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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

Mexico has a large number of archaeological sites. These date back to the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, Aztec, and other ancient civilizations. Mexico has 27 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than any other country in the Americas. All of the more popular Mexican archaeological sites are included as heritage sites. Seven of the most important sites are discussed here.

Teotihuacan

Known as the city of the gods, Teotihuacan is twenty-five miles north-east of Mexico City. It is the most visited and one of the more accessible archaeological sites. The Teotihuacan Empire, stretching from Guatemala to Texas, thrived for well over 1,000 years from about 500 BCE to 650 CE. It was regarded as one of the most powerful civilizations in the world at that time. The city covered twelve square miles. Its population was over 200,000 people at its height, making it the largest city in the ancient Americas and one of the largest in the world.

Several large pyramids are a feature of Teotihuacan. The Pyramid of the Sun, or Piramide del Sol, was built in the first century CE. It is as impressive as any of the Egyptian pyramids. Its width at the base is just ten feet less than the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt. It contains 2.5 million tons of stone and earth. That’s equal to the weight of about fifty large cruise ships. Or looking at it another way, 500 ten-ton trucks would have taken 500 trips each to the site with earth and stone.

The Pyramid of the Moon, or Piramide de la Luna, was probably built just after the construction of the Sun Pyramid. It is on higher ground and gives the best view of the city, including the Avenue of the Dead, the main street, with its ruins on both sides stretching for a mile across the valley towards distant mountains. At the other end of the avenue is the smaller Piramide de Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec god of the sky and creation. Bodies found during excavation at the pyramids were the victims of human and animal sacrifice. Enemies were probably brought to the city with the purpose of sacrificing them as it was thought the city would prosper as a result.

Images of Quetzalcoatl and the rain god Tlaloc adorn the Temple of the Feathered Serpent in the Citadel, the main political and religious centre of the city. Tens of thousands of murals in temples and other buildings are thought to rival anything in Europe at the time. The murals indicate a society interested and knowledgeable in astronomy. This contrasts with murals found elsewhere in Mexico, which often show violence and sacrifice. Artifacts found at the Teotihuacan site suggest the city had many craftsmen, potters, and jewelers. No writings have been found at the site.

It is unclear who built the city. The Totonacs claim to have built it, although there are Zapotec, Mixtec, and Mayan influences. The city was traditionally thought to have been sacked and burned around 650 CE. But the burning may have been restricted to buildings of the upper class, particularly along the Avenue of the Dead, and may have been due to a civil uprising rather than an invasion. The unrest may have been brought on by drought around 535 CE, as archeologists unearthed a larger number of skeletons of children suffering malnutrition dating to the sixth century.

After its fall, squatters lived there. Later the Aztecs used it as a place of pilgrimage. Excavation started in the 19th century, with major restoration carried out from the early 20th century. In 1971, when a sound and light show was being set up, a cave was discovered under the Pyramid of the Sun. It was first thought to be a natural cave in the shape of a clover leaf, but it is now believed to be man-made.

Palenque

An excellent and popular example of an archeological site of the Mayan period is Palenque. The place is on the Yucatan Peninsula and thrived from around the first to the eighth century. To date, only a small fraction of the city has been excavated. It has a number of fascinating buildings. The Palace is a complex of connected structures including a four-story tower. Many excellent sculptures and carvings are found there.

The Temple of Inscriptions contains the second longest Mayan glyphic text. The temple records about 200 years of the city’s history. Alberto Lhuillier found a passage and stairway to Mayan king Pakal’s tomb in 1952. The tomb has a carved sarcophagus, rich ornaments, stucco sculpture, and a unique psychoduct that may relate to the soul’s departure. The temples of the Cross, the Sun, and the Foliated Cross are set on top of step pyramids. The inner chamber of each temple contains two figures giving objects to an icon. Both figures are thought to represent Mayan king Kan B’ahlam.

Another interesting structure is the Aquaduct with its ten foot high vault allowing the Otulum River to flow under the main plaza area of Palenque. Other structures include the Temple of the Lion about 200 yards from the other temples, the Structure XII with its God of Death carving, and the Temple of the Count. The site also includes lavish residences, a stone bridge over the river, and a court for the sport of Mesoamerican ballgame. The rules are lost, but judging from the long narrow alley and side walls, a game similar to squash, royal tennis, or volleyball could have been played there.

The city’s decline coincided with a long drought. It was abandoned around 900 CE and left to the forest. It was uninhabited when the Spaniards first came to Mexico. A priest, Ramon de Ordonez, found out about this ancient city from the Indians in 1773. He called it the most beautiful ruins in the country. It is said to produce more affection from visitors than any other ruins. Easiest access is from the modern city of Palenque about 85 miles away.

Monte Alban

This site is six miles outside the Oaxaca city limits in southern Mexico, just west of the Tehuantepec Isthmus. It is regarded as a construction feat of monumental proportions. The city was built on a mountain rising 5,000 feet above the three surrounding valleys after the top was sheered off to create a flat base. It was probably constructed by the Zapotecans from around 500 BCE, soon after they moved into the region that was already inhabited, probably by the Olmecs.

