Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire

make up approximately 17% of the total US population. While their history within
this country’s borders predates the nation’s founding, many Latinos experience
the United States as newcomers. A new exhibition explores immigration and
urbanization through an ancient lens and connects modern-day Latinos with what
is for some their ancestral culture. In the first half of the first millennium,
Teotihuacan, located in the Valley of Mexico, was the cultural, political, economic, and religious
center of ancient Mesoamerica. The art and architecture its citizens left
behind have been objects of fascination at least since the time of the Aztecs
and continue to be admired and studied by scholars and visitors from around the

Aerial view of the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacande Young museum

The Americas’ First Big City

Established in the first century BCE, Teotihuacan evolved into a major urban center by the fifth century CE. With as many as 100,000 people, it was the largest city of its time in the Western Hemisphere. Teotihuacan’s ancient citizens dealt with issues that remain relevant to many US residents today. Attracting a wide and diverse population from throughout Mesoamerica, they successfully addressed immigration, trade relationships, and the management of natural resources. In the same way that our country’s national symbols bind us together, Teotihuacan also sought ways to unite people of different backgrounds and traditions through a citywide art and architectural program that promoted shared beliefs.

Figurine, 0200/0250, From the collection of: de Young museum
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The Sun Pyramid (foreground) and Moon Pyramid (background), Teotihuacande Young museum

Ancient Grandeur

Today, people come to Teotihuacan to marvel at its relics. The city’s massive pyramids were known and admired by the Aztecs, who—almost 900 years after the decline of this great metropolis—gave Teotihuacan and its pyramids their names. It is difficult to imagine the sheer human effort it took to construct these grand architectural statements before the use of the wheel, draft animals, or metal tools. As an ancient ruin, Teotihuacan is one of the most-visited archaeological sites in the world. But what drew its earliest immigrants?

Tripod vessel with goggle-eyed figure (0450/0550)de Young museum

A City of Immigrants

Archeologists speculate that a major
geological event, such as a volcanic eruption, brought a large influx of migrants
to Teotihuacan. Like many of today’s migrants to the United States, those who
followed were probably attracted to the city for economic reasons: with its
productive agricultural lands, impressive pyramids, improved housing, and
growing presence as center of trade throughout Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan was a
great draw. It is also thought that thousands of people from near and far
flocked to Teotihuacan on religious pilgrimages, with many of them staying. This
tripod vessel was likely imported into Teotihuacan from nearby Puebla
and then stuccoed and painted by a local artist. 

This tripod vessel was likely imported into Teotihuacan and then stuccoed and painted by a local artist.

Effigy urn (0450/0550)de Young museum

The Barrios

As they enter multicultural cities like ancient Teotihuacan or today’s Los Angeles, migrants develop strategies that enable them to survive as a social group. Many live in distinct communities where they can continue to express aspects of their original culture. From its foundation, Teotihuacan society integrated diverse ethnic and linguistic groups into a single Teotihuacano identity. But around 250 CE, groups migrating from distant places settled in three distinct barrios in various regions of the city. This urn from an area known as the Oaxaca Barrio was probably imported from the Oaxaca Valley and may have been a cultural heirloom.

Tripod vessel (0450/0550)de Young museum

Dense Urban Living

Outside of
the ceremonial core of the city, where the pyramids were built, the built
environment of Teotihuacan largely consisted of architecturally similar
apartment complexes built in gridlike layouts—living arrangements that are
familiar to many US urban residents today. These apartments were occupied by
extended family groups often specializing in specific craft production such as obsidian
or ceramics. This vessel, depicting a figure in profile wearing a feathered
headdress, was created within an apartment compound known as Tetitla. Shells
and mural fragments found at this site indicate that Tetitla’s residents were
high-status shell traders with ties to the Maya region.

This vessel, depicting a figure in profile wearing a feathered headdress, was created within an apartment compound known as Tetitla. Shells and fragments found at this site indicate that Tetitla’s residents were high-status shell traders with ties to the Maya region.

Incised shell (0150/0250)de Young museum

Trade Relationships

Similar to cities like New York or Chicago, Teotihuacan was a center of commerce and production that extended far beyond its borders. Its trading network was vast, reaching both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and some of its neighborhoods and apartment compounds specialized in trade. In the northeastern Merchants’ Barrio, a group with ties to north-central Veracruz imported valuable materials such as ceramics, jade, amber, flint, and seashells. Artifacts found in all parts of the city, such as this shell, which combines Maya and Oaxaca artistic conventions, suggest that traditions from other regions thrived alongside Teotihuacan styles.

