The Mystery of the Mesoamerican Pyramids

By Damian Pawlowski
Spring 98

Not many structures of the ancient world are more fascinating than the pyramids. Found in different areas around the world and constructed at various points in history, pyramids are not only magnificent architectural monuments, but also stand as important symbols of the civilization by which they were created. When most people think of pyramids, the great pyramids of Egypt come to mind on account of their grand scale, the time and amount of human labor necessary for their construction, and their significance as a major facet of Egyptian civilization. Built in the desert well beyond towns and habitable land, the smooth geometric design of the pyramids reflect the Egyptian people═s relationship to the heavens and represent the order of the universe as it was understood at the time.

The Egyptian pyramids were built as the final resting-place for the pharaoh, who upon death became transcended into the form of Osiris, the god of the underworld according to Egyptian myth. While it is true that the forced labor of war prisoners was a common practice at the time, most scholars agree that the vast labor force used in building the pyramids consisted of workers from throughout Egypt. As a result, this unification fostered a sense of nationality between the loose confederation of villages in ancient Egypt, and ultimately paved the way for statehood to be established. The large-scale cooperative effort that went into building the great pyramids ultimately set the stage for the centralized state to be created.

Examining these monstrous feats of architectural design, we tend to ask ourselves, ˝How were the pyramids built?ţ and ˝What were their function in society?ţ What amazes us the most about the pyramids is that preindustrial people possessed both the engineering and planning capabilities necessary to erect these monuments, as well as the capacity to transport building materials, and even more, the physical labor to undertake the actual building process. In order to fully understand why human beings decided to build these structures, we must also examine pyramids that have been built elsewhere in the world.

The ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica also succeeded in building large monuments comparable to the great pyramids of the Egyptians. Europeans discovered the ancient pyramids of Mesoamerica at the time when interest in the Egyptian pyramids was on the rise; however, the former did not spark the same kind of avid curiosity and attention until the twentieth century. If we take a close look at the pyramids of Mesoamerica, we find that they differ from the Egyptian not only on account of their stepped design, but also in the function they served in society.

While it is true that some Mesoamerican pyramids were in fact tombs for revered leaders, scholars have found that their primary function was to serve as dramatic stages for religious rituals and civic ceremonies. Whereas Egyptian pyramids were situated away from the villages and were ultimately inaccessible to the people, the Mesoamerican pyramids were located at the heart of the city and the community. Thus, these great monuments defined the normal daily experience of the ancient people, and were not simply closed memorials to a past event. Mesoamerican pyramids were civic monuments that served an important function in society. Unlike the limestone pyramids in Egypt which were built over a long span of thirty to forty years, and left closed to stand impervious to time, Mesoamerican pyramids where built up by consecutive generations who continuously maintained and added to the structures constructed by their forefathers. Furthermore, the Mesoamerican pyramid stands as a representation of the strong connection the people had with both their gods and the universe, and reflects their belief in the necessity of human participation in the maintenance of the cosmos (Brainerd, pg 21). By closely examining the pyramids of Mesoamerica, we will see how these structures in fact differ from the Egyptian both in function and ideology, and begin to get a sense of the civilizations that decided to build these structures in the first place. Also, we will be able to gain a better understanding as to how central the pyramids were to both the religious and civic spheres of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.

The most spectacular of all the Mesoamerican pyramids is the Pyramid of the Sun located at the ancient ceremonial city of Teotihuacan in central Mexico. The great city of Teotihuacan flourished from the beginning of our present era until the seventh or eighth century, with the Pyramid of the Sun built sometime between A.D. I and 250. When the Aztecs entered the Valley of Mexico in the twelfth century as an outcast tribe, they came upon a Teotihuacan that was completely overgrown with vegetation, with the pyramid resembling a natural hill more than a manmade structure. While the Pyramid of the Sun had been standing for more than a thousand years, it origins were completely unknown to the Aztec people. Upon first inspection, the people believed the structure to be a large tomb, and thus named the long ceremonial axis of the site the Street of the Dead. The actual site itself the Aztec═s called Teotihuacan, which translates to The Place Where Men become Gods, and this is the name it bears today because we have no record of what the original inhabitants called it (Mendelssohn, pg. 180). Moreover, we have no record even of what these ancient people called themselves, where they came from and what language they spoke.

Constructed of rubble-fill, a building technique we will explore a little later, and adobe bricks, the five stepped terraces of the pyramid are estimated to have originally rose to a height of about 200 feet. A large staircase ascends the west face of the pyramid and is thought to have served as a processional to the upper terrace and the temple, which has been eroded for centuries, and is believed to have been constructed at its summit. As a result of archeological excavations promoted by Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the early twentieth century, the outer two layers of the pyramid═s design were stripped away. The self-taught archeologist Leopoldo Batres headed the project in Teotihuacan, and nearly brought about the ruin of the entire structure due to his destructive methods of excavation (Berrin, pg 67). Leaving the adobe substructure exposed to the elements, Batres═ method caused the pyramid to erode quite a bit; however, the high viscosity of the adobe allowed the monument to be salvaged. Experts have found from this research that the Teotihuacanos first covered the adobe bricks of the pyramid═s core with a layer of cobblestones set with lime mortar. Another layer of smaller stones then covered up this layer, and was then plastered with a stucco coating that was elaborately painted by the people of the city. At the city═s highpoint, the Pyramid of the Sun must have been quite a spectacle, with the great attention on decoration reflecting the people═s strong view of the pyramid as a major facet of their civilization (Thompson, pg. 104). Although these layers are lost for all time due to man═s curiosity to unravel the mystery of this great monument, one can only imagine what a magnificent site the original pyramid must have been while the Teotihuacanos inhabited the Valley of Mexico.

From their study of Teotihuacan, experts have also been able to discover that the designers of the Pyramid of the Sun were completely aware of both the placement of the monument and also the arrangement of the stepped terraces. By its location, orientation, and design, the pyramid metaphorically manifests ideas concerning the three vertical levels of the ancient Mesoamerican cosmos: the celestial, the terrestrial and the subterranean (Clancy, pg 44). One finding that has come from the excavation of the pyramid is a cave that runs under the pyramid to its center. Upon exploration the archeologists found it to be a natural cave that the Teotihuacanos had modified into separate chambers arranged in the four different directions. Because the city dwellers constructed the Pyramid of the Sun over this natural cave, a representation of the under world, we can conclude that the pyramid stood as a marker of this place of great underground power.

It has also been discovered that the Pyramid of the Sun as well as the city of Teotihuacan were both designed to represent various astrological events, thus proving the strong link between the ancient culture and the cosmos. Clancy states in her text that ˝archaeoastronomersţ have determined that the odd orientation of the Street of the Dead, the central, ceremonial axis of Teotihuacan, is related to celestial events that are also signaled by the Pyramid of the Sun, whose stairway is perpendicular to the street. By standing on the stairway and looking across the Street of the Dead to the far horizon, approximately fifteen degrees north of west, the archeoastronomer Anthony Aventi calculated that one would have witnessed the setting of the zenith sun that occurred in A.D. 150. The passage of the zenith sun was an event of great importance in this ancient agricultural civilization of Teotihuacan, and it signified the change in the harvest season and marked a time of great ritual for the people. Evidence has been found elsewhere in the Valley of Mexico of markings aligned on this same line of sight to the zenith sun, and from these discoveries we can see that this event was indeed one of great meaning for the Teotihuacanos (Aveni, pg. 40). From these archeological discoveries we can see that the great elevation of the Pyramid of the Sun not only metaphorically gave the ancient people access to the heavens, but also its orientation on the street reflects cosmological events and cycles that defined the existence of their civilization.

What makes the Pyramid of the Sun so fascinating is that its function served as more than just a representation of the Teotihuacano═s connection to the underworld and the universe, and also was a civic monument where secular and religious activities took place within the city. The great pyramid of this ancient civilization was very much a part of the daily experience of the people and therefore marks a clear distinction from the pyramid- building traditions of ancient Egypt. Moreover, the Pyramid of the Sun stands symbolically as a reflection between the natural world and man made construction, which can most clearly be seen from its similarity to the contours of Mount Patlachique which defines the western edge of the Valley of Mexico. Clancy puts it well when she says, ˝The reflection gives greater potency to the purposes of the pyramid as we can detect them: as an entrance to the cave of origins, perhaps a place of burial, as a marker for the zenith sun, as the marker that in fact orients the grid-plan of the city, and as a ´naturalţ reiteration of the world in which it was builtţ (Clancy, 46). Overall, the Pyramid of the Sun does more than just represents the celestial, terrestrial, and underground realms of the Teotihuacano universe, it stands as a monument to mark where these three realms come together in relation to the natural world.

