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Ancient Pyramid Found at Mexico City Christian Site

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 6, 2006
 
Archaeologists have discovered a huge, 1,500-year-old pyramid in Mexico City, according to an announcement yesterday.

The same people who built the pyramid also constructed Teotihuacan, a long-abandoned settlement about 25 miles (40 kilometers) north of Mexico City.

Teotihuacan (tay-o-tee-hwah-KAHN) is known as the City of the Gods and is Mexico's biggest ancient city, according to news reports on the newfound pyramid.

"All of us who are working at Teotihuacan are extremely interested [in this discovery]," said Ian Robertson, an anthropologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.

"It's kind of rare to get to look at what Teotihuacanos were doing outside [their] capital city."

The pyramid on the outskirts of Mexico City measures about 500 feet (152 meters) on each side and stands 60 feet (18 meters) tall. It was discovered beneath a site used today for a popular reenactment of the Crucifixion of Christ during Christianity's Holy Week, the week before Easter, according to news reports.

(See a map of Mexico.)

The pyramid was carved out on a hillside around A.D. 500 and abandoned around A.D. 800. The Teotihuacan culture collapsed at about the same time.

(Related news: "New Digs Decoding Mexico's 'Pyramids of Fire.'")

"When they first saw us digging there, the local people just couldn't believe there was a pyramid," Jesus Sanchez, an archaeologist with the National Institute of Anthropology and History, told the Associated Press.

"It was only when the slopes and shapes of the pyramid, the floors with altars were found, that they finally believed us."

Ceremonial Damage

According to news reports, part of the as-yet-unnamed structure is badly damaged from the Crucifixion ceremony, which attracts as many as a million people.

The ceremony began in 1833 to give thanks for protection during a cholera epidemic. In the ritual a cross is raised and a man symbolizing Jesus is tied to it.

Sanchez, who announced the discovery Wednesday, said the pyramid site shows signs that it was used for ancient ceremonial purposes.

Miriam Advincula, a member of Sanchez's team, started to map the site in 2004 after ceramic fragments and ceremonial structures were discovered on the hillside. Exploratory excavations dug in 2005 and 2006 confirmed the find.

Out of respect for the current-day ritual, scheduled for next week, the archaeologists will limit further excavations.

"Both the pre-Hispanic structure and the Holy Week rituals are part of our cultural legacy, so we have to look for a way to protect both cultural values," Sanchez told the Associated Press.

Exodus

Robertson, the Stanford anthropologist, said the discovery should provide information on people who began to settle outside of Teotihuacan in the later days of the civilization.

For long periods, he said, people only lived inside the ancient city, which was the size of 1500s London and was built about 2,000 years ago.

Some evidence suggests people began to resettle outside the city. But information on such a migration is spotty, he said.

"If this really is a big pyramid dated to the Teotihuacan period, it means there was an important enclave of elite Teotihuacanos living together," Robertson said. "That will be extremely important to us."

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