The key to understanding one of this country’s most mysterious sites may be all in the water.
The ancient city of Teotihuacan, which includes some of the world’s biggest pyramids, collapsed 1,400 years ago. Ever since then, the site in central Mexico has confounded scholars.
Verónica Ortega, of Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, says her excavations in recent months at Teotihuacan’s square of the Pyramid of the Moon have yielded a breakthrough, suggesting the whole city was an aquatic sanctuary consecrated to the worship of water. The 43-year-old archaeologist has found canals and cavities similar to pools beneath the square, along with sculptures of water gods. Excavations at Teotihuacan’s other two pyramids uncovered seashells, water pitchers and more aquatic elements.
“Water is the true protagonist of Teotihuacan. If there was a city in the ancient world where water was worshipped, it was Teotihuacan,” Ms. Ortega said on a recent morning in her office at the excavation site, which looks out on one of Teotihuacan’s three pyramids.
Her theory challenges the notion that the people of the area worshipped various deities of equal importance, such as the god of fire, the god of time and several gods of water. Other Mexican archaeologists have expressed admiration as well as scientific skepticism about Ms. Ortega’s idea.
“This is an innovative, interesting proposal, but she has to demonstrate it properly,” said Leonardo López Lújan, a local archaeologist. “To this day, I still think water was not the main ingredient present here, but also the gods of fire and time.”
Teotihuacan is also home to the mural of Tlalocan, which has pyramid-like images.
Teotihuacan is in a semiarid plateau surrounded by mountains 30 miles northeast ofMexico City. The city peaked from 200 to 450 AD, housing as many as 150,000 people before its demise around 600 AD. Its zenith coincided with the decline of the Roman Empire in Europe.
Its pyramids are rivaled only by those at Mayan sites in Central America. But unlike themuch-studied Mayans, little is known about the people of Teotihuacan, mainly because they had no complex form of writing. Thus far, no carved slabs with writing have been found in the area, nor any royal tombs.
The Aztecs, a warrior people who came from the north and settled in central Mexico 700 years after the city’s collapse, named the area Teotihuacan, which means “the place where men become gods.” The two biggest pyramids bear the names of the sun and the moon; the Aztecs linked both structures with their myth of creation.
But Ms. Ortega’s excavations suggest the Aztecs got it wrong—and that the worship of water, in various forms such as lakes, heavy rains or flooding—played a crucial role. “The Pyramid of the Moon was actually consecrated to the goddess of rivers and lakes, Chalchuihtlicue in Aztec, while the god of storms, Tlaloc, was worshipped in the so-called Pyramid of the Sun,” Ms. Ortega said.
She partially bases her theory of Teotihuacan’s worship of water on a sumptuous mural of Tlalocan, which is found at a palace in the city. In vivid red and blue, it depicts a kind of pyramid from which streams of water are flowing. Ms. Ortega also found four canals coming out from a temple at the square of the moon.
For the Teotihuacan people, who were mostly farmers, water was everything. Some years, the city suffered as many as eight dry months. “Only the aquatic gods guaranteed the renewal of the life cycle,” Ms. Ortega said. When the rainy season arrived, the city collected water in canals and wells.
“We can’t rule out anything,” said Linda Manzanilla, one of Mexico’s foremost experts in Teotihuacan. “Water was the most important factor in the half-desert region where Teotihuacan sits.”
Ms. Ortega, who plans to detail her theory in a scholarly paper, agrees that Teotihuacan had other deities besides water, such as gods of fire, but they played a lesser role. In Teotihuacan, she said, fire was closely linked to water as both elements came from thunderstorms.
Most scholars agree the people of Teotihuacan built the pyramids to emulate the surrounding mountains, where they believed the gods dwelt. By building the pyramids, the teotihuacanos tried to bring the gods to their city.
Budget cuts ordered this year by the Mexican government as oil prices tumbled pose a hurdle for Ms. Ortega and her colleagues. Ms. Ortega’s 2016 project budget was cut by 50% to $22,000. She needs three times that amount to continue the research properly, she said, adding that only a fraction of the site has been properly excavated.
“The present is king, even for archaeologists,” Ms. Ortega said with a chuckle. “Maybe we’ll have to wait a bit longer for Teotihuacan to reveal some of its deepest secrets.”
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Frequently portrayed Aztec deities are fertility goddesses, which include the water goddess Chalchihuitlicue (“she of the jade skirt”) depicted here. Identifying elements of the water goddess are the distinctive headdress consisting of multiple (in life probably cotton) bands wound about the head, the thick tassels attached to each side of the head, and the pleated (in life bark paper) ornament (amacuexpalli) in back of the head.