If we take a closer look at the Pyramid of the Sun we can see how it matches up against the pyramids at Giza in terms of its size and design. While the area covered by the Pyramid of the Sun is exactly the same as that of the great pyramid of Khufu, its original height is only half that of its Egyptian counterpart. Therefore, the Pyramid of the Sun has less then half the volume of the Khufu pyramid, and this tells us a great deal about the effort that went into building the great structure at Teotihuacan. While the architects of Khufu had to quarry and pile about six and a half million tons of limestone in order to build the tomb for their pharaoh, the ancient people of Teotihuacan had only to provide two and a half million tons of stone and earth (Mendelssohn, pg. 188).

From this comparison we are able to see that the building of the Pyramid of the Sun took less of an effort than that which went into erecting the pyramids of Egypt; however, we must not let this fact cause us to look down upon the effort put forth by the people of Teotihuacan. The amount of material these people had to quarry, excavate, carry and lift was roughly three and a half million tons, not a meager feat by any means. Most of the rubble fill that makes up the substructure of the pyramid is excavated subsoil, along with a good amount of quarried stone and adobe brick. As Schwartz points out in his research there is no record of sledges being used for transport, and seeing that beasts of burden did not exist and the wheel had yet to be invented, all loads had to be carried by the men of the city (Schwartz, pg. 42). Not only did the labor force consist of the builders who actually went about the construction process, but it also included the large number of people who supplied the laborers with food and water. Even more, the people of Teotihuacan had to deal with working at an altitude of 6000 feet, where the diminished supply of oxygen make heavy manual labor an arduous task. Overall, it is estimated that the labor force necessary to construct the Pyramid of the Sun is somewhere around 15,000 men, and it is believed that the entire process took close to thirty years.

Like the people of ancient Egypt, the early civilizations of Mesoamerica were agricultural laborers whose livelihood depended upon the success of the harvest. With agriculture playing such a vital role in the lives of the Teotihuacanos, it is estimated that this culture could spare, at best, a hundred days per year on the construction of the pyramid (Mendelssohn, pg. 192). Although the construction of the Pyramid of the Sun looks like a small task when compared to the Giza pyramids, it is important to recognize the great effort that actually went into its construction, and to notice how in fact different members of society all joined together to create the sacred monument.

While archaeologists first believed that Teotihuacan was only a ceremonial center inhabited by a rather small agricultural society, important findings in the last few decades has proved that this cite was in actuality a flourishing city. Archeologists have made findings which prove that probably around 150,000 to 200,000 people lived in Teotihuacan at the highpoint of the citys development. It is believed this ancient agricultural civilization lived in closely built housing structures that lined the Street of the Dead. Each of these dwellings housed extended families, and research proves that these people lived in a communal society where goods were shared for the benefit of all. One thing we can tell from studying these findings is that the city of Teotihuacan was well planned out by the civilization that constructed it. Markets, temples, and workshops also existed along the Street of the Dead and it is believed that the city flourished with life as early as 2000 years ago. In this respect, the great city of Teotihuacan was the first and most populous urban center on the American continent (Mendelssohn, pg. 193). From the little that is known about the ancient civilization of Teotihuacan, it is understood that indeed their society was a flourishing community. The life of the Teotihuacanos was a peaceful one because their have been no findings of any fortifications built around the city to prevent the invasion of enemies. Moreover, archeologists have proved that there is no record of structures in Teotihuacan that had been rebuilt by the ancients, only reinforcing the fact that the civilization must have been free of hostile attacks. As warlike tribes such as the Toltecs and Aztecs moved down into the Valley of Mexico in the last centuries of our first millenium, the people of Teotihuacan came into contact with groups they had never known before. Unprepared to face these roaming tribes of warriors, the Teotihuacanos were wiped off the face of the earth. The magnificent city of Teotihuacan stands today as a reminder of this great civilization, and from our study of the archetectural feats achieved there, we can take a look into lives of these ultimately unknown people.

Studying the construction of the ancient pyramids is useful to a student of history because they give us an opportunity to take a very detailed look at the past. For one, these massive feats of construction provide us with an opportunity to reflect on the civilizations that built them and allow us to see what their life might have been like. In many ways the pyramids serve as a guide to the past because they tell us a lot about not only the social but religious aspects of ancient societies. For the Teotihuacanos the Pyramid of the Sun was the focal point of both their civic and ceremonial affairs. The pyramid ultimately stands as a representation of the universe as the ancient people understood it, and its place in their society is hard to compare to any monument of modern times. Most of all, the study of the Pyramid of the Sun and city of Teotihuacan allows us to look at a civilization that is long forgotten and unknown, and furthermore helps us to recognize the role these people played in the ancient world.


Return to technology and society page