The Tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula

The Tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula

by Carmen Caelen


One of the biggest misunderstandings when it comes to visiting the Pyramid of Cholula has to do with its infamous tunnels.  Tourists are always shocked when I tell them that the tunnels were made by archaeologists and are not ancient at all.  People always want to believe that there is something mysterious hidden inside the pyramids but, in Mexico, that is very rarely the case.  Mesoamerican pyramids were not built as tombs; they do not have chambers or anything on the inside in the vast majority of cases.  Mesoamerican pyramids are temples, elevated platforms on which all kinds of religious events took place.  This is exactly what we see in Cholula.  The following information aims to clarify the function of the tunnels of the Pyramid of Cholula as well as provide the reader with a better understanding of what archaeologists were able to learn from them.

The archaeological explorations in Cholula began in the 1930s; however, the findings were seemingly insufficient to grant the Sacred City with the largest pyramid in the world an important place among the greatest sites in Mesoamerica.  The first excavations started in 1931 under the supervision of Ignacio Marquina.  The work done at this moment aimed to identify the different construction phases of the pyramid and establish a chronology based on ceramic styles.  During this season two main tunnels were dug that crossed through the base of the Great Pyramid in a north-south axis and an east-west one.  In subsequent excavations more tunnels were dug in different directions, allowing the archaeologists to uncover a series of structures built underneath the pyramid’s last construction phase.  In total, 8 kilometers of tunnels were dug.

During the 1960s the Proyecto Cholula or Cholula Project was launched with the intention of carrying out a detailed study of the site and its surrounding areas from an archaeological, ethnohistorical, and anthropological perspective.  Miguel Messmacher and Eduardo Matos carried out a second field season in 1966 under and several more structures were uncovered.  A third season, once again led by Ignacio Marquina, finished exposing the remaining structures that are now visible at the exterior part of the site in 1967.  Sadly, little work has been done in Cholula since.


The Great Pyramid

The archaeological data places the beginning of the construction of Cholula’s ceremonial center around 500 BCE, lasting all the way to around 1,200 AD when it was abandoned and the city’s capital was moved slightly.  It reached the status of one of the great cities in Mesoamerica during the Classic Period.  The Great Pyramid is the most representative feature of the ceremonial complex.

As has already been mentioned, most of the archaeological explorations in Cholula have focused on the Great Pyramid and its surroundings mainly due to the fact that it is the most important building that survives to this day.  Its size and degree of decay make it look like a natural hill and, at first glance, no one would suspect that it is actually a pyramid.  The building is currently located along the border of San Pedro Cholula and San Andres Cholula.

The base of the Great Pyramid measures 400 meters per side and over 65 meters in height.  The last construction phase took place during the rule of the Olmeca-Xicalanca and was made out of adobe, which is not a common material seen in other Prehispanic temples.  It is possible that the structure was never finished due to the arrival of the Tolteca-Chichimeca.   Underneath that last building, archaeologists discovered at least 7 other structures.

The geographical orientation of the Great Pyramid is not at all random; studies have confirmed that it is oriented 26˚ from north.  With this orientation the pyramid would have been aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, which in turn was linked to their agricultural calendar.

The information recorded by the Proyecto Cholula concluded that the Great Pyramid contained five main construction stages.  We can visualize this as a Russian doll where there are several smaller buildings underneath the last one built.  The reason this was done in Cholula, and in other sites of Mesoamerica, was to maintain the sacred lineage and power already held by the current structure.  In the Prehispanic worldview there was the belief that every 52 years a new cycle began.  It has been suggested that many of these new constructions corresponded to the beginning of a new cycle.

According to the data provided by Ignacio Marquina, the first structure had an almost square base, measuring 113 m by 107 m.  The architectural style – talud-tablero – and the presence of mural paintings indicates that it dates to approximately 250 AD.  The second building, measuring 190 m per side and 34 m high has a rare architectural style, being made up of 9 levels, all containing stairs across their entire length.  The third stage corresponds to a series of platforms and not pyramids like the other ones.  It is important to note that not all the construction stages included a new temple; on some occasions there was only partial remodeling done, such as in this case.  The fourth phase consists of a large building that covered the previous three constructions.  During this stage the largest part of the final pyramid was built, reaching a width of 400 m per side.  Adobe was used in the construction which, when the pyramid was abandoned, deteriorated and became what now looks like a hill.  The fifth construction stage corresponds to the Postclassic Period and it includes structures like the Altar of Skulls which contained the remains of a male and female.

Recent research carried out in the pyramid’s tunnels used new technology to generate a virtual map of the different structures located beneath the Tlachihualtepetl and discovered three additional construction stages.  The first surprise was that there was an older building below the first one Marquina documented.  This small platform called La Olla dates to the 1st century AD and measured approximately 34 m on its east-west side.  Another new structure found was the Building of the Plain Pannels, which would correspond to the third construction stage.  It measured 145 m by 178.  Over this, a new building was also found which seems to be an earlier version of the second building registered by Marquina.



