Emily Jennings, de Young Museum
California, USA

A note from BHP Team: Collapsed agrarian civilizations are puzzles waiting to be solved. Why did they collapse? What was daily life like? Why did people move there in the first place? Artifacts unearthed by archaeologists shed light on answers to such questions: a ceramic vessel left behind offers hints to how a population managed their complex relationship to the natural environment; an obsidian blade provides a clue  to how rulers may have organized workers.

In “What Shapes an Urban Existence,” we get the opportunity to dig into one example of a collapsed civilization. Teotihuacan was an ancient civilization that thrived for over six centuries, beginning around 100 BCE, in what is today Central Mexico. We’re lucky to have Emily Jennings, of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, explain just how we approach answering questions related to Teotihuacan, its economy, and the power structures that succeeded in uniting its diverse population. What is especially exciting about this piece is that it parallels the dynamic Teotihuacan Digital Story—compiled by a team at the de Young—which is an excellent resource to use in classrooms! (Note that the digital story is also available in Spanish .)

The topics surfaced in this piece integrate nicely with Unit 7 of the Big History Project curriculum : Agriculture and Civilization . Give “What Shapes an Urban Existence?” a read, and then head over to the Teotihuacan Deep Dive to read about what else we’ve got going on with Teotihuacan this month!

-BHP Team 

What Shapes an Urban Existence?

The exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, co-organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, provides an ideal opportunity for students and teachers to investigate the forces that shape an urban existence. The exhibition explores new discoveries that help us understand organizing concepts around city planning, economic infrastructure, and leadership. Through this exhibition, we are offered a rare opportunity to contrast our own experience of urban environments with that experienced by the ancient Teotihuacanos.


Resources and Urban Planning
The city of Teotihuacan, located in central Mexico, existed between 100 BCE and 550 CE. For the community to survive and thrive, the earliest residents had to solve two problems: How to feed the population and how to provide water. The region in which Teotihuacan was located is arid. Agricultural land was created and maintained by modifying and diverting the natural springs and rivers. These water sources were also used to run water through the city. Still, agricultural productivity relied on favorable weather. Many ceramic vessels and murals depicting the Storm God and humans impersonating him have been found at Teotihuacan. These images attest to the importance of water for the survival of the community.

Storm God Vessel, 150–250. Ceramic, 11 1/4 × 8 1/4 in. (28.5 × 21 cm). Zona de Monumentos Arqueológicos de Teotihuacán. Photograph by Jorge Peréz de Lara Elías, © INAH.

The provision of plentiful food and water gave rise to expansive population growth. Archaeologists have determined that many groups of people from the surrounding areas migrated to Teotihuacan around 100 CE, although it is unclear what prompted these relocations. At its peak, Teotihuacan occupied 7.5 to 9.5 square miles. Teotihuacan was the most densely populated city in the ancient Americas, with approximately 100,000 people residing there; it was the cultural, political, economic, and religious center of ancient Mesoamerica. Unlike other ancient cities that developed over a gradual period from a central village, Teotihuacan bears the hallmarks of a rigidly planned community. Two such hallmarks are the massive Street of the Dead and the residential apartment compounds.

Panoramic view from the summit of the Pyramid of the Moon, with the Pyramid of the Sun on the far left. Photo by Rene Trohs. CC BY-SA 4.0.
Map of Teotihuacan, the ceremonial core. Image courtesy de Young Museum.


Public and private spaces were constructed following a rigorous, state controlled master plan. The city is arranged in a precise and symbolic layout that aligns with a north-south orientation of 15.5 degree east of astronomical north. The Street of the Dead, which connects the three impressive pyramids that dominate Teotihuacan, aligns with this directional orientation. Similarly aligned are the apartment compounds, which also indicate a centralized state control both through their social stratification and decoration. Teotihaucan is unusual in its provision of housing for most of its occupants. The size, location, and level of decoration of the apartment compound reflect different social levels. The high-status apartments are located closest to the Street of the Dead or the ceremonial center of the city. One high-status compound close to the ceremonial center was surrounded by a double wall about three meters wide that would have allowed watchmen to walk around it. It is estimated that there were about 2,000 apartment compounds, ranging widely in their physical size and level of decoration. In most cases, the walls of these apartments were decorated with elaborate mural paintings. The signs and symbols used in these murals are unified and reinforce the idea of state controlled messaging within domestic environments.

Small household shrines at Teotihuacan. The central shrine in Patio 2 at Atetelco. Photograph © Christophe Helmke, courtesy of the Zona Aqueológica de Teotihuacan.
Techinantitla Mural, North Wall. Photograph by Saburo Sugiyam. 

