Lakes of mercury and human sacrifices – after 1,800 years, Teotihuacan reveals its treasures

When archaeologists found a tunnel under Mexico’s ‘birthplace of the gods’, they could only dream of the riches they would discover. Now its wonders – from jewel-eyed figures to necklaces of human teeth – are being revealed to the world

A skull statue that will be on display in Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Photograph: Photographer:Jesus Valdovinos Al/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

In 2003, a tunnel was discovered beneath the Feathered Serpent pyramid in the ruins of Teotihuacan, the ancient city in Mexico. Undisturbed for 1,800 years, the sealed-off passage was found to contain thousands of extraordinary treasures lying exactly where they had first been placed as ritual offerings to the gods. Items unearthed included greenstone crocodile teeth, crystals shaped into eyes, and sculptures of jaguars ready to pounce. Even more remarkable was a miniature mountainous landscape, 17 metres underground, with tiny pools of liquid mercury representing lakes. The walls of the tunnel were found to have been carefully impregnated with powdered pyrite, or fool’s gold, to give the effect in firelight of standing under a galaxy of stars.

The archaeological site, near Mexico City, is one of the largest and most important in the world, with millions of visitors every year. This was its most exciting development for decades – and the significance of these new discoveries is explored in a major exhibition opening this month at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

What lies beneath … the Pyramid of the Moon at Teotihuacan. Photograph: Eye Ubiquitous/UIG via Getty Images

Teotihuacan has long been a place of mysteries. It was the most populous city in the Americas nearly 2,000 years ago, but little is known about its language, rulers or the circumstances of its collapse, in around AD550. Its name, which means “birthplace of the gods”, was given much later by the Aztecs, who treated the ruins – including the monumental Pyramids of the Sun and Moon and the majestic Avenue of the Dead – with due reverence.

Many questions remain unanswered, but the newly discovered tunnel has led to a greater understanding of the design and mythology of Teotihuacan, which was a sacred place as well as a bustling metropolis. The de Young exhibition, as well as showcasing artworks from numerous collections, offers the latest theories about the mysteries that still surround it.

The tunnel was chanced upon by Mexican archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez, who, after days of heavy rain, noticed that a sinkhole – a danger to tourists – had opened up near the foot of the Feathered Serpent pyramid. He shone a torch in but could see only darkness, so tied a rope round his waist and was lowered by workers down the hole, which with surprise he realised was a perfectly cylindrical shaft.

Explorer … a camera robot travels along the vast tunnel under the Pyramid of the Feathered Snake. Photograph: Courtesy of INAH/Project Tlalocan.

There was, he recalls, a sharp stench that was nearly unbearable, but at the bottom he peered through a gap in the rubble to see an underground passage, evidently an ancient construction. Work proceeded cautiously: before a dig began, his team used a robot with a video camera to explore the tunnel, which turned out to be as long as a football field, passing below the nearby great plaza as well as the pyramid. “We were amazed by what no one had seen for at least 1,500 years,” says Gómez Chávez in the show’s catalogue. At one end, the passage opened out into three chambers containing riches worthy of a quest by Indiana Jones.

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