A Look at Teotihuacan for International Archaeology Day

Founded in the first century BCE near a set of natural springs in an otherwise dry northeastern corner of the Valley of Mexico, the ancient metropolis of Teotihuacan was on a symbolic level a city of elements. With a multiethnic population of perhaps one hundred thousand, at its peak in 400 CE, it was the cultural, political, economic, and religious center of ancient Mesoamerica. A devastating fire in the city center led to a rapid decline after the middle of the sixth century, but Teotihuacan was never completely abandoned or forgotten. Today the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the most visited archaeological site in Mexico.

Photograph of Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan for International Archaeology Day
View of the Sun Pyramid looking east. At 63 meters tall, the Sun Pyramid was one of the largest and tallest structures in the Western Hemisphere until the development of the skyscraper in the nineteenth century. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías, © INAH. Image courtesy of the FAMSF.
Detail of pyramid sculptures at Teotihuacan
Facade of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, assembled as a mosaic of large and small sculptures. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara Elías, © INAH. Image courtesy of the FAMSF.

The recently opened exhibition at the de Young Museum is historic in many ways. The result of long-term international collaboration, including a 30 year partnership with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), the spectacular exhibition features more than 200 artifacts and artworks from the site displayed in dramatic and awe-inspiring ways. It is a rare opportunity to contemplate objects drawn from major collections in Mexico, some very recently excavated, and many on view in the U.S. for the first time.

Exhibition detail from de Young Museum
Installation of “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” at the de Young Museum. Image courtesy of the FAMSF.
Excavation photography from Teotihuacan
Two standing anthropomorphic sculptures discovered near the terminus of the tunnel beneath the Ciudadela and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. Photograph by Sergio Gómez Chávez. Image courtesy of the FAMSF.

Today is International Archaeology Day, so curator Matthew Robb’s comments on the exhibition are especially timely.

“The ideas behind Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire were really inspired by the work of my archaeologist colleagues. They selected many of the objects for the catalogue from their own projects, and we worked together to shape those selections into a coherent image of this ancient city. We had a real opportunity to showcase their work to a broader audience, as well as provide the field with an important update to what we know about Teotihuacan. Archaeology is painstaking, intensely collaborative work—it requires so much patience and discipline. The end result is that tantalizing glimpse into the past, into how people once lived and thought—a glimpse made more complete by the meticulous gathering of data and objects archaeologists carry out every day.”  —Matthew Robb, curator

In the exhibition, monumental and ritual objects from Teotihuacan’s three largest pyramids—the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, the Moon Pyramid, and the Sun Pyramid—are shown alongside mural paintings, ceramics, and stone sculptures from the city’s apartment compounds. By bringing these pieces together, and contextualizing specific sites within the city, this is an unprecedented opportunity to experience a significant place in Mexico’s cultural landscape.

Map drawing of Teotihuacan site
Site map of Teotihuacan. Composed by Hilary Olcott, Image courtesy of the FAMSF.
Detail of exhibits at de Young Museum
Installation of “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire” at the de Young Museum. Image courtesy of the FAMSF.

Edited by Matthew Robb and co-published with the de Young Museum, the beautifully illustrated catalogue is equally impressive in its scope and ability to unearth the secrets within and beneath the city that are only now coming to light.

Cover image of exhibition catalogue

For an all-access preview of the exhibition check out the Teotihuacan digital story. We expect that it will inspire not only a visit to the exhibition, but also a trip to Mexico to see the captivating and mysterious ancient city en vivo.

Note that the exhibition will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) in Spring 2018.

In honor of International Archaeology Day, save 30% on the exhibition catalogue with code 16M4197.


The Fifth Beginning

by Robert W. Kelly, author of The Fifth Beginning: What Six Million Years of Human History Can Tell Us about Our Future

This guest post is published in conjunction with the American Anthropological Association conference in Minneapolis. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on November 20th.

UC Press is proud to be part of the AAUP’s fifth annual University Press Week. Check out our blog and social media channels through Nov. 19th (plus follow hashtags #ReadUp #UPWeek), and learn how we, along with 40 of our scholarly press colleagues, work diligently to publish vital works benefitting educational, specialized research, and general interest communities.

9780520293120Ask an archaeologist why he or she does archaeology and you might hear “we study the past to understand the future.” In The Fifth Beginning I take that charge seriously: What can six million years of human prehistory tell us about our future?

Archaeology’s ability to tell us about the future might seem limited. But with some much time at its disposal, archaeology can see the biggest of the big pictures. As I tell students, we often can’t see the trees, but we see the forest with great clarity. Using this strength, I argue that humanity has passed through four transitions, or beginnings, when human life changed, forever. Archaeologists recognize these transitions by virtue of their significant change in humanity’s signature on earth.

The first four beginnings are familiar to archaeologists. The first is the beginning of technology, marked by the appearance of stone tools some 3.3 million years ago.

The second is the beginning of the capacity for culture, for symbols, and for life in a symbolically-constructed world. Starting between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago, this beginning was marked by art, complex tools, burials and, most likely, religion.

The third beginning was agriculture, which occurred in various places after 12,000 years ago. This was marked by permanent villages, and the spread of domesticated plants and animals.

The fourth beginning entailed the origin of states, organizations with centralized power and authority. This was marked by “shock and awe” public architecture, art, science and clever technologies, e.g., to enhance food production and to transport of goods, people, and information. It’s also the time of standing armies, warfare, poverty, racism, and sexism. It’s the time we live in now.

By taking an archaeological perspective on recent history, I show that an archaeologist 100,000 years from now would recognize another beginning, one marked by the massive impact of humanity on earth, by the connecting of literally every corner of the globe, by widespread similarity in material culture, and by rapid change in material culture.

