The Strange Mercury River In An Ancient Mexican Temple Complex

Teotihuacan Pyramids
“Rivers are roads that move and carry us whither we wish to go.” —Blaise Pascal, “Pensees” [translated]

In A Nutshell

Although there are different theories, no one knows with certainty who built the mysterious, ancient city of Teotihuacan or how it was ruled. Recent excavations are focusing on a 1,800-year-old tunnel complex under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the center of the city. In the last couple years, archaeologists have found thousands of relics that could be funerary offerings. Recently, scientists discovered something even more exciting: large amounts of liquid mercury in a chamber near the end of the tunnel. With its mirror-like quality, the toxic metal may represent an underworld lake or river, making it more likely that archaeologists will find a tomb nearby, possibly of a king or lord who once ruled the city.

The Whole Bushel

About 50 kilometers (30 mi) from Mexico City, the ancient city of Teotihuacan thrived between 100 BC and AD 650, with a population of up to 200,000 people. The inhabitants built amazing structures, such as the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (“feathered serpent”). Surprisingly, the city lacks military compounds, although it dominated the region from both a military and cultural standpoint in ancient times. According to archaeologist George Cowgill, it was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere until the 1400s and had thousands of residential areas and temples.

Although there are different theories, no one knows with certainty who built the city or how it was ruled.

It appears that Teotihuacan was home to diverse cultures such as the Zapotec, Maya, and Mixtec. Archaeologists, who’ve excavated only about 5 percent of the city, initially found evidence of a brutal culture that sacrificed both animals and humans, possibly as religious offerings to their gods. The reasons for the city’s collapse are as mysterious as its origins. But Cowgill believes the more relevant issue is what type of society was able to live here for so long.

In the 14th century, the Aztecs named the abandoned city Teotihuacan, meaning “abode of the gods.” Without written records, we don’t know what the early inhabitants called themselves. However, modern excavation of the city only started in the 1950s, so we may yet find some information to answer our questions.

Recent excavations are focusing on a 1,800-year-old tunnel complex under the Temple of Quetzalcoatl in the center of the city. In 2013, archaeologists discovered two chambers around the end of the tunnel that contained unusual crystal spheres and pyrite mirrors. Then the tunnel dropped down to a level where the ground was saturated with water, slowing the excavation.

Nevertheless, in late 2014, scientists found three more chambers containing thousands of relics, including jade, rubber balls, carved statues, and a wooden box of carved shells. The chambers are about 18 meters (60 ft) beneath the ancient temple. Archaeologists didn’t find human bodies, but they suspect they may be close to a burial chamber. Realistically, the artifacts could be anything from funerary offerings to leftovers of a great feast.

Recently, archaeologists found large amounts of liquid mercury in a chamber near the end of the tunnel. With its mirror-like quality, the toxic metal may represent an underworld lake or river with supernatural importance for ancient rituals. It also makes it more likely that archaeologists will find a tomb nearby, possibly of a king or lord who once ruled the city.

“Mirrors were considered a way to look into the supernatural world, they were a way to divine what might happen in the future,” Annabeth Headrick, an expert on Teotihuacan and Mesoamerican art, told The Guardian. “It could be a sort of river, albeit a pretty spectacular one.”

Show Me The Proof

National Geographic: Who Built the Great City of Teotihuacan?
Reuters: Hunt for ancient royal tomb in Mexico takes mercurial twist
Scientific American: New Artifact-Filled Chambers Revealed under Teotihuacan