A grand overview of the New World’s most recognizable but least understood ancient city—Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico—which proposes a new model for the city’s social and political structure.
Northeast of modern-day Mexico City stand the remnants of one of the world's largest preindustrial cities, Teotihuacan. Monumental in scale, Teotihuacan is organized along a three-mile-long thoroughfare, the Avenue of the Dead, that leads up to the massive Pyramid of the Moon. Lining the avenue are numerous plazas and temples, which indicate that the city once housed a large population that engaged in complex rituals and ceremonies. Although scholars have studied Teotihuacan for over a century, the precise nature of its religious and political life has remained unclear, in part because no one has yet deciphered the glyphs that may explain much about the city's organization and belief systems.
In this groundbreaking book, Annabeth Headrick analyzes Teotihuacan's art and architecture, in the light of archaeological data and Mesoamerican ethnography, to propose a new model for the city's social and political organization. Challenging the view that Teotihuacan was a peaceful city in which disparate groups united in an ideology of solidarity, Headrick instead identifies three social groups that competed for political power—rulers, kin-based groups led by influential lineage heads, and military orders that each had their own animal insignia. Her findings provide the most complete evidence to date that Teotihuacan had powerful rulers who allied with the military to maintain their authority in the face of challenges by the lineage heads. Headrick's analysis also underscores the importance of warfare in Teotihuacan society and clarifies significant aspects of its ritual life, including shamanism and an annual tree-raising ceremony that commemorated the Mesoamerican creation story.
- List of Illustrations
- Chapter 1. Approaching the City
- Chapter 2. The Invisible Kings
- Chapter 3. Ancestral Foundations
- Chapter 4. Animals, Cannibals, and the Military
- Chapter 5. A Marriage of Convenience: The King and the Military
- Chapter 6. The Gods Did It: The Divine Sanction of Power
- Chapter 7. Teotihuacan Jihad
- Chapter 8. Fiesta Teotihuacan Style
- Chapter 9. Continuities and Power
Whether it be A.D. 400 or today in the twenty-first century, the Avenue of the Dead profoundly overwhelms any visitor to the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan. In an almost indescribable manner this broad street orchestrates the space around it, incorporating the visitor into the careful integration of architecture and natural landscape (Figure 1.1). The avenue once stretched for three miles, a singularly long, straight route to the very heart of the city center. Large platforms, once capped by towering temples, still line the avenue, dwarfing the visitor and promoting a message of individual human insignificance. Yet it is not simply the scale that so influences the visitor, but the manner in which the design of the street seems to literally pull you forward, enticing you into the web of the city of Teotihuacan.
The avenue does this by capitalizing on the natural environment that surrounds the city. At the north end of the Teotihuacan Valley sits Cerro Gordo, an extinct volcano with a cleft at its summit. The massive mountain imposes itself upon the landscape, and those who designed Teotihuacan recognized this and incorporated its bulk into the city planning. They positioned the avenue on a north-south axis so that the street ran directly toward the colossal mountain. The preferred manner of entering Teotihuacan had to be from the south where the full splendor of the city stretched out before the visitor. As you walk up the avenue from the south, the dominant feeling is one of being drawn toward the mountain, for it looms in the distance like a treasured goal. The sensation is much like the experience of entering a medieval cathedral where the halo of stained glass behind the altar moves the visitor from the back of a dark, deep building toward the light at the other end. For the visitor walking up the avenue at Teotihuacan, the allure of Cerro Gordo is simply all powerful; it manipulates your actions and shapes your experience.
The Teotihuacanos further enhanced the effect of the natural landscape by artfully positioning their architecture. Directly in front of the mountain, they built the large Moon Pyramid, which echoes the shape of Cerro Gordo. If the singular bulk of Cerro Gordo were not enough to dictate its centrality, the pyramid serves as a not so subtle reminder. The attraction of the natural mountain and its manmade counterpart is additionally heightened by the surrounding architecture, which skillfully channels visitors onto a unidirectional path, making it seem as if there is only one route to pursue. As you walk from south to north, a series of architectural facades lines the northern half of the avenue, creating walls that effectively contain the visitor. Like the blinders on a racehorse, the architectural walls dictate a concerted focus on Cerro Gordo at the end of the avenue.
The sensation of containment is further amplified by the manner in which the Avenue of the Dead was built. Although the overall effect is of one long road stretching forward, in actual fact, a number of enclosed courtyards punctuate the street. Periodically as one walks up the avenue, a set of stairs blocks the route, forcing the traveler to climb up the stairs, cross over a moderately wide platform, and subsequently descend another set of stairs on the other side. The steps deposit the visitor into courtyards which sometimes have a large structure at their center, forcing one off a central path in order to circumnavigate it. Furthermore, these courtyards work in tandem with another feature of the avenue. The walk is not only a directional one, but a vertical climb as well. The southern section of the Avenue of the Dead is lower in elevation than the northern portion, which not only enhances the visual prominence of the Moon Pyramid and Cerro Gordo, but also means that the visitor constantly moves uphill. In concert with the courtyards, the effect is, for the modern visitor, somewhat like going through a set of locks, where each courtyard raises the pedestrian one more level. The walk up the avenue constantly takes one closer to more elevated and sacred ground.
Although the Moon Pyramid and the mountain of Cerro Gordo serve as the focal point of the walk, the architecture lining the Avenue of the Dead greatly contributes to the whole majestic effect. To the south one passes the imposing walls of the Ciudadela, an enclosed compound where the rulers of Teotihuacan may have lived (Figures 1.2, 1.4b). Smaller, yet still prominent temples once ringed the walls of the Ciudadela, and a broad, grand staircase led from the avenue to the inner compound, both serving as unmistakable markers of the structure's regal importance. Inside this compound is a vast plaza that may have been large enough to hold the entire adult population of Teotihuacan, and to the rear of the plaza is the stunning Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent (Cowgill 1983:322). Richly decorated with elaborately carved stone imagery that inspired its current name, the temple has domestic structures on either side that may have served as the royal habitation (Cabrera et al. 1989:52; Cowgill 1983, 1996:267, 1997:151-152; Pasztory 1993:50-51). Across the street was another immense enclosure called the Great Compound. Formed by two enormous low platforms, the unencumbered open space at its center may have been the location of the city's main market, a place where vendors could display their wares.
