The 7 Gateways to the Underworld
MYSTICAL PLACES SPECIAL
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.