Mexico, Anahuac, Teotihuacan, Moon Pyramid. (Photo by: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images). Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

There’s a new exhibit dedicated to the ancient site of Teotihuacan, outside Mexico City, that synthesizes a number of discoveries and recently uncovered artifacts. And it sounds like a fascinating peek into an incredible place.

At the Guardian, Paul Laity explains that the de Young Museum in San Francisco is preparing to open “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.” In its day Teotihuacan was the biggest city in the Americas, predating the Aztecs, who revered the site. But it collapsed in the mid 500s, and there’s quite a bit modern-day archeologists don’t know about the place, which is dominated by three large structures—the Sun Pyramid, the Moon Pyramid, and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. In 2003, archeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez discovered a tunnel underneath the last of those, the smallest of the three. Undisturbed for almost two millennia, it was full of “thousands of extraordinary treasures lying exactly where they had first been placed as ritual offerings to the gods.” For instance:

Detail of two standing anthropomorphic sculptures discovered near the terminus of the tunnel beneath the Ciudadela and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Photograph by Sergio Gómez Chávez Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The exhibit outlines the many things they’ve learned since making that initial, incredible discovery, which has helped shed light on Teotihuacan as both “a sacred place as well as a bustling metropolis.” (No royal tomb, though—so far.) While the writeup will make you keen to see the exhibit, it’ll really make you frustrated there’s no way to time travel for a look with your own eyes.

The vast Pyramids of the Sun and Moon are different from those of ancient Egypt, being temples rather than tombs. They are connected by the Street of the Dead as part of an urban grid, the whole pattern oriented to the movement of the sun. The city’s very design contains the idea of it being “the birthplace of the gods” – where the universe was thought to have begun. Watermarks along the walls of Gómez Chávez’s passage have proved that the huge plaza above it was deliberately flooded to create a kind of primordial sea, with pyramids as metaphorical mountains emerging from the water as at the beginning of time. Thousands of people would have witnessed ceremonies re-enacting the creation myth.


It keeps going:

The inhabitants of the city, along with those from similar civilisations, believed the universe had three levels, connected by an axis: the celestial plane, the earthly plane and the underworld, which wasn’t the Biblical place of fiery punishment but a dark, watery realm of creation, with lakes and mountains – it signified riches and rebirth as well as death. The rich array of objects Gómez Chávez has brought up from the passage – large spiral shells, beetle wings arranged in a box, hundreds of metal spheres – was left there as treasure to appease the gods. But it also seems that the tunnel, with its pyrite galaxy and liquid mercury lakes, was itself a re-creation of the underworld.


If you’re in San Francisco, the exhibit runs at the de Young Museum through mid February, and if not, they’ve got a pretty good digital component you can pore over. Check out the full Guardian writeup here.