Teotihuacan: The Place Where The Gods Were Born

TEOTIHUACAN LESSON PLANS

 READ:  DO:
 The Place Where Gods Were Born
Build a Scale Model of the Pyramid of the Sun
 The Ruins
Walk the Avenue of the Dead
 Who Built It? Think about Urban Planning Across Time
What Happened?
 Create an Infographic

Today, the impressive Aztec are among the most famous and well-documented of Mexico’s many pre-Columbian civilizations, and rightfully so – in the space of just a few generations, the Aztec – also known as the Mexica – conquered their neighbors and founded a formidable and wealthy empire.  The Aztec developed a rich cosmology and controlled vast networks of trade and tribute reaching north, south, east, and west for many thousands of miles.  Their monumental architecture is still impressive today – even in ruins excavated from beneath Mexico City, the imperial capital of the Spanish conquistadors who deliberately attempted to erase the Aztec from the face of the Earth.

But as impressive as the Aztec were, when they arrived in the early 1300s as marginal, road-weary nomads in the area of modern day Mexico City, they found themselves awestruck by the decaying ruins of an even grander, even more ancient civilization.  Confounded by this abandoned city, the Aztec fell into reverence for a grandeur they could scarcely imagine had been raised by human hands.  Not knowing what else to say, not even knowing the language of its long dead inhabitants, they called these ruins Teotihuacan – in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, “the place where gods were born.”  

As fitting a name as any – the Aztec went on to model much of their religion, their grand architecture, their very view of the world on the massive pyramids, finely-hewn artifacts, and colorfully rendered imagery they found here.  

Even today, visitors to Teotihuacan find themselves gasping in awe, few realizing that anything so monumental and impressive exists anywhere outside of a better-publicized place like Egypt – that prehistoric American peoples could create something so staggeringly massive.

View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from the Pyramid of the Moon in 2016. The smaller flat-topped structure central to this photo is a talud-tablero, which are numerous at Teotihuacan.  Click to enlarge.

Let’s take a walk down the Avenue of the Dead and figure out what we know about the great city of Teotihuacan.

The Ruins

  1. Name a briefly describe the main features of the ritual center of Teotihuacan.
  2. Which elements of architecture and decoration appear in later Mesoamerican cultures? 

mapwithscalesThe city’s broad central avenue, called “Avenue of the Dead” (a translation from its Nahuatl name Miccoatli), runs east and west and is flanked by impressive ceremonial architecture, including the immense Pyramid of the Sun (third largest in the World after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza). Along the Avenue of the Dead are many smaller talud-tablero platforms. The Aztecs believed these were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue. Scholars have now established that these ceremonial platforms were topped with temples.

Schematic representation of the talud-tablero style used in many Mesoamerican pyramids and a prominent stylistic feature of Teotihuacano architecture.  It is found in many cities and cultures but is strongly associated with the Teotihuacan culture of central Mexico, where it is a dominant architectural style. Talud-tablero’s appearance in many cities during and after Teotihuacan’s apogee is thought to be indicative of the city’s powerful influence in Mesoamerica as a trade, art, and cultural center, with the architectural style serving to either emulate Teotihuacan or affiliate the cities together.

The geographical layout of Teotihuacan is a good example of the Mesoamerican tradition of planning cities, settlements, and buildings as a representation of the view of the Universe. Its urban grid is aligned to precisely 15.5º east of North. One theory says this is due to the fact that the sun rose at that same angle during the same summer day each year. Settlers used the alignment to calibrate their sense of time or as a marker for planting crops or performing certain rituals. Another theory is that there are numerous ancient sites in Mesoamerica that seem to be oriented with the tallest mountain in their given area. This appears to be the case at Teotihuacan, although the mountain to which it is oriented is not visible from within the Teotihuacan complex due to a closer mountain ridge.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is the modern-day name for the third largest pyramid at Teotihuacan.   It is located at the southern end of the Avenue of the Dead.  The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is a six-level step pyramid built in the talud-tablero style. The outside edges of each level are decorated with feathered serpent heads alternating with those of another snake-like creature, often identified as Tlaloc.  This structure is notable partly due to the discovery in the 1980s of more than a hundred probably sacrificial victims found buried beneath the structure. The burials, like the structure, are dated to between 150 and 200 CE. The pyramid takes its name from representations of the Mesoamerican “feathered serpent” deity which covered its sides. These are some of the earliest-known representations of the feathered serpent, often identified with the later Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest building in Teotihuacan, believed to have been constructed about 200 CE.  The name Pyramid of the Sun comes from the Aztecs, who visited the city of Teotihuacan centuries after it was abandoned; the name given to the pyramid by the Teotihuacanos is unknown.  