Progressing ever closer to the Moon Pyramid, one eventually arrives at another enclosed compound accessed by a set of grand stairs. Yet there is no surprise as to what lies beyond, for the massive volume of the city's largest pyramid, the Sun Pyramid, protrudes over walls that do little to contain it (Figure 1.3). In an interesting paradoxical twist, the Sun Pyramid may be the oldest site of religious pilgrimage at Teotihuacan, and its size certainly makes it one of the city's most prominent features; however, the Moon Pyramid's position on the avenue still designates it as the terminus of the journey. Although the Moon Pyramid is smaller, its integration with Cerro Gordo results in a visual arrangement that manages to de-emphasize even the massive Sun Pyramid.
While the larger structures initially capture one's attention, the splendor of the city did not rest solely with the main pyramids. The design of the street itself forcibly enters one's consciousness. Though broken in places, the walls lining the avenue have a continuous effect, directing but perhaps trapping the visitor at the same time. In a consistent manner, the walls were constructed in the distinctive Teotihuacan architectural style of talud-tablero (Figure 1.4). Comprised of a sloping element surmounted by a rectangular platform, the monotonous use of this architecture makes it instantly recognizable as Teotihuacano and constantly impresses the city's identity upon the visitor. Even as the high walls define the street, staircases on the east and west sides of the avenue frequently interrupt the architecture. Some of these stairs lead to the inner courtyards of palaces, while others lead to platforms that probably held temples of a modest size. Although the superstructures of these temples no longer survive, the quantity of temple platforms framing both sides of the street is dazzling. Thus it is not only the size of some temples that overwhelms the visitor, but also the sheer number of religious structures erected by the Teotihuacanos. The walk up the avenue may have once been like passing through a gauntlet of prestigious residences and their temples.
Ultimately, the walk up the avenue ends as the visitor enters a large plaza framing the crown jewel of the city, the Moon Pyramid. After moving up the long avenue, one feels the structure is finally within reach. The pyramid's soaring stairs serve as a focal point, remarkable in their steepness and ability to transport an individual to a supernatural plane. Like a set of enfolding arms, a series of mid-sized temples on stacked platforms once circled the rest of the plaza. The enclosed space is broken only by a large altar and another ritual structure, testament to the various ceremonies that must have taken place here. As in every public area at Teotihuacan, the feeling one has while standing in the Plaza of the Moon is that of being in an enormous space that is, nevertheless, enclosed.
The sense of vastness along the avenue must have been all the more potent before the rest of the city fell into ruin. Many of Teotihuacan's residents once lived in multiroomed structures that housed several families, referred to today as apartment compounds (Figure 1.5). Prior to A.D. 150, most of the construction at Teotihuacan concentrated on the grand pyramids along the main avenue, but during the end of the Miccaotli and the beginning of the Tlamimilolpa periods (A.D. 200-250) an era of urban renewal focusing on domestic architecture swept through the city (Figure 1.6). The domestic building campaign accelerated during the following period (Tlamimilolpa period, A.D. 225-350), when many of the approximately 2,000 apartment compounds were built (Cowgill 1997:155, 2003a:41). These residential structures are roughly rectangular or square and had high windowless walls around their perimeters (Manzanilla 1993b:92; R. Millon 1993:19). A grid of narrow streets separated each compound, some with a walkway that may have served as an elevated sidewalk or bench above the contaminating drainage on the street. Entrance to the compounds could be restricted by one grand door leading to an atrium or reception space, while other compounds had several doors with a more functional and less ostentatious flavor.
The compounds were only one-story high, but inside was a maze of rooms and patios where much of Teotihuacan's population slept, cooked, and went about their daily activities. Individual apartments within the compounds generally consist of several rooms fronted by porticos that surround a central patio (Cowgill 2003a:41). Larger apartments may also have a cluster of additional rooms and smaller patios, and the various arrangements suggest that compounds sheltered two or more households. Smaller apartment compounds may have held 12 to 20 people, and larger ones 60 to 100 individuals. Thus, at its height, Teotihuacan may have had a population of roughly 125,000. Surroundings could be quite lavish, with lime-plastered walls and murals covering almost every surface, or modest homes whose residents resorted to painting on mud-plastered walls. The numerous patios served a vital role, for above them the roof was pierced so that sunlight and air could circulate through the otherwise sealed structure. The light in these areas must have made them prime locations for working. The open roofs naturally let in rain as well, but the Teotihuacanos diverted the water by constructing shallow basins in the middle of the floor. Even though these basins look much like the impluviums in ancient Roman households, the Teotihuacan versions did not hold standing water. Holes drilled in the basins led to impressive drain networks in the apartment compound substructures. In this ingenious manner, Teotihuacanos channeled all of the rainfall out of the structures and into the street.
In each apartment compound, one patio is larger and more architecturally elaborate. Commonly called ritual or principal patios, these patios generally have three (but at least one) larger and more elaborate structures that face onto the open area. A small altar, frequently styled to look like a miniature temple, often sits in the center of the patio. Though it is clear that residents used these patios for ritual events, many mundane activities also must have occurred within these spaces (Cowgill 2003a:45). The less restrictive space, better lighting, and comforting breezes on a stifling day would have made the principal patio a choice location for food preparation or craft production whenever the gods had not commandeered the space for themselves.
As an architectural unit, the apartment compounds combine impenetrable outer walls with pleasant open patios to address the discomforts of urban dwelling. The walls would have limited human access and softened the cacophony of sound common to city life (Manzanilla 1993b:92; R. Millon 1993). Concentrating a great number of people within the city boundaries while still providing a measure of privacy was one of the great innovations of Teotihuacan housing. Not coincidentally, during the period of apartment compound construction, there was a simultaneous increase in obsidian working at Teotihuacan and the appearance of the Teotihuacan state outside the Valley of Mexico. This suggests that the manufacture and trade of obsidian were at least partially responsible for an increased population, which stimulated the need for the apartment compounds (R. Millon 1981:209). As René Millon (1976:215) described Teotihuacan of the Tlamimilolpa phase (A.D. 225-350),
. . . the Teotihuacan apartment compound seems to have been designed for urban life, for life in a city that was becoming increasingly crowded, perhaps approaching the chaotic, as obsidian working and other crafts grew more and more rapidly, and as more people came into the city.
Modern-day experiences of living in an urban setting offer insight into the realities of life at Teotihuacan. Perhaps from continuity and not chance, houses in the Central Highlands today have some characteristics reminiscent of the Teotihuacan apartment compound. Houses in Mexico City and the modern towns ringing ancient Teotihuacan are insulated by high walls, and behind the locked gates, gardens and a variety of structures provide for the needs of the family as well as separating them from the commotion outside. Paralleling other great cities, Teotihuacan attracted a cosmopolitan population, in this case from all over Mesoamerica. The privacy of apartment compounds would have helped to defuse the tensions resulting from the mixing of peoples with diverse cultural traditions. Teotihuacanos could freely interact and conduct their business in the large public spaces of the ceremonial center, but they could get respite from this mass of humanity within the sheltered environment of the apartment compound.
The apartment compounds along both sides of the avenue contained a dense population, and the small streets winding through these rectangular boxes surely produced a rather confusing, maze-like means of navigating the city. It is irresistible to imagine what it might have been like to meander along these narrow paths only to emerge on the broad expanse of the Avenue of the Dead. This contrast between the more restrictive passageways of the residential areas and the openness of the public space would have heightened the avenue's prestigious effect and further beckoned the population to the city center.
Furthermore, our imaginations cannot neglect to people the city, which seems so empty today despite the hundreds of tourists climbing its pyramids. Even if the Great Compound once was a marketplace, one wonders if merchants spread out their multicolored blankets along the street to sell the brilliant Thin Orange pottery so loved at Teotihuacan. Because it was a cosmopolitan city, Zapotecs and Maya may have moved through the crowds of local inhabitants. The smells of food and ritual incense would have filled the air, and the general noisiness of a large city would have activated the space. The famous pyramids would have elicited a reverential sensation for those on a pilgrimage, but depending on one's status, certain structures may have been off-limits.
Serving as the center of Mesoamerica's largest city, the Avenue of the Dead surely was the locus of many activities. Religion, commerce, governance, and social events all must have contributed to the life of the avenue. It was a place to meet, conduct business, celebrate civic rituals, and organize the city's disparate peoples. In sum, the Avenue of the Dead was the Mall in Washington, the Champs-Elysées, and Red Square—it was both a symbol of the city and its vital functioning organ. Clearly, the Avenue of the Dead was built to be the symbol of the city, a statement to visitors and its own inhabitants of what the city represented, its very identity. But it was not a hollow symbol, for the people and events that converged on this street were the elements that bound the city together and contributed to its success.
Because the Avenue of the Dead came to represent the city, this book will look to this majestic public space for clues to Teotihuacan's success. The architecture, art, and archaeology centered on the avenue offer information as to what bound the city together, resulting in arguably Mesoamerica's grandest city. Yet this study will also repeatedly step away from the avenue and wander in the crowded neighborhoods of the apartment compounds, where we will look at the painting that decorated more private spaces or the pottery used in domestic rituals. But we will always return to the Avenue of the Dead, where multifarious forces coalesced into a multihued amalgamation, a great international city. And indeed, Teotihuacan was a city like no other in Mesoamerica.
It seems as though nothing was done on a small scale at Teotihuacan. The two prominent pyramids, the Sun and the Moon, are staggeringly big. The larger Sun Pyramid is approximately 215 by 215 meters at its base and rises 64 meters (Millon and Drewitt 1995:268). Covering 20 square kilometers, the ancient city sat regally within the Teotihuacan Valley (Figure 1.7). Smaller settlements with Teotihuacan traits permeated the Valley of Mexico and beyond, creating a state that is estimated to have covered approximately 25,000 square kilometers. Teotihuacan was the clear political and religious center of the region.
Teotihuacan's power was expressed not only in physical size, but also in the appearance of the Teotihuacan artistic style abroad, which indicates that it engaged in activities well beyond its immediate boundaries and participated in the arena of Mesoamerican international relations (Bernal 1965, 1966; Braswell 2003a; Hirth and Swezey 1976; Paddock 1972). At Monte Albán, one of the enormous platforms in the ceremonial center features carved images of Teotihuacan visitors in an artistic program that may document the inauguration of a Zapotec king (Marcus and Flannery 1996:217-221). The Oaxacans, in turn, sent some of their own to reside at Teotihuacan, and it appears that they stayed for several generations (Flannery and Marcus 1983b; Marcus 1983b; R. Millon 1973:42; Rattray and Ruiz 1980; Spence 1989). In the Maya area, the city's long tentacles spread to Kaminaljuyu, where Teotihuacan-inspired pottery and architecture indicate a lengthy period of sustained contact (Kidder et al. 1946). Recent epigraphic, iconographic, and archaeological work suggests that Teotihuacan's interaction with Tikal in the late fourth century A.D. was direct and disruptive, so much so that David Stuart (2000), building on ideas proposed by Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1993), posited that a foreigner aligned with a Teotihuacan king may have killed Chak Tok Ich'aak I, the king of Tikal, and installed a new king with Teotihuacan affiliations. Alternative interpretations of Tikal-Teotihuacan interactions have emerged, but all theories must contend with the overt use of Teotihuacan iconographic elements by the late fourth and early fifth century Tikal kings, Yax Nuun Ayiin I and Siyaj Chan K'awiil II. At Copan, the royal Maya claimed Teotihuacan ancestry and embellished their art with Teotihuacan imagery hundreds of years after the central Mexican city had collapsed and been reduced to ruin (Fash and Fash 2000; Stuart 2000). These claims to a Teotihuacan ancestry may have been fictive or indirect, but rhetorical alliances with the site seem to have been an effective political strategy (Sharer 2003). All told, the extensive nature of contact reveals that other cultures in Mesoamerica believed that Teotihuacan was important and worthy of emulation.
Inevitably, discussion of Teotihuacan's great size and foreign interactions leads to the conclusion that the city was surely an important participant in Mesoamerica. A long history of archaeological investigation offers data that overwhelmingly support the notion that Teotihuacan was indeed a significant political force in the period of its florescence. Embracing that view, one can probe the nature of the city's influence on its neighbors and its distant relations. This has been done and spawned hearty debate, but the assumption also begs a more internal investigation. If Teotihuacan was an influential political entity, then what was the nature of its own political, social, and religious structure? The answer to this question is the focus of this book.
