lunedì 7 agosto 2017

The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico - Part III

The Lost tombs of Mitla
The main entrance to the "Columns Group" at the ancient site of Mitla. [Photo by Author]
The archaeological site of Mitla is among the better known to travelers and explorers of ancient Mesoamerica since at least the early 18th Century, when its constructions were first sketched and described. The site is unique for its peculiar megalithic architecture and stone mosaics, which are found in a remarkable state of preservation. This is due to the structures being in uninterrupted use for centuries after the Spanish conquest and almost to the present day.  

The origins of Mitla are unknown. Although most of the structures visible today may date to the Post-Classic period (9th-12th Century AD), prehistoric cliff paintings and traces of human habitation in the area date at least to 3,000 BC (Caballito Blanco and Yagul). 

The present ruins of Mitla are clustered around four main palatial groups, sharing a similar plan consisting of three to four structures facing a central courtyard. These are known as the “Church Group”, the “Arroyo Group”, the “Adobe Group” and the “Columns Group”. The most remarkable feature of these structures is the exceptional quality of the stone workmanship and the use of extremely large megalithic stones. The walls of the structures are lined with beautiful and exceedingly intricate stone mosaics, perhaps in the imitation of textiles. Thousands of perfectly cut, polished and fitted stones were employed for the realization of each mosaic panel. In some cases, the walls were painted in what archaeologists have labelled as “Codex style”, for its similarity with the coeval Mixtec codices and manuscripts. 
A detail of some of the intricate stone mosaics that decorate the outer walls of the “Columns Group”. One also notices the extreme quality of the stone workmanship and the remarkable state of preservation of the Prehispanic structures. [Photo by Author]
Another view taken from the East side of the "Columns Group", also showing part of the high podium that sustains the structures above. [Photo by Author]
A view of the main pillared hall inside the “Columns Group”. Each one of the massive basalt columns visible in the picture has an estimated weight of over 15 tons and an height of between 4 and 5 meters. [Photo by Author]
A view into one of the side chambers of the “Columns Group”, showing more of the intricate mosaics and sculpted decoration on the inner walls. [Photo by Author]
Some of the delicate carvings and stone mosaics framing a doorway inside the “Columns Group”. The mosaic decoration was probably realized in the imitation of textile designs and was originally painted in bright colors of which only faint traces remain. [Photo by Author]
Another particular of the same doorway, seen from the front. [Photo by Author]
Some of the monolithic lintels employed in the palaces, particularly the “Columns Group”, measure as much as 6 meters long with an estimated weight in excess of 30 tons. The stone is a very hard basalt, coming from quarries located at a distance of between 5 and 10 kilometers on the opposite side of the valley. From the same stone were also quarried a number of monolithic columns, which have a fluted appearance and measure from 4 to 5 meters high. 

Mitla’s real “Temple of Doom”

The most remarkable examples of megalithic architecture and the finest stone workmanship visible anywhere at Mitla are found in some of the subterranean chambers that extend under the floor of the palaces themselves. These chambers generally follow a cruciform plan, with four long arms departing from the center. The remarkable precision of the stone cut, the polish and jointing of the stones is the finest in all of Mesoamerica and among the finest found at any megalithic site elsewhere in the world. 
The joints between the stones are so tight that not a sheet of paper would fit between two blocks, while the intricacy of the sculpted decoration and the angles at which the stones interlock are a source of constant wonder. Unlike the stone mosaics in the palaces above, which consist of hundreds of minuscule stone tiles, the panels in the underground chambers are entirely monolithic, each consisting of a single immense stone block delicately carved in the imitation of curious arabesques and geometrical patterns. 
A view towards the entrance corridor of the same chamber, framed by sculptured panels. [Photo by Author]
More details of the same passageway. [Photo by Author]
More details of the same passageway. [Photo by Author]
Several details of the cornerstones of one of the subterranean passages, from which it is possible to appreciate the extraordinary quality of the stone workmanship of these chambers and the air-tight joints between the large megalithic stone blocks that form the walls and ceilings of these subterranean chambers. [Photo by Author]
One of the subterranean chambers of the “Columns group”. Notice the enormous size and the perfect fitting of the monolithic lintel above the entrance, and also the immense monolithic slab forming the roof of the chamber. [Photo by Author]
The 16th Century Spanish priest Father Torquemada, who left an account of the ruins of Mitla, described the peculiar arrangement of the subterranean chambers of one of the palaces. 

The last (underground) chamber had a second door at the rear, which led to a dark and gruesome room. This was closed with a stone slab, which occupied the whole entrance. Through this door they, threw the bodies of the victims and of the great lords and chieftains who had fallen in battle…and so great was the barbarous infatuation of those Indians that, in the belief of the happy life which awaited them, many who were oppressed by diseases or hardships begged this infamous priest to accept them as living sacrifices and allow them to enter through that portal and roam about in the dark interior of the mountain, to seek the feasting-places of their forefathers. […] And the unhappy man, wandering in that abyss of darkness, died of hunger and thirst, beginning already in life the pain of his damnation, and on account of this horrible abyss they called this village Liyobaa. [1]”   

The same account continues with the following story: 

