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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

1 comment:

  1. Jim, once again you have improved upon your already impressive documentation of Mexico (and continued to ignite my passion to travel there). We ventured here last March with Archeological Tours, led by a distinguished Mayan scholar -- yet you have pointed out many nuances we missed:) BTW: we ventured over the Teotihuacan site on a hot air balloon and have many raw slides at

    I think this is the slide of the temple of the plumed serpent from the air:


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim