A Secret Tunnel Found in Mexico May Finally Solve the Mysteries of Teotihuacán

July 7, 2016

 

I met Gómez late last year, on a smoldering afternoon. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee out of a foam cup. Tides of tourists swept to and fro over the grass of the Ciudadela—I heard scraps of Italian, Russian, French. An Asian couple stopped to peer in at Gómez and his team as if they were tigers at a zoo. Gómez looked back stonily, the cigarette hanging off his bottom lip.

Gómez told me about the work his team was doing to study the 75,000 or so artifacts they had already found, each of which needed to be carefully cataloged, analyzed and, when possible, restored. “I would estimate that we’re only about 10 percent through the process,” he said.

The restoration operation is set up in a cluster of buildings not far from the Ciudadela. In one room, a young man was sketching artifacts and noting where in the tunnel the objects had been found. Next door, a handful of conservators sat at a banquet-style table, bent over an array of pottery. The air smelled sharply of acetone and alcohol, a mixture used to remove contaminants from the artifacts.

“It might take you months just to finish a single large piece,” Vania García, a technician from Mexico City, told me. She was using a syringe primed with acetone to clean a particularly tiny crack. “But some of the other objects are remarkably well preserved: They were buried carefully.” She recalled that not long ago, she found a powdery yellow substance at the bottom of a jar. It was corn, it turned out—1,800-year-old corn.

Passing through a lab where wood recovered from the tunnel was being carefully treated in chemical baths, we stepped into the storeroom. “This is where we keep the fully restored artifacts,” Gómez said. There was a statue of a coiled jaguar, poised to pounce, and a collection of flawless obsidian knives. The material for the weapons had probably been brought in from the Pachuca region of Mexico and carved in Teotihuacán by master craftspeople. Gómez held out a knife for me to hold; it was marvelously light. “What a society, no?” he exclaimed. “That could create something as beautiful and powerful as that.”

In the canvas tent erected over the entrance to the tunnel, Gómez’s team had installed a ladder that led down into the earth—a wobbly thing fastened to the top platform with frayed twine. I descended carefully, foot over foot, the brim of my hard hat slipping over my eyes. In the tunnel it was damp and cold, like a grave. To get anywhere, you had to walk on your haunches, turning to the side when the passage narrowed. As protection against cave-ins, Gómez’s workmen had installed several dozen feet of scaffolding—the earth here is unstable, and earthquakes are common. So far, there had been two partial collapses; no one had been hurt. Still, it was hard not to feel a shiver of taphophobia.

Through the middle of Teotihuacán studies runs a division like a fault line, separating those who believe that the city was ruled by an all-powerful and violent king and those who argue that it was governed by a council of elite families or otherwise bound groups, vying over time for relative influence, arising from the cosmopolitan nature of the city itself. The first camp, which includes experts like Saburo Sugiyama, has precedent on its side—the Maya, for instance, are famous for their warlike kings—but unlike Mayan cities, where rulers had their visages festooned on buildings and where they were buried in opulent tombs, Teotihuacán has offered up no such decorations, nor tombs.

Initially, much of the buzz surrounding the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent centered on the possibility that Gómez and his colleagues might finally locate one such tomb, and thereby solve one of the city’s most fundamental enduring mysteries. Gómez himself has entertained the idea. But as we clambered through the tunnel, he laid out a hypothesis that seemed to stem more directly from the mythological readings of the city laid out by scholars like Clemency Coggins and Michael Coe.

Fifty feet in, we stopped at a small inlet carved into the wall. Not long before, Gómez and his colleagues had discovered traces of mercury in the tunnel, which Gómez believed served as symbolic representations of water, as well as the mineral pyrite, which was embedded in the rock by hand. In semi-darkness, Gómez explained, the shards of pyrite emit a throbbing, metallic glow. To demonstrate, he unscrewed the nearest light bulb. The pyrite came to life, like a distant galaxy. It was possible, in that moment, to imagine what the tunnel’s designers might have felt more than a thousand years ago: 40 feet underground, they’d replicated the experience of standing amid the stars.

If, Gómez suggested, it was true that the layout of the city proper was meant to stand in for the universe and its creation, might the tunnel, beneath the temple devoted to an all-encompassing aqueous past, represent a world outside of time, an underworld or a world before, not the world of the living but of the dead? Up above, there was the Temple of the Sun and the eternal day. Down below, the stars—not of this earth—and the deepest night.