When later there fell upon these people the light of the Gospel, its servants took much trouble to instruct them, and to find out whether this error, common to all these nations, still prevailed; and they learned from the stories which had been handed down that all were convinced that this damp cavern extended more than thirty leagues underground, and that its roof was supported by pillars. And there were people, zealous prelates anxious for knowledge, who, in order to convince these ignorant people of their error, went into this cave accompanied by a large number of people bearing lighted torches and firebrands, and descended several large steps. And they soon came upon many great buttresses which formed a kind of street. They had prudently brought a quantity of rope with them to use as guiding-lines, that they might not lose themselves in this confusing labyrinth. And the putrefaction and the bad odour and the dampness of the earth were very great, and there was also a cold wind which blew out their torches. And after they had gone a short distance, fearing to be overpowered by the stench, or to step on poisonous reptiles, of which some had been seen, they resolved to go out again, and to completely wall up this back door of hell. The four buildings above ground were the only ones which still remained open, and they had a court and chambers like those underground; and the ruins of these have lasted even to the present day. [1]

While the account of the old Spanish priest appears credible in light of the accurate descriptions of the palaces above ground and the certain existence of vast caverns in the vicinity of Mitla, none of the subterranean chambers that have been explored to this day seems to match the description. 

Marshall H. Saville, author of the first scientific excavations at Mitla in 1902, identified the palace described by Torquemada in his account as part of the “Columns Group”, doubtless the most imposing of the palaces at Mitla. This is the only palace possessing a substructure consisting of two cruciform tombs. However, none of these possess hidden chambers or communicate with any underground labyrinth or cavern; an evidence which led Saville to dismiss the account of Torquemada as either entirely fictional or greatly exaggerated. [2]  

In our opinion, Saville might have been mistaken in identifying the “Columns Group” with the “Palace of the Living and the Dead” described by Torquemada as the access to the great cavern of Liyobaa. For a number of reasons, the “Church Group”, although now severely dilapidated, appears to be a more likely candidate. In its original state, this palace occupied a much larger area than the “Columns Group”, consisting of various interconnecting courtyards. A number of monolithic columns testify to the fact that this palace also possessed similar pillared halls that have not survived. More interesting still is the presence of the Catholic church of San Pablo directly above one of the courtyards of the Prehispanic structure. This is particularly evident from aerial photographs of the site. The position of the church altar is particularly interesting for its location on the Western side of the courtyard, facing what must have been the façade of one the palaces. There, some massive monolithic lintels are still visible in the church walls. One of the subterranean chambers of the "Columns Group" has its entrance in the same position to the West of the courtyard which is presently occupied by the altar of the Catholic Church. Churches and chapels were frequently built over the Prehispanic remains as a way of “exorcising” the demons of the old religion. It would only make sense that the Spanish missionaries would have chosen the most important and prominent of the old Mixtec palaces as the location for their church. Access to the great cavern of Liyobaa may therefore still be possible through some walled-up passage located directly under the altar of the Church of San Pablo.    
Some aerial pictures of the main palaces of Mitla in the area of the “Church Group”, showing the placement of the Catholic church on top of Prehispanic structures. [Photo by Author]
Another aerial picture of the same area, from which it is possible to appreciate the location of the main altar of the modern church on the western side of the palace. [Photo by Author]
A couple of monolithic columns still standing outside of the “Church Group”, next to a wall decorated with fine stone mosaics. [Photo by Author]
A detail of the Prehispanic structures incorporated in the lower walls of the church of San Pablo. The massive monolithic lintels framing the entrances to the palace are still visible in their original placement. [Photo by Author] 
In search of the lost tombs

In his report of the excavations of Mitla, Saville includes a most interesting picture of a cruciform tomb at a site known as Guiaroo. The tomb appears to be constructed of immense monolithic stone blocks, delicately carved. The site is vaguely described as being located 8 Km to the North-East of Mitla, but the place name does not appear on any modern map of the area. 
One of the few existing pictures of the large cruciform tomb at Guiaroo, dating to the time of the 1902 excavations. Each one of the immense monolithic stone blocks employed in the construction measured over 6 meters long with an estimated weight of nearly 50 tons. The location of this remarkable megalithic structure has apparently been lost. [Photo Saville, 1902]
Another view of the same structure after partial excavation, taken at an angle. [Photo Saville, 1902]
In the spring of 2016, we set out to identify the mysterious tomb. All hints pointed to the village of Xaaga, located in a side valley a few kilometers outside of Mitla, as the most likely location for the tomb. Very few of the local townsfolk seemed to be familiar with ancient ruins in the area. Finally, we were taken by a local guide to the ruins of an abandoned hacienda just outside the village. There, we found the entrance to at least one tomb having a cruciform structure similar to that of the tombs at Mitla. Although this is not the tomb pictured in Saville’s article, it is an extraordinarily fine example of the same style of megalithic architecture. 
A view of the ruined hacienda of Xaaga. The entrance to the cruciform tomb is in the foreground. [Photo by Author]
The opening of the tomb. [Photo by Author]
Entrance to the cruciform tomb of Xaaga. The workmanship of the stones forming the walls and the lintel is comparable to the that of the subterranean tombs at Mitla. [Photo by Author]
Any attempt at locating Saville’s mysterious tomb or the enigmatic Guiaroo site has so far proved entirely fruitless. We are therefore left with only Saville’s description of this remarkable structure: 

