Archaeologists have discovered four flower bouquets in the pre-Hispanic city of Teotihuacán, located just northeast of present-day Mexico City. Dated to between roughly 1 and 200 C.E., the blossoms were uncovered in a tunnel beneath a pyramid dedicated to the feathered serpent deity Quetzalcóatl.

As Javier Salinas Cesáreo reports for Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the find marks the first discovery of well-preserved plant matter in the city’s ruins. Next, the team plans to investigate what kinds of flowers are represented and when they were collected.

“In total there are four bouquets of flowers in very good condition. They are still tied with ropes, probably cotton,” Sergio Gómez-Chávez, director of the Tlalocan Project, an international effort led by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), tells La Jornada, per Google Translate. “This is a very important find because it speaks [to] the rituals that were carried out in this place.”

Gómez-Chávez and his colleagues were exploring the tunnel earlier this month when they realized that it continued further than they’d expected. Per Live Science’s Owen Jarus, the newly discovered space also held a sculpture of the rain and fertility god Tlaloc, as well as many pieces of pottery.

The bouquets, which each contain between 40 to 60 flowers, appear to have been part of a ceremony involving a large bonfire. Gómez-Chávez tells Live Science that people probably laid the bundles of flowers on the ground and covered them with large quantities of wood, shielding the blooms from the blaze.

Temple tunnel
The tunnel runs below the pyramid, extending further than archaeologists originally thought. (Sergio Gómez-Chávez / INAH)

Eight centuries before the rise of the Aztec Empire, Teotihuacán was one of the largest cities in the world, reaching a population of 125,000 to 200,000 by around 500 C.E., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The city was an important pre-Hispanic power, carrying out trade with distant parts of Mesoamerica and exerting cultural influence across the region.

Teotihuacán maintained alternatively hostile and friendly relationships with neighboring Maya cities. As Matthew Shaer reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2016, a fire, possibly set by an enemy army, razed much of the city in 550, and by 750, it had been all but abandoned. Today, the city’s ruins are a Unesco World Heritage site, with the Temple of Quetzalcoatl surviving as one of its most impressive features, along with the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon.

The tunnel where the new finds were made was discovered in 2003 after a rainstorm opened a sinkhole near the temple. Since then, researchers have found thousands of artifacts at the site, including cocoa beans, obsidian and animal remains. As Paul Laity reported for the Guardian in 2017, the team also discovered a miniature landscape with tiny mountains and lakes made of liquid mercury. The tunnel’s walls were decorated with pyrite, or fool’s gold, which reflected firelight to create the illusion of a sky dotted with stars.

Gómez-Chávez tells La Jornada that the Tlalocan Project’s work over the years has helped researchers learn about the worldview and ritual activities of the Teotihuacán people.

He says, “[E]ach find adds one more grain of sand to the knowledge of one of the most important and complex societies that existed in ancient times.”