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Art, Ideology, and the City of Teotihuacan: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 8th and 9th October 1988.

Teotihuacan, 'abode of the gods', was where the Aztecs believed that the world was created and time began: the great pyramids in the northeast of the Valley of Mexico had been abandoned for centuries before the rise of Tenochtitlan made the basin once again a focal point in prehispanic Mesoamerica. Nobody remembered what had once been the largest metropolis in the New World as a living city. Yet between AD 100 and 700 Teotihuacan had housed a population estimated at 125,000 to 200,000, in eight square miles of rectangular apartment compounds laid out along a grid of streets, centred on the Street of the Dead where the huge Pyramid of the Sun and Moon and the great enclosure of the Ciudadela demonstrate a concentration of political and economic power rarely seen elsewhere in Mesoamerica. As Elizabeth Boone remarks in her foreword to this useful volume from a 1988 Dumbarton Oaks symposium, 'a strong sense of hierarchical control is everywhere evident at Teotihuacan . . . the art and architecture is controlled in form, conventional, abstract and patterned . . . Teotihuacan is the only city in Mesoamerica that represents an entire culture'.

That culture was developed on a subsistence base of dry farming and a little irrigation, under a dirigiste regime that depopulated the Late Preclassic villages of the eastern valley and concentrated their inhabitants in the city. Although the regime was powerful, it did not flaunt itself in public displays of individually aggrandising art in the manner of the Classic Maya: we have no single portrait of any of the rulers of Teotihuacan, and remain uncertain as to whether any individual exercised supreme power. The lack of a writing system, however close to one the symbolism of the Teotihuacan glyphs developed, leaves it anonymous -- no dates, no names, no archives; like the Indus civilization half a world away and two millennia before, Teotihuacan remains veiled. The Dumbarton Oaks symposium looked at ideology and its iconographic correlates, by-passing the demographic, economic and trade themes which have marked more purely archaeological studies of Teotihuacan in recent decades. The introduction by Susan Evans & Janet Catherine Berlo takes note of this broader background, however, and Martha Sempowski's paper on variations in mortuary practice identifies 'luxury goods', with broad and continued access to them by all sectors of society. That society included foreigners, and Michael Spence gives a useful account of the Zapotec enclave of Tlailotlacan, an area on the western margin of the city where people with links to Oaxaca lived. He shows that these links were neither frequent nor strong, and that their version of Zapotec culture was an attenuated one: the notion of this enclave as a kind of Oaxacan embassy representing Monte Alban at Teotihuacan is no longer tenable. It is a great pity that the symposium did not include a contribution from Evelyn Rattray on her work in the 'Merchants' Barrio', a complementary enclave on the eastern side of the city which seems to have housed people from the Gulf Coast and possibly the Maya lowlands.

Margaret Turner examines the lapidary industry which produced spectacular masks and other sumptuary goods in decorative metamorphic stones, and identifies two kinds of workshops: one producing for general consumption, the other making specialized goods for a restricted market. Her study would have benefitted from explicit comparison with the Teotihuacan obsidian industry, the size and degree of central organization of which have recently been downsized dramatically in John Clark's reappraisal of 'workshop' location, but succeeds in pointing up the circumstantial evidence for a society stratified in terms of access to and consumption of non-economic products.

Ruben Cabrera Castro reports on newly discovered murals in the Ciudadela and nearby buildings on the Street of the Dead, while Janet Catherine Berlo uses mural and sculptural evidence, not all of it from Teotihuacan, to examine the central role of the 'Great Goddess' in Classic period central Mexico. Associated with caves, water and the fruits of the earth, such a goddess may be traceable from the Middle Preclassic onwards, but emphasis on a female deity is, as Berlo points out, unusual in Mesoamerica. She may have shared star billing with the Storm God, also iconographically ubiquitous at Teotihuacan, to form a classic example of divine duality, one that achieved its mythic climax in Aztec times when Huitzilopochtli, the ancestral god of war, dismembered his elder sister, the ferocious Coyolxauhqui.

Another iconographic theme, that of the mirror (made from polished pyrite mosaic on a stone or pottery backing) and its significance both at Teotihuacan and elsewhere in Mesoamerica, is expertly dissected by Karl Tabue. He shows how the mirror can be an eye or a face or the sun, its reflective capability employed to generate a symbol for fire or water, or its circular format transposed with a shield or a spider's web. The ambiguity of the mirror, the shallowness of its infinite depth, finds expression in the image of a cave, a door to the other world through which supernaturals or deified rulers pass. A dramatic expression of that passage was found in recent excavations beneath that Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, the earlier phase of the main temple inside the Ciudadela compounds. A series of burial pits on all sides and corners and beneath the centre of the pyramid were found in tunnels which also exposed ancient looting of the central interments. Enough remained, however, to show that most of the mass burials were of males, arguably warriors from their accoutrements, which included necklaces of human jawbones (and imitation ones with shell teeth, suggesting an insufficient supply of the real thing). For the first time in the archaeology of Teotihuacan normal Mesoamerican militarism has appeared to jolt the unsettling image of Arcadian pacificism presented by the art. An apparent elite interment in Burial 13 raises the possibility, as Saburo Sugiyama reports, of 'a ruler, or king, who was buried at the time of the temple's construction |c. AD 150~, and the 'soldiers' interred in and around the temple represent the sacrifice of 'royal retainers''; here again, the common Mesoamerican focus on the ruler may be manifest -- but Rene Millon emphasizes in his concluding synthesis that throughout the later history of Teotihuacan no such individual aggrandisement is know: the leadership becomes faceless, and whether it was monarchic, oligarchic or otherwise, the form of government was not expressed in art or sepulture during the final six centuries of the city's prosperity.