A sepulcher is formed here, of massive blocks, in the form of a cross, about ten feet deep, six wide and thirty long…All the inner faces of these immense blocks are sculptured, like those at Sagá [Xaaga], while other dressed rocks are scattered about”. [2]

The quarries from which the immense stones were transported could also be found about one mile away from the tomb, for Saville writes that:

Many immense quarried stones still lie scattered about at the quarries, while others have been partially broken-out from the bedrock. The large blocks used in the construction of the cruciform chamber were transported from this place, and on the way between these two points are several large blocks which were evidently being moved to the chamber when the work ceased. [2]”   

More recent studies of the quarries in the vicinity of Mitla have revealed some enormous stone blocks measuring as much as 6.24 x 3.89 x 0.80 meters. [3]. These stones would have reached a weight of as much as 50 tons and are among the largest stone monoliths ever quarried in Mesoamerica. 
A massive megalithic portal from a tomb outside the archaeological site of Monte Alban. The architectural style and technique bear a striking resemblance to the similar to the structures at Mitla. [Photo by Author]
Another view of the same megalithic doorway, from Monte Alban. [Photo by Author]
A much cruder example of underground tomb from the site of Yagul. Both the technique of the carvings and the general workmanship of the stones appear rather crude compared to the finest examples from Mitla and Xaaga. [Photo by Author]
A legend reported by Saville is that these structures were not the work of the local population. Rather, they were built by the god Quetzalcoatl and his companions upon leaving their capital city of Tollan [2]. This white, bearded race, which the Aztecs called Toltecs (not to be confused with the historical, post-classic people of the same name), was considered to be the author of so many of the unexplained megalithic ruins still visible across Mexico and Central America, showing a style of architecture and workmanship unlike any other in Mesoamerica. 

The origin of the megalithic architecture of Mitla and the techniques employed for the quarrying and transportation of such immense stone blocks without the aid of metal tools are a mystery that still endures to this day. 


[1] C. Lewis-Spence, The Myths of Mexico and Peru, 1913, Chapter IV: The Maya Race and Mythology. On-line resource:
[2] Marshall H. Saville, Cruciform structures of Mitla and vicinity, Putnam Anniversary Volume, 1909
[3] Nelly M. Robles García, Las Canteras de Mitla, Vanderbilt University Publications in Anthropology, No.47, 1994, Nashville, TN
[4] Mitla, encyclopedia entry – From Wikipedia:

Related Articles: 

The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico – Part I – Teotihuacan
The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico – Part II - Tezcotzingo

martedì 20 giugno 2017

The mysterious Underworld of Teotihuacan

What lies under the City of the Gods?

I have recently published an article on the Underworld of Teotihuacan on the Ancient Origins website. You can find the complete article here:

There are miles of natural caves and man-made tunnels under the ancient city in central Mexico, many of which remain to this day unexplored. Very much like in Egypt, there are rumors that also the pyramids of Teotihuacan are connected by means of underground passages, which may extend for a considerable distance under the valley of Mexico.

Early exploration reports describe vast chambers and pillared halls carved in the living rock, of which no indication survives in modern times. It is very well possible that some of the cave entrances to this underground labyrinth can still be found a short distance from the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.

In february, our expedition team was able to document for the first time on video a small section of these tunnels, proving that not only do these tunnels form part of a vast network running under much of the present-day site of Teotihuacan, but that they are also unquestionably man-made.

More expeditions will be required to assess the true extent of this underground labyrinth, and whether these relatively superficial tunnels are just the tip of the iceberg of a much larger system of interconnected passageways and chambers.

Additional references: 
[1] Ancient Origins - The Rome of America - What lies under Teotihuacan?

[2] Uncharted Ruins - The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico: Teotihuacan

domenica 23 aprile 2017

The Lost Pyramids of Mexico

San Cristobal Teopantepec

The accounts of the early European exploration of Mexico, during the 18th and 19th century, are replete with descriptions of ancient pyramids, lost cities and mysterious monuments that have since disappeared or become lost.

The pyramid of Teopantepec deserves a special spot in this list of apparently vanished monuments. For its unusual style, it would very well deserve a place in the history of architecture, and it is a tragedy that so little is known of the location and ultimate fate of this remarkable monument.

In a famous drawing from Dupaix (Antiquités Mexicaines, 1807, p.4, Plate 3), the pyramid is shown as still standing to a height of 67 feet in four receding stories. The structure was precisely oriented to the four cardinal points and was apparently of massive construction (“obra muy masiza”), entirely lined with large cut-stone blocks, as shown in the drawing. Dupaix describes this pyramid as being of “Egyptian style”, although the presence of an outside stairway leading diagonally from bottom to top of each level rather suggests a parallel with a Mesopotamian ziqqurat.  

