The Treasure of Teotihuacán - New Archaeological Discoveries

Little is known about the people who built this huge metropolis, occupied it for a thousand years, and then abandoned it around 850 A.D., five hundred years before the Aztecs arrived. In 1963 alone, Mexico spent more than a million dollars to probe its secrets. In this article, DR. IGNACIO BERNAL, one of Mexico’s leading archaeologists and the director of the new museum at Teotihuacan, describes the work of excavation and restoration.


To THE Aztecs, the history of Teotihuacán was as unknown as it is to us today. Ignorant of the historical truth, they decided that the huge metropolis must have been the home of gods or giants. And though we do not attribute the construction of Teotihuacán to gods or giants, its impact on us is as powerful today as it was on the Aztecs. Thirtythree miles northeast of Mexico City, Teotihuacán lies in the valley which is united to the great basin of Mexico. Its ruins occupy more than twenty-five sejuare miles. They are at the same time both a paradise and a nightmare for the archaeologist.

Explorations during the last forty years have shown that Teotihuacán belongs to the Classic period — the highest peak of Mexico’s indigenous cultures. Its flowering as a great city may be placed between the beginning of the Christian era and about 650 A.D. In Mexico at that time many highly urbanized cities came into existence in many regions — great sites which in the Nahuatl language were called Tollan. This is why there later arose a confusion in identifying Teotihuacán with Tollan, capital of the Toltecs, now the city of Tula in the state of Hidalgo.

The magnificent cities of the Classic period were not simply ceremonial centers. They were industrial focuses with all the structural facets of a formal state. Carefully designed, these cities had many sections. On the outskirts of the vast area were the living quarters of the common people, while toward the center stood the palaces of the nobility and the priests. In the very center was the ceremonial zone, the heart of the city. This description is especially applicable to Teotihuacán, which was the largest city of all the Western world in preHispanic times. It would be risky to give a definite estimate of the number of inhabitants who dwelt there. We are not sure what language they spoke, and we have only the vaguest ideas regarding their social and political organization.

Judging from available data, we are safe in believing that a powerful theocracy organized the labor of the populace into the construction of immense truncated pyramids and the temples which crowned them. This theocratic organization, at the beginning, gave a tremendous impulse to cultural achievement and produced splendid works of art. But it seems reasonable to assume that once it had reached its peak, the theocratic group limited its thought and activity to preserving what had been gained, and became fossilized, thus losing its interior strength. Sometimes such conservative groups become the victims of the first newcomers to appear; or they wither away, sunken under the weight of their own creations.

Polytheistic religion is a characteristic of Middle America. Tlaloc, the God of Rain, ruled first, together with Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent. At Teotihuacán can be found most of the divinities which existed centuries later in the better known Aztec civilization. The ceremonial center at Teotihuacán was laid out along an axis that pointed north toward the Pyramid of the Moon. This great street, which the Aztecs named the Micaotli, or “Avenue of the Dead,” is about two miles long. On both sides stand mounds which the Aztecs thought were tombs, but which are in fact platforms and bases of temples. To the east rises the overwhelming mass of the Pyramid of the Sun, and toward the southern end of the avenue lies what has been named the Citadel, which encloses the magnificently decorated Temple of Quetzalcoatl. Prominent among its many stone sculptures is the plumed serpent, symbol of this divinity. Effigies of Quetzalcoatl’s head alternate with masks of another deity.

In the ceremonial center the builders sought to create a beauty based on long and straight lines, austere, uncomplicated by ornamentation. This balance of forms causes the buildings to stand together in harmony, and the whole metropolis fits beautifully into the natural setting of the surrounding mountains. All of this produces a feeling of eternity, as if everything had been constructed in order to elevate the spirit of the spectator. Even today, a thousand years after its collapse, after a millennium of sacking, the sacred city is still awe-inspiring, and the austerity of its great open spaces sensitively combines with the majesty of its monuments.

SINCE September of 1962 we have been fortunate in having the opportunity to realize another and more ample exploration in Teotihuaean, thanks to the interest that the President of the Mexican Republic has taken in archaeology. When I speak of the exploration of Teotihuaeán, it must be understood that not for one moment do I mean a total exploration of the city. Our fundamental aim is to understand, as far as possible, Teotihuaeán history and the culture or cultures which in succession occupied the city. Until 1962 work had not been concentrated on a single building or cluster of monuments, but had been spread over the metropolis as a whole. Each building is so complex that it would be an enormous task to explore every aspect of it in every one of its periods of construction, uncovering all its architectural and stratigraphic details. The area is so large that a minute exploration could give us results only if we were willing to wait fifty years.