George Cowgill, who collaborated with Sugiyama and Cabrera Castro on these investigations, presents a paper on a different subject, the identification of Teotihuacan's glyphs. Taking depictions of several striking plants, and linking them to the 16th-century Nahuatl texts, the Cantares mexicanos and Psalmodia christiana, he is able to demonstrate continuity in concepts and ritual significance over a millennium. Whether Nahua was spoken at Teotihuacan, and whether it intruded into a Totonac-speaking community, remains unconfirmed. James Langley considers another group of glyphs including Storm God insignia and the constituent panels of composite incensarios, and complements Sugiyama's excavation data with the conclusion that both the iconography and the sign clusters 'have a larger content of martial symbolism than has been suspected, reinforcing the conclusion . . . that military power and sacrifice were the principal subjects of the Teotihuacan notation system'.

Esther Pasztory, on the other hand, believes 'that Teotihuacan had a flexible symbol system that was compounded to fit various situations' and that 'the Aztec-Teotihuacan connection is as minimal as George Kubler said it was |in 1967~'. In an ambitious paper that attracts strong disagreement from Millon, she employs Barthian semiotic analysis 'to reconstruct Teotihuacan from the point of view of an outsider . . . on the basis of the structuring principles, selections, omissions, forms and signs chosen in their works of art and architecture'. Listing the unique features of the city's culture, she claims that its art was the most abstract, i.e. geometric and two-dimensional, in Mesoamerica, and parallels the development of this from earlier Preclassic naturalism with the beginnings of Early Christian art from the Classical tradition, and with the beginning of Modernism a century ago. She believes this to be 'a negation of other Mesoamerican traditions' and to indicate a Utopian city with a new cosmic vision, albeit one which left the state's religion as invisible as its rulers.

Linda Manzanilla's essay on the economic organization of the Teotihuacan priesthood tries to redress this situation by examining possible structural parallels with the well-documented temple-based administrations of Early Dynastic Mesopotamia and the undocumented systems of the Andes, specifically Tiwanaku, arguing for redistribution and the absence of a market at Teotihuacan and thereby opposing directly the standard interpretation of the Great Compound opposite the Ciudadela.

The final paper is a magisterial summary of Teotihuacan studies from 1950 onwards, by Rene Millon, in which he also comments at length and with numerous sharply stated disagreements (especially with Pasztory) on the other chapters in the book. He asks why Teotihuacan was so different ln size, planning, architecture and art from the rest of Mesoamerica, and decides that the rejection of personal rulership in favour of collective government after AD 150 was the germinal event.

It is clear that Teotihuacan was highly unusual, perhaps unique in its culture (although the unexplored nature of most of the remains of Cholula in the neighbouring basin of Puebla leaves some questions begging), and that it was one of the dominant forces in the central highlands of Mexico for much of the 1st millennium AD. Other studies than those in this book have documented the presence of its imagery (or a regional imagery of which Teotihuacan is the best-investigated manifestation) as far away as the Maya lowlands, and the existence of Teotihuacan 'colonies' on the Gulf Coast at Matacapan and in the Maya highlands at Kaminaljuyu has been strongly argued for.

Yet we may be confusing singularity with significance: Teotihuacan was certainly a tightly organized city-state, the first in the New World in which there really was a city and in which the city was, to all intents and purposes, the state. Like the other polities of Late Preclassic through Postclassic Mesoamerica, it maintained external relations, especially with regions of complementary resources in the tropical lowlands: but suggestions that armies, missionaries or merchants from Teotihuacan spun a web of dominance reflect the triumph of armchair speculation over understanding of the harsh realities of the terrain and the logistic problems involved. Because the Aztec empire was based in the valley of Mexico, we have tended to retrodict a central role for the region to earlier periods and to imagine a series of dominating horizon styles spreading out from there, driven by various engines of social and commercial compulsion. But, paradoxically, the increasing focus into which its culture is being brought by studies such as this symposium leads us more closely and more clearly to the conclusion that the importance of Teotihuacan has been exaggerated. NORMAN HAMMOND Department of Archaeology, Boston University
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Author:Hammond, Norman
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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