On this point, however, Teotihuacan has been elusive. It yields its secrets with a parsimony that frustrates and baffles those who attempt to discover its past. Despite all the evidence of the city's prominence in Mesoamerica, the political structure of this great power lies mainly in the dark. This situation is not due to a lack of effort on the part of Teotihuacan scholars. The city received early and extensive attention, but the data always seem incomplete and lack the specifics found in other Mesoamerican cultures.
The recent excavation of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid stands as a case in point (Figure 1.8). Between 1980 and 1989, projects headed by Rubén Cabrera, George Cowgill, and Saburo Sugiyama undertook extensive excavations of this temple. In the pattern of earlier excavations by Gamio (1920), Dosal (1925), and Caso and Pérez (see Rubín de la Borbolla 1947), the pyramid yielded evidence of elaborate dedicatory practices. Massive graves that may have held 200 or more people ringed the temple, and some of these contained sacrificed soldiers who seemed to protect a great ruler buried inside (Cabrera 1993; Cabrera and Cabrera 1993:295; Cabrera et al. 1989; Sugiyama 1989a, 2005). Yet when the excavators finally reached the interior of the mound, the evidence they encountered was far from conclusive. At the exact center was a group burial of high-status sacrificial victims. A sizable pit nearby was largely empty, and a looters' tunnel to this pit remained as evidence of an ancient crime (Cabrera and Cowgill 1990; Sugiyama 1991, 1992, 2005:26). Some of the items left by the looters point toward the royal status of the original principal occupant. Cabrera (1993:104) suggested that a wooden staff carved with the head of a serpent, a staff similar to the scepters of other Mesoamerican rulers, may indicate that this was the burial of a Teotihuacan ruler. Because the staff appeared in disturbed fill, separated from the one intact skeleton in the tomb, archaeologists cannot definitively determine whether this belonged to the primary occupant of the tomb, a royal retainer sent to accompany a king to the Otherworld, or even if there actually was a burial of a king associated with this structure.
The largest pyramid, the Sun Pyramid, has left researchers with its own set of similar ambiguities. During excavations directed by Acosta (1971), archaeologists discovered the entrance to a cave at the base of the adosada, a large porch-like structure attached to the front of the pyramid. After removing large quantities of fill, they found that the cave had a long shaft terminating in a four-lobed chamber (Figure 1.9). Once again, however, the joy in finding this cave was tempered by a frustrating lack of evidence. Ancient looters had been here too and largely cleaned the cave of its contents. They had broken through adobe walls that formed chambers within the cave, and only a few fragments of mirrors and fish bones remained on the floors beneath the sooty walls (Heyden 1981:3; R. Millon 1981:234, 1992:385, 1993:22). The cave still helped in understanding the worldview of the Teotihuacanos by revealing that caves were a conceptual part of their architectural landscape, but it gave the modern world no ancient kings, no rulers buried at the heart of the pyramid (Heyden 1975, 1981; Taube 1986). The Sun Pyramid may yet yield the tomb of a king, and burials found underneath the Moon Pyramid may shed some light on the city's power structure, yet it is possible that we already have the evidence we need to hypothesize about the sociopolitical structure of Teotihuacan.
Previous Models of Teotihuacan's Sociopolitical Structure
Early in Teotihuacan's scholastic history, Kubler (1962:29, 328) viewed the site as a ceremonial center devoid of year-round habitational occupation. He believed that religious pilgrims organized by a faceless sect of priests used the site. Insufficient data and early techniques of archaeological recovery spawned such ideas, but with more excavation, and above all, detailed surface survey, the data showed that this was a large city with permanent residents who exhibited social and cultural variety (R. Millon 1970:1079).
Subsequent reconstructions of Teotihuacan's political structure concede that powerful rulers probably directed the city's growth prior to the Late Tlamimilolpa period (A.D. 300-350). The three largest pyramids—the Sun, Moon, and Feathered Serpent—are thought to represent massive public works constructed in honor of strong individual rulers (Cabrera et al. 1989; Cowgill 1983, 1993a; R. Millon 1992, 1993). Though archaeological evidence is not conclusive, these structures may cover the tombs of the rulers who commissioned them (Cabrera 1993; Cabrera and Cabrera 1993:295; Cabrera et al. 1989; R. Millon 1992; Millon et al. 1965; Sugiyama 1989a, 2005). Cowgill (1983) was the first to suggest that the Ciudadela was the conception of an individual ruler. He argued that the structure may have served as the residence of the king and his immediate family and also as a monument to the office of the king, yet, ironically, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid inside the Ciudadela may have marked the decline of powerful individual rule at the site.
In the years following construction of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, the erection of massive pyramids in public spaces diminished. Although the Teotihuacanos substantially enlarged many of the existing pyramids and platforms along the avenue, the energy formerly expended on large monuments for personal glorification largely shifted to construction of the apartment compounds for the city's inhabitants. Cowgill (1983, 1993a:567, 1996:281, 1997:155) and René Millon (1992:396-397, 1993) interpreted this as evidence for political change at Teotihuacan. Perhaps disillusioned by the abuses of kings, the Teotihuacanos checked the power of their monarchs, lacing around their necks a bureaucratic yoke that restrained personal initiative. Cowgill (1983, 1996:280, 1997:152) cited the planned nature of the city as evidence of an organized central power, and he identified the Street of the Dead Complex as a possible administrative center that housed the bureaucratic bodies necessary to orchestrate such a city.
It is in the art of Teotihuacan that scholars have found the greatest confirmation for theories of collective leadership. Historically, it seems, Teotihuacan art has been viewed through lenses developed for other Mesoamerican cultures. There has been a tendency to compare the site, especially to those of the Maya, and to explain it through its differences rather than its own characteristics. Those who ruled Teotihuacan did not erect the stelae of their Maya contemporaries or comparable historical monuments with dynastic information (Figure 1.10). Stelae visually isolate the human actors and provide the modern world with easily decoded royal portraiture. These vertical stones, with their primary focus on a standing individual, make it much easier to proclaim the existence of kings. On stelae as well as on more private art such as ceramic vessels, Maya kings recorded their personal biographies and exploits along with royal titles in their own words. In comparison, the hieroglyphs at Teotihuacan seem to have a different character than their Maya counterparts. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that there is much more writing at Teotihuacan than previously acknowledged (Taube 2000b, 2003). Particularly among the mural and ceramic art, images previously thought to be clusters of symbols now appear to be hieroglyphs. Yet when glyphs do appear at Teotihuacan, they are solitary and generally not in large clusters, implying that they are nouns without complex syntax. Teotihuacan kings simply did not proclaim themselves in the same manner as their Maya contemporaries.
