Teotihuacan at LACMA

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Teotihuacan meant City of the Gods and so it must have appeared to anyone from 2,000 years ago. Three giant stone pyramids erected for worship along with elaborately decorated compounds to house the ruling class were built on a site of some nine square miles in what is now central Mexico. With a population of some 100,000, it was the largest urban center in the Americas. The Sun Pyramid rises to more than 200 feet, as anyone who has climbed those narrow stone steps to the top can attest.

Teotihuacan, just 30 miles from Mexico City, has long been open to tourism and you can still the pyramids and marvel at the sophistication of a civilization that remains something of a mystery after it dispersed around 600 CE. Legendary among the cultures that followed, it was a source of wonder throughout Mesoamerica.

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View of Teotihuacan, Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías, © INAH

City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan at LACMA offers insights into how the society functioned, especially in their methods of worship. Curators Megan E. O’Neill and Matthew H. Robb, now at the Fowler Museum, bring together archaeological finds to amass a portrait of a place and time and people. A version of this exhibition was at the De Young Museum in San Francisco earlier this year.

Though archeologists have explored Teotihuacan since the 19th century, some of the material in this show was excavated quite recently. In 2003, due to a persistent puddle near the Feathered Serpent pyramid, large stones were lifted away from the ground to reveal a previously unknown tunnel about 300 feet long.

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Flowering Tree, detail from Feathered Serpent and Flowering Trees Mural,Techinantitla residential compound, Teotihuacan, Mexico, 500-550, Earthen aggregate, stucco and mineral pigments, 13 x 21 1/4 x 1 3/8 in. (33 x 54 x 3.5 cm), Museo Nacional de Antropología/ INAH, 10-626966, Archivo Digital de la Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH-CANON

Inside was the emulation of a cosmic underworld covered in reflective stone and containing small sculptures, mostly offerings to the Storm Gods, that had been preserved there for some 1800 years.

The exhibition begins with finds from Tlalocan, as that excavation is called, including a pair of male and female figures from around 200 CE, each carved from green stone with open staring eyes and wearing necklaces of circular pebbles.

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Standing Figure, Tlalocan [tunnel under Feathered Serpent Pyramid], Teotihuacan, Mexico, 200–250, Greenstone, 18 1/2 × 7 1/2 in. (47 × 19 cm), Zona de Monumentos Arqueológicos de Teotihuacán / INAH, [Proyecto Tlalocan], Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías, © INAH

Another section presents deities personifying rain, lightening, fire and water. This includes the Feathered Serpent, a creation that remained prominent in the cultural imagination of the region, emerging under different names by the Aztec, Maya and others.

The Moon Pyramid, the second largest, was enlarged around 250 CE reflecting the city’s growing wealth and power. Another recent excavation found offerings of precious stone, especially the green stone and jade that was associated with maize, and the exhibition includes a figurine surrounded by what are termed “eccentrics,” 18 flat obsidian carvings shaped like feathered serpents and lightning bolts. They were executed, like all the carvings, using stone tools, usually sharp wedges of flint or obsidian.

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Mosaic Jaguar, Xalla residential compound, Teotihuacan, Mexico, 400, Volcanic stone, stucco, and pigments, 38 3/8 x 92 3/4 x 29 1/4 in. (97.5 x 235.5 x 74.5 cm), Museo Nacional de Antropología/ INAH (10-626269), Archivo Digital de la Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH-CANON

The exhibition clarifies the ways in which Teotihuacan was a bustling functional city with luxurious, ornamented compounds and broad boulevards. Other complexes were similar to apartment buildings. It was a center of trade and people moved there from great distances. The show includes jewelry made by the Maya, who lived some 800 miles away. Evidence of daily life include heavily decorated censers for burning copal from tropical trees to honor ancestors and deities.

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Standing Figure, 500–550, Calcite marble, 50 3/8 × 18 1/8 × 7 7/8 in., Museo Nacional de Antropología/INAH, 10-642614, Archivo Digital de la Colecciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología/INAH-CANON

Around 550 CE, the ceremonial center of Teotihuacan was burned and many of the grand ritual objects were savagely destroyed including a very large marble marble figure found in the the Xalla compound, likely the location of workshops for craftsmen of all sorts.

After that destructive era, the residents of Teotihucan moved on until it was simply ruins but the awareness of the place and culture continued to fascinate and attract populations throughout Mesoamerica for the centuries to come. The show continues through July 15.