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Explore the World Through a Geologist's Eyes

Updated: Dec 31, 2020

Just 56 km (35 mi) south of the city of Zacatecas is the large, impressive archaeological site referred to as La Quemada. I discovered this site by chance while I was working in central Mexico and was completely blown away by this not so frequently visited complex. Below is a look into what you will expect to find when you arrive there and a little background information to give you a more enjoyable visit.

Why so Significant?

Uniquely situated on a hillside, this archaeological site is believed to have been occupied between 500 to 900 AD, although evidence suggest that the site may have been occupied at an earlier date. The largest lingering question is: who resided here? Some scholars have suggested that it may be a Teotihuacan enclave, a Toltec emporium, a Tarascan bastion, the Chicomoztoc of the Aztec legends or a Caxcan center. If you’re unfamiliar with some of names, here’s a brief summary of who and what they are:

· Teotihuacan- An ancient Mesoamerican city 40 km NW of modern Mexico City. This site predates the Aztecs, may have been multiethnic.

· Toltec culture- They are a pre-Colombian Mesoamerican culture that ruled a state centered in Tula, Hidalgo, Mexico in around 900-1150 A.D. They were known for having fierce warriors who were organized into orders representing animals and gods. Many Aztec rulers are believed to have revered the Toltecs, claiming descendancy from their royal line and adopting aspects of their culture (Minister, C. 2019).

· Tarascan civilization- A large empire that covered 75,000 km2 (~46,600 mi2), roughly occupying the modern state of Michoacán and parts of Jalisco and Guanajuato. Their administrative, commercial and religious center of the empire was at Tzintzúntzan, which contained a population of 35,000 by 1522 CE. Historically, they are known to have been in conflict with the Aztecs, however there is some evidence that they may have also traded amongst each other (Cartwright, M. 2013).

Chicomoztoc - This is the mythical place of origin for the Aztecs and other ethnically and/or linguistically similar groups. In the stories of the Nahuatl-speaking people it is represented by having seven caves, where each cave held one of seven groups of the Nahua people (Chicomoztoc: The Place of the Seven Caves. (2017).

·Caxcan - A partly nomadic indigenous group that occupied central Mexico who participated in both the Chichimeca War (1550–1590) and the Mixtón Rebellion (1540–1542).

Regardless of who occupied it, the complex was ultimately the burnt and abandoned and what we see today is what remained. La Quemada even translate to “The Burned”.

What to Expect to See There

Beyond the mysterious origin and grand scale of this site there are plenty of exciting things to see. Below I’ll describe someone of the more interesting areas and give you some archaeological/historical context.

Salón de las Columnas- This is the largest structure at La Quemada (41 by 30 m). What remains today are 12 columns which are believed to be roof supports. During the fire the roof collapsed on to the floor, leaving baked clay fragments that rest on top of carbonized debris of beams. Radiocarbon dates taken from these beams suggest that the construction took place between 600-750 AD. A discovery of human bone fragments in the interior area of the northeast corner of the Hall suggest a ritual use, possible in relation to human sacrifice.

Juego de Pelota- This ball court is a common architectural element of Mesoamerican sites. Frequently, religious functions have been attributed to the game, possibly being in association with the solar cycle, human sacrifice and fertility cults. This particular court is 70 m long and contain numerous floors of polished clay. Human burials have also been discovered beneath the floors. Given its position in the core of the site archaeologists believe it represented and important element related to ceremonial activities.

La Piramide Votiva- This highly identifiable pyramid used to be covered on all four sides by masonry wall cover. The southern face contains a stairway that ascends to the top of the structure, where a small temple or alter is believed to have existed. This pyramid is believed to be the main temple at La Quemada.

Patio Circular (Conjunto piramide)- An architectural complex with a small pyrmind built on a platfor which is integrated into the side of the mountain and a circular pit that is surrounded by a semi-circular patio wall. It is believed to have been constructed during the middle of the 7th century. Skeletal remains of ~250 individuals were discovered at the foot of the pyramid, believed to have been placed there on the eve of the sites abandonment. Some skulls show perforations that indicate they were hung prior to deposition and other bones contain cut marks. On the top of the pyramid, a small shrine was found built with skulls, jawbones and longer bones mixed with adobe. This particular section of the site was not covered over by later constructions, which archaeologists believe that it may indicate that an important ritual was performed here.

El Cuertel- possible living quarters? Originally thought to be a barracks.

Ancient roadway through the Valle de Malpaso- Roadways composed of stone and clay built between 600 to 900 AD are believed to have connected to other villages (up to 200 smaller sites (hamlets and ranches) where the majority of the population lived. More than 170 km of roadways have been discovered.

La Ciudadela (the Citadel)- This is one of the latest architectural structures built at the site, with only a brief occupation between the 8th and 9th centuries. It consists of a group of rooms (northwest) and a pyramid (northeast) around a square court and central altar. The large room and its elongated anteroom contained a solid roof with wooden posts, where the smaller temple (discovered at the top of the pyramid) was built of perishable material. Both of these buildings have been destroyed by the fire. A human burial was identified in the fill of the pyramid with a votive offering, believed to have been used in the inauguration of the sanctuary. This consists of a polychrome bowl, four cups and a mosaic of turquoise, pyrite and obsidian. The potential ceremonial application of the region is also suggested by the astronomical orientation of the main axis, which is determined by the centers of the altar and pyramid and runs through the solstice line.

