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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References

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.


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: http://www.famsi.org/research/pohl/sites/cholula.html

[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.

 

Read more about the Prehispanic era in Cholula here: https://obsidiantours.com/prehispanic-cholula/

 

Visit Cholula in the company of a local archaeologist and learn all about this amazing place:

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