The style of Teotihuacan art has also been viewed as particularly idiosyncratic when compared to other Mesoamerican cultures. Because the Olmec and Maya created true portraiture, we question its absence at Teotihuacan. The flattened broad nose of a colossal San Lorenzo head or the droopy lip of K'inich Kan B'alam II of Palenque has no counterparts at Teotihuacan. There is a generic quality to the facial features and body types seen in Teotihuacan figural imagery (Figure 1.11). In a given mural the faces are all identical, and each person is the same height. The figures exhibit similar squat proportions that disclose an interest in recording the concept of a human much more than anatomical realities or variances. Teotihuacan counters the shapely curves and idealized proportions of the Maya god Chak with blocky calves and compact bodies. If one seeks naturalism akin to Classical Greece, Teotihuacan is certainly not the place to look.
The depiction of three-dimensional space is also not a factor of much importance in Teotihuacan art. Arthur Miller best described the flat qualities of the Teotihuacan mural tradition.
A remarkable stylistic feature of Teotihuacan murals is the flatness of the images in the painting. The motifs represented in any Teotihuacan mural are invariably shown in an attitude which emphasizes the two-dimensionality of the motif, i.e., the broadest aspect of it which has height and width. . . . It is as if all the motifs represented in the murals are pushed forward, compressed, flattened out against the picture plane by some invisible force behind the images in the painting. (Miller 1973:24)
In contrast, the Maya tackled problems of space in a manner more akin to Western traditions. On rare but still important occasions, attempts at foreshortening appear in Maya art, and in vase painting, the inclusion of curtains and cushions in a Maya king's throne room offers a more convincing sense of space than ever demonstrated in Teotihuacan art. Often, Teotihuacan figures float in space without any rationalizing props, and when the artist did include background details such as a structural facade, the decorative patterning of the vacant space reduces the three-dimensional effect (Figure 1.12).
In Miller's discussion of the flatness in Teotihuacan murals, he additionally noted a similarity between the painting style and paper.
If one were to draw a ground plan of the images in a Teotihuacán mural, the space would be as thin as a piece of paper. In fact, the paper analogy is particularly appropriate here because much of Teotihuacán painting looks as if it were composed of motifs which are paper cutouts pasted on a flat surface. (Miller 1973:24)
This "pasted" quality of the images may be due to the fact that Teotihuacan muralists used patterns while designing their wall surfaces. Evidence for the patterns comes from punctations that Miller observed in the plaster, yet he also notes that subtle variations in the design indicate that the painters did not strictly follow the patterns (Miller 1973:32). Although some figures rigidly adhere to the pattern and are arbitrarily cut off at corners or frames, others vary the size to adapt to the given space (Figure 1.13). Furthermore, while the painters followed preparatory drawings made on the plaster, the individual hands of the different painters working on a wall resulted in some variation in the final work (Miller 1973:34-35).
Regardless of the painting technique, it is important to accept the validity of the Teotihuacan style for itself with as few biases as possible from our own cultural expectations. As Westerners, our own aesthetics are firmly rooted in the legacy of Classical Greece and the subsequent Renaissance, and the Teotihuacanos' rejection of naturalism can be particularly difficult to accept, especially when their Maya contemporaries had a taste for the realism often favored in our cultural tradition. Pasztory (1990-1991) has been the greatest champion of the Teotihuacan aesthetic, pointing out that abstraction reflects a conscious choice rather than an inability to produce a more naturalistic art form. To combat preferences for realism, she reminded readers that Medieval art and Modernism represent two great abstract traditions in the otherwise naturalistic tradition of the West. In these examples, as at Teotihuacan, style has meaning; that is, it assists the iconography in conveying information.
In an effort to explain Teotihuacan's stylistic differences from some Mesoamerican traditions, Pasztory (1990-1991:114) identified two stylistic categories. Teotihuacan typifies the first category, which she labeled conceptual. This type incorporates imagery with less obvious references to the natural world and especially art that moves towards abstraction. The second category, perceptual, includes the art of the Maya and Olmec. Perceptual art employs conventions that make the image look real, and thus the art appears to depict the third dimension and frequently exhibits a strong portraiture tradition. Pasztory carefully acknowledged that in actuality these conventions are distinct from the natural world; therefore, while the imagery on a painted flat surface may look as though it recedes beyond the wall surface, it never truly escapes its two-dimensional reality. She explained that all art is conceptual, but some art attempts to achieve the perceptual by giving the illusion of reality.
Such distinctions are necessary in an explanation of Teotihuacan art for they stress that style is not a function of skill but a vehicle for meaning. Looking farther afield, the animals painted in Europe's Paleolithic caves forcefully emphasize the relationship between style and meaning. The elegant and graceful bulls with their naturalistic style appear in direct association with a set of highly abstracted signs. The same cultural tradition produced art falling into both of Pasztory's categories, yet it is clear that both styles carried meaning. The naturalism in animal depiction most likely reflects the preoccupations of a culture of hunter-gatherers, and the abstract symbols may record the geometric phenomena seen during hallucinatory trancing (Lewis-Williams 1984; Lewis-Williams and Dowson 1993; Lewis-Williams et al. 1973). In short, style is not a function of ability; instead, it reflects a conscious choice on the part of the artist.
Recognizing the intentionality that drives style, Pasztory (1990-1991:115) emphasized that specific reasons lie behind the conceptual trend in Teotihuacan art. One motivation stemmed from the city's desire to distinguish itself from other cultural groups within Mesoamerica (Pasztory 1990-1991:115, 1992a). The differentiation provided a sense of cultural identity to the Teotihuacanos, thereby reinforcing the connection of the individual to the city as a whole.