How to Get There

Taking the federal highway 54 Zacatecas-Guadalajara, heading towards Villanueva, this archaeological site can be found 56 kilometers south of the city of Zacatecas.


Cartwright, M. (2013, December 11). Tarascan Civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicomoztoc: The Place of the Seven Caves. (2017, July 28). Retrieved from

Minster, C. (2019). 10 Facts About the Ancient Toltecs. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from

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Tucked away in the Alps are some truly special features that are not particularly common around the world: ice caves. These are often overshadowed by the gigantic peaks of the alps and the endless amount of outdoor activities you can do around them. But since I have a mini obsession with all thing’s “ice” related, when I was traveling through Austria, I knew I had to check them out. On this trip I traveled to two ice caves: Eisriesenwelt and Dachstein Giant Ice Cave.

So, what is an ice cave?

First of all, it is important to note that an ice cave, while filled with ice, is different from a glacier cave.

To understand the difference, it may be important to go back to the fundamentals of what a cave is. Cave’s are typically formed in limestone (CaCO3) or some other calcareous rock (such as Dolomite; CaMg(CO3)2). In very simple terms, rainwater picks up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and percolates into soil when it rains. This turns the water into a weak acid, which can dissolve limestone along a rock’s bedding planes or structural weaknesses (e.g. fractures or joints). Over time channels and chambers dissolve out of the limestone and form caves.

An ice cave forms when water and/or ice encroaches into the cave and freezes in the winter season. Assuming there is no major summer melt, ice can continuously build up inside of the cave, turning it into an ice filled cave (i.e. an ice cave). Technically this ice can help build passages through erosive forces, although it’s likely that acidic water led to the formation of many of the caves along the alps.

In contrast, a glacier cave is a temporary cave that forms from meltwater inside of a glacier. This is a very natural phenomenon that transport water laterally and/or vertically on a glacier. But this is not what we are discussing here! I will have a separate post about these.

Visiting Eisriesenwelt and Dachstein Giant Ice Cave

Eisriesenwelt is the largest ice cave in the world, although only the first km of the 42 km long cave is covered in ice. Unfortunately, when I went in 2012 photographs were not allowed inside the cave, but I can tell you from my personal experience, the trip was well worth the visit. I organized a trip with a tourism company which took us near the entrance. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) the entrance requires you to walk along the mountain side to reach the cave, which can reward you with some great views of the countryside. Although I really do enjoy going spelunking (or on a “proper” caving trip) this was a bit touristy, but still, it isn’t every day you can experience something like this, so I was more than willing to go the more traditional cave viewing route!

Dachstein Giant Ice Cave is nearby the town of Hallstatt, which is frequented by many tourists. You can take buses close to the cave and ride a cable car up to the entrance. I recall staying in a nearby village (Obertraun), walking to the base of the mountain and hiking up. Whatever you feel like I suppose! This was also something were there was an organized touristy caving experience where you’re taken around by a guide. Nonetheless, I still found it well worth my time.

View from the entrance of the cave.

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In southern Ohio, far removed from any city center, happens to be an archaeological site that few people know about. Here one can find Serpent Mound, the largest serpent effigy in the world.

Ok yes, my picture is not the nicest… but! Here it is in an aerial photo from someone else:

An aerial photograph of Serpent Mound (Photographed by Timothy E. Newark Earthworks Center.). Photo taken from Lepper et al., (2018).

As you can see in the above picture, the snake mound curves back and forth and has a coiled tail on one end while. The other end contains a head with an open mouth that appears to be trying to eat something round.

The snake mound is primarily composed of clay and ash, reinforced by rocks and is covered in soil. It is clear that this mound has been created by Native Americans, however there is still no consensus as to who build it. The two leading theories are that it was either constructed by the Adena culture (800 B.C.–A.D. 100) or the Fort Ancient culture (A.D. 1000–1650). Three burial mounds associated with these cultures were found nearby (two from the former and one from the latter), which have led some to speculate about this (Ohio History Connection, 2020)

There is, however, an abundance of serpent imagery in the Fort Ancient culture (and the Mississippian Ideological Interaction Sphere), and a lack of them in the Adena, which has lead some authors to suggest that it is a Fort Ancient origin is much more likely (Lepper, 2018; Lepper et al., 2018).

Nonetheless, it is a rather interesting structure. I certainly recommend adding a visit to this site if you happen to be road tripping across the US or are an archaeology nerd like me.

How to visit:

3850 Ohio 73, Peebles, in Adams County, near Cincinnati.


Lepper, Bradley T. (2018) On the Age of Serpent Mound: A Reply to Romain and Colleagues. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 43:62–75.

Lepper, BT, Duncan, JR, Diaz-Granádos, C., & Frolle, TA (2018). Arguments for the age of serpent mound. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 28 (3), 433-450. doi: http: //

Ohio History Connection (2020). “Serpent Mound”.

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