22 | OCT | 2019
Teotihuacán, the secrets buried in the ancient underworld
Teotihuacán - Photo: File Photo/EL UNIVERSAL

Teotihuacán, the secrets buried in the ancient underworld

21/02/2019
17:23
Mexico City
Iván Carrillo
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What important event took place around 2000 years ago in this place, where all the powers in Mesoamerica were concentrated?

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Sergio Gómez discovered the Teotihuacan underworld on October 2, 2003. It was Tláloc, the god of rain in the pre-colonial tradition, who revealed to him a “place full of abundance, where he would acquire new life,” according to Alfonso Caso in El Pueblo del Sol (The people of the sun). That rainy morning, the archeologist, who is the one in charge of the restoration of the temple of the Feathered Serpent, was warned about a leak in front of the building he had known for many years, when he was a Psychology student, by one of his workers.

Back then, because of his financial situation, the university student agreed to be in charge of the Teotihuacán library. His work consisted on transporting the books required by the researchers, from Mexico City to the archeological zone. The journey was long and tiring, and it was accompanied by a large number of books: “My job was to read,” the 58-year-old man told me, while he smokes a cigarette.

On the morning of the discovery, Sergio determined that the water accumulated in the square filtered through a hole with a diameter of 83 centimeters. He asked the workers to tie a rope around his waist and lower him into the hole. During the 13-meter descent, he felt the humidity in the walls, which were perfectly carved and made of tepetate, a type of volcanic rock. Then, he noticed something that looked like a tunnel. “It was completely full of dirt and rocks. Trough the surface, we managed to see the marks of the tools with which it had been excavated. Then we noticed that it wasn't something natural; that it wasn't a craftsman well for irrigation (either). It was a very important moment of excitement.”

Excavating the bureaucracy

An archeologist's instinct is to excavate. Like hounds, they obey their sense of smell and their unstoppable desire for removing the dirt that surrounds them. But the world or archeology doesn't work impulsively. Least of all, in regards to the emblematic archeological zone of Teotihuacán, the place where gods were created, a destination that welcomes around 5 million tourists every year, who visit the citadel of a large city that, during its prime, was inhabited by around 100,000 people, according to the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

During the following months, through different methods, the archeologist tried to discover the inside of his find. Along with a friend, they adapted a remote control car with a camera and placed it inside the slit in between the mud and the vault, but the plan failed, as the car only moved a meter and a half and got stuck.

It was a rough start and the first obstacle of the many other they would have to face before extracting the first fist-full of dirt. It was followed by a change at the INAH, which resulted in the cancellation of the conservation project of the temple, which allowed them to work on the area, because of “a lack of resources.”

A major blow

The young researcher had moved from Mexico City to Teotihuacán after the 1985 earthquake. The job as a librarian had ended up involving him with archeologists, as he liked to be “nosy” and it was one of them who motivated him to change majors when they found out about his ability to draw.

Then, as a professional, he had been authorized to restore the temple based on a legitimate concern, since he “saw how it was falling to pieces.” It was the first important project under his leadership. What he never imagined was that his passion for that building would take him to the secret passage that was now being revealed to him, in the most explored archeological zone in the country.

Aware of the opportunity, he decided to look for the resources. He invested the following years on facing bureaucracy. It was until 2009, six years after his find when the archeologist finally received a document that authorized him to begin the exploration.
 

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The tunnel

Along with Sergio, I descend through the main entrance of the tunnel. A quadrangular gap that measured around four meters. This is the same point where, many years ago, in 1982, Patricia Quintanilla, an archeologist, excavated up to 9 meters. Sergio told me that that excavation was only 20 centimeters away from finding the tunnel, who remembers that during his time as a librarian, he delivered books to his colleague.

This is not the first time I visited this space. During a previous visit, in 2015, the excavation had progressed around 70% to 80%. I was able to confirm the delicate and arduous task carried out by his team, formed by 40 or 50 people to extract and sieve every handful of dirt. Back then there was a lot of expectation: the possibility of finding a tomb or a burial. Although Sergio was very careful when referring to it, the excitement he felt was obvious in his eyes: “There are hints that tell us that there is something more important than an offering,” he told me back then.

The process to empty the tunnel, which is 103 meters long and 18 meters in its deepest part, lasted 9 years. The labor was carried out with “dentist tools” and the team extracted almost 1,000 tons of rocks and mud and around 100,000 objects: jade from Guatemala, turquoise from Arizona, shells from the Sea of Cortez, remains of wood canes, perfectly preserved seeds, carved shells from the Caribbean, ceramics from Puebla, claws and the skulls of big cats...

What important event took place around 2000 years ago in this place, where all the powers in Mesoamerica were concentrated? “The context and variety of objects indicate that it was a very lavish ceremony, that was probably organized to bury someone,” Sergio said.

A metaphor of the underworld

As the excavation progressed, the idea that the find was a metaphorical representation of the underworld strengthened in the mind of the archeologist. The words of the Bernardino de Sahagún, a chronicler, resonated inside his head, who described it as a “dark and humid place where the sacred water ran.” The vault, lined with pyrite as a representation of the shining sky and a miniature reproduction of a mountain landscape with tiny lakes made of mercury, reinforced his hypothesis.

Also, if the tunnel was the underworld, it could be thought that the temple wasn't dedicated to Quetzalcóatl, as it was believed until then, but rather a representation of the serpent that penetrated the underworld and emerges with the symbol of the beginning of the times: the black crocodile or Cipactli. That is, that all the infrastructure could refer to a mythical time, to the foundation of Teotihuacán.

Nevertheless, for Sergio, those thoughts are nothing but suppositions that should be explored: “We finished the easiest stage, which is the exploration. Now comes the most complicated stage (…) the classification to get to the interpretation. It's about structuring all these elements that will help us build a discourse with scientific bases to be able to explain what this place could have been, the meaning, the use.”
 

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Unearthing treasures

We finally reach the end of a tunnel, which ends right under the temple. In front of me, I can see three cameras placed in the shape of a cross and the scale model that simulates a mountain landscape. I feel fascinated by the mystery of what could have happened there. In this place, three anthropomorphic figures, and the remains of a fourth one were found. The sculptures represented two large women who were dressed very elegantly and a small man who was naked. “Maybe as a representation of the founders of Teotihuacán,” Sergio said.

There, in front of the space that became the object, he has chased for years, I ask him the question I've meant to ask him during the whole interview. “What did you feel when you realized that there wasn't a tomb or a burial?.” His answer was expressed with authentic calmness: “I suggested it as a hypothesis but it's not something that worries me or obsesses me. We work like this, with hypotheses, we aren't magicians.”

I ask him the last question: “was there any moment during your childhood that determined your vocation as an archeologist?.”

This time, the archeologist takes some time to answer. His memory has taken him back to the Moctezuma neighborhood when he was 8 or 9 years old. Sergio was the third out of 9 siblings.

His father was an accountant and his mother worked at home. No one inspired his vocation, he said, but he suddenly laughs: “when I was a child, I always liked playing with dirt. I remember I liked burying my toys and look for them and find them as treasures (…) Sometimes I left them there, forgotten. They scolded me at home for getting dirty, and the funniest thing is that now they pay me to get dirty and I have a lot of fun.”

Translated by Gretel Morales

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