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November 19, 2002, Tuesday


Inside Mexican Pyramid, Buried Clues Link Ancient Cultures

In excavations at the Pyramid of the Moon near Mexico City, archaeologists think they have found an answer to a perplexing question about two of the Western Hemisphere's greatest ancient cultures: what links, if any, existed between the people of Teotihuacan, in central Mexico, and the Maya civilization mainly in southern Mexico and Guatemala?

An international team of archaeologists reported last week the discovery of buried jade objects and three skeletons in a tomb in the pyramid ruins of Teotihuacan. The team said this revealed for the first time a Maya influence at Teotihuacan, suggesting some close interaction between the ruling elites of the two cultures 1,700 years ago.

The jade apparently came from Guatemala, in Maya country, and was carved in Maya style. A jade statuette bears the image of a man with fairly realistic features and big eyes. The skeletons were found in cross-legged, seated positions, a practice more familiar at Maya sites than in Teotihuacan.

Dr. Saburo Sugiyama, an archaeologist at Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and the co-director of the excavations, said the jade objects were intriguing because they were like those that were often used as symbols of rulers or royal family members in Maya societies.

''We have to study the objects and bones further, but the offerings strongly suggest a direct relation between the Teotihuacan ruling group and the Maya royal families,'' Dr. Sugiyama said.

The discovery was announced by Arizona State University in Tempe, where Dr. Sugiyama also holds a position as research professor. The other leader of the project is Dr. Ruben Cabrera of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. Excavations at the pyramid are to resume next summer.

Considered the first great city of the Western Hemisphere, Teotihuacan was built to a master-planned grid pattern with broad avenues and imposing pyramids. It was the center of a distinct culture, which at its peak was contemporary with the early stages of Maya cities far to the south. The two seemed very different cultures, with only occasional traces of interaction, notably by noble Teotihuacan visitors at a number of Maya cities.

The three skeletons were of men who were about 50 years old. They were buried amid lavish goods in a tomb at the top of the fifth of the pyramid's seven layered stages.

The skeletons did not have their hands tied, as they do in many such burials, but the archaeologists said this did not necessarily rule out death of the men as sacrifices. The burial site has been dated at about A.D. 350, near the zenith of Teotihuacan's power.

Dr. George Cowgill, another archaeologist at Arizona State, who recently visited the site, said these were ''the richest undisturbed burials yet found in Teotihuacan,'' including new evidence of Maya contacts there and ''what looks like elite gift-giving at the highest levels of Teotihuacan society.''

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