These beginnings were and are emergent phenomena. Hunter-gatherers didn’t intend to become farmers; they became farmers while trying to be the best hunter-gatherer they could be. The same is true today. In trying to be the best industrialized, well-armed, capitalist nation-state, we will become something completely different.

What might the fifth beginning entail? Using prehistory as a training ground, I detect three processes at work today: the escalating cost of war, the global reach of capitalism, and the globalization of culture. These processes point to a future where war is no longer a viable way to solve problems, where capitalism will reach a logical endpoint, and where the nation-state will no longer be a sacred organization. It’s the end of life as we know it. But it’s not Armageddon. It’s the beginning of global self-governance marked by new forms of cooperation. And despite how bleak things may appear today, the fifth beginning could be humanity’s finest hour.

When sharing on social media, please be sure to use the #AAA2016 hashtag!

Bob_ at 11_000 feet in Absarokas_ 2014

Robert L. Kelly is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. He is a past president of the Society for American Archaeology, current editor of American Antiquity, author of The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, and coauthor of two popular textbooks, Archaeology and Archaeology: Down to Earth. He has conducted archaeological research throughout the western United States for more than forty years.

In Memoriam: Lewis Binford

Lewis Binford photoDistinguished author and archaeology scholar Lewis Binford died on Monday at age 79. UC Press published his last major work, Constructing Frames of Reference, which won the Society for American Archaeology’s book prize, as well as his essay collection In Pursuit of the Past.

Binford was an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and a formidable force in his field for decades. Many consider him to be the single most influential figure in archaeology in the last half-century.

In a letter to members, World Archaeological Congress President Claire Smith gave this brief summation of Binford’s career:

“Lewis Binford was a pioneer in the ‘New Archaeology’ movement of the 1960s. His vision for a scientific approach to archaeology led the discipline away from the cataloguing of cultural histories to the use of scientific methods aimed at explaining cultural processes and site formation processes. Binford’s academic career was based at the University of New Mexico and subsequently at Southern Methodist University. He was an inspiring, committed researcher and a kind and generous teacher. He was one of archaeology’s great minds.”

4100 B.C. Was a Good Year for Wine

What’s your favorite vintage? 2005? 2007? How about 4100 B.C.? That’s the year scientists have dated the earliest known winery, discovered in a cavern in Armenia. The international team of researchers, based out of UCLA, found a vat they believe was used for pressing grapes, along with the remains of crushed grapes, seeds, vine leaves, storage jars, and drinking cups in an archaeological site known as Areni-1.

Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia and author of Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages, told the AP, “The evidence argues convincingly for a winemaking facility.” In Uncorking the Past, McGovern explores a provocative hypothesis about the integral role libations have played in human evolution, from the rice wines of China and Japan to the corn beers of the Americas to the millet and sorghum drinks of Africa.

The winemaking site in Armenia was surrounded by graves, leading researchers to believe the wine was used in a ceremonial context. McGovern supports this theory: “Even in lowland regions like ancient Egypt where beer reigned supreme, special wines from the Nile Delta were required as funerary offerings and huge quantities of wine were consumed at major royal and religious festivals,” he explained.

The Wall Street Journal also covered the story, and created a video that features photographs from the dig site. Watch it below:

Ancient Brew

Ta Henket banner
The label for Dogfish Head's Egyptian brew, Ta Henket

Patrick McGovern, author of Uncorking the Past, accompanied the owners of Dogfish Head Brewery on their quest to create an ancient Egyptian beer on the Discovery Channel show “Brew Masters” last week.

McGovern, an archaeologist whose research specializes in the origins of alcoholic beverages, traveled to Egypt with the brewers to examine the earliest known depiction of beer brewing in a 4,000-year-old Egyptian tomb, help them gather ingredients in Cairo’s famous spice market, and collect a native Egyptian strain of yeast.

The result? Ta Henket, a limited release beer that incorporates the ancient ingredients and techniques described in Egyptian hieroglyphics, brewed with loaves of hearth baked bread and flavored with dom-palm fruit, chamomile, and zatar.

Watch clips of the episode online.

Indigenous Archaeology and the Pueblo Revolt

The Jemez mission of Guisewa. Photo by Michael Wilcox

The widely held, history-book narrative of Native peoples in America is one of conquest and devastation, of Indigenous cultures long ago wiped out by acculturation, violence and disease. Michael Wilcox, author of The Pueblo Revolt and the Mythology of Conquest, finds that this narrative is a myth, and needs to be reexamined.

In fact, Native peoples repeatedly resisted conquest, in revolts that are documented in Spanish records and in Indigenous oral traditions, but omitted from history books. The Spanish accounts reveal the extent of colonial brutality, as well as how ideology served to rationalize and quiet moral conflict about their actions. And far from vanishing, Native cultures still exist today. “The presence of four and a half million Native Americans in the United States is a complete mystery to most people. There is no story that explains what they are still doing here”, said Wilcox, quoted in the Stanford Report. Rather than trying to explain the supposed disappearance of Native cultures, Wilcox asks the more interesting question of how to understand their continued presence, and how to reconcile the European conquest narrative with the Native American narrative of resistance.

Wilcox explores one of the most successful Indigenous revolts in America, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when Pueblo leaders expelled Spanish colonists from New Mexico in an organized attack. Dispelling the myth that Native Americans swiftly succumbed to acculturation and disease brought by Europeans, Wilcox takes an indigenous approach that explains both the continued presence of Native Americans and instances of resistance like the Pueblo Revolt. He shows how an indigenous archaeology can bridge the gap between the study of Native American cultures and the living members of those cultures. In this video from Stanford University, Wilcox discusses the Pueblo Revolt and its implications for today.