Little information is given on the location of this remarkable monument:
  • The name of the village in the vicinity of which the pyramid was found is given as San Cristobal Teopantepec. No village or town of this name exists today. Dupaix calls it a “small Indian village
  • Although the village of Teopantepec no longer exists, it is mentioned in old conquest manuscripts. The corresponding glyph is given as a stepped pyramid on top of a mountain
  • Dupaix mentions it as being located 4 leagues to the South of the town of Tlacotepec. Assuming the Spanish league of 4,180 meters was used, the pyramid would be found 16 Km to the South of Tlacotepec (present Tlacotepec de Benito Juarez, PUE)
  • Hubert H. Bancroft (The Native Races, Vol. IV, Antiquities, 1883, pp. 466-467) describes the same pyramid as being located somewhere in the vicinity of Tehuacan Viejo, near a little native settlement by the name of San Cristóval Teopantepec, North-Westward of Tehuacan
  • From the description of Dupaix and Castañeda, we learn that the pyramid stood on high ground (“on the summit of an isolated eminence, surrounded by steeper mountains to the West of the village”), and was approached by a trail cut in the living rock of the mountain
  • The base of the pyramid stood on a smooth cement pavement, which had been artificially levelled, where other nondescript ruins were visible.
The modern search

The descriptions given by Dupaix, Castañeda and Bancroft all correspond in terms of the general area, being in the South-Eastern portion of the state of Puebla. The town of Tlacotepec is indeed located 30 Km to the North-West of Tehuacan.
Although no village by the name of San Cristobal Teopantepec exists in the area, two villages by the name of San Cristobal Tepeteopan and San Bartolo Teontepec are found approx. 16 Km to the South-West of Tlacotepec, at a place that would match Dupaix and Castañeda´s location. It is very well possible that the French explorer had got the names of these towns confused and somehow merged them to form the non-existing San Cristobal Teopantepec.  

This approximate location would be on an ideal line with another ruined pyramid located in the vicinity of Tehuacan Viejo which seems to match the description of the pyramid of Teopantepec. It is similarly located on the top of a mountain, surrounded by precipitous cliffs, and its construction appears to be of stone. No pictures of this pyramid are available, but its location on Cerro Colorado (18°28'58.4"N 97°19'58.9"W) is known to locals as “Ciudad Perdida” – The Lost City.

There is no doubt that if a pyramid like the one portrayed by Dupaix still existed, much more would be known about it. Even as a ruin, however, the discovery of the site of such an unusual monument could help to write an important page in our knowledge of the mysterious past of Mexico and its ancient civilizations.
Over the next few weeks, we are planning an expedition to finally locate the lost pyramid of Teopantepec. 

lunedì 21 novembre 2016

The location of the Mesoamerican "Hall of Records" at Chalcatzingo

Legends of the "Hall of Records"
The ancient site of Chalcatzingo from the air - perched between the two hills of Cerro Chalcatzingo (to the left) and Cerro Delgado (to the right) [Photo by Author]
      Esoteric traditions dating back at least to the ancient Greeks and Romans talk about the existence of vast repositories of knowledge dating back to antediluvian times. In more recent times, American mystic Edgar Cayce (also called “the sleeping prophet” for his readings dictated while in a state of trance) became famous for his “Atlantean” readings describing the existence of at least three different “Halls of Records” in different parts of the world. Of these, one was located in Egypt, in the vicinity of the Great Pyramid of Giza; another was located on the island of Atlantis itself and a third in Central America or Yucatan.

The search for the Mesoamerican hall of records has led enthusiasts and independent researchers far into the forests of Yucatan and Guatemala. The remote site of Piedras Negras, in present day Guatemala, is often considered to be the most likely location of the elusive Atlantean records, and has also been the subject of a recent DVD documentary trying to demonstrate the existence of buried structures and an ancient cave system at the site.  

Arrival of the Gods

     Ancient Mesoamerican traditions do indeed describe the arrival of bearded, white-skinned “Gods” from across the Ocean, the most famous being perhaps Quetzalcoatl. Just as in the Atlantean tradition, these “Gods” were responsible for bringing the gifts of civilization to the savage and yet uncivilized people of Mesoamerica. They were the inventor of writing and the calendar, of monumental stone architecture and of all the arts and sciences. Finally, they left, leaving behind a few of their race who would later become the first divine kings of the Mayas and the Toltecs. Upon leaving, the gods carried with them their sacred writings and their most prized relics. According to another legend, they buried great treasures beneath the earth, in caves and other secret places – so that they would one day recover them upon their return.  

The earliest known depiction of the feathered serpent in Mesoamerican Art, dating from 1,200-800 BC - from Monument 19 of La Venta (National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) [Photo by Author]
The earliest depiction of Quetzalcoatl, the “feathered serpent” is found among the Olmecs. The famous Monument 19 of La Venta – now in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City – depicts a man with a helmet, sitting within the coils of a serpent and carrying what appears to be a “handbag”, curiously identical to artistic representations of “handbags” carried by gods in Mesopotamian art. Monument 19 dates to between 1,200 and 800 BC, and is therefore one of the oldest monumental expressions of Mesoamerican stone sculpture.  

The Olmecs were the first major civilization in what is today Mexico and Guatemala, flourishing during a period called by archaeologists the Formative Period of Mesoamerica, dating from 1,500 BC to 400 BC. The Olmec heartland was located in the tropical lowlands of the present-day states of Veracruz and Tabasco, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. 
The Olmecs have left few, enigmatic monuments, the most famous being perhaps the colossal stone heads unearthed during the 19th and 20th century, together with some of the finest examples of stone sculpture in the entire American continent.