Even though such a project would be extremely interesting, to achieve complete exploration in all the structures would lead us to a constant repetition of the same data and to the discovery of details whose scientific significance would perhaps be negligible. Because of all these considerations we ys, depending upon the v buildings have been or are to be totally explored, a process which will reveal their entire history. Many others are being examined only in their last period of construction. When information obtained from the final period is meager, either part or all of the earlier periods are analyzed.

In Middle America it was a rule rather than an exception that edifices be covered over periodically with new layers of stone and masonry. The buildings which have not been fully explored have been left in such a way that future archaeologists will be able to investigate the older periods of construction.

Experience in excavating large cities in other parts of the world has demonstrated that the first fieldwork in a great metropolis generally yields a high percentage of new data; subsequently, new information is scarce, and repetition of known data becomes common. In years to come new techniques will appear, together with more advanced methods, that will enable us to obtain exhaustive information. Today this is not feasible. Therefore, we must leave the road open for future exploration, not only at Teotihuaeán but in the thousands of other great archaeological sites in Mexico. It would be unprofitable to undertake a total investigation of any of these zones. This is why we have left some of the digging and reconstruction of Monte Albán and Chichén Itzá unfinished.

At Teotihuaean we have limited excavation and reconstruction to the last epoch in some cases, even when we suspected that the underlying structure was finer or more interesting than the outer shell. We have preserved the temporal unity of the city — that is, the metropolis as it stood at its last great peak. In addition, remains of certain buildings representing a culture later than Classic Teotihuacán have been preserved. Although these are inferior to the older structures, they give us a clearer picture of what the great city was when it had lost its rank as a leading capital and was inhabited by people of a lower culture who were incapable of recognizing the greatness of the fallen city.

In organizing our work during 1963, we divided the city into eight zones; but since it was indispensable to preserve the basic unity of the exploration, we set up a laboratory which in fact became the headquarters of the entire investigation. All of the objects discovered are taken to this laboratory, are washed, repaired, numbered, classified, and preserved. There is also a photographic center, another center for maps and plans, yet another for drawings. Expert restorers cope with the complex problem of how to preserve the mural paintings as they are discovered.

It is impossible to state with precision the number of buildings that have been explored, since some of them may be considered a single structure or a multiple one. Thus, until our work is finished, a cluster of rooms may be conceived of either as a single palace or as several united houses. In the same way several superimposed buildings may be counted as one unit or as several structures.

main work has been undertaken in the area known as the Plaza of the Pyramid of the Moon, in all the buildings that surround it, and in the structures on both sides at the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead. The Pyramid of the Moon, together with the building attached to it, forms the largest mass within the area described. It was erected over at least three separate periods. We carefully cleared the pyramid of brush and superficial dirt and rubble, though only parts of its southern facade and its southeastern and southwestern corners have been explored. The parts to be reconstructed are the facade and the two corners, since the total reconstruction of this immense monument would be too costly for the present. Information obtained in our explorations indicates that the great sloping walls of the pyramid which still exist are in good enough condition to show exactly what the monument was like. The southern facade above the attached building has not yet been touched. This will be done when work on the pyramid is finally terminated.

From the beginning, the data indicated that the building attached to the pyramid was composed of at least four parts. However, by the middle of last March our excavations showed that there might be five, an idea reinforced by later investigation.

The immense central stairway seemed to present overwhelming difficulties of reconstruction. Not only had it been taken apart completely in preHispanic times, a thing that had occurred with almost all the stairways and elements made up of cut stone in Teotihuacán, but previous excavators had opened an enormous hole in the very center of the building where the stairway should have been.

Thanks to an extraordinarily careful exploration carried out by Ponciano Salazar Ortegón, it has been possible to reconstruct the stairway completely, exactly in the way it should be. Of the original stones, 565 were scattered at the base of the pyramid. These had come from the stairway

and had been left behind when the demolition took place. Only one stone was found in situ, but it was of fundamental importance. It was the cornerstone of the west balustrade. The width of the stairway could be computed from the base of the pyramid, which preserved its original stucco. The height and width of the steps were calculated from the original stones.

With the height of the stairway still visible on the masonry and with the knowledge of the inclination of the stairway (thanks to the stone in situ), there was no theoretical problem in the reconstruction of the thirty-nine steps. On the other hand, the practical problem was tremendous. Just filling the hole represented the necessity of carting many thousands of cubic yards of material, in order to place it behind the steps as the reconstruction was carried out. Two other stones turned out to be extremely important. Stucco remaining on one of these matched that on the bottom step of the west balustrade, and on the other, the top of the third flight of the east balustrade. Not only did these stones prove that the reconstruction of the stairway is correct, but they also gave us the clue to placing corresponding stones in the balustrades of other monuments, a procedure that had been uncertain previously. Now we can assert confidently that such stone steps are always at the height of the upper moldings of the main part of the monuments. Since well-preserved balustrades had not been discovered previously, nor had other data been studied sufficiently, this new architectural element had not been known until last year.

