Below a pyramid, a treasure trove sheds new light on ancient Mexican rites
Sonia Disciplina examines a bouquet of “well-preserved old flowers” inside inside a 2,000-year-old tunnel built under the ornate Feathered Serpent Pyramid, which archaeologist Sergio Gomez believes recreated the underworld and was used to initiate new rulers among other religious rituals, in the ruins of Teotihuacan, in San Juan Teotihuacan, Mexico August 12, 2021. REUTERS/Toya Sarno Jordan
TEOTIHUACAN, Mexico (Reuters) – More than a decade after Sergio Gomez began excavating a tunnel under a towering Mexican pyramid, the archeologist still spends most of his time studying the massive cache of sacred artifacts carefully placed there by priests some 2,000 years ago.
The volume and variety of objects hidden in the sealed tunnel under Teotihuacan’s ornate Feathered Serpent Pyramid has shattered records for discoveries at the ancient city, once the most populous metropolis of the Americas and now a top tourist draw just outside modern-day Mexico City.
Over 100,000 artifacts from the tunnel have been cataloged so far, ranging from finely-carved statues, jewelry, shells, and ceramics as well as thousands of wooden and metallic objects that mostly survived the passage of time intact.
On a recent tour of the tunnel and conservation workshops where his 30-member team pores over the trove, Gomez showed off some of the dig’s most spectacular and until now unreported finds – all part of ceremonial offerings left along the 100-meter-long (330 ft) tunnel, which ended in three chambers directly under the pyramid’s mid-point.
“Can you see it?” Gomez asked, shining the light of his cellphone on a tennis-ball-sized carved amber sphere he picked up from a workshop table. Illuminated, it looks like molten lava.
It is the first time an ornament made from amber has turned up in Teotihuacan. Found with a small top and residue inside that awaits further analysis – Gomez speculates it may be tobacco – it likely hung around a priest’s neck.
As in other ancient Mexican societies, the priests who entered the tunnel likely ingested hallucinogenic plants or mushrooms as part of rituals, Gomez said.
The tunnel, which is tall enough in most places to walk through and is around 12 meters (40 ft) underground, was designed to dazzle, he explained. The walls and even the floor were coated with fine bits of iron pyrite, popularly known as fool’s gold due to its resemblance to the precious metal.
“We can imagine when the priests entered with a torch how it would have sparkled as the flame moved,” said Gomez, who believes the tunnel was made to recreate the underworld of their cosmovision and used to initiate new rulers.
Scientific dating shows that the damp, never-looted space was in use for more than two centuries through 250 A.D.
Teotihuacan, a wealthy contemporary of ancient Rome and Han China, thrived from about 100 B.C. to 550 A.D. and was home to up to 200,000 people mostly living in multi-family stone compounds painted with colorful murals.
Much is unknown about them, including what language they spoke and whether they developed a system of writing akin to that of the Aztecs, who dominated the area some eight centuries after Teotihuacan’s fall and revered the ruins.
Walking through the now-empty tunnel, Gomez stops where a large offering was found. He describes 17 separate layers of shells meticulously laid down by priests, one on top of the other, with the bottom layers crushed.
“But that’s because they themselves were stepping on them,” he said.
Gomez stresses that his dozen-year excavation of the tunnel, which had filled with mud over the centuries, was equally meticulous, so much so that bits of human hair and even skin were likely recovered.
It appears that ceremonies in the tunnel involved the offering of gifts to the lords of the underworld, and to the city’s main deity, the storm god. Several dozen nearly-identical shiny black jars sculpted to resemble the latter have been discovered.
Among the richest offerings are hundreds of objects made of so-called imperial jade, one of the world’s most expensive gems, including ear spools, necklaces and pendants – one in the form of a crocodile.
Several thousand once-glittering iron pyrite pieces were unearthed. Possibly imported from as far away as Honduras, they include beads, disks and even the bottom half of a cup.
Around 8,000 wooden objects – plates, bowls and more – were unearthed, as well as the skulls and claws of some three dozen animal species, especially predators like jaguars and pumas.
Beyond traditional restoration work, Gomez’s team is also developing three-dimensional digital recreations of the artifacts as they originally would have appeared, so they can eventually be accessed online.