Pasztory (1990-1991:115) then extended this argument for differentiation into a comparative analysis of Teotihuacan and other Mesoamerican traditions in which style serves as an indicator of political structure. Among the Maya, a substantial number of the surviving hieroglyphic texts expound upon dynastic information, and a portraiture tradition developed within their art recorded the particularities of the rulers. The art style is effective because the individuality of portraiture augments a system centered on dynastic rule, which invests power in the individual. By comparison, the Teotihuacanos left us with a series of repetitive figures, each seemingly shaped by the same cookie cutter. They march in groups wearing virtually identical costumes, and their squat proportions vary slightly. The aggregation of carbon copies denies the search for portraiture and seemingly the possibility of identifying particular individuals amongst the masses. Elites certainly appear in Teotihuacan art, but they seem depersonalized because they are depicted in multiples that are decidedly similar.
Within the literature on Teotihuacan, the absence of individualized portraiture becomes evidence that the Teotihuacanos' primary concern was integrating society. Pasztory reasoned that because Teotihuacan was cosmopolitan and attracted people from distant regions, the state felt the need to emphasize the inclusiveness of the whole more than the identity of the individual. Teotihuacan art, in this model, did not exalt individual rulers through portraiture or inscriptions because it chose to promote a collective ideology (Pasztory 1990:182, 1990-1991:131). As she stated of her theory,
I am going to suggest that Teotihuacan was a culture with a utopian view of the world, in which the individual was de-emphasized for the sake of the group, but in which the citizen members enjoyed high status and material benefits as a part of the group. Teotihuacan, in my view, was a Mesoamerican social and religious experiment in the creation of a society that did not glorify a divine king and warrior aristocracy above a farming people. The Teotihuacan concept of the utopian city included the entire population living in the same type of dwellings all within view of the great pyramids. (Pasztory 1992a:288)
This model for a corporate ideology at Teotihuacan suggests that the Teotihuacanos avoided any emphasis on the individual. The similarities of the individuals were emphasized, and their membership in the group far outstripped attempts at personal glorification. Teotihuacanos celebrated their city, their gods, and their role in belonging. Not unlike the theoretical principles of a socialist state, everyone worked for the benefit of the state, and through this route all prospered. In turn, the ideology softened the divisive effects of the truly heterogeneous society by using imagery to create reality.
Murals from Tepantitla and Teopancaxco seemingly support this argument (Figures 1.14, 1.15). In these murals, two profile figures approach a central motif, in one case a personified mountain crowned by a sprouting tree and in the other a circular device on a platform. The priests are identical, with no emphasis on their facial features but considerable attention to their costume elements. The specificity of their headdresses, garments, and ceremonial bags stresses their office or membership in a group far more than their individual participation in the ritual event. The mountain-tree and the circular device hold the central positions. Their frontal viewpoint coupled with the profile procession of the figures emphasizes their paramount importance. The human figures sprinkle precious offerings, and at Tepantitla, the personified mountain returns the favor. Verdant vegetation sprouts from the peak of the mountain, and water drips from the hands that miraculously emerge on either side. Female qualities might be attributed to this mountain as water gushes forth from a womb-like vaginal opening. Below the image, the irrigated fields of Teotihuacan receive the precious water, and the people frolic in the joys of their bounteous situation. The message is clear. Proper propitiation of the mountain performed by the collective body of the city ensures the prosperity of all. Or so it seems.
Directions for This Study
It is undeniable that Teotihuacan kings did not employ the same self-promotion in their art as did the Maya; however, the artistic tradition of Teotihuacan is far from unique in Mesoamerica. Similar squat proportions and generic facial features appear in the Mixtec codices and the art of the Aztec (Figure 1.16). In these two traditions accompanying glyphs negate the lack of portraiture to indicate that the imagery concerns historic individuals. In the codices, when hieroglyphs are missing, costume elements still allow the viewer to identify individuals and the particular religious or political offices they held. The Mixtecs and the Aztecs indicate that portraiture need not be a prerequisite to identifiable individuals.
In her discussion of the corporate model Pasztory did recognize that different groups are identifiable within the marching masses of Teotihuacan, but she argued that "there is an emphasis on the corporate nature of the city which is made up of separate, different, but, in many ways, similar units" (Pasztory 1990-1991:131). René Millon (1992:340, 1993:38) added to this model the observation that examples of hierarchical relationships between groups or individuals are lacking at Teotihuacan.
There are many richly attired individuals in Teotihuacan art but they are not shown in positions of domination over others. . . . A principle of indirection was at work. Much of the subject matter of Teotihuacan art is represented obliquely, particularly social interaction—hierarchical relationships, domination, human sacrifice—everything that is harsh. (R. Millon 1993:38)
Both Millon and Pasztory envisioned a Teotihuacan where the residents shunned difference and engendered a philosophy that all of the disparate parts were equal. Evidence on their side includes the generic faces and body types seen in Teotihuacan figural imagery; however, notable exceptions to this collective interpretation of Teotihuacan's art exist.
Particularly challenging to these ideas is the recent work on hieroglyphic writing at Teotihuacan which proposes that imagery formerly thought of as signs are actually hieroglyphs. Consider for a moment the symbols painted on a portico at Tetitla (Figure 1.17). If these abstract designs are hieroglyphs, their repetitive nature suggests that they represent a noun, perhaps the name of an individual. How different our interpretation of Teotihuacan's political structure would be if these large hieroglyphs boldly proclaimed the name of a ruler. The size of the hypothesized words is so large that they are suggestive of shouting, and perhaps they repeatedly scream the ruler's name or the principal occupant of the apartment compound. Naturally, such ideas await the decipherment of these symbols, but the case illustrates just how tenuous our understanding of Teotihuacan is and just how perilous it is to argue that the Teotihuacanos de-emphasized the individual.
More transparent examples of name glyphs accompanying individuals in Teotihuacan art include two exemplary instances: the murals from the Techinantitla apartment compound and the Las Colinas vessel (Figures 1.18, 1.19). In the murals an abstracted assemblage of images, surely functioning as glyphic writing, sits directly in front of a single individual, while an animal or headdress accompanies the figures on the Las Colinas vessel. Because these signs have yet to be deciphered, it is unclear whether they represent names of particular individuals or groups, although Clara Millon (1973, 1988c) has made a strong case that the glyphs indicate membership in military units. Although I will refrain from committing myself as to whether the Techinantitla glyphs identify individuals or groups until the glyphs have been deciphered, I do believe that Clara Millon is correct that Teotihuacan art consistently depicts social or military groups. In keeping with this model, I will identify such groups in the iconography of Teotihuacan's art. The recognition of such groups has import, for they indicate that identification with a group was a powerful motivation at Teotihuacan.
