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de Young Hosts Recently Discovered Treasure Trove in 'Teotihuacan'

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View of an area immediately east of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, looking south. The fragments seen here tumbled down from the eastern facade of the building; some may have been deliberately thrown down in an attempt to desacralize the pyramid.  (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías © INAH)

In 2003 a heavy downpour caused flooding and minor damage to the ruins of Teotihuacán, the ancient Mesoamerican metropolis just 30 miles outside of modern day Mexico City. As archaeologist Sergio Gómez Chávez arrived to assess the potential destruction of his dig sites at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent — one of the city’s three main pyramids — he noticed a sinkhole had formed near the base of the temple. Curious about what lay beneath the surface, he repelled into the hole — and made a phenomenal discovery.

Detail of two standing anthropomorphic sculptures discovered near the terminus of the tunnel beneath the Ciudadela and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.
Detail of two standing anthropomorphic sculptures discovered near the terminus of the tunnel beneath the Ciudadela and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. (Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Photo by Sergio Gómez Chávez )

The sinkhole opened up into a cylindrical tunnel approximately 60 feet beneath the temple, which revealed a man-made underground landscape of miniature mountains and reflective pools of mercury, with pyrite (fool’s gold) embedded into the walls and ceiling to resemble stars twinkling in a night sky.

Gómez Chávez unearthed ritual offerings and statues from the subterranean wonderland, providing clues about a space unseen by humans for roughly 1,800 years. Many of the artifacts collected from the tunnel — that some believe was reserved for religious activity — are currently on display for the first time outside of Mexico in the de Young’s Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.

Circular relief, 300–450.
Circular relief, 300–450. (Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

This, the first U.S.-based exhibition of artifacts from Teotihuacán since 1993, is the result of a decades-long relationships between Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and San Francisco’s Fine Arts Museums, a partnership London Breed (president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors) says is an important display of collaboration — one that transcends current hateful rhetoric within U.S. politics.

The exhibition brings 200 spectacular artifacts crafted from amber, obsidian, shells, jade, marble, pyrite, green stone, alabaster, slate, lime, volcanic rock, mineral pigments and more across both time and space. Teotihuacán was at its peak in 400 C.E. and is considered by many historians to have been the heart of Mesoamerica’s cultural, political and religious landscape.

Eccentric, 200–250.
Eccentric, 200–250. (Courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías © INAH )

Its artifacts reflect this status. The city was once an elaborately designed site, displaying sophisticated murals, statues and temples dedicated to various gods. Experts say that the city’s urban core, which covered roughly eight square miles, was once the home of more than 100,000 people of diverse ethnic backgrounds.


Teotihuacán thrived until the sixth century when a fire devastated the city center, subsequently leading to its decline. Nine centuries later, the Aztecs gave Teotihuacán and its temples the names which are still used today; translated, Teotihuacán means “the place where the gods were created.”

Mural fragment (bird with shield and spear), 500–550.
Mural fragment (bird with shield and spear), 500–550. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The artifacts and artwork recovered from the site are as diverse as the residents of Teotihuacán once were: massive ceramic incense burners, mineral-pigmented murals depicting wildlife and gods, sea urchin needles delicately strung together in necklaces, effigies of human sacrifice, limestone masks, tiny ceramic children in cradles, intricately carved and painted vessels, stone masks, and statues of gods, animals and mythological creatures of every shape and size.

Many of these treasures made their way to Teotihuacán from several hundred miles away, including carved seashells from the Gulf of Mexico and objects made from Guatemalan jade.

Tripod vessel with blowgunner, 450–550.
Tripod vessel with blowgunner, 450–550. (Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

The discovery of the tunnel and the thousands of artifacts within it have given new insights into a civilization that was once primarily associated with gory human sacrifice — yet much about Teotihuacán remains a mystery.

Who were the leaders of this complex city? What languages were spoken there? Who, exactly, were the underground tunnels created for and what were their roles in the community? In addition to the awe-inspiring art and functional objects unearthed from Teotihuacán, it is the uncertainty of these unanswered questions that maintains the city’s alluring power through centuries of exploration.

‘Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire’ is on view at San Francisco’s de Young museum through Feb. 11, 2018. For more information, click here.

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