Teopanzolco Pyramids

In the Vista Hermosa Colonia of Cuernavaca, Mexico sits the Aztec archaeological site of Teopanzolco (from the Nahuatl language meaning “the place of the old temple”. While the area was once sprawling countryside of coniferous woodland with rolling hills, it now lies within the confines of this modern city. Most of the visible remains, built on a hill formed by lava flowing from the nearby El Popo Volcano, date from the Early Aztec period of 1150 to 1350.

The architecture has a Mexican style, since the distribution of the main buildings and character are very similar to what was found in the sacred precinct of the Templo Mayor of Tenochititlan. The two temples that are preserved in the upper part of the large base, represent a unique Mexican architectural element that exists and is conserved throughout the territory of Morelos. There are buildings for the worship of the gods that are distributed around the large square.

On the bases and platforms, temples and other important buildings rose. The gods that were worshiped included Huitzilopochtli , Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, Ehecatl, among others. These are the same gods that the Aztecs worshiped. Moreover, the inhabitants of this site performed sacrifices and collective human remains, together with offerings, deposited in pits placed inside the lower platforms .

The Morelos Valley in which Cuernavaca sits was settled from about 2000 BC and there is evidence to believe that there was an earlier occupation in the great square of Teopanzolco. During the Classic Period, Teopanzolco came under the influence of the great metropolis of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico. By the Postclassic Period, various Nahua groups had moved in the Altiplano; the Tlahuicas Indians founded the city of Cuauhnahuac pronounced Kwaa-nah-wok (the pre-Spanish name for Cuernavaca) sometime around 1200 AD when they first settled here. They built the Teopanzolco Pyramids before being conquered by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina in 1427 AD. The once-peaceful Tlahuicas were integrated into the Aztec Empire and forced to pay tribute in large amounts of cotton blankets and to participate in the Aztec military campaigns. In 1521, with the arrival of the Spaniards, the prehispanic history of Teoplanzolco was brought to a close.

When the Spaniards arrived in Cuauhnāhuac (renamed Cuernavaca by the Spaniards) and destroyed all symbols related to the past deities, the construction within the Ceremonial Center was stopped and the Ceremonial Center was covered over with dirt.

The site was rediscovered in 1910, during the Mexican Revolution, when the revolutionary forces of Emiliano Zapata installed an artillery emplacement upon the hill covering the Great Platform (shown in the photo above) in order to shell federalist positions in the center of Cuernavaca.The resulting cannon fire shook loose the soil, revealing the stonework below.

The modern history of Teopanzolco begins with the first excavations at the site in 1921, no further investigations took place until it was excavated in 1956-7 by Mexican archaeologists Román Piña Chan and Eduardo Noguera, who investigated the temple of Ehecatl and established a ceramic sequence for the site.Further archaeological investigations took place in 1968-9 by Angulo Villaseñor and in 1980 by Wanda Tomassi. The Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), National Institute of Anthropology and History, has undertaken maintenance and minor excavations annually since 1985.

Only the ceremonial center of Teopanzolco has been preserved. The residential areas of the prehispanic city lie beneath the modern development of Vista Hermosa, for this reason the actual size of the city is unknown. The surviving remains were built using local basalt. Although nothing survives of the original finishing, the buildings were presumably covered with painted plaster, as at other archaeological sites. Although the site had been developed by both the Tlahuicas and the Aztecs, the dominant architectural style and the majority of the excavated ceramics are Aztec in origin.

The most important and powerful structure is the central Great Platform. It was never finished and thus is the only pyramid to give present viewers the opportunity to see both the inner and outer structure and understand how the Aztec built their pyramids. The Ceremonial Center was dedicated (as was the Templo Mayor in Mexico City) to Huitzilopochtli (The God of the Sun, representing war and sacrifice) and Tlaloc (The God of Rain representing fertility and growth). 16th century Dominican Friar Diego Durán wrote, “These two gods were always meant to be together, since they were considered companions of equal power.” Prior to the destruction of the Ceremonial Center, Great Platform supported two identical temples. On the north end was the Temple of Tlaloc and on the south was the Temple of Huitzilopochtli. The bases of the two temples are still intact. Tezcatlipoca, Ehecatl, among other Gods were worshiped at Teopanzolco.

