Teotihuacan stands north-east of Mexico City, a vast complex of stone buildings that archaeologists have been excavating for decades. Now they believe they are close to discovering a royal tomb that will shed light on the region’s ancient rulers.
Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, never saw Teotihuacan. After la noche triste (“Night of Sorrows”) of 30 June 1530 and fFollowing the death of the Aztec king Moctezuma II, the conquistadores and their allies fought their way out of the Mexican capital at Tenochtitlan and fled to the coast. They passed close by the ruins of Teotihuacan, which were covered with bushes and trees, so they did not notice them.
Little is known about the founding of the Teotihuacan (which should not be confused with the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the site of modern-day Mexico City). Of the buildings that remain, the oldest seem to date from around 200 BCE, and Teotihuacan was certainly a centre of power between 150 BCE and 750 CE. At that time it was the sixth largest city in the world with a population of some 200,000.
Teotihuacan is characterized by its monuments – in particular, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl and the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon, laid out geometrically and with symbolic significance. The city was divided into separate compounds, each with its own small temple for local rituals. There were neighbourhoods where craft shops were clustered and studies have revealed ethnic neighbourhoods: Zapotecs in the western area and Maya in the eastern.
The Aztecs were in awe of the city and incorporated it into their own religious beliefs and history, claiming that this was where the gods sacrificed themselves so that the world could be recreated. They gave the city its name and the Aztec king Montezuma made several pilgrimages to the site in homage to the gods and the early rulers of Teotihuacan, who were “wise men, knowers of occult things, possessors of the traditions.”
Teotihuacan remained an important city for hundreds of years and then, around 700 CE, something happened to change the balance of power in central Mexico. Many buildings in the city were burned and it went into rapid decline. The city may have been invaded, although it is more likely there was internal strife. The buildings that were burned seem to be those of the ruling class – government buildings – and it seems that not every one left or was killed.
Those who destroyed the city may have come from the rising city of Xochicalco or from within in an uprising motivated by scarcity, perhaps acerbated by extensive deforestation (wood was used to burn huge quantities of lime for use in plaster and stucco), soil erosion and drought.
In 2010, having located the entrance to a tunnel under the Feathered Serpent Temple, the third largest pyramid at Teotihuacan, archaeologists began to suspect the existence of a burial chamber for the rulers of the ancient city. In 2014, a team reached the end of the tunnel, which is over 340 feet long, having meticulously catalogued every artefact they came across: seeds, shells, animal bones, pottery, finely carved stone sculptures, and jewellery.
A lack of written records has shrouded the ruins in mystery. Now, archaeologists hope that the discovery of chambers and their contents will throw light on a long-lost civilisation. They probably expect to find a male ruler, but it may turn out to be a woman. In the 1940s a series of murals was discovered at Teotihuacan that many believe depict a female called the “Great Goddess”. Esther Pasztory, professor of Pre-Columbian art history, has concluded that the figure represents a goddess of vegetation and fertility, a predecessor of the later Aztec deity Xochiquetzal.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, Mexican writer Octavio Paz suggested that machismo (male dominance) is a mask that conceals the insecurities, fears and sense of mixed identity of Mexican men, a result of the country’s turbulent history going back to the Conquest:
“In a world made in the image of men, woman is only a reflection of men’s will and desire. Passive, she becomes a goddess, the beloved, a being that embodies the universe’s ancient and stable elements: earth, mother, virgin; active, she is always function, medium, channel. Femininity is never an end in itself, as is manliness.”
Maybe the discovery of a powerful woman ruler of ancient Mexico will be the catalyst for restoring gender balance in a society long plagued by misogyny and violence against women. Or is that just wishful thinking?