     Chalcatzingo represents an anomaly in Mesoamerican archaeology. For its location in the Central highlands of Mexico, several hundred miles from the Olmec heartland, it contains the most impressive set of Olmec monumental sculpture and rock art anywhere outside of the Olmec capital at La Venta. It becomes immediately clear that the exceptional importance of Chalcatzingo must have been predominantly of a ritual or religious nature. The relatively small dimension of the formative period settlement, hosting an estimate of between five hundred and a thousand people, contrasts with the richness of the decorative art at the site and the large number of sculptured stone monuments.
Another view of Chalcatzingo from the air - The Cerro Delgado in the foreground and the almost perfect pyramid-shape of the Cerro del Chumil in the foreground. The main ceremonial center includes a large plaza surrounded by pyramids and platforms, a ballcourt and a sunken patio. [Photo by Author]
A closer view of the main ceremonial area from the air, against the backdrop of the Cerro Delgado [Photo by Author]
The ancient settlement is nestled in a plain at the base of two high hills, the Cerro Chalcatzingo and the Cerro Delgado. The largest groups of bas-reliefs is found on the cliff face and on some large fallen stone boulders at the base of the Cerro Chalcatzingo, with several others occurring on isolated stone slabs and stelae within the ceremonial center proper.

The most famous rock-cut monument at Chalcatzingo, Monument no.1, is also known, as “El Rey” – ‘The King´. It is found on a high rocky outcrop, less than a quarter of the distance from the base of the Cerro Chalcatzingo. The bas-relief depicts a crowned human-like figure, dressed ornately and sitting on a throne. Most interestingly, the figure is placed inside a cave, from which issue forth strange volutes of what might be wind or mist. The cave is shown in profile, and has the aspect of an open mouth surmounted by an eye. Large clouds are pictured above the cave, with exclamation-like (!) objects falling from them, together with what might be interpreted as symbols for lightning or thunder. The seated figure inside the cave carries a bundle of what appear to be scrolls.

Monument No.1 of Chalcatzingo, depicting the "God of the Mountain" sitting inside a cave in profile, from which a wind appears to blow. The seated figure is carrying a bundle of what appear to be scrolls. Note also the eye above the mouth of the cave, which makes it resemble the open jaws of the Earth monster. [Photo by Author]
The same cave is represented on Monument no.9, this time from a frontal point of view. The cave has a quatrefoil opening, with a large hole in the middle corresponding to the cave entrance, above which are two eyes similar to the iconography of Monument no.1.
The same cave depicted on Monument No.1, now portrayed from a frontal point of view. Note the curious and artificial-looking quatrefoil opening in the middle, corresponding to the open mouth of the Earth monster (Cast in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) [Photo by Author]
The figure of a Gryphon attacking a man on a loose stela found near the base of the Cerro Chalcatzingo. Note the exclamation signs (!) above the figure, probably representing large drops of rain. [Photo by Author] 
Another fragmentary monument (Monument no. 13) at the base of the hill shows, in the remaining portion, the same cave entrance with a figure, probably a priest, sitting inside it.  

Two more monuments among the over 40 present on the site are interesting for the purpose of our research. One, labelled Monument no. 21 depicts a woman in profile, standing next to a large rectangular object of unknown significance. The object appears to be a large pillar or obelisk, wrapped and covered in intricate designs. The object stands on a kind of platform, to which it seems to be attached. The platform encloses a square space with a diamond shape in the center and an opening in the middle. A similar scene is also portrayed on Monument no.32, this time representing a man mirroring the same gestures of the woman on Monument no. 21.

The monument marked no. 2, show a procession of elaborately clad personages wearing Olmec-style masks. Three figures are standing, brandishing what could be maces or torches, while a fourth figure is laying on the ground. This last figure is the most interesting, for it appears to be bearded and carries an elaborate headdress. It is unclear whether this is the depiction of a deceased or a bound prisoner.

A number of other carvings show serpents, jaguars attacking men (curiously depicted with a beak, which gives them the appearance of Gryphons, a subject otherwise unknown in Mesoamerican art), and an equally curious representation of a man wearing a helmet, who is either swimming or flying – attributes for which it has been aptly named “El Volador”.
The main pyramid-platform in the ceremonial center of Chalcatzingo, with the Cerro Delgado in the background. At its apex, the site had a population of between 500 and a thousand individuals [Photo by Author]
The spectacular landscape of Chalcatzingo, characterized by the remarkable alignment of three mountains, the Cerro Chalcatzingo (in the foreground, left), the Cerro Delgado and the almost perfectly pyramid-shaped Cerro del Chumil (in the background). The volcano Popocatepetl is hidden by clouds. [Photo by Author]

The siting of some of the bas-reliefs on large boulders apparently fallen from the cliff-face of the Cerro Chalcatzingo in the background [Photo by Author]

More of the curious rock carvings found on boulders around the base of the Cerro Chalcatzingo, believed to depict cosmogonical scenes related to the Creation of Man. [Photo by Author]
A secret cavern?

     For the extreme importance attributed to sacred caves in Chalcatzingo art, not a single significant cave is known in the Cerro Chalcatzingo or the neighboring Cerro Delgado. Both mountains represent singular geologic anomalies in an otherwise predominantly flat landscape. Their composition is a reddish porphyry, extremely hard and compact. Seen from a distance, together with the nearby Cerro del Chumil, they have the aspect of massive natural pyramids rising almost unnaturally from the plains of Morelos.

