Dr. SkySkull in Mexico: The Great Pyramid of Cholula

A couple of weeks ago, as a part of the SPIE Visiting Lecturer program, I went and gave three talks at the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) in Cholula, Mexico. I had a great time, the Institute is lovely, and my hosts were wonderfully hospitable (if you’re reading this: thanks again!).

Life has been rather hectic and stressful lately, and I didn’t have time to research my destination before I got there. Imagine my surprise, then, when I found that I was staying only a block away from an ancient pyramid! Not only that, but I was staying only a block away from the largest pyramid in the world!

The Great Pyramid of Cholula.

I was kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard of this pyramid before (or had forgotten about it, due to age), considering I am very much a huge fan of ancient history and ancient pyramids.  The Great Pyramid of Cholula is, remarkably, relatively unknown for an archaeological site of such significance; hopefully this blog post will partly change that.

It doesn’t look very big in that first photo, does it?  Well, that’s because you’re only looking at a small excavated and renovated section of the pyramid.  Most of the pyramid is overgrown and looks, to any casual observation, like a natural hill!  Here’s another view to give a better perspective, so you can see the church waaaaaay at the top.

It is a very large pyramid.

I visited the pyramid twice on my stay. The afternoon I arrived, I took a few photos at the base and then walked to the top.  On my last full day in Cholula, I got up early and paid to go enter the archaeological park before my talks for the day.

It is quite a hike to the top, and a truly massive pyramid.  It is only 180 feet high, but the original base was 1,480 feet by 1,480 feet.  It isn’t the tallest pyramid in the world, but it has the largest volume: 4.45 million cubic meters, easily beating the Great Pyramid of Giza, with its volume of 2.5 million cubic meters.

Me at the pyramid top, trying not to have a heart attack because I was stubborn and refused to stop for a rest until I reached the peak.

A few words about the history of the pyramid are, of course, in order here.  The pyramid was built over the course of about a thousand years, starting in 300 B.C.E. and continuing until 900 C.E. It was dedicated to the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, one of the coolest deities ever. It was built over several stages during the course of its existence, with new layers being built over or overlapping with the older structures.  At the end of its active period, the pyramid was replaced in importance by a newer temple, and the structure became overgrown and/or buried — I haven’t been able to find a good explanation of how such a massive artificial structure could basically get covered so thoroughly.  When the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, they demolished most of the existing cultural monuments, but overlooked the Great Pyramid, simply because it looked like a hill at that point!  The site still had lingering religious significance, however, so the Spanish built the Our Lady of Remedies Church at its peak between 1574 and 1575.

Our Lady of Remedies.

A view from the stairs.

The first investigation of the pyramid was undertaken by the Swiss archaeologist Adolph Bandelier in 1881, though he only took measurements and excavated burial sites around the structure. The first major excavation of the pyramid itself started in 1931, under the supervision of the architect Ignacio Marquina, though the actual exploratory tunnels were dug under the guidance of the site guardian Marino Gómez.  In the end, about 8 kilometers of tunnels were dug through the site; it is in these tunnels that the official paid visit to the site begins.

Beginning of the tunnels.

The experience is fascinating, albeit claustrophobic. Once alone in the narrow tunnels, with no entrance or exit in sight, one starts to wonder what would happen if an earthquake struck.  At many of the intersections, you can see where the tunnels wend up or down.


One only passes through about 800 meters of tunnel, which is fine, because any artifacts of interest were long removed for study. But once through the tunnels, you get access to the most significant exterior excavations.

Right outside, you encounter the other “modern” artifact on the grounds, a chapel: El Posito De Los Deseos, Virgen De Los Remedios.

Top of El Posito De Los Deseos, Virgen De Los Remedios.

The ancient site is complex, with multiple buildings that were built, as I said, over multiple centuries.  I won’t try to label everything that I saw — I had to rush through the site because I was on a schedule — but will simply share photos.

The most spectacular view on the archaeological site is the Courtyard of Altars, so named for multiple altars that were excavated around it.

Me in the Courtyard of Altars.

There’s a fun acoustic effect in the courtyard. If you clap from an area near the center, the echo that comes back to you sounds very much like a duck quacking. I wouldn’t have known this except for the tour guide demonstrating it to his clients while I was walking by.

Panorama of the Courtyard.

One unusual altar in the courtyard is the Mexica Altar, which was built between 800 and 900 C.E. by the Mexica people who had moved into the region.  The altar, when found, contained the remains of two people — and others bodies were found buried around it.

The Mexica Altar.

The further along I progressed, the newer the construction I encountered.  Building F (or Building 7, locally), built sometime around 450 C.E., was in very good condition with lovely stonework, and was the location that I had first seen from the outside of the park.

Building F.

The building looks so good in part because it was heavily reconstructed using modern materials!  To the right in the above image you can see what looks like some of the original construction.  Supposedly there are carvings of snails and skulls on the original construction, albeit highly worn and nearly unrecognizable.  I’m not sure, but I may have inadvertently taken a photo of a skull in the following artsy photo.

In the upper left quadrant, on a dark row of stones is a light patch that looks a little like a skull? Maybe?

Because I can’t help myself, I walked to the top of Building F, which is a very precarious climb, because the steps are worn, jagged, and very steep.

“…and one more for the insurance company.”

It is a low-key archaeological site, but well-worth visiting.  I found my visit to be a delight, and my stay in Cholula was incredibly fun.

And they have good local wine, too! I got a complimentary bottle of the following wine, which was like an alcoholic grape soda, and now I wish that I had bought a few bottles to take home with me.

Anyway, I hope to go back to Cholula again soon, both for work and for the sights! I would love to spend more time at the Great Pyramid.

Panorama of Building F.

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1 Response to Dr. SkySkull in Mexico: The Great Pyramid of Cholula

  1. kaleberg says:

    It’s always wonderful when you find something great and unexpected on a business trip. I always used to poke around and explore when I traveled for work. You hit gold.

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