The city includes a network of rooms, underground passages, water storages, and drainage works. Terraces were cut into surrounding hillsides and crops planted. Peaks of prosperity for the city were around the first centuries BCE and CE, and the seventh and eighth centuries. Up to 35,000 people lived in the city. Difficult periods were around 200 CE and 800 CE. The reasons are not known for the declines but drought could have played a role. The second decline led to the city’s abandonment. The Mixtecs occupied it in the 13th century and left many tombs including Tomb 7 with its gold and other treasure.

Few of the original Monte Alban structures remain. The oldest is perhaps the Gallery of the Dancers, or Danzantes, with its glyphs of naked warriors, captives, dwarfs, childbirth, ejaculation, sick people, and the contorted figures of dead people that look like dancers. These are thought to be of Olmec origin.

Chichen Itza

The second most visited archaeological site in Mexico after Teotihuacan is Chichen Itza. It is located in the northern part of the Yucatan Peninsula and a two hour drive from Cancun. The Castillo pyramid at this site is sometimes regarded as the most popular icon in Mexico. It has 365 steps for the solar year, 18 terraces for the Mayan calendar’s months, and 52 panels for the Mayan century. Underneath this pyramid, another one was found with a temple chamber containing a statue and a jaguar-shaped throne painted red with inlaid jade as spots.

The Temple of the Warriors is a stepped pyramid with rows of carved columns of warriors at the front and each side. El Caracol is a circular building with a spiral staircase of stone inside. The doors were aligned to see the equinox. Shadows inside cast by the sun on the doorway were used to determine the timing of the solstices. Other structures include the House of Mysterious Writing, or Akab Dzib, the Nunnery, or Las Monjas, which was a government palace, as well as the Red House and the House of the Deer.

Chichen Itza has the largest ballcourt yet found. It measures 540 feet by 230 feet, with walls forty feet high. Teams of ball players are depicted in sculpted panels on benches. About two miles away from the site are the Caves of Balankanche with their undisturbed idols and pottery. The city was prominent by about 600 CE. It was burned in a civil war around 1000 CE but was never abandoned altogether.

Uxmal

This site is fifty miles to the south of Merida in western Yucatan and is one of Mexico’s more spectacular archaeological sites. The city was probably built between 500 and 1100 CE and was home to about 25,000 people. It was abandoned in the late 1500s.

The city is well built, with buildings using stone set in concrete rather than plaster. It was in fine condition before excavation and restoration began. The visitor gets a good idea of what the city looked like in ancient times. For beauty and elegance, it is considered second only to the Palenque site. The Governor’s Palace, which has the longest facades in ancient Mesoamerica, was built on a large platform. The palace was never used as a residence but as a base for astronomers to calculate the times for planting as well as feasts and other celebrations.

The Pyramid of the Magician, or the Adivino, is a pyramid temple with oval layers, which is unusual as layers elsewhere are square or rectangular. It is actually five pyramids, each one built over the top of the old one. There are also several quadrangles featuring long buildings with elaborate facades, such as the Nunnery Quadrangle. Various other buildings include the Grand Pyramid, the South Temple, the House of the Birds, and the House of the Turtles. A ballcourt was dedicated by ruler Chan Chak K’ak’nal Ajaw in 901.

Tulum

Located eighty miles south of Cancun, Tulum is a Mayan site and more accessible than many other sites. It was built on a forty foot cliff overlooking the Caribbean and is regarded as extremely beautiful. It is a walled city to keep invaders out and served as a port to Coba, another ancient Mayan city. Numerous murals show the Descending or Diving God. The earliest know building at the site was in 564 CE. Most structures date to the 13th and 14th centuries. The city’s prosperous period was around 1000 to 1550 CE. It was abandoned in the late 16th century.

The city has a white wall with bright red and blue reliefs. Its fortifications initially prevented the Spaniards from invading it. The wall is 3,600 feet in length with guard towers of stone, and runs along three sides of the city, the fourth side being the cliff. It includes a palace, temples, and other buildings. The lavish decor suggests the site was associated with power and wealth. It was thought to be a playground for the rich. Its proximity to population centers and its beauty make it one of the more popular ruins in Mexico.

Tenochtitlan

This is another popular archaeological site. Tenochtitlan was the capital city of the Aztecs and is now Mexico City. The city was founded in 1325 CE on an island in Lake Texcoco. When Cortes arrived in 1521, it was the largest of the Mesoamerican cities with a population of some 200,000 people. At the time of the last ruler, Motecuhzoma II, the palace had numerous rooms, armories, sweat baths, music rooms, guest rooms, kitchens, horticultural gardens, game preserves, and a main courtyard of 600 feet square. Remains can be seen in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City.

Excavation and restoration continues at these and other archaeological sites in Mexico. They are an important part of the country’s tourism industry. Mexico was the world’s seventh largest tourist destination in 2005, and the only Latin American country in the top 25 places. The main attractions are the magnificent ancient ruins.

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