  • Great Platform or Building 1. This is the principal building within the archaeological zone. It consists of a westward facing rectangular pyramidal base that once supported twin temples; the northernmost was dedicated to Tlaloc, the Aztec rain god, while the southern temple was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. Two parallel stairways give access to the temples. This style of double temple is Aztec in origin. Two phases of building are evident, the second practically identical to the first and built on top of it. Only the platform survives from the second phase but sections of the walls of the twin temples survive from the earlier building phase. The later phase of construction appears to have been interrupted by the Spanish Conquest.
  • Temple of Tlaloc This consisted of a small enclosure surrounded by four pillars that presumably supported a wide roof that extended beyond the temple enclosure itself. It is situated upon the Great Platform.
  • Temple of Huitzilopochtli This was larger than the temple of Tlaloc and consisted of two rooms, one lying behind the other and accessed through it. The remains of an altar have been found in this inner sanctum.It is situated upon the Great Platform.
  • Building 2 This is a low, irregular platform with a wide north-facing stairway.
  • Building 3 is a small rectangular platform with an east-facing stairway.
  • Building 4 is a wide but shallow rectangular platform with a borderless east-facing stairway. A pit was found in this structure, which contained a great number of human bones together with two obsidian knives. The bones belonged to 35 individuals of both sexes who had been sacrificed and dismembered.
  • Building 5 is another small rectangular platform with an east-facing stairway.
  • Building 6 is a small rectangular platform with an east-facing stairway.
  • Building 7 is a small, low circular platform with an east-facing stairway. It was a shrine dedicated to Ehecatl, the Aztec god of wind, one of the manifestations of Quetzalcoatl. A sunken chamber was found inside this platform, it was filled with offerings of ceramic vessels and human skulls, probably belonging to sacrificial victims.
  • Building 8 is a very small rectangular platform with an east-facing stairway.
  • Building 9 is another low circular platform. It was another shrine to Ehecatl, slightly larger than the similar Building 7.
  • Building 10 is a long rectangular platform running east-west, located behind buildings 3 to 6. It has two stairways facing east and another facing to the west. It appears to have been expanded several times during its history.
  • Building 12 is a large platform aligned with the Great Platform, lying directly to the north. It has three west-facing stairways.
  • Temple of Tezcatlipoca or Building 13 is directly behind (i.e. to the east of) the Great Platform. Its lower level had a double stairway that faced towards the latter. The upper level has a single, wide stairway. The combination of a cannonball strike during the Mexican Revolution and a large looters’ pit has inflicted extensive damage upon the remains.
  • Platform 15 was excavated in 1997. It is located at the southern edge of the archaeological site. It was a large platform in a poor state of preservation. Below the platform were found the remains of a residence whose inhabitants manufactured dyes, as evidenced by the discovery of hearths with tools and traces of iron oxide-based pigments. The residence was demolished in order to build the overlying platform, leaving only the foundations containing domestic human burials.

The site is in the care of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History) and is open to the public Monday to Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm.

Visitors can buy admission tickets to the archaeological zone from 9 am until 5:00 pm daily. Currently the cost of admission is $37 MXN (about $2 USD), but is free on Sundays and to seniors over 60 years of age at any time. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and it is recommended that you visit in the mornings during the warmer months. There is a very small museum in the main entrance of the park and there are displays in English and Spanish to explain the site.

References

  • García Moll, Roberto (1993) Teopanzolco, Morelos miniguide, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico. (Spanish)
  • Kelly, Joyce (2001) An Archaeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Smith, Michael E. (1996, 2003). The Aztecs (second ed.). Malden MA; Oxford and Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-23016-5. OCLC 59452395.
teopanzolco map
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About G. William Hood

G. William Hood is a writer, fine arts painter, educator and world traveler. He lives in Cuernavaca with his pet cockatiel, Pepe.
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