Cholula Pyramid Tunnels

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.

Initial explorations

The archaeological explorations in Cholula began in the 1930s.  The findings, however,  were seemingly insufficient to grant the Sacred City 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.  This allowed 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.

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.  The structure 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.  Astronomical alignments like this were also linked to their agricultural calendar.

The archaeological findings

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.  It is 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.  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.


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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.

Spindle whorls

Ancient Mesoamerican Clothing

Ancient Mesoamerican Clothing

by Carmen Caelen


Ancient Mesoamerican 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, they were surprised by the highly developed variety of ancient Mesoamerican 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]


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[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).


heirloom corn

The Prehispanic Diet

The Prehispanic Diet

by Carmen Caelen


Anyone who delves deep into the ancient history of Mexico will be surprised to find that most of the food sources that made up the Prehispanic diet are still present in the common foods consumed by Mexicans today, as are like many cooking techniques dating back to that time.  Contemporary Mexican cuisine incorporates quite a lot from its ancient gastronomical ancestor, including the nutritional benefits of its main staples, and is the result of a living mestizaje or mixture of old indigenous culinary traditions with European ingredients. In that sense, what we currently call Mexican gastronomy is the fusion of Prehispanic and Spanish elements.

Prehispanic gastronomy had a wide variety of foodstuffs, materials, methods, and cooking techniques. The ancient Mesoamericans used up all of the parts of the plants and animals they consumed. Those elements that were not eaten would be transformed into tools or utensils. After the Spanish conquered the area, the diversity of ingredients that were native to Mesoamerica were easily combined with European recipes, products, and cooking techniques to develop a whole new variety of flavors and textures.

The indigenous cultures of ancient Mesoamerica developed a vast amount of knowledge based on the observation of the biological cycles of their surroundings and the possible connections between some of these cycles and certain cosmic phenomena they aimed to understand and interpret. The struggle for survival pushed them to maximize the resources they found in their environment, like vegetables, animals, and minerals.

In Mesoamerica, the emergence of agriculture did not cause a dietary deficiency due to the dependency on one food source as it did in most parts of the world. Though corn became the main staple in the Prehispanic diet, meals were always complemented with other crops, such as beans, squash, chile, and amaranth, as well as some animal products and seasonal fruits. Archaeobotanical studies have confirmed that maguey, beans, squash, tomatoes, maize, epazote, and guava were available all year long, either in fresh or dried forms. Additional products like zapote, tejocote, sweet potato, pitaya, nopal, tuna, jicama, avocado, and mesquite were consumed seasonally.

The combination of corn, beans, and squash as an essential part of the Prehispanic diet was crucial to the healthy development of indigenous populations since their nutrients are highly complementary. In addition, the versatility of tomatoes and chiles, which can be consumed cooked or raw, provided a wide variety of seasonings for many dishes and additional nutritional benefits. Given the predominance of vegetables in the Mesoamerican diet, salt was necessary to maintain a nutritional balance. Salt was exchanged and collected as tribute in many regions and was used to season and preserve food.

Ancient Mesoamericans had a profound knowledge of nature and had a very harmonious relationship with it. This can be seen in many aspects of their lives: astronomy, botany, medicine, religion, architecture, and agriculture. Their deep knowledge of plants allowed them to develop a perfectly balanced diet that procured all the necessary nutrients for living a healthy life. Archaeological evidence has corroborated that each of the Prehispanic civilizations that thrived in Mesoamerica manifested its own cultural characteristics concerning food. The soil composition, the weather, and the resources available favored regional gastronomical adaptations.


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Cholula Pyramid

Prehispanic Cholula

Prehispanic Cholula

by Carmen Caelen


Prehispanic Cholula is one of the most impressive Mesoamerican settlements.  Mesoamerica, refers to a cultural development that lasted around 2,000 years (from approximately 600 BCE to 1521 AD).  The territory comprised in this culture area includes the center and south of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.  The history of Mesoamerica is divided into three main chronological periods: the Preclassic (1500 BCE – 300 AD), the Classic (300 – 950 AD), and the Postclassic (950 – 1521 AD).  In some areas, including the center of Mexico, an additional period is added; it is called the Epiclassic (700 – 900 AD) and it corresponds to the moment immediately following the collapse of Teotihuacan.  Cholula, located in central Mesoamerica, is one of the few Prehispanic sites that has an occupation that goes from the Preclassic Period all the way to the Postclassic.

In Prehispanic times, Cholula was known by several names.  The most common one was Tlachihualtepetl which means “hand-made hill”, making a direct reference to the Great Pyramid.  It is believed that it was the Tolteca-Chichimeca who first used the name Cholula, although in the Nahuatl language the city was called Tollan Chollolan Tlachihualtepetl.  In the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, the pyramid is shown as a hill with a large toad on top.  Another one of its names, Chalchiutepec or “jade hill”, derives from a legend that narrated that a jade stone fell from the sky and landed in the shape of a toad.  The Nahuatl term for jade is chalchihuitl and it was one of the most valuable stones, associated to corn, water, and fertility.  A third name was Cholollan-Tamazol-Xamiltepec in which Tamazol means toad and Xamiltepec means hill made out of adobe.

The etymology of Cholula can also be interpreted in several ways.  Cholollan means “the place where water springs up”.  The verb choloa means “to flee or run” and Cholo-yan means “place where you run”.  This is consistent with an image in the codex Lienzo de Tlaxcala that shows Cholula represented by three men running, a road, and a pyramid.