Because of the type of rock of which the Cerro Chalcatzingo and the nearby Cerro Delgado are composed, the presence of natural caves in their interior is extremely unlikely. It is, however, the peculiar way the cave entrance is depicted on the Chalcatzingo monuments and rock carvings that suggests we may not here be dealing with a natural cavern, but rather with an artificial tunnel or vault. The regular, quatrefoil shape of the cavern mouth, together with the other depictions of what appears to be a square or rectangular enclosure, are suggestive of an artificial space rather than a natural one.    
The impressive view from the summit of the Cerro Chalcatzingo, looking towards the Cerro Delgado (below) and the almost perfect pyramid shape of the Cerro del Chumil in the distance. Rising almost unnaturally from the level plain, these isolated peaks, which are moreover found in a perfect alignment to each other, represented places of natural sanctity for the early inhabitants of the Central Mexican highlands and might have inspired some of their earliest creation stories. [Photo by Author]
The figure of “El Rey” depicted on Monument no.1 sitting inside the cavern, further hints to the possibility that documents of some sort, together with “scrolls” and other sacred relics might have been buried inside the cavern. Additionally, the cave might have contained the burial of a very high-ranking individual of the Olmec or pre-Olmec elite.  

Another interesting parallel can be drawn between the carvings representing men being attacked and killed by jaguars, the references to rain in the form of clouds with rain drops and lightning, and the Mesoamerican creation myths. According to these early creation accounts, humanity had suffered at least four previous destructions, in which people were devoured by jaguars or drowned in a deluge. All of this seems to find a parallel in the strange rock-carvings of Chalcatzingo, which, according to several interpretations, might have been intended as an account of creation.

It is certainly suggestive to imagine the cave, surmounted by ominous clouds, as a sort of antediluvian shelter where documents and other artifacts were preserved from the coming deluge by a previous human race.
The strange, almost ´technological´ aspect of some of the objects displayed on the bas-reliefs, particularly the two bound pillars or obelisks portrayed on Monument no. 21 and on Monument no. 32, also seem to be related to the content of the cavern, particularly if the square enclosure depicted at the base of both monuments and is to be interpreted as a stylized cave or Earth monster.
Artist rendition of Monument No.1 of Chalcatzingo, known as "El Rey". One can appreciate both the cave (seen in profile) and the clouds pouring rain from above. 
The carvings on Monument No. 2, depicting a procession of masked men carrying maces or torches and a bearded individual lying on the ground.
Monument No. 21 of Chalcatzingo, depicting a woman touching a rectangular object of unknown significance, which could represent a bound pillar or stela, standing on top of a rectangular enclosure with an opening leading to a diamond-shape in the middle. 
Where, then, was this cavern located?
There are three possible locations for the cave entrance, two on the Cerro Chalcatzingo itself, and one on the nearby Cerro Delgado.  

The most obvious location would be on one side of the bas-relief known as “El Rey” or Monument no.1. There seem to be several large boulders on this spot covering what might be the entrance to a cavern, including parts of the bas-relief itself. The ground there is very humid, which might suggest the presence of a natural water source. There is moreover evidence of fairly recent excavations on the opposite side of the trench in which the bas-reliefs are located. If a cave existed at this spot, it has either collapsed or was covered by debris fallen from the cliff face in ancient times.   
The position of Monument No.1, known as "El Rey" (to the left of the picture), next to what could be the entrance of a collapsed cavern filled with large boulders. [Photo by Author]
A second location could be high up on the Cerro Chalcatzingo, where a rock ledge exists in the cliff face about one quarter of the distance to the summit. The position of this ledge on the almost vertical cliff-face and at an height of over 200 meters over the valley floor makes any exploration attempt almost impossible. The best piece of evidence for the existence of a cave or a yet undiscovered group of bas-reliefs on this spot is the fact that almost all of the rock carvings at the base of the Cerro Chalcatzingo are found on enormous rock boulders that must have detached from the mountain itself. Because of their position, it is very well possible that some of the bas-reliefs originally formed part of a continuous frieze located near the summit of the mountain, whose collapse left only the rock ledge which is still visible exposed.  
A view of the Cerro Delgado from the sunken patio in the main ceremonial area of Chalcatzingo. The profile of a monstruous face with two open eyes, nose and mouth can be made out on the rocks near the summit. [Photo by Author] 
A final possibility is that the cave entrance could be located not on the Cerro Chalcatzingo, but on the nearby Cerro Delgado. Pictures of the cliff face taken with the aid of a drone, do indeed reveal what might be cave openings very near the summit, in a location of almost impossible access. What is most intriguing about these possible cave openings is that they are strongly reminiscent, under certain light conditions, of the eyes and mouth of a giant monstrous face. This might explain the eyes placed around the mouth of the cave on the Chalcatzingo bas-reliefs. 
Could this be the reason why the site was also chosen by the Olmecs for realizing one of their most impressive settlements and artistic displays, so far from their cultural heartland on the Gulf Coast of Mexico? More research will be needed to confirm the existence of a cave entrance on the precise spot corresponding to the “mouth” of the Earth monster carved on the face of the Cerro Delgado.
A closer view of the Cerro Delgado from the air, near sunset. The oblique sunlight makes visible the entrance of some shallow caves near the summit of the mountain that curiously resemble the eyes depicted above the cave entrance on the two most famous Chalcatzingo monuments. If this interpretation is correct, the cave entrance may be found on the rock ledger where the "mouth" of the Earth monster is supposed to be. [Photo by Author] 
The discovery of this cavern might perhaps reveal more of the mysterious origins of the Olmec people and of Mesoamerican civilization as a legacy of the “Gods”.

