Under an Easter Ritual, an Ancient Pyramid ; the 1,500-Year-Old Structure Is a Major Find, but Unearthing It Could Disrupt a Catholic Ceremony

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Taking small steps, archaeologist Jesus Sanchez points out hand- carved rocks jutting out from a hill overlooking Mexico City's crowded, working-class neighborhood of Iztapalapa. "Look at this one, and then this one," he says, singling out volcanic rock from angular stone. "Do you see how the stones form a line? That's one of the pyramid's three levels."

What Mr. Sanchez is tracing is a newly discovered, 1,500-year- old pyramid built by the Teotihuacan culture, which also constructed the famous pyramids about an hour's drive northeast of the city. The base is the size of Teotihuacan's huge Pyramid of the Moon, about 500-feet wide, and the whole structure is about 60-feet tall.

The discovery has archeology circles abuzz. "It's a fantastic find," says archeologist and Teotihuacan expert George Cowgill of Arizona State University in Tempe. "It's no exaggeration - not hype at all - to say that this rewrites our picture of the whole Teotihuacan era."

One catch: The major archeological find may never see daylight.

Every year, the hill covering the pyramid attracts more than a million pilgrims on Good Friday to watch a theatric re-enactment of the crucifixion of Christ.

The pyramid's discovery has excited residents, but also raised a dilemma over how to accommodate two of Mexico's most important cultural traditions without trampling on either of them, nor on the poor squatters and small businessmen who live and work around the site.

Pre-Hispanic researchers have faced similar struggles in Mexico, when their projects clash with sites of Catholic importance. Notably, archeologists have yet to fully excavate the Aztec's holiest temple because Mexico City's colonial-era cathedral sits on top of it. Yet they did convince the government to clear away several buildings to allow for digging. It's unclear how much pull archeologists will have with their latest claim.

"In no way do we think our find should be valued more than the Holy Week traditions," says Myriam Advincula, one of the site's lead archeologists. "But we also feel an urgency to restore and protect the area."

The bloody, lifelike Good Friday tradition, which involves an actor portraying Christ hanged from a hilltop cross, dates back to the 1830s and began when locals expressed gratitude for the end to the plague. It is one of Latin America's best-known Holy Week rituals. For years, Catholics attending the event were unaware that the newer tradition took place over a Teotihuacan ritual site.

Those in charge of the Passion of Christ production greet the pyramid as cultural patrimony that unites Mexico's past and present.

"We must now agree on whether we should put limits on a Catholic ritual," says Roberto Guillen, head of the re-enactment event. …