The Pyramid of the Sun, 2016.

Over the structure the ancient Teotihuacanos finished their pyramid with lime plaster imported from surrounding areas, on which they painted brilliantly colored murals. While the pyramid has endured for centuries, the paint and plaster have not and are no longer visible. Jaguar heads and paws, stars, and snake rattles are among the few images associated with the pyramids.

It is thought that the pyramid venerated a deity within Teotihuacan society, however, little evidence exists to support this hypothesis. The destruction of the temple on top of the pyramid, by both deliberate and natural forces prior to the archaeological study of the site, has so far prevented identification of the pyramid with any particular deity.

Pyramid of the Sun Quick Measurements:

Dimension Value
Height 71.17 meters or 233.5 feet
Base Area 794.79 square meters or 8,555.0 square feet
Length 223.48 meters or 733.2 feet
Width 111.74 meters or 366.6 feet
Angle of slope 32.494 degrees
Lateral surface area 59,213.68 square metres or 637,370.7 square feet (assumes perfect square base and smooth faces)
Volume 1,184,828.31 cubic metres or 41,841,817 cubic feet (assumes perfect square base and smooth faces)

The Pyramid of the Moon is the second largest pyramid at Teotihuacan, after the Pyramid of the Sun and mimics the contours of the mountain Cerro Gordo, just north of the site. The Pyramid’s construction between 200 and 250 CE completed the bilateral symmetry of the temple complex. A slope in front of the staircase gives access to the Avenue of the Dead, a platform atop the pyramid was used to conduct ceremonies in honor of the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan, the goddess of water, fertility, the earth, and even creation itself.

Panorama Moon Pyramid Teotihuacan

The Pyramid of the Moon.

Who Built It?

  1. Why don’t modern historians have a better idea of who built Teotihuacan?  
  2. What can we say with relative certainty about Teotihuacan?  What kind of evidence supports these conclusions?

The early history of Teotihuacan is quite mysterious, and the origin of its founders is uncertain. Around 300 BC, people of the central and southeastern area of Mesoamerica began to gather into larger settlements. Teotihuacan was the largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, almost 1000 years prior to their epoch. The city was already in ruins by the time of the Aztecs.

teotihuacan at its height

At artist’s rendition depicts the rulers of Teotihuacan making a sacrificial offering at the Temple of the Feathered Serpent. Seen in the background is the Temple of the Sun. Both structures would likely have been covered in red plaster during the city’s heyday.

The city reached its peak in AD 450, when it was the center of a powerful culture whose influence extended through much of the Mesoamerican region. At its peak, the city covered over 30 km² (over 11 12 square miles), and perhaps housed a population of 150,000 people, with one estimate reaching as high as 250,000. Various districts in the city housed people from across the Teotihuacano region of influence, which spread south as far as Guatemala. Notably absent from the city are fortifications and military structures.

mapTeotihuacan was a mix of residential and work areas. Upper-class homes were usually compounds that housed many such families, and one compound was found that was capable of housing between sixty and eighty families. Such superior residences were typically made of plaster, each wall in every section elaborately decorated with murals. These compounds or apartment complexes were typically found within the city center.

The vast lakes of the Basin of Mexico provided the opportunity for people living around them to construct productive raised beds, or chinampas, from swampy muck, construction that also produced channels between the beds.  Farmers in Teotihuacan primarily cultivated maizebeans, and squash, the Mesoamerican agricultural trinity. 

Archaeological evidence suggests that Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic city, with distinct quarters occupied by OtomiZapotecMixtecMaya, and Nahua peoples.  

The city was a center of industry, home to many potters, jewelers, and craftsmen. Teotihuacan is known for producing a great number of obsidian artifacts. No ancient Teotihuacano non-ideographic texts are known to exist (or known to have existed). Inscriptions from Maya cities show that Teotihuacan nobility traveled to, and perhaps conquered, local rulers as far away as HondurasMaya inscriptions note an individual nicknamed by scholars as Spearthrower Owl, apparently ruler of Teotihuacan, who reigned for over 60 years and installed his relatives as rulers of Tikal and Uaxactun in Guatemala.

The consensus among scholars is that the primary deity of Teotihuacan was the Great Goddess of Teotihuacan.  Because the dominant civic architecture is the pyramid, it is believed that politics were based on the state religion; religious leaders were the political leaders.

Teotihuacan refined the Mesoamerican pantheon of deities, whose origins dated from the time of the Olmec. Of special importance were the worship of Quetzalcoatl and Tláloc, agricultural deities. Trade links promoted the spread of these cults to other Mesoamerican societies, who took and transformed them. 

gods

These gods from the later Aztec pantheon were heavily influenced by the gods of Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacanos practiced human sacrifice: human bodies and animal sacrifices have been found during excavations of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. Scholars believe that the people offered human sacrifices as part of a dedication when buildings were expanded or constructed. The victims were probably enemy warriors captured in battle and brought to the city for ritual sacrifice to ensure the city could prosper.  Some men were decapitated, some had their hearts removed, others were killed by being hit several times over the head, and some were buried alive. Animals that were considered sacred and represented mythical powers and military were also buried alive, imprisoned in cages: cougars, a wolf, eagles, a falcon, an owl, and even venomous snakes.

What Happened?

  1. What evidence supports the best theories for the decline of Teotihuacan?
  2. Why did the Aztec refer to this city as Teotihuacan – the place where gods were born?
Image result for teotihuacan destruction

The ruins of Teotihuacan as seen from the air.

Scholars once thought that invaders attacked Teotihuacan in the 7th or 8th century, sacking and burning it. More recent evidence, however, seems to indicate that the burning was limited to the structures and dwellings associated primarily with the ruling class. Some think this suggests that the burning was from an internal uprising. They say the invasion theory is flawed because early archaeological work on the city was focused exclusively on the palaces and temples, places used by the upper classes. Because all of these sites showed burning, archaeologists concluded that the whole city was burned. Instead, it is now known that the destruction was centered on major civic structures along the Avenue of the Dead. Some statues seem to have been destroyed methodically, with their fragments dispersed.

Evidence for population decline beginning around the 6th century lends some support to the internal unrest hypothesis. The decline of Teotihuacan has been correlated to lengthy droughts related to the climate changes of 535–536. This theory of ecological decline is supported by archaeological remains that show a rise in the percentage of juvenile skeletons with evidence of malnutrition during the 6th century. This finding does not conflict with either of the above theories, since both increased warfare and internal unrest can also be effects of a general period of drought and famine.

On the other hand, while speaking with National Geographic, George Cowgill, an archaeologist at Arizona State University, explains why the city continues to interest scholars.  “Rather than asking why Teotihuacan collapsed, it is more interesting to ask why it lasted so long.  What were the social, political, and religious practices that provided such stability?”

Activities

  1. Use blocks, textbooks, or other classroom items approved by your teacher to build a pyramid matching the proportions of the Pyramid of the Sun.  Compete with other small groups, or combine your efforts to create something truly monumental in scale.
  2. Get a sense of just how big this place is.  Either in real life (walking and using a cell phone or GPS device to mark the distance) or using Google Maps, overlay the Avenue of the Dead to scale over your city.   Include the positions of the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Temple of the Feathered Serpent.
  3. Compare and contrast the organization of your own city with that of Teotihuacan. What do these layouts suggest about the values, organization, and priorities of their respective cultures? What is at the center?  How do people move around?  Where do the poor live?  The rich?  Where is business done?  Where are the monuments?  What are the most impressive buildings?  Where does the food come from?  
  4. Create an infographic that puts Teotihuacan into context.  Consider the facts, statistics, and details that make this arguably little known site so incredible.  Use this or any one of the many other free tools you can find online to create an informational graphic that teaches others about Teotihuacan.

FURTHER READING

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.

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