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.

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Hasta luego, Jim 









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