The excavation of various monuments has given us a much clearer picture of the construction methods used by the people of Teotihuacán, In many places we have managed to find indications which definitely make clear how they built their roofs. In rooms attached to the south side of Building I in the Plaza of the Moon we found the impression left on the floor when the roof collapsed. This provided important evidence that the roof had been built of beams of wood approximately five inches in diameter, placed side by side. Jorge Acosta has reported the following data about the great hall that served as a foyer to the patio of Quetzalpapalotl:

Remains of carbonated wood were found on the stucco floor and in one place even a section of the roof, which collapsed during the fire that destroyed the building. This is of great importance, as it definitely shows us the construction system of Teotihuacán roofs and in this case even the thickness.

In Building I of the Plaza of the Moon, Acosta discovered that the stucco had not been applied in the usual form but had been molded on the surface of the building the way plaster is put on a wall. This is the same technique used today in molding concrete. The same method has been found in architectural structures attached to the pyramid and to Building VII in this plaza, but not in others in the area; nor do we yet have data which would indicate that it exists in other parts of Teotihuacán. This suggests a close contemporaneity of the three structures and the possibility that they were built by the same architect. We also observed that all the edges of the buildings were rounded, and we have reconstructed the missing edges in this manner.

The Plaza of the Moon, which covers almost two acres, has been thoroughly cleaned of rubble, as has most of the Avenue of the Dead. Except for the Temple of Agriculture, which is too damaged to be rebuilt, the work on all the edifices of the Plaza of the Moon has been nearly completed. The most thorough explorations since 1962 have been carried out in the southwest angle of this plaza at the Quetzalpapalotl Palace. The communicating stairway, very incomplete, was decorated with two serpent heads. In the main patio, surrounded by four rooms facing the main points of the compass, hewn stone blocks were scattered.

The exploration demonstrated that these and other such stones, found in a large hole in the center, were parts of pillars which surrounded the patio, where they had been thrown when Teotihuacán was destroyed, perhaps in the seventh century. Some were lying farther away. Fortunately there were sufficient remains of these pillars to enable us to accomplish an absolutely true reconstruction. The main motif here represents a combined quetzal bird and butterfly, from which the group of buildings takes its name, the Butterfly Palace.

In view of the importance of the recent discoveries, it was decided to carry out a detailed excavation here, to which all of 1963 was dedicated. A series of substructures, some magnificently preserved, and a complete palace surrounding the west patio of Quetzalpapalotl have appeared. When all the previous structures, one built over the other, have to be examined, work on a building of this type is extremely complex. In Teotihuacán this situation is even more difficult, as the excavation of one room leads us to various others. Aside from its aesthetic value and the possibility of very complete reconstruction, this architectural complex has produced a great quantity of archaeological information of major importance. In regard to the architecture, we found buildings with profiles quite different from the usual ones in the zone. There are wooden doorjambs and lintels that show us exactly how these structures stood more than a thousand years ago, roof fragments which can be reconstructed with exactitude, balustrades decorated with serpents, roofs with friezes sometimes undecorated and sometimes adorned with crenelated ornaments, and battlements in many different styles. Actually, all the architectural elements in Teotihuacán are found in the complex surrounding the Butterfly Palace.

WITH the exception of the central section of the eastern side of the Avenue of the Dead every platform along this avenue was found to be in excellent condition; even when the bases were partially destroyed, all the necessary data could be found here. These buildings form a succession of pyramidal bases for temples, and there are platforms on which undoubtedly stood rooms dedicated to ceremonial purposes, although behind these rooms there are others which were probably living quarters. Very likely these were for the use of priests or leading personages. Two very long platforms are situated one in front of the other, and the temples are more or less balanced.

This indicates an urban planning that took into account not only the general lines of the city but also a balanced distribution of masses.

The east side in general was in poorer condition than the rest of the zone. Aside from pre-Hispanic destruction and the ravages of time, former explorations had left open holes in many places. Nevertheless, we have worked through the entire section from the Plaza of the Moon to the area close to the great complex of the Sun Pyramid. In front of this group of structures, on the west side of the avenue, exploration has been almost terminated, and reconstruction has been well begun. While a drainage system in Building I of this section was being repaired some important paintings were discovered, and a much more detailed examination of the pyramidal base was therefore considered necessary. A series of substructures was uncovered, the paintings being found in the next to last period of construction.

