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date: 07 August 2020


  • Trenton Barnes

Updated in this version

updated and revised

Pre-Columbian site in the Mexican Central Highlands. It was the region’s pre-eminent city during the Late Preclassic and Classic periods (c. 250 bcec. 900 CE).The ruins of Teotihuacan lie 42 km to the northeast of modern day Mexico City and cover an area of approximately 20 sq km, making the city spatially the largest urban development constructed in the Americas prior to European contact. This urban polity thrived between approximately 100 BCE and 600 CE and supported a population of 100,000–200,000 individuals at its apex c. 450 CE. Popular knowledge of Teotihuacan centers on its three primary monuments, the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, and Temple of the Feathered Serpent, which number among the most architecturally significant in Mesoamerica for their large scale, richness of dedicatory offerings, and, in the case of the last of these monuments, intricate cut-stone sculptured facade. Teotihuacan evinces a system of city planning based on a strict grid that is oriented 15.5 degrees east of due north. This grid is atypical for Mesoamerican cities of the Classic Period (c. 250–900 CE).

Teotihuacan culture, art, and architecture had a large degree of influence throughout Mesoamerica both in its own time and for centuries to come—at least until the collapse of the Mexica Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. For these reasons, the significance and prestige of Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica may be likened to that of Rome or Beijing in their respective world regions. The city is also remarkable because a large proportion of its inhabitants lived in approximately 2200 non-ephemeral, stone-built residences, which are referred to as “apartment compounds” or “residential compounds,” though these terms fail to capture the range of activities that occurred in these structures. Archaeological evidence suggests that while many of these spaces served as residences inhabited on the basis of patrilineal affiliations, others were inhabited along the lines of societal divisions of labor. Thus, many such compounds were artistic workshops occupied by practitioners of the city’s diverse specialized arts and crafts.

Urban development in the Teotihuacan valley commenced in the 1st century BCE. At this time, Teotihuacan’s population numbered 10,000–20,000 individuals, approximately equal to that of Cuicuilco located to the southwest and two to four times larger than Tetimpa in the Puebla region. In the 1st century CE the population of the central Mexican highlands rapidly concentrated at Teotihuacan. It is estimated that between 60%–85% of the region’s population was relocated, though it is unknown if this relocation represents compulsory resettlement mandated by the Teotihuacan state or voluntary immigration prompted by an attractive ideology. These forces and others may have worked in tandem. Construction of the earliest phases of the Temple of the Moon and the city’s primary thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, was undertaken at this time. The Avenue of the Dead served as both a spatial and social artery for the city, for it became the primary directional referent with which all subsequent Teotihuacan space and architecture would be aligned. The 2nd and 3rd centuries CE witnessed the completion of the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. During the 4th and 5th centuries Teotihuacan erected 2200 or so apartment compounds while also undertaking a broad campaign of international expansion and diplomatic relations abroad. Strong evidence for Teotihuacan-backed military intervention has been uncovered at several of the most significant Maya city-states, including Kaminaljuyu, Copan, and Tikal, all located more than 1300 km away. The duration and precise nature of Teotihuacan intervention in Maya regions has been vigorously debated. It is increasingly accepted that Teotihuacan exerted imperial force abroad and engaged in both trade and tribute extraction in the Maya region. The city also had interactions with the Zapotec capital of Monte Alban in Oaxaca. This site was never colonized by Teotihuacan and Teotihuacan’s presence there seems to have been diplomatic in nature.

Because of Teotihuacan’s archaeological significance and close proximity to Mexico City, where lie the full resources of the Mexican federal government, the site has been the subject of numerous archaeological and art historical inquiries since the early decades of the 20th century. Despite this high volume of research much remains unknown about the city. By one estimate, a mere 5% of the city’s monuments have been properly excavated and only thirty or so residential compounds have been either fully or partially excavated. The ethnicity of the city’s primary inhabitants also remains elusive. However, Teotihuacan was highly cosmopolitan. Evidence for the coexistence of at least five languages, including Zapotec, Maya, and an ancestral version of Nahuatl, has been documented. The modern day name for the city is borrowed from the 16th-century Mexica Aztec term for the ruins. In Nahuatl the word Teotihuacan can be translated as “The Place Where Divinity Comes into Being” or “The Place of Those Who Have the Road (or Avenue) of the Gods.” What the city’s builders called their home remains unknown, though a widening body of evidence suggests “Teotihuacan” may have been original.