Tassel Headdress mural fragment (Storm God with Flames glyph) (0500/0550)de Young museum

Art at Home

There were an estimated 2,000 apartment compounds in Teotihuacan. Each typically held a number of family apartments around a common courtyard. In many cases the walls were decorated with elaborate mural paintings. These were painted directly into the walls’ wet plaster, creating an extremely durable surface. As the upper walls crumbled over time, only the paintings on the lower registers have survived. The murals’ imagery mirrored that of the larger building programs, creating a common visual vocabulary throughout the city. Like the US flag and other national symbols, this helped to harmonize a diverse population and establish unified ideals.

The Sun Pyramid, Teotihuacande Young museum

Sun Pyramid

If migrants were drawn to Teotihacan for its status as an economic, religious, and cultural stronghold, then the Sun Pyramid is the visual symbol of that power. Dominating the center of the city, the Sun Pyramid is Teotihuacan’s most massive monument and one of the largest ever built in the ancient world. Built around 200 CE, the structure covers roughly 60,000 square yards and rises 200 feet high, making it one of the tallest buildings in the Western Hemisphere until the advent of the modern skyscraper.

Old Fire God sculpture (0500/0600)de Young museum

Fire God: Destruction and Renewal

Archaeologists believe that the Sun Pyramid supported a temple on its summit, which housed this large carving of the Old Fire God made of volcanic stone. Fire was an essential force that both powered and threatened the city; it required careful management and appeasement of the deity who controlled it. Images of the Old Fire God played an important role in unifying the city. Earlier versions of this deity appeared in central and western Mexico. More than 100 Old Fire God figures have been found throughout Teotihuacan, signifying its importance to a diverse population.  

The Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacande Young museum

Moon Pyramid

The Moon Pyramid began as a modest temple at the very beginning of Teotihuacan’s history, around 50 to 100 CE. This date may suggest that state religion was a prime attraction for some of the earliest immigrants to Teotihuacan. At 151 feet tall, the Moon Pyramid is the city’s second-largest monument. Around 250 CE, the structure was greatly enlarged, and elaborate burial offerings were made at its dedication. Groups of sculptures, slate, pyrite, and ceramic objects were carefully arranged around human figures of obsidian and greenstone, and in some cases buried humans or animals. The configurations of materials held special meaning.

Standing figure (0200/0250)de Young museum

Obsidian: Utility and Ritual

Obsidian is the glass that results from the violent heating and eventual cooling of volcanic lava. When flaked it produces an extremely sharp edge, and it has been used for thousands of years as a cutting tool. As a highly valuable trade commodity, obsidian played a crucial role in the establishment of the Teotihuacan state. The early leaders figured out how to gain control over obsidian deposits outside of the city, organize work crews to acquire the raw material, and bring it back to Teotihuacan. They also oversaw the artisans who carved it into utilitarian blades and elaborate ritual figures.  

Standing figure with earflares (0200/0250)de Young museum

The Power of Green 

Jade and greenstone were extremely valuable materials for the ancient Teotihuacanos. Many of these precious stones came from afar, imported along Teotihuacan’s vast supply and trade networks. They were prized for their green color, which served to symbolically represent maize and agricultural fertility. Early Teotihuacanos were able to efficiently farm maize by rerouting water sources and developing complex irrigation systems to produce a supply of food adequate for a large population. The success of the maize crop was crucial to ensuring the survival of the city. Agricultural necessity continues to affect the migration of populations worldwide.   

Detail of the facade of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacande Young museum

Feathered Serpent Pyramid

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is the third largest structure in Teotihuacan. Its size is not extraordinary when compared with the Sun and Moon Pyramids, but here all four facades were covered in elaborate and monumental carvings of undulating serpents, with heads surrounded by wreaths of feathers. The serpents’ bodies support facelike headdresses with nose pendants that may represent a primordial Crocodile, a sign later used by the Aztecs to signal the beginning of a new era; it may also refer to a specific headdress related to warfare. The carved shells surrounding the serpents’ bodies express the importance of water, which is further expressed by the surrounding architecture. 

