The tunnel that may lead to a royal tomb discovered underneath a pyramid in the ancient city of Teotihuacan
2014 National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) file picture.

The Mayan calendar and the Maya people were in the news a lot for a year or two before the December 21, 2012 event that wasn’t an event. But the Maya and the Aztecs were not the earliest civilizations in the area.

Teōtīhuacān was a pre-Columbian Mesoamerican city in a sub-valley of the Valley of Mexico,  30 miles (48 km) northeast of modern-day Mexico City. It is known today as the site of many of the most architecturally significant Mesoamerican pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is also anthropologically significant for its complex, multi-family residential compounds.

The name Teōtīhuacān was not its true name but is one given by the Nahuatl-speaking Aztec centuries after the fall of the city. It is usually translated as meaning “birthplace of the gods”and Nahua creation myths were based there. Teotihuacan is the most visited of Mexico’s archaeological sites and is impressive just for its scale. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. The Calle de los Muertos (Street of the Dead) was originally 4 km long and flanked by temples, palaces and platforms. There are even some murals in the Palace of the Jaguars or the Palace of the Quetzal-butterfly that have survived, along with sculptures in the Temple of Quetzalcoatl.

Recently, I have been reading reports about a continuing search for a Teotihuacan king’s tomb. Mexican researcher Sergio Gómez’s announcement that he had discovered “large quantities” of liquid mercury in a chamber below the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (the third largest pyramid of Teotihuacan) caused excitement in that research.

Gomez has been slowly working his way through a deep, dark tunnel beneath the pyramid and expects the elusive last resting place of a king to be at the end. The significance of that find would be as evidence about how power was wielded in Teotihuacan.

The ancient city was home to as many as 200,000 people and is thought to be the center of an empire that flourished between 100 and 700 A.D. (Teotihuacan is distinct from the Mayan civilization.)

Why is liquid mercury significant? It surprised the researchers who found it in the tunnel that has been sealed for nearly 1,800 years. They had found three chambers 60 feet below the temple containing many artifacts: jade statues, jaguar remains, a box filled with carved shells and rubber balls. Liquid mercury was and still is rare to find naturally occurring and it was thought by many ancient people to have powers. Its existence suggests a king’s tomb or a ritual chamber.

liquid mercury – quicksilver

Mercury has been found in Egyptian tombs that date from 1500 BC.

In China and Tibet, mercury use was thought to prolong life, heal fractures, and maintain generally good health, although it is now known that exposure to mercury or its vapor leads to serious adverse health effects.

The first emperor of China, Qín Shǐ Huáng Dì, was said to have been buried in a tomb that contained a model of the land he ruled with rivers made of mercury. Ironically, he died from a mercury and powdered jade mixture that his alchemists gave him for eternal life which ended up causing liver failure and brain death.

The ancient Greeks also used mercury in ointments. The ancient Egyptians and the Romans used it in cosmetics.

In Lamanai, once a major city of the Maya civilization, a pool of mercury was found under a marker in a Mesoamerican ballcourt.

Alchemists thought of mercury (AKA quicksilver) as the First Matter from which all metals were formed. They believed that different metals could be produced by varying the quality and quantity of sulfur contained within the mercury. The purest of these was gold. Mercury was used in experiments at the transmutation of base (or impure) metals into gold, which was the goal of many alchemists. It odd liquid-metal look and unusual physical characteristics intrigued the ancients.

Gómez has spent six years slowly excavating the tunnel, which was unsealed in 2003, and the mercury finding was unexpected. It may have been used to symbolize an underworld river or lake, or was there for it supernatural, alchemical or healing significance in rituals.

Spaniards dug at Teotihuacan in the 1670s searching for gold and treasure, but scientific excavation of the site did not begin until the 1950s.

The inhabitants left no written record. They abandoned the city long before the Aztecs came to power in the 14th century.

In that time, it was the largest and most populated center in the New World. It had what we would call multi-floor apartments compounds built to accommodate this large population. Was Teotihuacan was the center of an empire? We are not sure. Its influence throughout Mesoamerica is documented and Teotihuacano presence can be seen at numerous sites in Veracruz and the Maya region.  The discovery of a King’s tomb would settle the debate and mark the city as the center of power for the possibly multi-ethnic Teotihuacano people.


Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun