Monday, October 15, 2012

Teotihuacan: A Mesoamerican City

Do cities from a completely different tradition differ radically from the above? The aims of archaeologists in illuminating ancient daily life in the New World are certainly the same as in the Old World, and varying natures of sites and conditions of preservation mean that certain features are clearer than others.

Mesoamerica differs from the Old World presented above in that sixteenth century Spaniards were able to step into a truly different world, into the equivalent of complex societies of the ancient Mediterranean and Near East. The huge significance of this was not immediately apparent. Some descriptions were written - Bernal Dy'az's eyewitness account of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, is classic - but few felt the need to record in any systematic way the built environment and behavior throughout the region.

Certain ancient Mesoamerican peoples did have writing. Recent advances in understanding Mayan texts (by far the most copious) have revealed much about local dynastic histories, but other aspects of commoner Maya daily life that we might wish to learn about were not recorded. Archaeology, then, remains our best source of information about Mesoamerican daily life.

Cities appeared in the mid-first millennium BC, in the highland areas of the valleys of Mexico and Oaxaca. But like the long development of southwest Asian settlements during the Neolithic period, Mesoamerican cities emerged from earlier traditions, from villages, ceremonial centers, and towns found in many regions. In the Maya lowlands, urbanism began slightly later, in the late first millennium BC.

As an illustration of an ancient Mesoamerican city, let us examine Teotihuacan, in the Valley of Mexico. Teotihuacan flourished especially c. AD 150-600, thanks to its religious importance, its commercial exploitation of obsidian, its favorable position on trade routes, and agricultural prosperity in the region it dominated. The city displays a grand public built environment. It was laid out on a vast scale, as the intensive Teotihuacan Mapping Project has shown. Interestingly, the city was not walled; it is thought that its huge population and lack of nearby rivals assured its security. Two long avenues, crossing at right angles in the center, divide the city into four quadrants - a basic planning frame, off which other structures were placed in a loose grid system. The major north-south avenue, the Avenue of the Dead, is 5 km long; the major east-west street measures 2 km to the west of the crossing point, 6 km to the east. Considering that wheeled vehicles and pack animals were not used in ancient Mesoamerica, these are considerable distances to cover on foot. The city's area has been measured as 20km2, its population at its height (by AD 600) estimated at over 100 000. With only one exception, it was by far the largest of all pre-Columbian New World cities; only Aztec Tenochtitlan would be more populous.

The Avenue of the Dead served as a sacred way, with three large structures on it. The Moon Pyramid marks the north end. The large Ciudadela (citadel), perhaps the administrative center of the city, with, inside it, a Temple of Quetzalcoatl in stepped pyramid form, is located at the crossing of the two major avenues; across the street to the west lies the Great Compound, possibly the central market area. The immense Sun Pyramid stands halfway between these two. Echoes of the natural world show how the inhabitants connected their built environment with natural forms. The Moon Pyramid reflects the mountain behind it. The Sun Pyramid shelters in its depths a cave (caves, like mountains, had symbolic importance in ancient Mesoamerica), used as a shrine. The pyramid temple of Quetzalcoatl is decorated with sculpted feathered serpent heads and goggled heads (fire serpents?), accompanied by sea shells, perhaps images of the first creation, when serpents battled in the great ocean. Below this pyramid, remains of more than 200 individuals have been found, men and women, carefully positioned sacrificial offerings unique in Mesoamerica. These features of city plan, architecture, decoration, and sacrifice indicate the cosmological importance of this city for ancient Mesoamericans - a significance that would continue to be honored into Aztec times, long after the city's collapse. Connections between the built environment and the cosmos are seen in the Old World, too - the Sumerian ziggurat, the Egyptian pyramid - but rarely with such coordinated grandeur.

The Teotihuacan Mapping Project has discovered that the city was filled with over 2000 walled residential compounds. These housing units illuminate several aspects of social life in this city. The compounds varied in size, but an average example might be 3500m2, housing 60-100 people, living in apartments grouped around courtyards furnished with shrines. Access into the compound was controlled, thanks to a small number of entrances. Residents of a compound must have had some connection with each other - either family, or the same occupation (obsidian working was much practiced), or even, in this cosmopolitan city, place of origin (a compound for Oaxacans has been identified in the west part of the city, another for Gulf coast/ Maya lowlanders in the east). Typically, each compound had one or two rich burials in it, under the floor, with grave offerings that might include pottery, obsidian objects, and textiles.

The compounds show social differences. The larger, richer compounds centrally located close to the Avenue of the Dead may have housed the ruling class. Elsewhere, ordinary people lived in compounds of similar ground plan, but made of cheaper materials, and without decoration (such as wall paintings).

Writing was little used here - a surprise, since contacts between Teotihuacan and cities that routinely used writing (such as Monte Alban and Tikal) are clear. Because of the scarcity of writing, we might hope that pictorial art might give some clues about the society, about daily life. Wall paintings, a frequent decoration in the compounds, show supernatural beings, especially the goggled storm god and a `goddess'. Images stress harmony and agricultural plenty. Humans, when they occur, are anonymous, shown in profile, in procession. Rulers are never shown, neither in the murals nor in other arts. This absence of ruler portraits and images of power contrasts with art in Mayan cities, in which rulers are presented on carved stelai, or at Monte Alban, with its Danzantes (Dancers) reliefs, images not of dancers but of enemy dead. In sum, pictorial art does give information about ideologies in favor at Teotihuacan, but presents nothing that chronicles specific people and their accomplishments.

Teotihuacan is not typical of Mesoamerican cities, but then neither is Monte Alban or Tikal. In any case, the same themes of daily life that we list for Old World cities can be applied to the New World as well - with, as always, each site providing certain types of information, but not others.

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