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.