I followed Gómez down a short ramp and into the cross-shaped chamber directly under the heart of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Four archaeologists were kneeling in the dirt, brushes and thin-bladed trowels in hand. A nearby boombox blared Lady Gaga.

Gómez told me he had not been prepared for the sheer diversity of the objects he encountered in the farthermost reaches of the tunnel: necklaces, with the string intact. Boxes of beetle wings. Jaguar bones. Balls of amber. And perhaps most intriguingly, a pair of finely carved black stone statues, each facing the wall opposite to the entryway of the chamber.

Writing in the late 1990s, Coggins speculated that religious tradition at Teotihuacán would have been “perpetuated in the linked repetition of ritual,” likely on the part of a priesthood. That ritual, Coggins went on, “would have concerned the Creation, Teotihuacán’s role in it, and probably also the birth/emergence of the Teotihuacán people from a cave”—a deep and dark hole in the earth.

Gómez gestured at the area where the twin figures once stood. “You can imagine a scenario where priests come down here to pay tribute to them,” he explained—to the Creators of the universe, and of the city, one and the same.

Gómez has one more crucial task to undertake: the excavation of three distinct, buried sub-chambers located below the resting place of the figurines, the final sections of the tunnel complex as yet unexplored. Some scholars speculate that the elaborate ritual offerings on display here, and the presence of pyrite and mercury, which held known associations with the supernatural among ancient Mesoamericans, provide further evidence that the buried sub-chambers represent the entryway to a particular type of underworld: the place where the city’s ruler departed the world of the living. Others argue that even the discovery of long-sought human remains buried in spectacular fashion would hardly close the book on the mystery of Teotihuacán’s rulers: Whoever is buried here could be just one ruler among many, perhaps even some other kind of holy person.

For Gómez, the sub-chambers, whether they are filled with more ritual relics, or remains, or something entirely unexpected, might be best understood as a symbolic “tomb”: a final resting place for the city’s founders, of gods and men.

A few months after leaving Mexico, I checked in with Gómez. He was only marginally closer to uncovering the chambers beneath the end of the tunnel. His archaeologists were literally often working with toothbrushes, so as not to damage whatever lay beneath.

Regardless of what he found at the end of the tunnel, once his excavation was complete, he promised me, he’d be satisfied. “The number of artifacts we’ve uncovered,” he said, pausing. “You could spend a whole career evaluating the contents.”

 

 

I met Gómez late last year, on a smoldering afternoon. He was smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee out of a foam cup. Tides of tourists swept to and fro over the grass of the Ciudadela—I heard scraps of Italian, Russian, French. An Asian couple stopped to peer in at Gómez and his team as if they were tigers at a zoo. Gómez looked back stonily, the cigarette hanging off his bottom lip.

Gómez told me about the work his team was doing to study the 75,000 or so artifacts they had already found, each of which needed to be carefully cataloged, analyzed and, when possible, restored. “I would estimate that we’re only about 10 percent through the process,” he said.

The restoration operation is set up in a cluster of buildings not far from the Ciudadela. In one room, a young man was sketching artifacts and noting where in the tunnel the objects had been found. Next door, a handful of conservators sat at a banquet-style table, bent over an array of pottery. The air smelled sharply of acetone and alcohol, a mixture used to remove contaminants from the artifacts.

“It might take you months just to finish a single large piece,” Vania García, a technician from Mexico City, told me. She was using a syringe primed with acetone to clean a particularly tiny crack. “But some of the other objects are remarkably well preserved: They were buried carefully.” She recalled that not long ago, she found a powdery yellow substance at the bottom of a jar. It was corn, it turned out—1,800-year-old corn.

Passing through a lab where wood recovered from the tunnel was being carefully treated in chemical baths, we stepped into the storeroom. “This is where we keep the fully restored artifacts,” Gómez said. There was a statue of a coiled jaguar, poised to pounce, and a collection of flawless obsidian knives. The material for the weapons had probably been brought in from the Pachuca region of Mexico and carved in Teotihuacán by master craftspeople. Gómez held out a knife for me to hold; it was marvelously light. “What a society, no?” he exclaimed. “That could create something as beautiful and powerful as that.”

In the canvas tent erected over the entrance to the tunnel, Gómez’s team had installed a ladder that led down into the earth—a wobbly thing fastened to the top platform with frayed twine. I descended carefully, foot over foot, the brim of my hard hat slipping over my eyes. In the tunnel it was damp and cold, like a grave. To get anywhere, you had to walk on your haunches, turning to the side when the passage narrowed. As protection against cave-ins, Gómez’s workmen had installed several dozen feet of scaffolding—the earth here is unstable, and earthquakes are common. So far, there had been two partial collapses; no one had been hurt. Still, it was hard not to feel a shiver of taphophobia.

