The Secrets of the Feathered Serpent

Situated 30 miles northeast of Mexico City lies the ancient holy city of Teotihuacan, one of the oldest acknowledged archaeological sites. Regarded as one of the first great cities in the Western Hemisphere, likely for its colossal size, Teotihuacan’s origins have always remained a mystery to archaeologists. The multi-ethnic city housed a patchwork of different cultures with distinct living quarters occupied by the Otomim, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, Nahua, Totonacs and Aztecs. Archaeologists have completely excavated and mapped out the visual surface. Nevertheless, tunnels and chambers below the city still hide wonders that technology has yet to unearth. This megalopolis still holds the answers that will better define early Mesoamerican culture.

Teotihuacan, the place where gods were born, is widely regarded as one of the first great cities in the Western Hemisphere, and its mysterious origins prove even more puzzling. Built sometime between the first and seventh centuries, it’s certain that the natural world and a powerful creative impulse guided the builders, something unlikely or even impossible in this day and age of steel and glass structures. Its immense size astonishes modern researchers. Archaeologist George Cowgill states, “It was the largest city anywhere in the Western Hemisphere before the 1400s. It had thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid-temples and was comparable to the largest pyramids of Egypt.” It’s no wonder why tourists flock to marvel at Teotihuacan’s vast ground plan and monuments. Stretched through the middle of the city lies “The Avenue of the Dead,” an extensive central avenue surrounded by lavish and imposing ceremonial structures. Walking down the avenue, you’ll see The Temple of Quetzalcoatl, Pyramid of the Sun (the third largest pyramid in the world), Pyramid of the Moon, and Temple of the Feathered Serpent. The city stretches five miles long and three miles wide, not to mention an entire city below that has yet to be fully excavated.

Carvings decorating the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent

Carvings decorating the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent

The multi-ethnic city housed a patchwork of different cultures. Distinct living quarters housed the Otomim, Zapotec, Mixtec, Maya, Nahua, Totonacs and Aztecs. One theory as to why so many different cultures resided in Teotihuacan speculates that a volcanic eruption forced an influx of immigrants into the valley, which in turn bolstered the city’s population. Professors Saburo Sugiyama and Rubén Cabrera, currently excavating the Pyramid of the Moon, have discovered that, not surprisingly, Teotihuacan culture showed a propensity for barbarity, especially given the evidence for both human and animal sacrifices. Archaeologists have unearthed decapitated bodies thought to be offerings to the gods or spiritual blessings. These “offerings” were stacked in successive layers during the construction of the pyramid.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Still, understanding what worked effectively in the culture deserves as much or more attention. Cowgill asks, “Rather than asking why Teotihuacan collapsed, it is more interesting to ask why it lasted so long. What were the social, political, and religious practices that provided such stability?” Scholars are now showing more interest in the daily lives of the general citizenry and how so many different cultures lived together in peace, all of which should sketch a more realistic picture of early Mesoamerican culture that lived in harmony, to a great extent. The city had a few simple rules: “Always do what you pledge to do if it’s at all possible” and “Do not envy another person or his property.” The inhabitants of Teotihuacan were mostly peaceful farmers, weavers, pot makers, painters, and sculptors. An elite class of religious rulers led the people, but all citizens were equal in the eyes of the law no matter the gender, wealth, beliefs, or social standing. Fertile soil and plenty of water made the land idyllic for farming. Not only did they farm the land, but they mined obsidian from it as well. Obsidian, smooth like crystal, made the sharpest edge, so master artisans found it ideal for making knives and tools. Ultimately, these obsidian tools were even traded across the Americas.

Small mask found at Teotihuacan

Small mask found at Teotihuacan

It’s hard to imagine what could have provoked the abandonment of Teotihuacan when the residents lived in a society that seemed nearly Utopian in a number of ways for the time, and until recently, researchers could only scratch the surface of the city’s mystery, literally. As a result of a structural collapse below the city, only the visual surface has been accessible for excavation. However, with the use of technology, archaeologists have begun accessing the treasures below. Cowgill states that the site’s visible surface remains have been mapped but they have only excavated five percent in the underbelly of the behemoth city. In 2003, after heavy rains seeped into the earth, researchers uncovered a tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. It took years of planning before they could begin excavation. Finally, with the use of radars, researchers now know that symbols cover the walls of the tunnel, measuring 120 meters long. Then to everyone’s astonishment, in 2013, a team navigating a wireless robot through the tunnel discovered a small chamber filled with clay spheres originally covered in pyrite, which over thousands of years oxidized to become jarosite. No one knows with any certainty why the orbs were created and then intentionally buried under a pyramid. Archaeologist Sergio Gomez Chavez believes this could be one of the greatest discoveries of the 21st century because it may answer major questions about the early Mesoamericans’ way of life.

The metallic golden orbs of Teotihuacan

The metallic golden orbs of Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan’s long unanswered secrets make it far more than an engaging tourist stop. The ruin’s many unknowns force us all to ask what could have happened. What could have possibly compelled the entire city’s abandonment? Was there a drought, an internal revolt, or did invaders attack? How did so many different tribes peacefully co-exist for so long? Perhaps the answers lie in the tunnels and chambers beneath the city. If a small chamber full of mysterious golden orbs has invoked archaeologists to say it’s “the greatest find of the 21st century,” what else remains buried in the chambers? It will take years of hard work, but through the use of technology (ultrasound, infrared scanners, and robots), the modern world might finally answer some ancient secrets.