The area in front of the Pyramid of the Sun turned out to be the most damaged of all, to such an extent that many of the small structures have almost completely disappeared. It is not yet possible to determine their former aspect, but explorations are well advanced. One of the great difficulties here is an irregular wall about 220 yards long. This undoubtedly is post-Teotihuacán. and it either cut into or overlapped the buildings of the Classic period, thus destroying their alignment and their harmony.

We cannot yet say what the object of the wall was, but it might have enclosed the Plaza of the Sun. The wall is of a construction far inferior to the usual magnificent Teotihuacán technique. All of the existing part of this wall will be left intact so that visitors will realize that it came after the great period when the culture of Teotihuacaán was at its peak. Even though it has little aesthetic value, it marks a period in the history of the city.

The data given us by the avenue itself, which follows the natural contours of the ground from north to south, are most interesting. In its northern section may be seen steps that compensate for the slope toward the south. This inclination presented serious problems in an architecture whose canons were rigid; and because of this slight slope, the buildings begin at a higher level on their north side than on their south side.

Farther south there are stairways that at intervals divide the avenue (which is really a series of elongated plazas). It was difficult to understand how these stairways were built, but fortunately part of one, perfectly preserved and with all the original stones in situ, was found on the west side of the avenue. These stones are well cut and adjusted, as all those in Teotihuacán stairways must have been. In the ceremonial zone the fact that there is not one Teotihuacán burial demonstrates that interments were not customary there. This is exactly the opposite of what took place in Monte Alban in Oaxaca, for example, where there are magnificent tombs in the ceremonial area. On the other hand, burials from later periods than Classic Teotihuacán have been discovered. Even though we have not found any ceramics to help to date them, the position of the tombs proves that they were made after the destruction of the city.

Various ceremonial offerings have been uncovered. We are planning to publish detailed descriptions of these later, but in general it can be said that they were rifled after the Spaniards came. On many occasions we have found pits dug especially to contain offerings, but empty. When offerings were related to a building, they generally occupied a fixed position — in front of the stairway, in front of the balustrades, or in the corners. It is evident that the ransackers knew where they were located. This simplified the task of finding the booty and carrying it off. It is possible that the great preconquest tunnel of Mound I in the Plaza of the Moon was constructed to make removal of objects easy.

In spite of the systematic sacking, in a city as important as Teotihuacán it is inevitable that some ceremonial offerings will have been overlooked, such as those which came to light in the West Patio of the Quetzalpapalotl Palace. Among other things this collection contained alabaster vases decorated with fresco painting.

A wide variety of objects, most of them found among the rubble, hold great interest for us. One piece of sculpture of large proportions has appeared. It is a great jaguar head, incomplete, on the stairway of the room of Quetzalpapalotl Palace that faces the plaza. Many small pieces of sculpture have been found, especially the masks that are so characteristic of Teotihuacán. In the North Room of Quetzalpapalotl, Acosta found an alabaster jaguar eight inches high. This jaguar is similar to one in the British Museum. The lower part of a tablet, made of the same semiprecious stone and representing a priest with the attributes of a jaguar, was found in the West Room. Archaeologist Contreras found a battlement in the form of a jaguar, also made of alabaster.

Many stones with bas-relief decoration have come to light, the columns of Quetzalpapalotl Palace outstanding among them. In addition there are many carved stones from destroyed monuments, some adorned with discs or with other motifs.

In its next to last period of construction. Teotihuacan reminds us of Renaissance Italy because of the abundance and magnificence of its mural paintings. We receive the impression that every available wall was painted. Through previous explorations we had become acquainted with a large number of murals, but fieldwork in 1963 has revealed a great many more, some of them splendid. There is an extraordinary jaguar in the Tetila zone, and an eagle with its wings open at the moment it is about to light. Jaguars playing a conchshell musical instrument in Quetzalpapalotl Palace are magnificent, as well as ocelots, all red, trapped in nets. Outstanding is a group of small animals— jaguars, fish, doves—brought to life in brilliant colors on a background of red lines flowing like water. A line of splendidly dressed priests represents either real persons or perhaps priestly ranks or titles, since each figure is accompanied by a different glyph.

It is too early to try to describe correctly, much less interpret or study from an aesthetic viewpoint, this pictorial treasure, as the mural paintings are just now being cleaned. In some cases it is necessary to transfer these murals to aluminum sheets in order to assure their permanent preservation.

A wealth of data is being accumulated that enables us to understand more fully the history and culture of Teotihuacán, and thus to give to the world a vision of this city of extraordinary beauty, an incomparable monument from an ancient civilization. But it is not possible to re-create the real soul of Teotihuacán. since the temples that crowned the pyramids and the color that covered the stones are lacking. Nothing will ever erase the damage resulting from the passing of time, and the devastation caused by man in Teotihuacán.

Translated by Doris Hoyden.