Pyramid of the Moon and Pyramid of the Sun

We looked at this picture when we stood on the approximate crossing of the Street of the Dead and the East-West Street before entering the Ciudadela. It's worth a second look upon leaving the precincts of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid not so much, this time, for the walls that break up easy passage through the "Street," but for what lies at the very end—the Pyramid of the Moon and behind it the mountain, Cerro Gordo.

It is no happenstance that the pyramid and the mountain are seen in juxtaposition from the vantage point of the Street of the Dead. The idea that a pyramid is a sacred mountain was widespread throughout Mesoamerica. Here, in one of its most ancient and most influential cities, the symbolism was made explicit. Standing before the mountain, the Pyramid of the Moon becomes the icon that anchors Teotihuacan's city plan.

To walk from the Ciudadela past the Pyramid of the Sun to the Pyramid of the Moon is not only to walk a couple of miles in space but also to travel back in time. Both of these pyramids, each of which underwent several construction periods, were completed by 200 CE, at a time when construction had just begun on the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.

From the top of the Pyramid of the Moon today's visitor is able to imagine what an ancient priest or king would have seen on a great festive occasion as he looked out over Teotihuacan's religious and civic center from the Moon Temple.

Before him was the Moon Plaza, a communal and/or ceremonial gathering place, comparable in function perhaps to the Ciudadela, that would have been crowded with people. In the distance to the south stretched the Street of the Dead, lined with palaces and temples, down which a festival parade approached. To his left, on the east, was the immense Pyramid of the Sun, crowned with its own splendid temple. Might the priest have waved to his counterpart over there, as tourists do today? It would not have escaped his notice that the Sun Pyramid was shadowed by a mountain of its own. Everything he saw before him confirmed the power of the city, of its people, and especially of its leadership.


The Pyramid of the Sun, which looms over the city, was built in stages over a period of time in the second century of the common era. Originally it consisted of four stepped platforms (a fifth was mistakenly "reconstructed" when archaeologists began work at Teotihuacan in the early 20th century). Now about 200 feet in height with a footprint of almost half a million square feet, it is the third largest pyramid in the world (after those of Khufu and Khafra in Egypt). The casual visitor sees this huge structure, with a stairway to the top that begs to be climbed, and doesn't wonder about what's inside. Well, what's inside the Pyramid of the Sun is some 41 million cubic feet of mostly rubble. It is a big pile of mud brick, rocks, and junk. (The same is true of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, which is why looters and archaeologists could tunnel into it.)

But that's not everything inside this pyramid. There's a cave in there, a natural cave that was so important to the Teotihuacanos that they built a pyramid over it. The cave, which was enlarged and modified to serve ritual purposes long before the construction of the pyramid, now runs, 20 feet below the pyramid, for 330 feet from the stairway on the west, eastward toward the center. At its end is a room shaped rather like a four-leaf clover.

Caves were important to the Aztecs and other Mesoamerican peoples as the places where new worlds emerged, where sun and moon were created. Though the Aztecs probably knew less about the Teotihuacanos than we do, they certainly knew the function of the Sun Pyramid's cave. It was where the gods created the Fifth World. It was Teotihuacan! No one knows if the Teotihuacanos thought of it that way but, for whatever reason, the cave was important enough to be glorified with the most massive pyramid in the Western Hemisphere. In fact, that cave may be the very reason the city was located where it was located. Pretty important cave, that.

As it turns out, the old cave is pretty important for scientists in the 21st century, too. Mexican physicists have set up a sophisticated particle detecting device in there to track the passage of muons through the pyramid. Muons are sub-atomic particles that are left over after cosmic rays hit molecules in the earth's atmosphere. These super-tiny muons travel just short of the speed of light and pass through solid objects. However, some of them get absorbed by the mass of the pyramid and some pass on through. If, then, the detector detects a spot in the pyramid with lots of muons it means they weren't absorbed and are in what might be a empty spot,i.e., a tomb (maybe). Stay tuned.

The Pyramid of the Sun from the Pyramid of the Moon's base
The Pyramid of the Sun (Moon in the background) from the Ciudadela


The 151-foot high Pyramid of the Moon is not one pyramid; it is composed of seven pyramids built one on top of the other, the first of which dates to the earliest days of the city—around 100 BCE—before the Pyramid of the Sun and before the residential structures that still survive. Archaeologists have been tunneling into these pyramid layers for several years and every year have discovered amazing things.

At left and right is the entrance to one of their tunnels with Ruben Cabrera Castro, an archaeologist with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History, one of the principal investigators of both the Pyramid of the Moon and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.

Bones of a seated human sacrifice

What the tunneling archaeologists found inside the Pyramid of the Moon suggests that the human sacrifice at the dedication of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid was unique only in its scale. For decades, if not centuries, before the construction in the Ciudadela, people were sacrificed to dedicate the pyramids within the Pyramid of the Moon.

Indeed, on the occasion of virtually every rebuilding of the pyramid one or more sacrificial victims were strategically buried, often in the north-south orientation that the Moon Pyramid established for the city itself.

Wall of an interior pyramid inside one of the archaeology tunnels

In May of 2004 a magnificent exhibition of findings from the first six years of excavation in the Pyramid of the Moon opened at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. Prepared by the directors of the excavation project, Ruben Cabrera and Saburo Sugiyama, the exhibition emphasizes burials the team found within the huge pyramid.

