Findings shed new light on ancient city
burial deepens mystery at Teotihuacan, but confirms the city’s
A spectacular new discovery from an ongoing excavation at Teotihuacan’s
Pyramid of the Moon is revealing a grisly sacrificial burial from a period
when the ancient metropolis was at its peak, with artwork unlike any
seen before in Mesoamerica.
Though archaeologists hope that discoveries at the pyramid located
outside of Mexico City will answer lingering questions about the distinctive
culture that built the great city, the new find deepens the mystery,
with clear cultural connections to other burials found at the site – but
with some markedly new elements.
With the excavation of the pyramid nearly complete, one important conclusion
is emerging: combined with past burials at the site, the new find strongly
suggests that the Pyramid of the Moon was significant to the Teotihuacano
people as a site for celebrating state power through ceremony and sacrifice.
Contrary to some past interpretation, militarism apparently was central
to the city’s culture.
Teotihuacan, the 2,000-year-old, master-planned metropolis that was
the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, has long been perplexing
to Mesoamerican archaeologists. Located 25 miles north of Mexico City,
this ancient civilization left behind signs of a unique culture amid
the ruins of a city grid covering eight square miles. But even the Aztecs,
who gave the city its present name, did not know who built it. They called
the monumental ruins “the City of the Gods.” The Pyramid
of the Moon is one of the site’s oldest structures, and has long
been suspected to be its ceremonial center.
In the continuing excavation of the pyramid, led by Saburo Sugiyama,
professor at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and research professor
at Arizona State University, and Ruben Cabrera of Mexico's National Institute
of Anthropology and History, the team has found a fifth tomb, this time
at the center of the fifth of the pyramid’s seven stages of construction.
This phase of the excavation has been supported by the Japan Society
for the Promotion of Science and the National Geographic Society. ASU
manages an archaeological research center at the site.
The filled-in burial vault contains the remains of 12 people, all apparently
sacrificed, together with a large variety of offerings and the remains
of various animals of clearly symbolic importance. Ten of the human bodies
were decapitated. Sugiyama, the excavation director, believes that the
signs of violence and militarism in the burial are especially significant.
“What we have found in this excavation suggests that a certain kind
of mortuary ritual took place inside the tomb before it was filled in,” Sugiyama
says. “It is hard to believe that the ritual consisted of clean symbolic
performances – it is most likely that the ceremony created a horrible
scene of bloodshed with sacrificed people and animals. Whether the victims
and animals were killed at the site or a nearby place, this foundation
ritual must have been one of the most terrifying acts recorded archaeologically
All the human remains had their hands bound behind their backs, and
the 10 decapitated bodies appear to have been tossed, rather than arranged,
on one side of the burial. The other two bodies Sugiyama describes
ornamented” with greenstone earspools and beads, a necklace made
of imitation human jaws and other items indicating high rank.
The animal remains were found arranged on the sides of the burial structure,
especially on the end opposite the decapitated bodies, and include
five canine skeletons (wolf or coyote), three feline skeletons (puma
or jaguar), and 13 complete bird remains (many tentatively identified
as eagle) – all
animals that are believed to be symbols of warriors in Teotihuacano iconography,
Sugiyama says. Many of the animals appear to have been bound, and there
also are numerous animal skulls.
“We don’t know who the victims were, but we know that this
ritual was carried out during the enlargement process of a major monument
in Teotihuacan, and highly symbolic objects associated with them suggest
that the government wanted to symbolize expanding sacred political power
and perhaps the importance of military institutions with the new monument,” Sugiyama
Though Teotihuacan at its height was roughly contemporary with the
early stages of the Mayan cities located to the south in the jungles
of southern Mexico and Guatemala, archaeologists long have noted very
distinct differences between the cultures and only minor evidence of
During an earlier stage of the excavation in 2002, Sugiyama and Cabrera
found a burial (connected to the construction of the pyramid’s
sixth layer) that reveals a Mayan link with the city’s aristocracy.
The burial included three ceremonially positioned bodies adorned with
jade artifacts of Mayan design.
The discovery is connected to construction of the pyramid’s earlier
fifth layer. It has similarities to the second burial found by Sugiyama’s
team – also connected to that layer, and containing four bound
men (two of whom isotopic evidence indicates were Teotihuacanos; the
other two were foreigners) and some similar symbolic animal remains.
The burial has some startling new features – particularly an “offering” at
the center containing a mosaic human figure, with some features unique
in Mesoamerican art and enigmatic in its cultural connections. The central
offering contains various shell pendants, obsidian blades, projectile
points, a fragmented slate object and “many remains of organic
materials,” Sugiyama says.
“The mosaic figure was found on top of 18 large obsidian knives,
carefully set in a radial pattern,” he says. “Nine of these
had a curving form, while the nine others had the form of the feathered
serpent, a symbol of maximum political authority. Evidently this offering
in some way formed the central symbolic meaning of the grave complex.”
The burial contained obsidian human figures, knives, projectile points,
shell pendants and beads, ceramics, plaques and a large disk.
Sugiyama says the recent digging is approaching the completion of
the seven-year excavation of the Pyramid of the Moon, though the
analysis of the finds is ongoing.
“We will now be able to dedicate our efforts more intensively in
the material studies, analyses of different kinds, and in interpretation,” he
says. “We expect to publish the project results quickly.”
By James Hathaway, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, who
can be reached at 480-965-6375 or [email protected].
Saburo Sugiyama, 81-561-64-1111 ext. 2715 (Japan) [email protected]