March 26, 1999

Archaeology Team Finds Possible King of Ancient Mexican Past

By Chris Kahn

SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACAN, Mexico - A trinket salesman drops his bundle on the brick steps of the Pyramid of the Moon. Waiting for tourists, he pulls out a ceramic pipe and fills the ancient plaza with a haunting trill - unaware of the digging beneath his feet.

For months, an international team of archaeologists has been deep inside the pyramid, carving a tunnel toward its center, searching for answers to Teotihuacan's biggest mysteries. And in October, they found something incredible.

The team, led by Arizona State University archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama, 46, found a skeleton of a man who died about 1,800 years ago. He was buried among rich offerings of greenstone figurines, obsidian knives, eagles and jaguars.

According to Aztec legend, the leaders of Teotihuacan were buried underneath the pyramids. And since his burial was the richest ever discovered in Teotihuacan, experts were betting that he was indeed a ruler - the first ever found.

But was he? The man beneath the pyramid is proving to be as elusive as the city itself, defying labels the public is so eager to give him and leaving scientists like Sugiyama with more questions than answers.

Sugiyama pulled a greenstone figurine from the earthy grave and held it in his arms like a newborn. Although it had been buried for 1,800 years, its little teeth still glimmered.

``You just don't see stuff like this all the time,'' he said with a weary smile.

Sugiyama's team had been tunneling since June in a joint project between ASU and Mexico's Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Hisotia (INAH). But they had been going slower than expected and were working 12- to 16-hour days for months to reach the center before their funding ran out.

For 2,000 years, the massive stepped pyramids have towered above the treetops as ancient mysteries from Mexico's pre-Columbian past.

The Aztecs, inheritors of the pyramids, called the place Teotihuacan (pronounced tay-oh-TEE-wa-con), or ``The City of the Gods.'' They wrapped their mythology around the monuments and gave them cryptic names like ``Pyramid of the Moon'' and ``Street of the Dead.''

But the actual identity of the people who built the pyramids has puzzled scientists for years. Unlike the Aztecs and Mayans, the people from Teotihuacan had no written language. They left no descriptions of who their rulers were or why they made such magnificent structures.

Archaeologists do know that the ancient city grew into a metropolis during the first century A.D. At its peak in the sixth century, the city was larger than Imperial Rome, covering eight square miles. And its population had expanded to 150,000 people, more populous than President Lincoln's Washington, D.C.

In its day, Teotihuacan was a superpower. Its dominance over the region was so complete that its cultural influence is found in prehistoric sites as far as Guatemala, 1,100 miles south.

For about 700 years, the city thrived. But in its last 100 years, things began to change. Scientists aren't exactly sure, but the government could have become more repressive. The people could have gotten tired of living in such a rigid society.

Why Teotihuacan tumbled may never be known. No records exist except for the black chunks of charcoal left from a destructive fire.

In fact, although the culture of Teotihuacan was one of the most dominant in the Western Hemisphere, little has been found to document the feats of its military or the courage of its leaders.

There has been so little evidence of a king or a queen that some believe Teotihu-acan never had an individual ruler, but instead was one of the world's first republics.

But Sugiyama once again is looking for a ruler of Teotihuacan.

A concrete archway 2 feet thick supports the entrance to the tunnel Sugiyama's research team has cut inside the Pyramid of the Moon.

This was the most logical place for Sugiyama to continue the search. Unlike the pyramids of the Sun and Feathered Serpent, the Pyramid of the Moon had never been formally excavated. The loose interior soil has kept other researchers away, fearing cave-ins.

Loose dirt crumbles off the walls a few inches from the elbows of a Mexican worker as he pushes a wheelbarrow through the corridor, dimly lit by bulbs cupped in aluminum foil. At the end of the tunnel, a few men crowd behind another, who pounds a 6-foot-long metal rod into the wall, loosening chunks of dirt.

Although the outside is faced with coarse, volcanic stones, the inside is filled with a mixture of boulders, rocks and soil. Some days they dig through large sections of packed soil and are able to push forward a yard or so. But other times they encounter walls of basketball-size boulders and have to move slowly, prying themout one by one.

Sugiyama's team started the tunnel in June. Within just a few meters, they uncovered what appears to be a wall that formed the outer portion of an earlier pyramid.

By October, the team had burrowed 27 meters inside the pyramid and reached the central axis where they turned north. They didn't get far before they came across what appeared to be an animal skeleton.

Denise To, an ASU graduate student specializing in the study of bones, was called in to identify the remains. Brushing around the skeleton, she uncovered the pointed orange beak of a large bird, possibly an eagle.

Birds don't get buried naturally underneath pyramids - people put them there, and this meant the team had gotten close to something important. They stopped digging with large tools.

Workers now huddled together, squinting in the dim light as they poked around with dental picks. They pulled out jewelry made from shells, ceramic potsherds, obsidian figurines and more bird skeletons.

On Oct. 15, To entered the tunnel at sunrise.

Told by the night crew that a bright patch of white could be seen through the soil, she dug deeper and uncovered bones, the bones of a man. She dug further, around the patch to the tunnel floor, and found his lower legs. The rest of his body was crouched in a seated position inside the tunnel wall, his head between his knees.

In front of him they discovered 15 knives made from flaked obsidian.

They were placed in two starlike shapes, each with three knives pointing north, three to the south and three east-to-west. One of the knives was elongated, carved into the form of a feathered serpent.

In the corner of the tunnel was a wooden cage containing the skeletons of two jaguars. They left droppings in the cage, so they were probably buried alive.

Reports of the find spread quickly in newspapers and broadcasts around the world.

Everyone wanted to know if this person was once a ruler. It might be, Sugiyama thought, daring to consider the search might be over but knowing he did not yet have proof.

After all, he could only see part of the body - most of it was still entombed in the tunnel wall.

Sugiyama's caution proved prophetic when the team removed the rest of the skeleton in November. His hands were found behind his back as if they had been tied.

``We now think that the burial was not a ruler but a sacrificed person,'' Sugiyama said.

The question is why this person was sacrificed. Was it a dedication to the pyramid? To one of Teotihuacan's earliest kings? Or was he a captured enemy?

``In the end, it doesn't matter whether they find a ruler,'' Cowgill said. '' We're really just looking for answers to questions, and this burial could provide those answers.''

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