The presence of named military associations at Teotihuacan does not necessarily contradict arguments for a collective emphasis in Teotihuacan art. Naming military groups or ranks still highlights corporateness and is significantly different from naming individuals. On the other hand, identification of named groups challenges Pasztory's position. Promoting a collective ideology of the city as a whole is quite different than celebrating collective membership in one of many groups. The corporate model does not explain why so much of the art focuses on the clear delineation of the various parts, and an argument could be made that this elevates the status of those parts, emphasizing their independence, or, at the very least, their prominent role in the structure of the whole.
In the following chapters I hope to seize upon this distinction. The corporate model for Teotihuacan stresses a unified vision of the site, a vision most likely promoted by the group or groups who held the greatest power in the Teotihuacan state. This model, however, obscures the impact of other groups with their own agendas who may or may not have agreed with the larger vision of the state. If we identify subdivisions within Teotihuacan, then we must consider the relationships between those groups. The dynamics among these groups, whether competitive or harmonious, or the fluctuation between these two extremes, would have shaped the course of Teotihuacan's history. By considering the architectural arrangement of particular murals, I will challenge contentions that Teotihuacan artists downplayed the hierarchical relationships between various social components.
A number of different entities will be discussed, but each of these will fall into one of three grand categories whose interaction seems to have determined, to a large degree, the sociopolitical climate of Teotihuacan. The three upon which this study will focus—the three comprising the Teotihuacan trinity—are the ruler, lineages, and military sodalities. In a city this large, there certainly were other factions who shaped Teotihuacan's history. Groups of foreigners, merchants, and priests all must have played significant roles and exerted power for their own interests, but the three to be considered here seem to have held extraordinary sway over the tenor of Teotihuacan politics. They are all visually prominent in the art, architecture, and general residue of the material culture. Their story was one sung very loudly.
Only after exploring the nature of these three groups and gaining an understanding of their foundations can we return to the overarching agenda of the state and see possible models for the integration of the groups within the state. Although much attention will be given to the friction between the various factions, and the resulting tensions that could have had a destabilizing impact, the evidence for unification will also be considered. The success of Teotihuacan was that its inhabitants found ways to integrate the numerous components, to build bonds between disparate groups, and to fashion an overarching identity that competing factions could share. The following chapters will show how ritual events incorporated propagandistic messages that appealed to state ideology and suggest that even architectural style was coded with meaning that promulgated proper civic behavior.
Because style has been so pivotal to corporate models, I will also reanalyze the meaning of Teotihuacan art style. I will show that it was not the identification with the city as a whole that stimulated the creation of the Teotihuacan art style, but it was the very factionalism or conflict between these groups that led to the development of an art that de-emphasized the individual. The corporate argument will subtly shift, showing that it was identification with one of several groups that was of supreme importance. A model will be developed that continues to see the effects of corporate ideology, but instead of one single corporate entity, the model will include several smaller corporate entities. I will show that much of Teotihuacan art was concerned with expressing the relationships between these smaller corporate groups. Both style and imagery were tools in this endeavor.
Just as this study will reinterpret style and imagery, so it will reconsider some of the most vexing aspects of Teotihuacan. The site teases archaeologists and art historians alike with its empty tombs and cleaned out caves, yet once the frustration passes, scholars can use this as evidence about Teotihuacan's political structure. Instead of bemoaning the lack of conclusive evidence, I hope to show that this missing evidence can be used as signs of Teotihuacan practices that concerned the most sacred elements of their society and world. Surely, the absence of material artifacts falls under the category of negative evidence, which is tenuous and has an unsettling effect in our scientific society. It lacks the solidity of hard facts, and we find that our arguments may not hold with further investigation. This is, ultimately, the nature of the social sciences and humanities, and even when properly understood, of the so-called hard sciences themselves. The relationship of the data with the argument is inexact, and we must always be willing to modify and alter our views as we learn more about our target societies. As for Teotihuacan, I hope to argue that comparison with the cultural practices of other Mesoamerican groups offers clues to the missing materials; that is, by reconstructing the actions, it is also possible to hypothetically reassemble the artifacts used in those activities.
Much of the theoretical basis for this argument will rely heavily on the principle of continuity, and the pendulum for and against continuity has swung both directions in Teotihuacan scholarship. The latest work by Pasztory (1988, 1992a, 1997) and René Millon (1992) expressed reluctance to use other Mesoamerican cultures to approach problems of Teotihuacan. This caution is largely a legacy of early efforts by Seler (1915), who was unaware of the temporal distance between Teotihuacan and the Aztecs and freely applied Postclassic Aztec deity names to the imagery of Classic Teotihuacan.
Kubler (1948, 1961, 1967, 1970, 1972, 1973) was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of continuity. When asked to write on Precolumbian survivals in the Colonial period, he acted as coroner, pronouncing the Precolumbian, "a corpse of a civilization" (Kubler 1961:14). In his most sardonic version he compared possible Precolumbian survivals of the conquest to a piece of embryonic chicken heart kept alive in a vial for years in New York City (Kubler 1961:22). His discussion of Teotihuacan likened the application of Aztec ethnohistories to Panofsky's example of Orpheus and the Good Shepherd (Kubler 1967). In both cases, he argued, similar imagery could obscure cultural change and shifts in meaning. Kubler provided a much needed correction to the field after the work of Seler; however, the absolutism of his condemnation of continuity pushed the pendulum much too far toward the other extreme and forbade the use of vast resources of potentially valuable information. If taken literally, it means ignoring ethnohistoric and ethnographic materials as well as denying the relevance of comparative information from other temporal periods and cultural groups in Mesoamerica.
Much recent work has demonstrated that, with cautionary reins, Mesoamericanists can only gain by culling these resources. Heyden (1975, 1981, 1989) consistently assumed that written documents and oral traditions of the Aztecs preserved core mythologies that were pan-Mesoamerican and argued that central Mexican traditions extend back to the Classic period. Berlo (1983b, 1989) argued that our own religious symbols have survived comparable periods of time and demonstrated that precedents for central Mexican writing systems may be found at Teotihuacan. In a similar manner, Cowgill (1992b, 1996:258, 1997) suggested that Postclassic Nahuatl songs may provide insight into glyphs found in the Teotihuacan murals and has generally counseled that using Postclassic and Postconquest sources is a challenging but justifiable endeavor. Most synthetic of all, Taube (1983, 1986, 1992a, 2000a, 2003) used not only Mesoamerican but also Native North American traditions to elucidate Teotihuacan's iconography.
