The recent discovery of a skeleton and 150 surrounding artifacts inside the Pyramid of the Moon at the ruins of Teotihuacan, an ancient city 25 miles from current Mexico City, could very well be a critical clue to understanding this lost culture, according to Arizona State University Professor of Anthropology George Cowgill, a consultant on the excavation and longtime associate of ASU archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama, who made the find.
Discovered in mid-October and still in the process of being excavated, the burial is suspected to date to approximately 100 A.D., in the early years of Teotihuacan, the first great metropolis of the Western Hemisphere.
Perhaps even more archaeologically important, however, are indications that the skeleton may have belonged to one of the city's rulers. If this is so, it would be the first grave of a Teotihuacan ruler to be found, and information learned from the site could literally revolutionize modern understanding of Teotihuacan's still largely unknown culture and history. Discovered under the city's second largest pyramid, along the centerline, the body was buried seated and is surrounded with many offerings, including large obsidian and green stone figurines.
According to Cowgill, this is similar to the pattern of rulers' burials found at related sites to the south. "It's early in the excavation," said Cowgill, "but I'd cautiously call this the burial of an extremely important person."
Cowgill also noted that if the pattern holds true, this may be just the first of several rulers' burials waiting to be found under the Pyramid of the Moon, as series of such burials have been found similarly centered under other Mesoamerican monumental structures.
The discovery of an intact ruler's burial site is likely to provide critical information that could either significantly revise or confirm current theories about the Teotihuacanos, since grave goods are often heavily iconographic, Cowgill said.
Though the civilization left massive ruins, no trace has yet been found of a writing system and very little is known for sure about its inhabitants, who were succeeded first by the Toltecs and then by the Aztecs. The Aztecs did not live in the city, but gave the place and its major structures their current names. They considered it the "Place of the Gods" -- a place where, they believed, the current world was created.
At its peak around 500 A.D., Teotihuacan contained perhaps 200,000 people, a master-planned city covering nearly eight square miles and larger and more advanced than any European city of the time. Its civilization was contemporary with that of ancient Rome , and lasted longer more than 500 years.
The recent discovery is of special personal significance to Sugiyama and Cowgill, who were part of a team that found a spectacular series of mass graves under Teotihuacan's much smaller Feathered Serpent Pyramid in the late 1980's. Among that excavation's finds were some startling warriors' burials -- probably sacrifices to dedicate the pyramid -- but a large pit where a ruler was suspected to have been buried was found looted and empty.
The older, more primitive construction lying under the Pyramid of the Moon may have protected its secrets, Cowgill noted. "The Pyramid of the Moon is difficult to dig because of a lot of loose rock used in the construction -- this makes it dangerous for archaeologists to tunnel under but it's also resistant to looters," said Cowgill.
The grave is located within a structure that had subsequently been covered by two other structures and finally by the current pyramid, which was constructed around 250 A.D.
The excavation is a joint project of the ASU Department of Anthropology and Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History and is funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Sugiyama and Mexican archaeologist Ruben Cabrera head an international excavation team which includes graduate and undergraduate students from both institutions, as well as graduate students from the University of Tokyo, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and the University of the Americas.
Study and analysis of the burial items and other materials found in the excavation will be conducted at the ASU Archaeology Center in nearby San Juan. The center, which has quarters and laboratory space for ten archaeologists, was founded with the help of an NSF grant in 1987 to do research on Teotihuacan.
Excavation of the site is expected to continue until March 1999.