National Geographic : 1995 Dec
HEN SABURO SUGIYAMA began excavating along the southern edge of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid at the Mexican ruin of Teotihuacan, he realized, as all archaeologists do at such times, that he was crossing the threshold of the unknown. But nothing could have prepared him that summer in 1983 for the macabre discovery at the bottom of a four-foot-deep trench. Seated, arms crossed in back, was the skeleton of a man. Around his neck was a broad collar made of more than 200 shell beads. Suspended from this had once been a tier of upper human jaws carved from now deteriorated wood and decorated with shell teeth. Sugiyama and colleagues from Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) uncovered 17 other male skeletons in the grave. Their arms too were crossed, and they wore almost identical collars, although two had real human jaws with teeth intact. These men were probably soldiers, for on their lower backs were slate disks once shiny with pyrite--a standard decoration on ancient Mexican military costumes. Weapons had been buried with them-the grave yielded 169 spearpoints. "We have no idea how these men died," Sugiyama says. "The bones are unscathed, but we know from radiocarbon dates on some of the organic material that the burial took place around A.D. 200." Sugi yama believes they were sacrifice victims, because the bodies had been carefully positioned in the tomb with their arms tied behind their backs. "It strongly suggests that their killing was part of a ritual that marked the dedication of the structure." Teotihuacan was the first true urban center in the Western Hemi sphere and the greatest metropolis on the landscape of the Americas before the Aztec Empire. It arose around the beginning of the Chris tian era, witnessed some seven centuries, then passed into legend. At the height of its prosperity, about A.D. 500, it is estimated to have held between 125,000 and 200,000 people-rivaling Shakespeare's London a millennium later. Teotihuacan thrived longer than imperial Rome, its contemporary, and in the more extreme setting of a high arid pla teau slaked by a brief rainy season. It was the elaborate western facade of the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent that first drew me to the city nearly 30 years ago, when I was still in graduate school. I had taken my family to Teotihuacan as a side trip on our way overland from the United States to Yucatan, where, as a field assistant, I had helped map and excavate Dzibilchaltun and other Maya sites. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid lies on the east side of the huge plaza within the Ciudadela, or Citadel. Named by awed Spaniards in the 16th century, the Citadel was to Teotihuacan what the Forum was to Rome: its physical and spiritual center. On that memorable afternoon the sun brought the pyramid's Photographer KENNETH GARRETT "is known by archaeologists all over the world," says author George Stuart. "And they trust him, because he takes time during his work to help document findings important to their research." Mere inches of clay hold a mystery: the meaning of an austere host figure and its adorned guest. Few such figurines survive at Teotihuacan. Perhaps they symbolized divine protection for a confident and independent people.