Most of these apartment complexes housed extended family groups who often specialized in specific craft production. Although we do not know the ethnic identity of much of Teotihuacan’s population or what languages they spoke, we do know that the city was multicultural. Many different ethnic groups called the city home, and undoubtedly residents spoke multiple languages, with some carrying out the cultural practices of their homelands.


Crafting an Economy
Aside from the robust cultivation of maize or corn, other forms of trade also contributed to Teotihuacan’s economic vitality—specifically obsidian and ceramics. Obsidian is the glass that results from the violent heating and eventual cooling of volcanic lava. It has been used for thousands of years as a cutting tool. In ancient times, it was a highly valuable trade commodity. Obsidian played a crucial role in the establishment of the Teotihuacan state. The early city 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 oversaw the artisans who carved it into utilitarian blades and elaborate figures as well the local and long-distance trade of the material.

Standing Figure, 200–250. Obsidian, 19 5/8 × 5 × 1 1/8 in. (49.9 × 12.8 × 3 cm). Zona de Monumentos Arqueológicos de Teotihuacán, 10-615748 3/3. Photograph by Jorge Peréz de Lara Elías, © INAH.

Throughout Teotihuacan, we also find evidence of trade routes that connected the city with other communities across Mesoamerica. Jade and greenstone were extremely valuable materials, due to their color and durability. Many of these precious stones came from afar, imported along Teotihuacan’s vast supply and trade networks. Teotihuacanos also prized the iridescent green feathers of the Quetzal birds. These feathers were imported from the Maya regions of southern Mexico and Guatemala, nearly 600 miles away from Teotihuacan.

With advances in forensic testing, new discoveries about the daily lives of Teotihuacanos is now available. Analysis of bones shows signs of repeated movements and stresses over time, allowing archaeologists to identify various forms of labor. Forensic testing also detects strontium isotopes in the skeletal remains, which provides additional evidence of the vast network of foreign workers. Beyond obsidian and ceramic craftsmanship, Teotihuacanos also worked preparing lime for plastering walls, creating ornaments from precious stone, manufacturing garments and headdresses, forming and painting pottery, and making nets and baskets.

Figure 2 Detail of the tunnel’s exploration. Photograph by Sergio Gómez Chávez .


Power Structures
While the rigid city layout and impressive monuments of Teotihuacan speak to a powerful ruling class, the leaders of this civilization remain largely anonymous in the art and architecture. What we do know is that they successfully managed the city’s diverse population for 400 years. Based on the grandeur of the ceremonial center of the city, researchers infer that the centralized religion reinforced the ruling class’s power as well as their authority to rule. The expansive dedicatory offerings found at key points within the pyramid structures also suggest that this ruling class amassed military strength and exercised diplomatic influence over a large area of the region. Control of the water supply may have also augmented the power of the ruling class.

The Teotihuacan leaders required solutions to unite diverse populations. Stone figures of the Old Fire God provide an example of one way this was accomplished. The Old Fire God first appeared in central Mexico, western Mexico, and Oaxaca in advance of Teotihuacan. Adopting and modifying this familiar deity helped immigrants feel connected to Teotihuacan. Over one hundred Old Fire God figures have been found throughout the city, in both high- and low-status locations, which no doubt helped to bind the many different ethnic groups together.

Old Fire God, 150–550. Stone, 25 9/16 × 24 13/16 × 26 in. (65 × 63 × 66 cm). Museo Nacional de Antropología / INAH, 10-81811.


Modern Times
As a civilization case study, Teotihuacan offers many points of comparison to our modern time. When we look at the structure and sophistication of the site, we can’t help but question elements of our own urban experience. What does the plan of your town or city express about what is important to your community? What industries support your local economy and what evidence do these enterprises create? How does your community create a sense of collective belonging while also preserving cultural traditions? What cultures are represented in your community?

About the author: Emily Jennings is the Associate Director of Education, School, and Family Programs at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Her work focuses on supporting students, teachers, and families to develop skills that empower curiosity and make the museum’s collection relevant to all audiences. When not at the museum, she enjoys learning about the meaning of life from her 5-year-old son.

Cover image: View of the Sun Pyramid and Moon Pyramid, by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías. Photograph courtesy de Young Museum.

3 thoughts on “What Shapes an Urban Existence? A Case Study on Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire

  1. It seems to me that all the common area’s between the raised platforms was probably filled with water. Which would’ve created quiet a glimmering impression to any person traveling from a distant land.


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