Marquina, Ignacio.  “Proyecto Cholula. Investigaciones, no. 19.  Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México, D.F., 1970.

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo. “Excavaciones en la Gran Pirámide de Cholula (1931-1970).” Arqueología Mexicana, núm. 115, 2012, pp. 31-35.

Uruñuela y Ladrón de Guevara, Gabriela & Robles Salmerón, María Amparo.  “Las subestructuras de la Gran Pirámide de Cholula. Viejos túneles, nueva tecnología, nuevos datos.”.Arqueología Mexicana, núm. 115, 2012, pp. 36 – 41.

Clothing in Prehispanic Cholula

Clothing in Prehispanic Cholula

by Carmen Caelen


In ancient Mesoamerica clothing was more than just a means to cover the body, it was a symbol of social class and an element used to highlight beauty and ethnic identity.  For Prehispanic cultures, the use of clothing and adornment was a fundamental part of social, political, and religious dynamics.  In addition to providing markers of status, gender, and profession, one of the main roles clothing and bodily adornment played in Mesoamerica was to position individuals, and even entire cultures, within a spatial and temporal context.  In other words, the characteristics of the garments and ornaments used by Prehispanic people were specific to a certain region, culture, and time period.

Although the study of ancient clothing and bodily adornment is quite complicated for archaeologists since many of these elements are rarely found in the archaeological record, there are sources that have allowed scholars to reconstruct many of these practices.  In the specific case of Mesoamerica, since Prehispanic clothing was made from plant fibers which don’t preserve well archaeologically, very few original items have been recovered.  Most of the information available comes from other sources like murals, figurines, codices, and ethnohistorical documents.  The variety of regional styles can be identified to some degree, as well as the materials, colors, and use of each piece.

The dress codes of ancient Mesoamerica were regulated by very strict rules determined by a rigid social stratification.  Nobles, priests, and military officials held the highest positions and were easily distinguished by their clothing and adornments.  The clothing of Mesoamerican elites was decorated with colorful feathers, precious stones, shells, and other intricate ornaments.  Their outfits also included elaborate headdresses and exquisite jewelry which further contributed to their ostentatious displays of status.

When the Spanish arrived in Mesoamerica they were surprised by the highly developed variety of clothing styles, textiles, and bodily adornments.  Many European chroniclers made detailed descriptions all of the different garments used by indigenous groups as well as the many ways in which they decorated their bodies.

The Spanish corregidor[1], Gabriel de Rojas, described the clothing worn by the indigenous population of Cholula with great detail:

[Men’s] costume in peace time was a tilmatl, or square white cotton cloth knotted at the right shoulder, and a narrow [loin] cloth, and shoes like the canvas sandals used by the ancients . . . the women wore a highly painted cotton underskirt down to the foot, and on this were diverse square borders and paintings that they call nahua, and over the petticoat [the women wore] huipiles similar to a sleeveless surplice [long clerical outer garment] with its hems or borders embroidered in colored cotton with a fringe of rabbit fur and embellished with duck feathers for effect. These huipiles have two square “shields” [escudos], one on the breast and the other one on the back, that were colorfully embroidered with diverse motifs such as birds, fish, and animals[2]

Rojas also describes the textile production activities that went on in Cholula, making a distinct mention of the use of dyes in the process:

…they were particularly good dyers of whatever color, and they had much business dying wool thread in diverse colors to make rich huipiles and valuable tilmas; they make thread from rabbit and hare fur and wool that maintains its color perfectly until worn out.[3]

Threads for weaving were obtained by stretching and twisting the plant fibers.  In the beginning this process was done by hand and later on tools were invented to make the job easier.  Due to the fact that actual textiles are very rarely found in the archaeological record (the case of La Garrafa mentioned above is a one-of-a-kind find), the material evidence used to identify textile production includes spindle whorls or malacates, bone artifacts such as pins, needles, and awls, and perforated sherds.  Archaeologically, the most commonly found tool is the malacate or spindle whorl.  “Spindle whorls found in archaeological contexts can be used to infer the kinds of fibers spun.  Mesoamerican spindle whorls are generally baked clay disks each with a center hole that are used in hand-spinning as counter-weights on a wooden spindle. They function to maintain rotational inertia on the spindle while raw fiber is twisted into thread.”[2]


[1] A corregidor was the equivalent of a governor in Spanish colonies, particularly in territories with a high indigenous population.

[2] Gabriel de Rojas cited in McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 40).

[3] Gabriel de Rojas cited in McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 41).

[4] McCafferty & McCafferty (2000, p. 42).