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 Complicated History of Crime and the Truth in Mexico

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Pablo Piccato, author of A History of Infamy: Crime, Truth, and Justice in Mexico

Projects like the one resulting in my latest book have a life of their own. At first my goal was to take to the present the social history approach to the history of crime in Mexico City I used in City of Suspects (2001), and to engage more explicitly with the growing social science scholarship on security and drug trafficking in Mexico. But as I started the research, and the situation in Mexico deteriorated, the project changed, forcing me to ask new questions. For example, I compiled the statistics of indicted and sentenced in the entire country during the twentieth century only to find that violent crime had steadily decreased until the last years of the century. How to reconcile that with the increasing centrality of the themes of crime and justice in Mexican life? More important, perhaps, was my own disappointment with the emerging scholarship mentioned above. Political scientists, sociologists and legal scholars embraced a state-centered perspective that focused on security and policy models to solve the problem of crime. Yet much of this scholarship did not challenge some of the basic assumptions of the state discourse about crime: criminals were a well-defined group of people, policing and punishment were the only mechanisms to control them, civil society had no role in dealing with transgression, drug trafficking was the cause of everything bad that was happening in the country. A lot was happening indeed: criminal organizations were diversifying their activities and engaging in human trafficking, extortion and other predatory activities along with the production, smuggling and sale of illicit drugs. Mexican governments were increasingly relying on a militarized approach to the so-called “war on drugs.” Policies and aggressive enforcement nevertheless failed to stem the flow of drugs and reduce corruption and impunity. The arrests or killing of the higher ups of some organizations only created internecine fighting among them, and more violence across the national territory. By the beginning of this decade the toll had reached more than a hundred thousand deaths and a large number of disappeared.

Facing the overwhelming scale of the problem, it became clear to me that a mere historical narrative of the transformation of crime during the century would not be so useful. In 2010 I had published another monograph, Tyranny of Opinion, focusing on the history of the public sphere in the nineteenth century. That project’s focus on the public sphere helped me refine my approach to twentieth-century crime: questioning the way in which multiple actors discussed the problem of violence and the shortcomings of justice revealed the basic assumptions that informed contemporary understandings of crime. Thus, for example, examining the debates about famous cases in front of the jury, in the press, and in detective fiction explained the central role that murderers acquired in Mexican visions of crime during the century. Murderers became fascinating and complex characters whose first-person accounts, usually in the form of confessions, revealed the truth in a way that judicial institutions failed to achieve. Listening to people’s skeptical views about the police and judicial system since the 1930s gave me the key to understand the centrality of the problem of truth in contemporary Mexico. The majority of the homicides that are committed these days will never be investigated because the state gives priority to the disruption of criminal organizations over the loss of life that the war on drug entails. As a result, Mexican civil society, particularly the relatives of victims, no longer trust official accounts, and fight for their right to know the truth. Reading old crime news and detective novels allowed me to see the relevance and deep roots of Mexican citizens’ claims for the truth.

A History of Infamy also addressed another legacy of the middle decades of the twentieth century: Mexico’s reputation as a place of arbitrary violence and complete impunity. Today, this infamy is expressed through images and narratives of powerful narcos, and has been exploited by Donald Trump as a way to justify anti-immigrant measures. Murderers became celebrities decades ago, but it is only in recent years, and as a result of the scale of the violence of organized crime, that the entire country came to be identified with the threat of violence. As is the case with Mexican civil society, U.S. public opinion needs to go beyond the acceptance of these problems and demand the truth. Trying to understand this present, the book became an exploration of the difficult relationship between violence and the truth.


Pablo Piccato teaches Latin American history at Columbia University. He studied at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the University of Texas at Austin. His books include City of Suspects: Crime in Mexico City, 1900–1931 and The Tyranny of Opinion: Honor and the Construction of the Mexican Public Sphere.


On Suicide, Death, and Unsettling Notions of Mexico

This guest post is published in conjunction with the meeting of the Latin American Studies Association taking place April 29-May 1 in Lima, Peru. #LASA17

by Kathryn A. Sloan, author of Death in the City: Suicide and the Social Imaginary in Modern Mexico

My son asked me why I study morbid topics like suicide and death. He went on to inquire if I was depressed. I paused a moment before responding, recalling that many of my history colleagues have teased me for being attracted to salacious and macabre themes in Mexican history. I always laugh and remark on the richness of criminal documents for intellectual inquiry, especially for those of us who searching for plebeian voices. The fact is that studying a society in time and place through the lens of perceived social problems like suicide or crime or disease bears considerable scholarly fruit. In my work I have found that when I dig down into the weeds of judicial documents replete with testimony and letters and the newspaper reporting on said crimes, notions of Mexico or Mexicanidad are unsettled.

Indeed Mexico has long been associated with the macabre in popular culture. Heart sacrifice, conquest, civil war, and social revolution have marked Mexican society. Today drug traffickers act with impunity and hang headless corpses from overpasses and kidnap people in broad daylight. On a lighter note, Mexicans celebrate Day of the Dead by festooning tombstones with marigolds, feasting on delicacies, and toasting their dearly departed at gravesites. Likewise tourists consume sugary skulls as they gaze upon the exotic spectacle. Mexico’s making, cured in this crucible of conquest, war, and death, has led some prominent intellectuals to suggest that death defines Mexico. In fact, the stereotype is that Mexicans (especially the Mexican man) mock and face down death with a devil-may-care nonchalance. Death is his ever-present and intimate friend. He is immune to suffering around him.

Intellectuals shaped mexicanidad in a post-revolutionary milieu and strived to define a singular essence that set Mexico apart from its European and Anglo peers. To them Mexicans were trapped in ‘labyrinths of solitude’ and ‘cages of melancholy.’ Examining how Mexicans confronted suicide in Mexico on the cusp of the twentieth century reveals that they did not accept death with a cavalier snicker, nor did they develop a unique death cult for that matter. Mexicans behaved just as their contemporaries did around the modern world. They devoted scientific inquiry to the malady and mourned the loss of each life to suicide. Front-page articles eulogized the women who jumped from the cathedral to their deaths on the paving stones below. Mexico’s Central Park—Chapultepec Park—became a common destination for lovelorn suicides. Medical students and their teachers peered into the craniums of suicide victims in hopes of finding physical markers that foretold a death wish. Crowds of city residents congregated around literal stains of blood to mourn the young man or woman who took their lives in public spaces. Uncovering the myriad ways that Mexicans defined and approached the phenomenon of suicide reveals that they approached death like any world citizens, with an immense sense of concern, humanity, and sensitivity.


Kathryn A. Sloan is Associate Dean of Fine Arts and Humanities in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. She is the author of Runaway Daughters: Seduction, Elopement, and Honor in Nineteenth-Century Mexico and Women’s Roles in Latin America and the Caribbean.