New Digs Decoding Mexico's "Pyramids of Fire"

October 21, 2005

On TV: Watch National Geographic Explorer: Pyramids of Fire, Sunday, October 23 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.

Using picks, shovels, and high-tech forensic sleuthing, scientists are beginning to cobble together the grisly ancient history and fiery demise of Teotihuacán, the first major metropolis of the Americas.

The size of Shakespeare's London, Teotihuacán was built by an unknown people almost 2,000 years ago. The site sits about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of present-day Mexico City. Temples, palaces, and some of the largest pyramids on Earth line its ancient main street.

Scientists believe Teotihuacán was the hub of trade and commerce in Mesoamerica until the city's civilization collapsed around A.D. 650. When the Aztecs stumbled upon the metropolis centuries later, they dubbed it the "City of the Gods," because they believed it was where the Gods met to create the present universe and sun.

Saburo Sugiyama, an archaeologist at Japan's Aichi Prefectural University, says recent excavations and analysis put a mortal face on Teotihuacán's mythological builders. The research is also providing clues to the city's final days.

"We are renewing the early history of Teotihuacán," he said.

One researcher investigating the site is Michael Spence, an anthropologist at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. He says a flurry of research activity at Teotihuacán since the 1980s is allowing scientists to understand the city's history. But "we still have a lot more science to work out," he added.

Tunneling for a Tomb

Sugiyama has concentrated his efforts at Teotihuacán's Pyramid of the Moon. The archaeologist has tunneled deep into the heart of the structure to search for the ruler thought to have ordered the pyramid's construction.

"We've not found the ruler's tomb yet, but we really feel we are very close to these people, the history, of who made this great pyramid," he said.

Sugiyama has made some intriguing finds, including dozens of beheaded people with bound hands. The bodies suggest bloody sacrificial rituals ripe with symbolism of military power, he said.

Excavations also reveal that the pyramid was constructed in seven stages, each stage an enlargement of the last. The work started in A.D. 100 and ended around A.D. 400.

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