Lakes of mercury and human sacrifices – after 1,800 years, Teotihuacan reveals its treasures
In 2003, a tunnel was discovered beneath the Feathered Serpent pyramid in the ruins of Teotihuacan, the ancient city in Mexico. Undisturbed for 1,800 years, the sealed-off passage was found to contain thousands of extraordinary treasures lying exactly where they had first been placed as ritual offerings to the gods. Items unearthed included greenstone crocodile teeth, crystals shaped into eyes, and sculptures of jaguars ready to pounce. Even more remarkable was a miniature mountainous landscape, 17 metres underground, with tiny pools of liquid mercury representing lakes. The walls of the tunnel were found to have been carefully impregnated with powdered pyrite, or fool’s gold, to give the effect in firelight of standing under a galaxy of stars.
The archaeological site, near Mexico City, is one of the largest and most important in the world, with millions of visitors every year. This was its most exciting development for decades – and the significance of these new discoveries is explored in a major exhibition opening this month at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
Teotihuacan has long been a place of mysteries. It was the most populous city in the Americas nearly 2,000 years ago, but little is known about its language, rulers or the circumstances of its collapse, in around AD550. Its name, which means “birthplace of the gods”, was given much later by the Aztecs, who treated the ruins – including the monumental Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the majestic Avenue of the Dead – with due reverence.
Many questions remain unanswered, but the newly discovered tunnel has led to a greater understanding of the design and mythology of Teotihuacan, which was a sacred place as well as a bustling metropolis. The de Young exhibition, as well as showcasing artworks from numerous collections, offers the latest theories about the mysteries that still surround it.