The final physical discovery made in late July proved especially satisfying for Gomez.
In a circular pit carved into the tunnel floor previously missed by laser scans, priests had tossed four bunches of flowers. On top, they placed a heap of wood, handfuls of corn, chile, and nopal seeds, plus a miniature stone carved pyramid.
Finally, they set it all on fire.
Thanks to the charred wood, Gomez will soon be able to pinpoint the year the smoky ritual took place.
The flowers were unprecedented, the first time intact plant remains have been found at Teotihuacan.
“It’s just so unique,” he said, hunching down just off the pit, wiping his brow.
“It makes you feel so close to the people who were here.”
PARIS (Reuters) -Lionel Messi said on Wednesday he wanted to power Paris St Germain to their first Champions League trophy, putting the tearful farewell he bade to Barcelona behind him after signing a two-year contract with the deep-pocketed French soccer powerhouse.
Messi joined the star-studded PSG as a free agent after Barcelona, where he begun and always imagined he would play out his career, acknowledged last week they could no longer afford him.
Thousands of PSG fans thronged the side’s Parc des Princes stadium, daring to believe their team would now deliver the Champions League having hoovered up domestic titles since free-spending owners Qatar Sports Investment European arrived in 2011 but always fallen short of European soccer’s top prize.
Messi said he was hungry to add more Champions League titles to the four he won with Barcelona.
“That’s why I am here (to win trophies). It’s an ambitious club,” Messi told a news conference.
After years of failing to get beyond the quarter-finals, PSG finally reached the final in 2020, but lost to Bayern Munich, while last season they went out in the semi-finals.
“My dream is to win another Champions League, and I think this is the ideal place to be to do that,” added Messi, who in a nod to his first squad number in senior football at Barcelona will wear the No. 30 jersey at PSG.
The Argentine conceded he did not know when he would make his debut, having not played since winning the Copa America with his country last month.
“I’m coming back from holiday. I need a bit of a pre-season to get myself going,” he said.
FAIR PLAY RULES
Messi will join former Barca team mate Neymar in Paris.
The Brazilian left Catalonia for the French capital in a world record 222 million euro ($259.94 million) deal in 2017, but never hid his desire to link up with his close friend once again on the pitch.
They will now line up with French Word Cup-winner Kylian Mbappe in a potent front-three attack.
“To play with the likes of Neymar and Mbappe is insane,” Messi continued.
France’s top soccer league has always been perceived as the poorer cousin to top flight leagues in neighbouring England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
PSG’s Qatari money is enabling PSG to compete at their level, though much of the rest of the league is way adrift in terms of resources. In unusual comments praising a club’s transfer dealings, Ligue 1 President Vincent Labrune celebrated Messi’s signing as a big win for French soccer.
“The arrival of Messi will bolster the attractiveness and visibility of our championship across continents,” Labrune said in a statement. He thanked the club’s owners for creating what he called one of sport’s biggest franchises globally.
However, some commentators have asked how PSG could afford to sign Messi within the Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations of European soccer’s governing body, UEFA.
UEFA’s FFP rules are designed to prevent clubs spending more than they earn. Spain’s La Liga’s own FFP rules are more stringent than UEFA’s, with each club given a salary cap they must adhere to.
“We’re always attentive to Financial Fair Play. It’s the first thing we check with the commercial, financial and legal people before signing someone,” PSG chairman and CEO Nasser Al-Khelaifi told the same news conference.
Messi held up his new shirt to thousands of fans outside the stadium, waving shyly as they beat drums, released smoke flares and chanted his name.
Local fan Nelson Dross, 17, told Reuters: “Why do I love him? Because he makes us dream. He’s a magician, a genius.”
Messi wept on Sunday as he told Barcelona fans he was leaving his childhood club.
“I’ll always be thankful to Barca and their fans. I went there as a boy, and we had some good and bad times,” he said on Wednesday.
Asked how he would feel if the time came to square up against his old club, he replied: “It would be nice on the one hand to face them in the Champions League, especially with fans, but on the other strange to go back to my home in another team’s shirt – but that’s football.”