teotihuacan: urbanism gone wild
(my main source for writing this)
When the Spanish arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan (home of Motecuhzoma, largest of the three cities that formed the Nahuatl speaking Triple Alliance or Aztec Empire), they were absolutely floored. It was one of the largest cities on the planet in 1521 with 200,000 to 250,000 inhabitants, and so outside of anything that the Spanish were used to that dipshit conquistador extraordinare Bernal Díaz del Castillo wrote “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said that it was like the enchantments (…) on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? (…) I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.” So, thanks for that verisimilitude, Bernal.
Even more mind-boggling, the Nahuas of central Mexico felt Johnny-Come-Lately to the entire ‘colossal city’ thing, and pointed the Spanish to to a ruined city they called Teotihuacan or ‘place of the god-road havers’ and glossed as ‘birthplace of the gods’. The Nahuas attributed its founding to the toltecatzin, for which historians spent a long time searching before realizing it meant ‘master artisan’ rather than signifying an ethnicity. A visual stimulus is probably the most visceral introduction to ‘why you should care’ if you’re not keen on urban studies or archaeology to start with, so have some pictures:
use google earth e’erday
(down the avenue of the dead, looking from the pyramid of the moon. at left is the pyramid of the sun, second largest precolumbian structure in the americas!)
(pyramid of the moon as seen from the pyramid of the sun)
extra bonus – short video clips of famous features (courtesy of Saburo Sugiyama, one of the chief archaeologists working there today):
Around 200 BCE, there were several competing urban polities in the Basin of Mexico (Nahuatl: Anahuac) that had developed at strategic nodes along trade pathways. Cuicuilco (yellow pin left) had been chugging along for over 500 years at this point, situated at the southwest corner of Lake Texcoco to lock down the routes between Oaxaca, Veracruz, and the Basin. Teotihuacan (yellow pin right) likely developed as a node for the distribution of Pachuca obsidian – volcanic glass was the swiss army knife of the ancient americas, and Pachuca, in the modern state of Higaldo, had both enormous quantities of high grade stone and a distinctive greenish-gold color. Both cities had approximately 20,000 residents at this point as well as numerous dependent communities in their hinterlands. Both Cuicuilco and Teotihuacan functioned as primarily as economic and religious centers for the surrounding regions, and Cuicuilco was top dog in the respect – there were a lot more villages to minister in the south of the basin in the north, arguably either because of the trade routes that Cuicuilco sat on or the available water for irrigation.
(basin of mexico, from the southeast: delightfully stable temperatures, access to fresh water, and level, fertile ground for croppin’. Not pictured: Lake Texcoco, currently under Mexico City.)
After 150 BCE, however, Teotihuacan goes into beast mode – the population more than doubles by 1 CE, and many other sites in the Basin are depopulated simultaneously. This immigration has been predicated on several factors: the older generation of ecological archaeologists dregged up Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis. The theory goes that because the northern part of the Basin was drier, canal irrigation is a must to increase carrying capacity. Canal irrigation requires both labor and organization, so successive generations of Teotihuacano rulers became increasingly more despotic and a positive food production feedback loop both attracted and necessitated larger populations. Other scholars argue for the industrial production of Pachuca obsidian for export – it shows up everywhere in Mesoamerica, and has particular associations with elite households, either because of it’s distinctive color or its association with the city. Still others argue that Teotihuacan experimented with its religious structure – some of the major pyamids got their start in this period*. Finally, there’s the convenient coincidence that Cuicuilco was destroyed by a nearby volcano at some point between 50 and 200 CE – part of the population swell may be explained by refugees.
*pyramids in mesoamerica, by contrast to some other traditions, were accretionary. several stages of construction would modify an original, usually more modest structure, into later, gargantuan behemoths. however, this process was generationally ad-hoc – each earlier stage of construction was functional as a religious/civic building and ‘final’ from the perspective of the people of that generation.
Between 1 and 150 CE, the population reaches 70,000, and the city becomes more than just large. Most of the major structures are started during this period, and the city is laid out on an axis of ‘Teotihucan north’ (15 deg 25′ East of North) – see the Avenue of the Dead to get an idea of what this looks like on the grand scale. Sugiyama also argues that the city is based on a standardized system of measurement – ~83 cm, and that the dimensions of all the major temples, palaces, and pyramids can be understood as multiples of this figure. He tried to explain it to me in person once and… maybe?