The Ciudadela, Teotihuacande Young museum

The Ciudalela and the Creation

The Feathered Serpent Pyramid is enclosed in a complex called the Ciudadela (“citadel”), which consists of fifteen stepped platforms surrounding an enormous sunken plaza. Archaeologists have found evidence that the immense Ciudadela was periodically flooded in ritual reenactments of the creation myth that turned this plaza into a simulation of the primordial sea. The Feathered Serpent Pyramid stood in for a sacred mountain that emerged from the sea to begin time. Time and the ancient Mesoamerican calendar were cyclical and required renewal through ceremony. 

Archaeologists sent a small robot equipped with video cameras into the tunnel beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid to visualize its conditions before exploring it furtherde Young museum

The Tunnel

In 2003, Mexican archaeologists discovered a tunnel running 113 yards from the center of the Ciudadela east to a position directly beneath the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Further research indicated this tunnel was made early in Teotihuacan’s history, around 100 CE, before the construction of the pyramid above. Some of the tunnel walls sparkled; they had been embedded with a reflective mineral, pyrite. The tunnel itself had been dug to the level of the water table, providing ancient Teotihuacanos with access to the spring water that comes from the depths of the earth.

Standing figure (0200/0250)de Young museum

A Watery

In Mesoamerican cosmology, the “sacred cave” found beneath the primordial mountain represented the entrance and path to the underworld, an aquatic place filled with riches and nourishing seeds, and inhabited by deities responsible for maintaining order in the universe. If the Feathered Serpent Pyramid is a stand-in for the sacred mountain, then the tunnel beneath it may represent this watery underworld and was perhaps the most important ritual space in Teotihuacan. Archaeologists have uncovered an astonishing array of more than 50,000 objects deposited as offerings. Four greenstone figures may represent the legendary founding ancestors of Teotihuacan. 

Storm God vessel (0150/0250)de Young museum

The Storm God: Elemental Power

A number of Storm God vessels found in the tunnel demonstrate the importance of this deity in the iconographic program of the Ciudadela and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. The Storm God is identified by arching eyebrows or goggled eyes, a curved upper lip, and pronounced fangs. This Storm God holds a lightning scepter in his right hand, referencing fire and violent storms. Teotihuacan is located in an arid region, and agricultural productivity relied on favorable weather as well as systems for diverting water. 

Feathered Serpent and flowering trees mural (Feathered Serpent 1) (0500/0550)de Young museum

Reflections of Belief

This Feathered Serpent mural from an apartment compound illustrates how residential imagery often mirrored and reinforced larger building programs and civic ideology. Like this mural, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid’s facade was originally colored with green and red pigment. The red background represents the sacred cosmic realms of the upper- and underworld. Sparkling hematite and pyrite were mixed into the paint, creating a shimmering surface that would have been activated by reflected light from shallow pools in the compound’s central patio. As in the sparkling tunnel beneath the pyramid, these perceptual effects would have re-created the environment of the watery underworld.

Standing figure (0500/0550)de Young museum


Many objects from Teotihuacan, such as this marble figure, exhibit evidence of violent destruction relating to a great fire that marked the city’s demise. Around 550 CE, the ceremonial center was burned and ritual objects were intentionally smashed and scattered to divest them of their ritual power. Teotihuacan’s decline may have resulted from environmental difficulties or from political unrest and societal tensions rooted in the migrations into the Valley of Mexico. Whatever the cause, the systems of urban and religious maintenance devised by the Teotihuacan rulers that had succeeded for over 400 years fell apart, and Teotihuacan’s regional dominance ended.

Fragments from the eastern facade of the Feathered Serpent Pyramidde Young museum

Teotihuacan’s success for several centuries as the largest city in the Western Hemisphere teaches us how multicultural migrant populations are integrated into urban life, not only in the ancient world but also for Americans today. It also demonstrates the strategies for uniting a diverse citizenry through shared visual vocabulary, religion, and ideology. Neighborhoods in major US cities housing Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and others are modern examples of places where migrants strive to maintain both distinct and common rituals, cultures, and symbolism while incorporating themselves into the national fabric under a single flag.

Credits: Story

The exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire is on view at the de Young museum September 30, 2017–February 11, 2018.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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