Secrets of the Dead: Teotihuacan's Lost Kings - A Review

Tunnels Excavated Beneath the Temples at Teotihuacan Tell Their Tale

Sergio Gómez and his workers have removed over 800 tons of debris and soil from the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan.
Sergio Gómez and his workers have removed over 800 tons of debris and soil from the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacan. Anika Dobringer/ Story House Productions

"Teotihuacán's Lost Kings" is the latest program in the series from PBS, and it features the 2,000 year old city in central Mexico, which became a powerhouse in Mesoamerica between 200-650 AD. The title of the program is a bit of a misnomer: because "Teotihuacán's Lost Kings" is primarily about the recently discovered prehistoric tunnel excavated beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent at Teotihuacán, and its meaning to the people who lived there.

Program Details

Secrets of the Dead: "Teotihuacán's Lost Kings". 2016. Featuring archaeologists Sergio Gómez Chávez ( INAH), David Carballo (), Nicolai Grube (), and Alejandro Pastrana (INAH); and bio-anthropologist Rebecca Storey (). Consultants: Gordon Whittaker, Marco Antonio Cervera Obregon, Geoffrey E. Braswell. Locations: Teotihuacán, , Tikal, , INAH.

Narrated by Jay O. Sanders; directed by Jens Afflerbach, reenactments directed by Saskia Weissheit, written by Andreas Gutzeit and Alexander Ziegler, produced by Alexander Ziegler. Copyright ZDF Enterprises GmbH and Thirteen Productions LLC. Produced by Story House Productions Inc. and Thirteen Productions LLC.

Discovery of Teotihuacán

"Lost Kings" opens smartly, setting the stage for Teotihuacán in Mesoamerica, by picturing the discovery of its ruins by the Aztecs six centuries after its abandonment. That is quickly followed by a discussion of the accidental discovery of a prehistoric tunnel running beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is the smallest of the three pyramids at Teotihuacán--the others are the Temple of the Moon (built at the same time as the Feathered Serpent, in the 1st century AD) and the massive Temple of the Sun, built about 100 years later. The earlier temples were built primarily of porous volcanic material called tezontle; the tunnels at Teotihuacán were created by the settlers as they quarried for that material. Tunnels similar to that discussed in the program have been found at several locations throughout Teotihuacán, including beneath the Sun and Moon Pyramids.

Investigating the Tunnel

The central point of "Lost Kings" is the discovery and re-excavation by Sergio Gómez Chávez and colleagues of the tunnel beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, a long and arduous task if there ever was one in archaeology. The mouth of the tunnel was discovered during conservation activities in 2003. The opening is a circular shaft dropping some 6.5 meters (21 feet) below the current surface. Some harrowing video of what looks to be Gomez's first drop into the tunnel is used to emphasize the danger and excitement of the investigations.

Although the video doesn't say so, tunnels and caves have also been found beneath the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, and in other places in Teotihuacán, and have been investigated since the early 20th century. The "Lost Kings" investigations were aided by a 3-D imager, which helps Gomez's team to identify the plan of the tunnel before they crawl in and start to remove the fill and rubble within it.

Refreshing Digressions

Fortunately, the program isn't limited to the tunnel investigations: it also includes much background for the viewer about what scholars have learned about Teotihuacán. For example, archaeologists David Carballo and Rebecca Storey describe the evidence for the expansion of the great city after the in-migration of people driven northward from the south of the basin of Mexico by fierce volcanic eruptions.

The city was built in as little as 200 years: first the temples, whitewashed in stucco and then brilliantly painted; then the residential areas. The fine architecture of the residential barrios is shown, with a schematic identifying courtyards, sleeping rooms and drainage systems, all built of volcanic rock. Carballo points out that 260 stone heads of the Feathered Serpent god are scattered around the community, and he places the city in its context to that god.

Teotihuacán's Expansion and Tikal

In time, Teotihuacán became the central power in Mesoamerica, with access to such artifacts as jadeite from Guatemala and green obsidian from what is now El Chico National Park. The quarries there are visited by Carballo and lithic specialist Alejandro Pastrana, who show us just how pretty green obsidian can be.

Mayanist Nicolai Grube provides information concerning Mayan historical records of an invasion of atlatl-wielding strangers from the north. These strangers are believed to be Teotihuacános, and they killed the sitting Maya king of Tikal, and put in place one of their own. This king, Yax Nuun Ahiin I (or "Green Crocodile"), brought with him an influx of architectural and artistic traditions that reflected his country of origin, and permanently altered Mayan style.

Back to The Tunnel

Discoveries featured in the tunnel include four figurines set in what looks like a ritual setting, a stash of conch shells, loads of pottery and evidence for a subterranean lake in a deeper section of the tunnel right beneath the center of the Feathered Serpent temple. Pyrite flakes decorate the walls of the tunnel, adding a sparkle to what must have been a very dark place indeed.

Early in the program, Carballo briefly discusses the discoveries in the tunnel beneath the Pyramid of the Moon, of sacrificed birds (eagles and hawks), mammals (pumas, jaguars, coyotes, rabbits) and reptiles (frogs and rattlesnakes). Carballo reports there is evidence that they were put into the tunnel alive: Sugiyama et al. (listed below) suggests there is evidence that these animals may have been managed, that is to say, captured as subadults and raised to adulthood before being sacrificed.

Mercury Discovery

Sadly, there is no discussion of the evidence for liquid mercury reported to have been discovered at the end of this tunnel last summer--it was likely a post-production discovery. Fortunately, Archaeology magazine has a brief report describing the . To that end, there haven't been many scholarly publications yet concerning the tunnel beneath the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. I've listed what I've been able to find so far, but  I'm certain there are more in the works.

Bottom Line

I can wholeheartedly recommend this entry in the admittedly sometimes lurid Secrets of the Dead series. The reenactments are colorful and useful to humanize the scientific findings and the scholars are approachable and clear. While there is no way the report could fully describe the amazing Teotihuacan, it does a terrific job of presenting some of the more intriguing aspects of the people and their culture, enticing the viewer to learn more.

: Teotihuacán's Lost Kings premieres May 24, 2016, beginning 9 pm eastern. Check local listings.

Related Academic Publications

López-Rodríguez F, Velasco-Herrera VM, Álvarez-Béjar R, Gómez-Chávez S, and Gazzola J. In press. Advances in Space Research in press.

Shackley MS. 2014. . Archaeological X-ray Fluorescence Reports.

Shaer M. 2016. . Smithsonian Magazine 47(3).

Sugiyama N, Somerville AD, and Schoeninger MJ. 2015. PLoS ONE 10(9):e0135635.

Sugiyama N, Sugiyama S, and Sarabia A. 2013. Inside the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico: 2008-2011 Excavations and Preliminary Results. Latin American Antiquity 24(4):403-432.