however. It was the symbolic center of the Teotihuacán cosmos, with the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpent functioning as a huge cosmic calendar.

This completes my posting. I hope you found it interesting. If you would like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim