The first great city in America stands on the raggedy outskirts of Mexico City. Teotihuacan is half the size of Manhattan, and millions visit the archaeological site every year. Now, Angelenos can get a taste of what it must have been like to live there, courtesy of a new exhibit at LACMA.
Teotihuacan — pronounced tay-oh-TEE-wuh-kahn — is one of the most enigmatic of ancient cultures. We don’t know what language was spoken there, nor what its people called themselves, nor what they called their town. It was the awe-struck Aztecs, who arrived in roughly 1200 AD — some 500 years after the city was abandoned — who dubbed it Teotihuacan — meaning “Birthplace of the Gods.” The Aztecs assumed superhumans created its three mighty pyramids and its great central boulevard and its grid of streets, its walls painted with vividly colored birds and feathered serpents, goggle-eyed cats and squat, angular deities … beings so overwhelming that the Aztecs invited them into their own pantheon, as Quetzalcoatl, their plumed snake, and Tlaloc, their rain god.
At the press preview for “City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan,” LACMA curator Megan O’Neil joked that Tlaloc must have come along with all the crates of artifacts. "Has anybody noticed it’s been raining more often the past three weeks in Los Angeles? Well, about three and a half weeks ago is when the truck arrived delivering the storm god to Los Angeles. And since then, it’s been raining almost every day, and the storm god graced us with a beautiful rainstorm today. I think most people said, 'Oh, I’m so sorry it’s raining today,' and I said, 'That’s wonderful, 'cuz the storm god is here.'"
The exhibit spans the city’s 700-year inhabited history and was assembled in collaboration with Mexico’s Institute of Anthropology and History. It includes some 200 artifacts, and as O'Neil says:
"They’re the fruit of much labor and meticulous work and investigation by many different archeologists over the past century. The first two pieces that you see in the exhibition came out of ground just about 5 years ago. Please take a moment and look into their faces. See their eyes are open, their mouths are open. They’re speaking to us across the centuries; their artists are speaking to us across the centuries."
O’Neil says recent diggings have uncovered objects that help us understand the city’s chronology and complex societal questions, and what the people were like. "Take a look," she says, "and try to find the speech scrolls that are filled with flowers. When you spoke to your deities and your ancestors, you didn’t speak with angry speech — you speak with beautiful, aromatic speech."
For half a millennium, this polyglot, many-cultured city was the center of civilization in the Americas. It traded with other civilizations, like the Maya and the Oaxacans. At LACMA you can see trade goods from the far corners of Mexico and Central America, whose people resided in their own Barrios in Teotihuacan.
The artifacts include many masks. There are also intricately filigreed incense burners and flat-topped stone deities; red-cast Teotihuacanos dancing in the attire of their gods. And murals of feathered snakes gushing water. In fact, the Teotihuacanos almost worshiped water: in a recently discovered tunnel under the Pyramid of the Serpent, archeologists found a watery paradise lined with iridescent minerals and filled with precious objects.
Its people are gone, but the city and its legacy live on, says O'Neil: "Teotihuacan as a city fell into ruin, but it was never lost from memory. The Maya people a thousand miles away, kept making reference to the grand city of Teotihuacan. The people of Tula and Aztec kept making reference to this place of art and writing, of glorious civilization, and we continue that today."
O’Neil says that there are signs of terminal civil strife sometime before 600 AD. But there may be as many explanations for the great city’s demise as there are Teotihuacan archeologists. That’s because, as pioneer scholar Esther Pasztory put it, “Much of their art is minimal and tells no stories.’’
But at LACMA, that art unfolds glories of a great, lost civilization.
“City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan” is at LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion until mid-July.