The 7 Gate­ways to the Un­der­world


iD magazine - - Contents - SER­GIO GÓMEZ, ex­ca­va­tion di­rec­tor

Ar­chae­ol­o­gists de­scend into the realm of the dead

Em­per­ors, pharaohs, high priests— since time im­memo­rial, civ­i­liza­tions all over the globe have been search­ing for a gateway to the fa­bled realm of the dead, whether deep un­der­wa­ter or through sub­ter­ranean tun­nels. En­tire re­li­gions have been based on this idea. Only now are ar­chae­ol­o­gists mak­ing head­way on the trail of th­ese mys­ter­ies…

1 Did an an­cient civ­i­liza­tion cre­ate a door to the un­der­world?

Ser­gio Gómez holds his breath: At last he is very close to reach­ing his goal. For six years the ar­chae­ol­o­gist has been ex­ca­vat­ing the 450-foot-long tun­nel un­der­neath the main tem­ple of the pre- Columbian city of Teoti­huacán. He and his team have moved around 1,100 tons of rocks and other ob­sta­cles out of the way and have un­earthed count­less trea­sures. Now the end of the pas­sage­way is in sight—goméz hardly be­lieves his eyes. Be­fore him are three sealed cham­bers. Could they be the tombs of Teoti­huacán’s le­gendary kings?

With an area of 14 square miles and a pop­u­la­tion of 200,000, the tem­ple city of Teoti­huacán was one of the largest me­trop­o­lises in the world in its time. Its builders ap­peared seem­ingly out of nowhere around the year 100 BC and es­tab­lished a highly so­phis­ti­cated power struc­ture long be­fore the Maya and the Aztecs dom­i­nated the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent. But 650 years later they van­ished—leav­ing be­hind many mys­ter­ies, the big­gest of which is the tun­nel un­der­neath the Tem­ple of the Feath­ered Ser­pent. Here ar­chae­ol­o­gists found around 50,000 of­fer­ings, in­clud­ing gems, stat­ues, and weapons as well as hu­man bones and skin frag­ments. Gómez’s the­ory: Through rit­ual sac­ri­fices, the rulers asked the gods to sanc­tify their sta­tus as rulers of the earthly realm.

Now ar­chae­ol­o­gists have scored their next coup: In one of the cham­bers they found large amounts of liq­uid mer­cury—a fur­ther in­di­ca­tion of the pres­ence of a royal tomb, be­cause the metal may sym­bol­ize a kind of river into the un­der­world. If Goméz does suc­ceed in find­ing a tomb be­fore the ex­ca­va­tion is fin­ished, DNA anal­y­sis of the bones could fi­nally re­veal whether the mys­te­ri­ous builders of the city had been gov­erned by a sin­gle ruler or sev­eral.

For the peo­ple of Teoti­huacán, the tun­nel sym­bol­ized an en­trance to the un­der­world.

2 Which em­peror took an army with him to the realm of the dead?

The sweat streams down Yang Zhifa’s face as he works the rock-hard soil with his pickax. For weeks a drought has been plagu­ing the peo­ple of China’s cen­tral Shaanxi province. On his search for a wa­ter vein the farmer en­coun­ters sud­den re­sis­tance. He keeps dig­ging fever­ishly, but rather than a wa­ter jug or an­other house­hold ob­ject, what emerges is the shoul­der of a huge clay fig­ure. Yang has no idea that he has just made one of the 20th cen­tury’s great­est ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dis­cov­er­ies: the le­gendary terra- cotta war­riors of China’s first em­peror, Qin Shi Huang…

Ac­cord­ing to his­to­ri­ans, the em­peror had started mak­ing ar­range­ments to con­struct his mau­soleum shortly af­ter his as­cen­sion to the throne in 221 BC— at age 13: 700,000 forced la­bor­ers spent 30 years dig­ging trenches and build­ing mounds. In the end, the grave com­plex cov­ered over 35 square miles— which is about the size of the is­land of Man­hat­tan. Why go to all this trou­ble? Qin Shi Huang wanted to take his en­tire empire with him into the un­der­world, and so he was buried with model palaces, horses, char­i­ots, and clay fig­ures. “It’s the ideal gov­ern­ment un­der the ground,” says Duan Qingbo, head of the ex­ca­va­tion at the site. For fear of the dan­gers that lurked in the abode of the dead, the em­peror would be es­corted to the here­after by an armed mil­i­tary con­tin­gent of 7,300 life-size terra- cotta war­riors. “He wanted to have an army in the af­ter­life as well to pro­tect his spirit and grave against all the sol­diers he had killed,” ex­plains his­to­rian Robin Yates. Huge parts of the com­plex are as yet un­ex­ca­vated; even the em­peror’s tomb has yet to be opened—af­ter all, with­out suit­able con­ser­va­tion mea­sures, ex­po­sure to fresh air would turn its valu­able trea­sures to dust.

The em­peror wanted to have an army in the af­ter­life as well to pro­tect his spirit and grave against those he had killed.

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