Teotihuacán is an giant archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico, about 48 km north-east of Mexico City, containing some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas. Apart from the pyramids, it is also known for its extensive residential complexes, the Avenue of the Dead, and numerous colourful, well-preserved murals.
The city and the archaeological site are located in what is now the San Juan Teotihuacán municipality in the State of México, approximately 40 kilometres north-east of Mexico City. The site covers a total surface area of 83 square kilometres and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.The name Teōtīhuacān was given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztecs centuries after the fall of the city. The term has been glossed as ‘birthplace of the gods’, reflecting Nahua creation myths that placed the beginning of the world in Teotihuacán.
The city’s broad central avenue, called ‘the Avenue of the Dead’, is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the immense Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon. Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller platforms. The Aztecs believed they were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue.
The geographical layout of Teotihuacán is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements and buildings as a representation of the view of the universe. Its urban grid is aligned to precisely 15.5º east of North. One theory says this is due to the fact that the sun rose at that same angle during the same summer day each year. Settlers used the alignment to calibrate their sense of time or as a marker for planting crops or performing certain rituals. Another theory is that there are numerous ancient sites in Mesoamerica that seem to be oriented with the tallest mountain in their given area. This appears to be the case at Teotihuacán, although the mountain to which it is oriented is not visible from within the Teotihuacán complex due to a closer mountain ridge.
The city is thought to have been established around 100 BC and continued to be built until about 250 AD. It may have lasted until sometime between the 7th and 8th centuries AD. The ethnicity of the residents is a subject of debate. They might have been the Nahua, Otomi or Totonac groups. It’s also possible that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state.
The early history of Teotihuacán is quite mysterious, and the origin of its founders is debated. For many years, archaeologists believed it was built by the Toltec. However, the Nahuatl word ‘Toltec’ means ‘craftsman’ and may not refer to the Toltec civilisation. But since the Toltecs flourished centuries after Teotihuacán, they couldn’t have been the city’s founders.
Other scholars have put forth the Totonac people as the founders of Teotihuacán. There is evidence that at least some of the people living in Teotihuacán arrived from those areas influenced by the Teotihuacano civilisation, including the Zapotec, Mixtec and Maya peoples.
The builders of Teotihuacán took advantage of the geography in the Basin of Mexico. From the swampy ground, they constructed raised beds, called chinampas. This allowed for the formation of channels, and subsequently canoe traffic to transport food from farms around the city. The earliest buildings at Teotihuacán date to about 200 BC. The largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, was completed by 100 AD.
The city reached its peak in 450 AD, when it was the centre of a powerful culture whose influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. At its peak, the city covered over 30 square kilometres, and perhaps housed a population of 150,000 people, with one estimate reaching as high as 250,000. Various districts in the city housed people from across the Teotihuacano region of influence, which spread south as far as Guatemala. Notably absent from the city are fortifications and military structures.
Scholars had thought that invaders attacked the city in the 7th or 8th century, sacking and burning it. More recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that the burning was limited to the structures and dwellings associated primarily with the elite class. Some think this suggests that the burning was from an internal uprising. They say the invasion theory is flawed because early archaeological work on the city was focused exclusively on the palaces and temples, places used by the elites. Because all of these sites showed burning, archaeologists concluded that the whole city was burned. Instead, it is now known that the destruction was centred on major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Some statues seem to have been destroyed in a methodical way, with their fragments dispersed.
The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in Teotihuacán and one of the largest in Mesoamerica. Located along the Avenue of the Dead, in between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Ciudadela, and in the shadow of the massive mountain Cerro Gordo, the pyramid is part of a large complex in the heart of the city.
The pyramid is oriented slightly north-west of the horizon point of the setting sun on two days a year, August 12 and April 29, which are about one divinatory calendar year apart for the Teotihuacanos. The day of August 12 is significant because it would have marked the date of the beginning of the present era and the initial day of the Maya long-count calendar. In addition, many important astrological events can be viewed from the location of the pyramid that are significant in terms of both agriculture and belief systems of the ancient society.
The pyramid was built over a man-made tunnel leading to a ‘cave’ located 6 metres beneath the centre of the structure. Originally this was believed to be a naturally formed lava tube cave and interpreted as possibly the place of Chicomoztoc, the place of human origin according to Nahua legends. More recent excavations have suggested that the space is man-made and could have served as a royal tomb. Recently scientists have used muon detectors to try to find other chambers within the interior of the pyramid, but substantial looting has prevented the discovery of a function for the chambers in the Teotihuacán society.
Only a few caches of artefacts have been found in and around the pyramid. Obsidian arrowheads and human figurines have been discovered inside the pyramid and similar objects have been found at the nearby Pyramid of the Moon and Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in the Ciudadela. These objects may have represented sacrificial victims. In addition, burial sites of children have been found in excavations at the corners of the pyramid. It is believed that these burials were part of a sacrificial ritual dedicating the building of the pyramid.
The Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest pyramid in Teotihuacán, after the Pyramid of the Sun. It is located in the western part of the city and mimics the contours of the mountain Cerro Gordo, just north of the site. Some have called it Tenan, which means ‘mother or protective stone’ in Nahuatl.
The Pyramid’s construction between 200 and 450 AD completed the bilateral symmetry of the temple complex. A slope in front of the staircase gives access to the Avenue of the Dead, a platform atop the pyramid was used to conduct ceremonies in honour of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacán, the goddess of water, fertility, the earth, and even creation itself. This platform and the sculpture found at the pyramid’s bottom are thus dedicated to the Great Goddess.
Opposite the Great Goddess’s altar is the Plaza of the Moon. The Plaza contains a central altar and an original construction with internal divisions, consisting of four rectangular and diagonal bodies that formed what is known as the ‘Teotihuacán Cross.’