1. Architecture.

Teotihuacan’s most enduring cultural production was architecture and its associated arts and offerings. The Temple of the Moon, the earliest of the city’s major monuments, consists of seven superimposed levels of architectural accretion. Caches of dedicatory offerings, including human and animal sacrifices of carnivorous species such as wolves, pumas, eagles, and serpents have been excavated. The most important expansion was that of Building Four when the footprint of the monument was increased by 900%. Most notable of the human interments of the Temple of the Moon is that of three Maya elites, two of whom bore carved jade ornaments entirely foreign to Teotihuacan iconography that are associated with Maya rulership. The precise implications of this burial for Teotihuacan–Maya relations have yet to be determined. Osteological evidence and haphazard, violent body placement from the additional burials of this monument suggests that they were non-native sacrificial victims, likely war captives.

The Temple of the Sun was constructed between 170–310 CE and is the largest monument at the site. Nawa Sugiyama, Saburo Sugiyama, and Alejandro Sarabia G. have shown that the body of this monument was built in a single phase of construction. The Sun Temple sits atop an artificial four-lobed cave that has been likened to a womb or ancestral place of emergence by Doris Heyden and other art historians. This tunnel was looted before proper archaeological excavations were undertaken and the results from early explorations of the tunnel were stolen, never to be properly published. Leopold Batres uncovered a child sacrifice at the four corners of each of the stepped layers of the monument. The profile of the monument as seen today was previously believed to be inaccurate owing to erroneous reconstruction efforts by Batres in 1906. However, its contours in fact follow those of the Mountain Patlachique, which frames the monument when viewed from the Temple of the Moon.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent was roughly coterminous with the Temple of the Sun. It presents the most dramatic usage of the talud–tablero architectural profile in Mesoamerica. This profile, which consists of an overhanging tablero that sits atop an undercutting talud, is strongly associated with Teotihuacan, though it originated elsewhere at sites like Tetimpa in Puebla. The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is remarkable for its sculptured facade of as many as 400 large tenoned heads. The identification and meaning of these sculptures has been widely debated with little consensus. More than two hundred sacrificed individuals were interred beneath this monument prior to construction. These persons, both male and female, were native to Teotihuacan and their corpses were arranged in astronomically significant configurations corresponding to sacred Mesoamerican calendrical numerology. Many of the males wore Teotihuacan military regalia and were of combat age. Rich deposits of obsidian, mica, shells, and other adornments were also interred to comprise the single largest offertory deposit of the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, recent excavations led by Sergio Gomez Chaves uncovered a long tunnel that is in many ways similar to that found at the Temple of the Sun, though with undisturbed, exceptionally rich offerings. Research by Jullie Gazzola indicates the Ciudadela, which contains the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, may have served as a ballcourt and astronomical observatory.

2. Arts.

Mural painting is the most widely studied of the Teotihuacan arts. Arthur Miller, Esther Pasztory, Beatriz de la Fuente, María Teresa Urirarte, and Kathleen Berrin have offered compelling accounts of iconography, style, materials, and techniques. However, extant accounts have not fully considered the implications of painting’s relation to the built environment. Such consideration is important given that Teotihuacan murals were true frescoes, meaning that pigment was embedded into the material surface of walls and the paintings were fundamentally architectural.

Obsidian from the nearby Pachuca region was among Teotihuacan’s most important exports. Flint knapping was a critical industry and a large workshop for working obsidian has been uncovered adjacent to the Temple of the Moon. Ceramics of diverse scale, quality, and facture were broadly distributed both within the city and abroad. The most significant fine wares included “thin-orange” vessels and fresco-painted ceramics, both of which made appearances in foreign contexts. The latter type most notably appears in the grave of Copan’s Ruler 1, K’inich Yax K’uk’ Mo’. Teotihuacan incense burners, strongly associated with domestic ritual, are remarkable for their use of an assemblage technique that configured mold-made pieces manufactured near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.

The importance of stone sculpture for the city’s arts has of late received fuller acknowledgement. Leonardo López Luján and others have demonstrated that anthropomorphic representation in stone was of profound political consequence in the final days of the city. Three massive humanoid stone sculptures weighing several tons have been discovered. Two of these sculptures currently reside at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. The third sits on the Moon Pyramid Plaza in a battered condition. In 2012, archaeologists discovered a monumental volcanic stone brazier in the form of the Old Fire God, a volcano deity, atop the Temple of the Sun, providing a tantalizing clue to that structure’s meaning.

Standing figure, green schist, h. 16 1/8 in. (41 cm), 3rd–7th century (New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979, Accession ID: 1979.206.585); photo © The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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