This study will follow in the spirit of these latter scholars who have acknowledged that Teotihuacan did indeed exist in Mesoamerica and therefore may hold much in common with other manifestations of this cultural tradition. Comparison, especially to the Maya, has revealed differences that sometimes separated Teotihuacan from the rest of Mesoamerica, but, ironically, this comparison which has so differentiated the city can also serve to reincorporate it back into the Mesoamerican tradition. Teotihuacan need not be dealt with in isolation, for comparison can offer new insight into the iconography and political structure of this decidedly individual, but nevertheless Mesoamerican, site.
The work of Marshall Sahlins (1981) offers an eloquent validation for a comparative approach. The opening chapter to his study of Captain Cook's demise in the Hawaiian Islands provides a reflective look at structural theory (Sahlins 1981:3-8). He recognized that structural approaches had failed to significantly incorporate the effects of two major factors: history and change. According to Sahlins the clumping aspect of structural theory tends to leave out individuals, specific temporal events, and particularities of environment and culture.
Yet Sahlins did not abandon structural theory so much as refine it. Sahlins asserted that cultures are selective in the things they recognize; that is, perception is culturally based. This, Sahlins suggested, provides the basis for structures, because events produce a recognizable and expected grid, a structure. As he said of Polynesian cosmology, "Hawaiian history often repeats itself, since only the second time is it an event" (Sahlins 1981). In other words, only through reproduction is the event recognizable. Where Sahlins hoped to alter structural theory is in the recognition that these structures change because of history.
The great challenge to an historical anthropology is not merely to know how events are ordered by culture, but how, in that process, the culture is reordered. How does the reproduction of a structure become its transformation? (Sahlins 1981:8)
This recognition that the particularities of the individuals and their circumstances modify the structure allows students of the past to form a more complete image.
Freidel and Schele (1988b) adopted a similar approach in their efforts to understand the alteration of structures. They identified moments of significant change as "thresholds," or situations where "the content of reified models of reality must be revised to accommodate actual social conditions" (Freidel and Schele 1988b:89). As an example, they discussed the Late Formative transition among the Maya from a self-effacing tradition to portraiture. Where previously the art focused on images of deities, there now appeared historical personages. Myth, they contended, was manipulated and differentially stressed to accommodate new social strategies, which in this case included the increasing gulf between elites and non-elites. Freidel and Schele, as well as Sahlins, stressed the importance of two primary characteristics: the patterns and the idiosyncrasies. The following analysis will progress in this vein.
Not only will I look for structures that traverse time and geography, but I will also identify patterns that are culturally distinct. Motifs at Teotihuacan will be weighed in association with one another, looking for groupings that suggest similarities. Those versed in the history of Teotihuacan scholarship will note that this analysis forgoes the groupings established by previous scholars of Teotihuacan art. In 1967, Kubler published a succinct but extremely influential essay on the nature of iconographic identification at Teotihuacan. A notable contribution of the paper was his identification of iconographic "clusters" (Kubler 1967:9-10). Kubler separated the iconography into five groups of related motifs which he argued were associated with different cults at Teotihuacan. Examples of these included the butterfly cluster, which encompassed death and the afterlife, and bird imagery of owls and quetzals, which he suggested concerned war and dynastic agendas.
While Kubler's study was brief, Hasso von Winning's (1987) contribution represents the most comprehensive inquiry to date. Building upon Kubler's clusters, von Winning identified two complexes based on associated meanings. He suggested that disparate motifs like mountains, shells, and droplets all relate to the qualities of water, and, in turn, they are all associated with the deity of water and lightning. Like this water complex, a parallel fire complex contains the symbols which he contended pertain to the god of this element.
I am neither convinced that these deities eclipsed the importance of other supernaturals at Teotihuacan, nor am I persuaded that the Teotihuacanos separated these natural forces into such rigorous categories. Deities in Mesoamerica are notoriously slippery, accumulating diverse attributes depending on the particular message to be delivered. While some attributes may remain consistent with a particular deity, that deity may also appropriate numerous guises with layers of other attributes when the need arises. Thus Tlaloc may appear as an earthly entity when featuring his association with underground water, but he can surface as a celestial being when characterized as a rainmaker. The indistinct boundaries of supernaturals probably reveal a strategy to differentially stress related aspects of the sacred world. The lack of distinction reflects the indescribable qualities of the metaphysical. Through the analysis that follows, I hope to demonstrate that we can assign iconographic meaning to motifs, but the meaning of one motif may be related to the meaning of another motif, and the groupings of these motifs may not pattern into a few complexes so much as to a continuum that created the whole of Teotihuacan religion and worldview. In an effort to avoid the biases posed by previous categorizations of Teotihuacan's iconographic motifs, this study will not, therefore, refer to these complexes but will allow those associations that survive a Mesoamerican approach to stand, and let those who fail to fall aside.
In using data sources outside of Teotihuacan, the researcher of today has information not available to previous scholars. Advancements in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic texts and new analysis of both pre- and postconquest mythology offer insight into Mesoamerican concepts. Though these pertain to cultures other than Teotihuacan, the similarities between various Mesoamerican traditions argue for core conceptual beliefs that can, in turn, be applied to the art of Teotihuacan. This Mesoamerican approach does not ignore Kubler's (1967) warnings against continuity, for it avoids reliance on one single culture. Rather than looking only toward the Aztecs, this study searches for concepts inherent in all Mesoamerican cultures; that is, ways of perceiving the world that transcend cultural, geographic, and temporal boundaries. Continuities among the diverse cultural groups of Mesoamerica are not dissimilar to the homogeneous characteristics of Christianity. Though the various branches of Christianity exhibit distinct differences, there are fundamental tenets which all Christians accept. Whether Catholic or Baptist, the Renaissance or the present, the cross and Christ were and are universally recognized symbols. Each branch of Christianity and indeed each Christian may offer subtle differences of interpretation, but such symbols are, nevertheless, consistently identifiable on at least a fundamental level. So it goes with Mesoamerican iconography. Each culture, each site, and each time period constantly reinterpreted the core mythology, but in Sahlins' terms the reproduction and transformation of a structure does not render the structure unrecognizable.