Though containing burials, the pyramids at Teotihuacan are not mausoleums. In that respect—as in countless others—they are unlike the pyramids of Egypt. What the Teotihuacan pyramids do share with those in Egypt is spectacular display of political power. What archaeologists (and those of us who peer over their shoulders in eager anticipation) hope to find when they dig into pyramids such as these is the body of a ruler—preferably accompanied by grave goods that not only display his magnificence but also reveal something of the political system through which he ruled. But so far that hope has been disappointed at Teotihuacan, for, though the remains of a few persons of apparently "high status" are among those discovered in the Pyramid of the Moon, it seems unlikely that the pyramid was built to honor them. Indeed, it was the other way round—they were there to honor the pyramid and the political power structure it represented.

While it is not inconceivable that some of the people buried in the pyramid died of their own free will, honored to be allowed to sacrifice their lives, the majority seem to have been a bit reluctant: their hands were tied behind their backs. But whether willing or unwilling, they all were sacrifices, intentionally killed for the purpose of dedicating (sanctifying?) the next construction of the great pyramid.

Five burials have so far been located within the Pyramid of the Moon, one from the fourth construction layer and two each from the fifth and sixth layers. They are not alike.

  • The one from the fourth layer (ca 250 CE) contained a single skeleton—of a man about forty years old whose hands had been tied behind his back. Along with him were the remains of a collection of animals and birds, including a wolf, some eagles, a falcon, three snakes, and two pumas. The wolf and pumas had been caged and must, therefore, have been buried alive. And then there was the treasure of greenstone, obsidian, pyrite, and shell offerings that were carefully arranged in what must have been a symbolic order. Was this guy a king? Probably not but he surely was somebody pretty important—in Guatemala (his origin according to an analysis of the bones).

  • A burial at the top of the fifth construction stage was probably a dedicatory offering for the sixth stage (ca 350 CE). It held three bodies whose arms were not bound, which indicates that they were dead when fixed in their final resting place. And "fixed" they were—in a cross-legged or lotus seated position (photo above). Although burials arranged in that fashion are known from Maya sites, this one is, so far, unique at Teotihuacan. Also, unlike most sacrifices previously discovered (including those at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid), the three men—yes, they were men—were mature, aged 40 to 55. A picture is beginning to emerge of high status personages, dignitaries perhaps.

And not just high status, foreigners. Isotopic analysis of the skeletons revealed that the men probably were from Guatemala—Mayans. The Mayan connection becomes even stronger when the grave goods are considered. Take, for instance, the jade figurine pictured at left. The jade of the figurine, beads, and earspools came from Guatemala, the style is Mayan. What were high-class Mayas doing in a dedicatory burial for a Teotihuacan pyramid?

  • A burial found in the fill of the sixth construction stage was decidedly grisly. It consisted of seventeen, possibly eighteen, skulls with attached vertebrae. These individuals—adolescents or young men—had been decapitated and only their heads dedicated to the sacrifice. There were no attendant offerings. Like the much later mass sacrifices at the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, these sacrifices most likely were soldiers. There's more: Mesoamericans commonly deformed the crania of their children for what is assumed to be aesthetic reasons. The skulls in this burial were deformed in ways that can be identified with a variety of locations. Add to that regional styles of teeth filing and ornamental dental inlays and you get the image of a group of soldiers who were foreigners, perhaps captured in battle but, perhaps also, immigrants. Teotihuacan was a cosmopolitan city.

    These skulls weren't arranged in any particular way but the burial itself—the offering— was located on the central north-south axis of the Street of the Dead, as were the other burials found within the pyramid. The Teotihuacano architects did nothing haphazardly. The treatment of these soldiers—indifferent arrangement, no grave goods— provides evidence of a stratified Spartan society.

  • The remains of four men were found in a pit that had been dug into the ground at the bottom of the pyramid, but associated with the fifth construction period (300 CE). They were lined up side-by-side with their wrists tied behind their backs and covered with all sorts of offerings. Isotopic evidence shows that, while two of these four actually were Teotihuacanos, the other two probably came from the highlands of Guatemala. The skeletons wore greenstone figurines and ornaments such as earrings, a nosepiece, beads, etc. Additional offerings included conches, obsidian figurines, knives, and miniature arrowheads. But there was other stuff of a different sort: fourteen wolf skulls, four puma skulls, and the cranium of an owl were scattered around.

  • Right in the middle of the fifth construction stage were the remains of ten decapitated bodies and two with heads intact. All were sacrificial victims, as evidenced by their bound wrists, but the treatment of the bodies (apart from decapitation) was remarkably different. The ten headless bodies appear to have been literally thrown over to one side as though discarded once their heads were gone. (It makes one wonder if there's some sort of relationship to the skull burial, even though that came some fifty years later.) The remaining two bodies, on the other hand, were decked out with greenstone earspools and beads, a necklace of human jaws, and other elite baubles.

    The human bodies were accompanied by animal bodies that were arranged (as the decapitated human skeletons were not) on the sides of the burial vault, especially at the end opposite the headless bodies. There were five wolves or coyotes; three pumas or jaguars; and thirteen birds, mostly eagles. It looks as though the animals had been bound, which, again, indicates live burial.

    It all sounds pretty familiar but this burial has something the others don't: a kind of display at the center of the burial area that featured a mosaic human figure on top of eighteen big obsidian knives. Nine of the knives were curved while the other nine formed feathered serpents. The whole array screams power and authority, especially military power.

Wolves, jaguars, feathered serpents. Sacrificed men.
That a powerful ruling military caste was in control seems obvious,
though no clear evidence of an emperor has been found.
And what of the sacrificed victims from Guatemala, who were they?
What did Teotihuacanos in general think about this bloody construction pageantry? We'll never know, but at least we can learn something of where and how they lived.