Very little is known about the first inhabitants of Cholula during the Preclassic Period.  During the Classic it grew into a large ceremonial center that was contemporary with the great Teotihuacan.  Archaeological evidence indicates that there was a strong connection between the two cities; however, the nature of this relationship remains unclear.  Some consider Cholula to have been a secondary center, others believe the two to have been sister cities, and still others suggest that Cholula was the greater city that influenced Teotihuacan, although, given the evidence the latter seems unlikely.  What we do know for sure is that the connection between the two sites can be clearly seen in architecture and pottery.

It is important to note that after the collapse of Teotihuacan, Cholula maintained its status as a great religious and political center, continuing its influence well into the Postclassic Period.  After the downfall of the great metropolis Cholula flourished due to its role as a commercial center and sacred sanctuary.  It has been suggested that after the fall of Teotihuacan a considerable amount of the metropolis’ population migrated to Cholula, giving the sacred city a multiethnic composition.  In the 8th century a new group emerged in the region, the enigmatic Olmeca-Xicalanca, who established their capital at Cacaxtla but conquered and took over Cholula.  During the Postclassic a new wave of migrations brought the Tolteca-Chichimeca into the region.  They fought against the Olmeca-Xicalanca and took Cholula from them.

Cholula seems to have evolved into a large regional center during the Classic Period; however, its true moment of growth began with the arrival of the Olmeca-Xicalanca between 750 and 950 AD.  The power vacuum left by the collapse of Teotihuacan allowed many new regional centers to emerge as the political and economic structures reorganized throughout Mesoamerica.  The Sacred City “thrived along with its (…) contemporaries Cacaxtla, Xochicalco, and El Tajín until a new ceremonial center was constructed under the direction of Tolteca-Chichimeca peoples who moved into the region from Tula around A.D. 1100. Cholula then became, in the words of one Spanish chronicler, a New World Mecca, the largest pilgrimage center in highland Mesoamerica and the nucleus of a Nahua commercial exchange network that extended from the Basin of México to El Salvador.”[1]

During the Postclassic, Cholula once again presents close ties to another great Mesoamerican city: Tula.  The exact relationship is, once again, not fully known, but there are some who claim that the former became the heiress to the Toltec capital.  This is supported by the fact that after the fall of Tula, at least a faction of Toltecas arrived at Cholula and conquered it.  This is recorded in the codex Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca.

In the centuries leading up to the Spanish conquest, Cholula became the main economic and political center in central Mesoamerica.  “Its authority was derived from the cult of Quetzalcoatl, in whose name two priests entitled the nobility of all Toltec kingdoms by conferring them with the title Tecuhtli or “Lineage Head.””[2]  The other part of Cholula’s importance came from the fact that it controlled the trade routes that crossed through the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley.

According to the archaeological data, during the Preclassic Period Cholula occupied around 2 km2.  This territory expanded to 4 km2 during the Classic and up to 8 km2 in the Postclassic.  It is estimated that the population was between 30,000 and 50,000 people, though some sources say it might have reached 100,000 based on the ethnohistorical information.   The layout of Postclassic Cholula, as seen in the Codex of Cholula, was set up around a central market called Tianquizco.


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[1] Famsi (n.d.), retrieved from:

[2] Idem.

Archaeological site Cholula

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

History of Cholula: The Forgotten Sacred City

by Carmen Caelen


The history of Cholula is one of the most interesting and enigmatic in ancient Mesoamerica.  Few people know that it is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in the entire western hemisphere and that its pyramid is the largest in the world in terms of its base.  The current city is known for the Great Pyramid, its many colonial churches, and constant religious celebrations, making it a widely visited place; however, the tremendous importance of Prehispanic Cholula has been lost in the historical accounts of Puebla and even Mexico as a whole.

Located in the Puebla-Tlaxcala Valley within a very fertile area, the Prehispanic city of Cholula was founded around 500 BCE.  It soon developed into an important city and the construction of its Great Pyramid began around 200 BCE.  During the height of Teotihuacan’s influence in the Classic Period and the expansion of the Aztec empire in the Postclassic, Cholula managed to maintain its independence and grew to become the greatest religious center in central Mesoamerica.  As the main site for the cult of the god Quetzalcoatl, Cholula received pilgrims from many Prehispanic cities.  The two high priests of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl were charged with confirming the legitimacy of these foreign rulers, making their role one of great importance in the region.

In addition to its religious relevance, Cholula was also a very important commercial center.  Many lavish and exotic goods were traded at its market.  The city’s merchant class also exported a variety of luxury crafts produced in Cholula, such as richly adorned textiles and very fine polychrome pottery.

Cholula is mentioned on some level in most important works concerning Mesoamerica; however, in most cases it is simply named alongside a list of other Prehispanic sites.  In the majority of these sources, all the information offered is that Cholula was a great religious center with a large pyramid where a terrible massacre took place upon the arrival of the Spanish, but other than that this impressive city remains mostly unknown.  “It is paradoxical that in Cholula, that which the conquistadors set out to accomplish in 1519 persists till this day: that no one would know or value its past.”[1]  Despite its irrefutable importance, Cholula continues to be undervalued in comparison to other Prehispanic sites.


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[1] Ashwell (2004, p. 8), translation mine.