A drone fly-over of the ancient site of Chalcatzingo and the nearby Cerro Delgado [Video by Author]: 


[1] Chalcatzingo Archaeological Site – From Wikipedia:
[2] David C. Grove, Ancient Chalcatzingo, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1987 – Online resource:
[3] Museum entry on Chalcatzingo, Morelos – National Museum of Anthropology,  Mexico City:

mercoledì 24 agosto 2016

The Megalithic Ruins of Ancient Mexico - Part II

The mysterious rock and tunnels of Tezcotzingo

The so called "Bath of the King" near the summit of the artificially terraced hill of Tezcotzingo. The perfectly circular basin, cut in the hard porphyry rock, is a testament to the great skill and technical advancement of its builders, who supposedly did not possess even the crudest metal tools. [Photo by Author] 
 In search of a lost City

               Walking around the streets of the little town of Texcoco, very little suggests this was once one of the greatest cities of ancient America, capital of a dynasty of kings at least as old as the Aztecs.
Texcoco, the “Athens of America”, fell into inevitable decline soon after the Spanish conquest, and its fate was sealed with the drying up of the lake of Texcoco, which once bordered the city and extended over much of what is nowadays the valley of Mexico. The great Tenochtitlan itself, capital of the mighty Aztec empire, was but an island in the middle of this now largely vanished lake.

Still in the first half of the XIX century, travelers could admire the ruins of Texcoco on the now dry lake shore. Bullock (1824) saw there, among other things, the ruins of a large aqueduct, which was still in use at the time of his visit, as well as “several stone buildings of great strength” and the foundations of countless more ancient buildings “many of considerable size[1]. Several unbaked brick pyramids could be seen all over the plain, including the fabled Templo Mayor of Texcoco, once as large as the Templo Mayor of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. Among all ruins that were shown to him, Bullock was deeply moved by the palace of the kings of Texcoco, a building “far surpassing any ideas I had formed of the architectural abilities of the aboriginal Americans. [1]”. This palace occupied one entire side of the great square, over a length of 300 feet, and was placed on sloping terraces raised one upon the other. It was composed “of huge blocks of basaltic stone, about four or five feet long, and two and a half or three feet thick, cut and polished with the utmost exactness. [1]
Sadly, after a little less than 200 years of pillaging and quarrying, nothing remains of the great structures that Bullock could still see, all vanished under the modern town of Texcoco and sacrificed to the expansion of nearby Mexico City.

Bullock was also shown a very curious set of ruins, located on a mountain a short distance from the ancient city of Texcoco, and was probably the first person to provide a full descriptions of the ruins of Tezcotzingo (or Texcotzingo – meaning the “little Texcoco”). The very unusual character of these ruins led Bullock to the conclusion that they must have been “erected by a people whose history was lost even before the building of the city of Mexico. [1]

It is now believed that Tetzcotzingo served as a royal residence of the Aztec emperors, originally built and embellished by the rulers of the city of Texcoco, and particularly by its most famous king, the poet and philosopher Nezahualcoyotl (1402-1472 AD). This residence, which was much admired by the Spanish conquistadors and historians before its destruction, was a veritable garden of delights. The entire mountain, an oddly pyramid-shaped natural outcrop, was artificially shaped and terraced to host a number of constructions, palaces and temples meant to serve as a symbolic representation of the cosmic mountain. 

The near-perfect pyramid shape of the hill of Tezcotzingo, in the distance, would have made it an ideal "cosmic mountain". The stone-cut channel in the foreground is part of the ancient aqueduct that once fed the gardens on the hill. [Photo by Author]
The monolithic temples

               The Aztec and Acolhua period constructions on the hill of Tetzcotzingo are now mostly ruinous and appear rather unremarkable. Yet, on the same artificially shaped hill one also finds the remains of puzzling trenches, stairways and chambers cut in the hard porphyry rock in a style quite unique in the Mesoamerican world – the only parallel being found in the monolithic temples of Malinalco, also in central Mexico.

A long aqueduct, over 8 Km long and partially dug into the bedrock, brought water to the site, feeding a number of pools and basins along the terraced slopes of the hill. The most remarkable of these pools is presently known by its popular name of “Bath of Nezahualcoyotl”. It is a perfectly circular pool, measuring 1.5 meters in diameter, with a depth of about 1.2 meters, cut out of the living porphyry rock. The pool is accessed by means of three steps that descend into the basin, and is surrounded by an ornate stepped parapet with a throne or chair carved in it. All around the basin, the rock had been cut into deep trenches, as large as to allow the passage of a man. Several similarly rock-cut stairways also departed from this spot in different directions towards the base of the hill, all carved with the utmost precision and exactness.   