(this is the fullest extent of the city, in 600 CE, but many of the major features and the overall organization were already present by 200 CE)[this is the Rene Millon map if you want to find a larger copy to peer over]
There are two fun, confusing features about this era: the ciudadela and apartment complexes.Governance in Mesoamerica was a religious institution, and much hullabaloo has been made about charismatic performance on top of those huge freaking pyramids and in those large freaking plazas. Human sacrifice was a spectator sport in many senses, and things like dances, oration, and markets all brought people together in these places under a sacred calendar. So, the story goes, part of Teotihuacan’s ascendance was it’s whizz-bang approach to charismatic religious performance. The ciudadela, a huge (like 1km^2) and enclosed compound containing the temple of the feathered serpent, a plaza, and a few palaces. This seems to be a change in the procedure – the walls and living spaces indicate that this was a space closed to the public except perhaps during regimented events. Based on this evidence, the elites at Teotihuacan are emphasizing their personal and exclusive connection to the divine and becoming increasingly disconnected from the populace at large.
(model of the ciuadela)
(facade of the temple of the feathered serpent, alternating serpent and goggle-eyed reptile masks have been argued to show alternating wet/dry seasons and also the harvest/war seasons [cant kill when you need to get your tortilla on] but there is reams of debate over particularities. The goggles are important and will show up later)
On the other hand, the apartment complexes might tell a different story.These homogenous, consolidated domestic structures were unique in Mesoamerican history and one of the reasons that Teotihuacan is so freaking weird from the perspective of other Mexican urban centers. More than 2,000 of them were built, each compound consisting of a number of structures around a plaza and local temple and housing between 60-100 individuals. The apartment compounds appear to have regional associations – Nahua, Maya, Mixtec, Zapotec, Otomi, and Totonac neighborhood have been identified based on frequencies of imported artifacts from ‘home regions’ and in some cases osteological studies. The apartment compounds also appear to have been cottage industries for ceramic, textile, and obsidian production and processing. The possibly linguistically homogenous inhabitants, private civic and religious architecture, and specialized production look to me like lil’ company towns.
The apartments and palaces are also rather famous for being painted to shit and back:
Two things stand out here. The first is that there does seem to be a system of writing, going by the definitions and examples of other Mesoamerican systems [this is an effort post all to itself]. The second is that this system of writing does not seem to function the way it does in other Mesoamerican civilizations – no named rulers, no portraiture, no dates of accession or toponyms for conquests (maybe).
In fact, other than the architecture, rulers as individuals are conspicuously absent from Teotihuacano visual design. The regularized figures we do see appear to be more indicative of offices and stations. Some have suggest that this indicates a council based government and an egalitarian (within class lines – it seems most likely that Teotihuacan, like every other Mesoamerican civilization, had an ontological distinction between noble and commoner) ethos. Tensions between charismatic, individualized concentrations of power and corporate power are a major theme in understanding Mesoamerican governance.
Teotihuacan was popular at home and abroad – artifacts from Teotihuacan, rulers in other places dressed in Teotihuacano garb, and Pachuca obsidian all over the place indicate that Teotihuacano things, if not necessarily political control, were getting around. Particularly in the Maya area, there is a huge debate over the amount of Teotihuacaness present – are the rulers just gussying up like this to impress the locals with exoticness, or are they actually sending their children to be tutored in the big city? This is also another separate effortpost!
Yax Kuk Mo’, founder of Copán’s dynasty in Honduras, wearing them Teotihuacano goggles.
What is ‘influence’ you say? Fantastic question!
Teotihuacan’s population peaks at somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 around 500-600 CE (although more recent studies hint at pushing that number higher), making it in the 5 largest cities in the world at the time. In 650 CE, the ceremonial center surrounding the avenue of the dead is torched, and specific violence seems to be done to structures implicated in the religious-governance complex that had organized the city for over 400 years. Earlier theories saw this as invasion by another group, likely Nahua speakers from the north, but more careful study posits an internal revolt targeting the elite class. The previous century is also paleoclimactically very dry, and many people point to long-term famine as undermining the efficacy of the theocracy. The city was never really abandoned, although it became more regular in terms of its urban form. It remained a legendary past for later peoples and a pilgrimage site – the Mexica even excavated there to find artifacts for dedicating their own temples.
Teotihuacan represented a radical experiment in urbanization in the Americas, both in terms of size and organization, and not until Tenochtitlan in the 15th and 16th centuries was there anything remotely close. Any particular theme touched on here (the ecology, architectural programs, governance structure, multiethnic population) is relevant to the study of other ancient and modern urban centers, and one of the values I find in archaeology is comparative data for understanding contemporary issues.