Through the middle of Teotihuacán studies runs a division like a fault line, separating those who believe that the city was ruled by an all-powerful and violent king and those who argue that it was governed by a council of elite families or otherwise bound groups, vying over time for relative influence, arising from the cosmopolitan nature of the city itself. The first camp, which includes experts like Saburo Sugiyama, has precedent on its side—the Maya, for instance, are famous for their warlike kings—but unlike Mayan cities, where rulers had their visages festooned on buildings and where they were buried in opulent tombs, Teotihuacán has offered up no such decorations, nor tombs.

Initially, much of the buzz surrounding the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Plumed Serpent centered on the possibility that Gómez and his colleagues might finally locate one such tomb, and thereby solve one of the city’s most fundamental enduring mysteries. Gómez himself has entertained the idea. But as we clambered through the tunnel, he laid out a hypothesis that seemed to stem more directly from the mythological readings of the city laid out by scholars like Clemency Coggins and Michael Coe.

Fifty feet in, we stopped at a small inlet carved into the wall. Not long before, Gómez and his colleagues had discovered traces of mercury in the tunnel, which Gómez believed served as symbolic representations of water, as well as the mineral pyrite, which was embedded in the rock by hand. In semi-darkness, Gómez explained, the shards of pyrite emit a throbbing, metallic glow. To demonstrate, he unscrewed the nearest light bulb. The pyrite came to life, like a distant galaxy. It was possible, in that moment, to imagine what the tunnel’s designers might have felt more than a thousand years ago: 40 feet underground, they’d replicated the experience of standing amid the stars.

If, Gómez suggested, it was true that the layout of the city proper was meant to stand in for the universe and its creation, might the tunnel, beneath the temple devoted to an all-encompassing aqueous past, represent a world outside of time, an underworld or a world before, not the world of the living but of the dead? Up above, there was the Temple of the Sun and the eternal day. Down below, the stars—not of this earth—and the deepest night.

I followed Gómez down a short ramp and into the cross-shaped chamber directly under the heart of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. Four archaeologists were kneeling in the dirt, brushes and thin-bladed trowels in hand. A nearby boombox blared Lady Gaga.

Gómez told me he had not been prepared for the sheer diversity of the objects he encountered in the farthermost reaches of the tunnel: necklaces, with the string intact. Boxes of beetle wings. Jaguar bones. Balls of amber. And perhaps most intriguingly, a pair of finely carved black stone statues, each facing the wall opposite to the entryway of the chamber.

Writing in the late 1990s, Coggins speculated that religious tradition at Teotihuacán would have been “perpetuated in the linked repetition of ritual,” likely on the part of a priesthood. That ritual, Coggins went on, “would have concerned the Creation, Teotihuacán’s role in it, and probably also the birth/emergence of the Teotihuacán people from a cave”—a deep and dark hole in the earth.

Gómez gestured at the area where the twin figures once stood. “You can imagine a scenario where priests come down here to pay tribute to them,” he explained—to the Creators of the universe, and of the city, one and the same.

Gómez has one more crucial task to undertake: the excavation of three distinct, buried sub-chambers located below the resting place of the figurines, the final sections of the tunnel complex as yet unexplored. Some scholars speculate that the elaborate ritual offerings on display here, and the presence of pyrite and mercury, which held known associations with the supernatural among ancient Mesoamericans, provide further evidence that the buried sub-chambers represent the entryway to a particular type of underworld: the place where the city’s ruler departed the world of the living. Others argue that even the discovery of long-sought human remains buried in spectacular fashion would hardly close the book on the mystery of Teotihuacán’s rulers: Whoever is buried here could be just one ruler among many, perhaps even some other kind of holy person.

For Gómez, the sub-chambers, whether they are filled with more ritual relics, or remains, or something entirely unexpected, might be best understood as a symbolic “tomb”: a final resting place for the city’s founders, of gods and men.

A few months after leaving Mexico, I checked in with Gómez. He was only marginally closer to uncovering the chambers beneath the end of the tunnel. His archaeologists were literally often working with toothbrushes, so as not to damage whatever lay beneath.

Regardless of what he found at the end of the tunnel, once his excavation was complete, he promised me, he’d be satisfied. “The number of artifacts we’ve uncovered,” he said, pausing. “You could spend a whole career evaluating the contents.”

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