Other two almost identical basins, regrettably much more ruined, are found a few hundred meters from this one, and are popularly known as the “Bath of the Queen” and the “Bath of the Concubines”. The “Bath of the Queen” retains visible part of the original aqueduct that fed it, along with three sculptures of frogs facing the pool from different directions.  
As it is often the case with such enigmatic ruins, the site lies today in a state of abandonment and has fallen prey to vandalism and graffiti of all sorts. Many of the rock-cut stairways and trenches are overgrown with vegetation, and it is possible that more structures lie buried towards the summit and around the base of the hill.

On one side of the hill the remains of a rock-cut temple with fragments of sculptures are found, while a vast square chamber was cut on the flank facing the aqueduct.
What is striking about these ruins is the very deep erosion to which they seem to have been subject, which appears only compatible with a very great antiquity – certainly more than the mere 500 years attributed by archaeologists. This is even more surprising if one considers the much better degree of preservation of the other Aztec period ruins on the hill, which, although built with much poorer materials, retain at places the original stucco facing.
All this seems to suggest that these ruins might belong to a much earlier period than that of the Aztecs and Acolhua, and were only incorporated in what was meant to be a symbolic representation of the cosmic mountain in the shape of a giant pyramid-shaped hill.

A view of the monolithic shrine known as "Bath of Nezahalcoyotl" or "Bath of the King". It consists of a perfectly circular basin approached by steps and a set of rock-cut trenches and stairways of uncertain function. [Photo by Author]
One of the great rock-cut chambers in the sides of the hill. This one was located at one extremity of the great aqueduct and contains a now much defaced throne. [Photo by Author]
A view of the extremely accurate stonework of one of the monolithic stairways approaching the "Bath of the King" Everything has been carved in the hard porphyry stone of the hill, allegedly without the aid of anything but the most primitive stone tools. [Photo by Author] 
From this other photograph, it is possible to appreciate the wonderful workmanship of the "Bath of the King". The basin is perfectly circular and bears signs on its outer surface of having been dug or polished with some kind of rotating tool that left clear grooves on the rock face. The stepped symbol present in the balustrade also finds analogies with the "Andean Cross" stepped motif found at many Peruvian megalithic sites. [Photo by Author] 
Mysterious tunnels

               Another mysterious feature of the place is the presence of extensive ancient tunnels, whose accesses (now mostly blocked) are found at different places on the hill. The entrances to these tunnels had been already noticed by Bullock, who mentioned in his writings that the entire mountain was “perforated by artificial excavations”, mentioning one particular tunnel near the top, approached by a flight of rock-cut steps, which his own guide had entered “but which no one as yet had had the courage to explore, although it was believed that immense riches were buried in it.”[1]

The entrance to one of the tunnels found near the summit of the hill. This one continues for just a few meters before encountering a blockage and can hardly be the one described by Bullock in 1824. One can also see other rock-cut benches and carvings on both sides of the walls. [Photo by Author]
One of many rock-cut model of stairways and aqueducts that were probably used by the ancient builders for designing the complex system of gardens and communicating pools. [Photo by Author]
Nowadays, the entrance to at least three such tunnels can still be discerned at various points on the hill, although none matching the description provided by Bullock. The only tunnel entrance visible near the summit is in fact a small artificial cave, which does not extend more than a few meters and could hardly have been the responsible for the legends of labyrinthine tunnels reported by Bullock and other authors. Another tunnel entrance is found under a rocky outcrop below the monolithic rock-cut basin known as the “Bath of Nezahualcoyotl” or “Bath of the King”, but is presently locked with a metal gate. The longest tunnel that can still be explored for a certain length is found a short way from the base of the hill. It is entirely carved in the rock and slopes downwards for about 20 or 30 meters before meeting a blockage. While it is possible to see the tunnel continuing for some length after the blockage, it is impossible to proceed without proper equipment.

All these enigmatic features greatly contribute to the aura of mystery still surrounding the hill of Tezcotzingo and bear a striking resemblance to other similar sites throughout the ancient world, from the mysterious “City of Midas” in ancient Turkey to the enigmatic rock-cut shrines and subterraneans of the Peruvian Andes.

Seen from above, the system of rock-cut trenches, stairways and pools carved in the flanks of the hill of Tezcotzingo bears a striking resemblance to other enigmatic megalithic sites, like the famous Fuerte of Samaipata, in Bolivia. [Photo by Author]
Another aerial view of the area known as the "Bath of the King". The entrance to another tunnel is visible in the cliff face in the center of the picture. This one in particular appears to be closed with a metal gate. [Photo by Author]


[1] W. Bullock, Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico, London, 1824, pp. 283-394
[2] Francisco Arturo Schroeder Cordero, La arquitectura monolítca en Tetzcotzingo y en Malinalco, Estado de México Cuadernos de Arquitectura Mesoamericana, n. 4, UNAM, July 1985, pp. 66-91
[3] M. Dominguez Nuñez, Arqueología y astronomía del antiguo Tetzcotzingo, UNAM, 2007, accessed online:ÍA_Y_ASTRONOMÍA_DEL_ANTIGUO_TETZCOTZINCO_ESTADO_DE_MÉXICO
[4] Wikipedia entry on Texcotzingo: