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Looking for traces of the past: interpreting the surface of the Teotihuacan Valley

Looking for traces of the past: interpreting the surface of the Teotihuacan Valley

During the 2017 field season, the Plaza of the Columns Project used a special type of investigative tool called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to verify archaeological features out in the field. This method of remote sensing integrates GPS technologies, Inertial Measurement Unit, and lasers in order to collect altitudinal data. The combination of these sources help to define the surface of the terrain by generating digital elevation models (DEM) for us to further interpret and analyze.

In general terms, this technique allows us to recover traces of the past, either pre-Hispanic, colonial, or historical, which today are reflected in cultivated terraces, mounds or artificial elevations, and jagueyes or water reservoirs.

These features are blurred in what are now nopaleras (terrain covered in the nopal or cactus plant), agricultural fields, or even modern day villages. But thanks to this surveying method, one can outline the dimensions and proportions of architectural or hydraulic features of the past.

 

Coexistence with the settlers

While surveying the area, we have had the pleasure to interview landowners and gather historical information of past populations. They recalled early childhood stories told by their parents or grandparents about the foundation or organization of their communities since the beginning of the 20th century.

In addition to sharing their experiences, they provided information on the elements that we recognize today in LiDAR images. For example, in the town of Ixtlahuaca in the municipality of San Martin of the Pyramids, interviewees Juan Guillermo Castro, Pablo Rivero, Alejandro Hernández Ramirez, and Sebastián Medina shared stories when the only accessible water was from the water reservoir located in the center of the village. They also recalled the time when this part of the valley belonged to the Hacienda of Cerro Gordo. Other interviewees, Genoveva Diaz Alba with her daughters Lidia and Maria del Carmen Delgadillo Diaz, told us that her husband decided to modify the terrain in the 1970s in order to better cultivate it.

In addition to plentiful stories, some locals were highly generous and went over and beyond. Mr. Filemon Macías Juárez of San Lorenzo Tlamimilolpa not only granted us permission to visit his land but also donated a collection of ceramic materials that he collected throughout his lifetime. This allowed us to increase our comparative sample with late materials and correspond them to the Postclassic occupation of the region.

The enthusiasm and cooperation of the landowners are a result of the clear and transparent management of our objectives. Often times, the locals are contacted by other institutions with much less cordial terms. Therefore, we feel committed to establish clear communication and respect. We want them to feel informed and involved, whether by asking them to personally see the work we do, responding and explaining any personal doubts or observations, or adjusting to their needs and availability.

 

Acknowledgements 

It is important to highlight the support provided by the municipal and auxiliary authorities of Ixtlahuaca and Santa Maria Palapa in the municipality of San Martin of the Pyramids. We also thank San Juan Teotihuacan in the Barrio de Purificación, San Sebastián Xolalpan, San Francisco Mazapa, Santa Maria Coatlan, and San Lorenzo Tlamimilolpan. Lastly, we gives thanks to private organizations such as the Animal Kingdom Zoo.

 

Directors

Directors

In the first excavation season (2015), four sectors were selected to be excavated and were each given a front name: Front A, Front B, Front C, and Front D. For the second season (2016), we opened a new sector called Front E.

Directing each front is an archaeologist responsible for overseeing operations and managing a team of field assistants as well as one or more additional archaeologists.


Verónica Ortega Cabrera

Director of Front A (2015-2017)

Dr. Verónica Ortega Cabrera

Dr. Ortega is the Assistant Director of the Archaeological Zone of Teotihuacan for the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). She knew she wanted to be an archaeologist from her first memorable experience at the age of six when she saw the famous Mexica-Aztec Coyolxauhlqui sculpture.

She studied archaeology at the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), followed by a master’s degree in Mesoamerican Studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a doctorate at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters at UNAM. She also has a degree in Communication Science at UNAM.

Dr. Ortega has worked directly with excavations at the Oaxaca Barrio at Teotihuacan for her doctoral project. She specializes in the archaeology of the Central Highlands in Mexico, particularly in Teotihuacan. Dr. Ortega is also the director of a few projects focused on the conservation and research of various sites including the excavations at the Moon Pyramid Plaza and the Quetzalpapálotl Palace. In her current position, she is in charge of various aspects of the site, such as supervising research and conservation projects and designing and implementing outreach programs.


Saburo Sugiyama

Director of Front B (2015-2017)

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Dr. Saburo Sugiyama

Dr. S. Sugiyama is a professor at the Graduate School of International Cultural Studies at Aichi Prefectural University, Japan, and is a research professor for the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University, U.S.A., where he obtained his Ph.D. in 1995.

His major research interests include Mesoamerican archaeology, ancient complex societies, urbanism, architecture, symbolism, and theories of cognitive archaeology. He has participated in numerous archaeological projects in Japan, Guatemala, and Mexico. He has been very involved in the ancient urban city of Teotihuacan where he has carried out intensive excavations at the Moon Pyramid, the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, and the Sun Pyramid.

Dr. S. Sugiyama has received several awards, including Commendations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan in 2012 and the Shanghai Archaeology Forum Award in 2013. He has published more than 80 chapters, various articles in academic journals, and books (e.g., Human Sacrifice, Militarism, and Rulership: Materialization of State Ideology at the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, Teotihuacan, Cambridge University Press, 2005).

Click here to view his Curriculum Vitae.


 Nawa Sugiyama

Director of Front C (2015-2017) and Front D (2016)

Nawa Sugiyama, Director of Front C (2015, 2016)
Dr. Nawa Sugiyama

Dr. N. Sugiyama joined the Sociology and Anthropology Department at George Mason University (GMU), Virginia, U.S.A., as an assistant professor in spring 2016. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University in 2014 where she transitioned to become a Peter Buck postdoctoral fellow at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution.

For her dissertation, she documented the earliest evidence of carnivore management in Mesoamerica at the site of Teotihuacan where pumas, jaguars, wolves, golden eagles, and rattlesnakes were sacrificed. She did her postdoctoral work on the felids associated with Altar Q in Copan, Honduras, and demonstrated a wider practice of managing wild carnivores for ritualistic purposes. In both cases, she combined zooarchaeological and isotopic data to reconstruct how past human-animal encounters were integral components of the cosmological and socio-political landscape. She is currently working towards building an Archaeological Sciences lab at GMU to continue her interest in utilizing isotopic analysis to reconstruct ancient animal and human diets, migration patterns, and environments.

She has conducted her fieldwork, lab work, and writing with support from various institutions including the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Harvard University, and the Fulbright Foundation.


 William L. Fash

Director of Front D (2015, 2017)

Dr. William Fash

Dr. Fash is the Bowditch professor of Central American and Mexican Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, U.S.A. He obtained his B.A. in Anthropology from the University of Illinois and received his Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1983. In 1977 he joined Gordon R. Willey’s archaeological project in Copán in Honduras of Central America, and he has been working at Copán ever since.

He served as Chair of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology from 1998 to 2004 and as Director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology from 2004 to 2011. He continues to codirect the Mesoamerican Laboratory at the Peabody with his spouse and life-long collaborator Barbara Fash. And from 2000 to 2003, Dr. Fash conducted archaeological excavations at the Xalla Compound in Teotihuacan, Mexico, with his colleagues Leonardo López Luján and Linda Manzanilla.

Dr. Fash has published various books, including Scribes, Warriors, and Kings: The City of Copán and the Ancient Maya (1991, rev. ed. 2001); Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom (2005, with E. Wyllys Andrews); and The Art of Urbanism: How Mesoamerican Kingdoms Represented Themselves in Architecture and Imagery (2009, co-edited with Leonardo López Luján). Because of these accomplishments, he has been decorated twice by the government of Honduras – the Hoja de Laurel de Oro, a lifetime achievement award that recognizes 40 years of service in preserving and documenting Honduras’ cultural heritage, and the 2015 Orden del Pop award from the Museo del Popol Vuh, Guatemala, for his contributions to the Maya heritage.


David Carballo

Director of Front E (2016, 2017)

Dr. David Carballo Photo by Alicia Vera for Boston University Photography
Dr. David Carballo
Photo by Alicia Vera for Boston University Photography

Dr. Carballo is an Associate Professor of Archaeology at Boston University, Massachusetts, U.S.A. He received his Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of California Los Angeles, U.S.A., in 2005 and specializes in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilizations, particularly in the Mexican highlands. He is a tutor in the Mesoamerican Studies graduate program at the Institute of Anthropological Research (IIA) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) as well as a member of the Board of Advisors for the Mexican journal Arqueología Mexicana. Among his publications are: Obsidian and the Teotihuacan State: Weaponry and Ritual Production at the Moon Pyramid (2011, Pittsburgh/UNAM) and Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico (2016, Oxford). A link to his project in the District of Tlajinga, Teotihuacan, is available here.

Archaeologists 2015

Archaeologists 2015

The first excavation season involved a team of 13 archaeologists who were assigned to different fronts. The following is a short biography of each of the archaeologists of the project. In parentheses we indicated the seasons in which they participated.


Sarah Baitzel (2015)

Dr. Sarah Baitzel, Tiwanaku, Bolivia

Sarah is an archaeologist specializing in mortuary archaeology in the pre-Columbian Andes. Since 2004, she has worked in various coastal desert sites in the southern and northern regions of Peru, excavating and analyzing burial contexts associated with the Tiwanaku (A.D. 500-1100) and other cultures. She received her B.A. in Anthropology from the University of California Santa Barbara and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of California San Diego. Her research interests include funerary rituals, material studies (especially textiles and ceramics), bioarchaeology, social identity, and Andean archaeology.

To gain a comparative perspective on the development of early states and urban societies in other regions of the Americas, she joined the Plaza of the Columns Project at Teotihuacan in 2015 where she came to appreciate the site of Teotihuacan for its rich history, culture, and cuisine of central Mexico.


Teresa Hsu (2015)

Teresa Hsu, PPCC Laboratory

Teresa is manager for the Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. She received her Master’s degree in Osteoarchaeology at the University of Southampton, England, where she conducted research using ancient DNA from Pleistocene guanacos of South America.  Besides her work on megafauna extinction of camelids and equids across the Western Hemisphere, she has experience in analyzing osteological material from archaeological sites in the Old World (e.g., Hallan Çemi in Turkey) and coastal sites in Hawaii, Alaska, Oregon, as well as Papua New Guinea. Her background and expertise continue to span across a number of disciplines including forensic anthropology, human skeletal biology, animal domestication, as well as comparative and functional morphology.

Teresa has worked with the Smithsonian Institution since 2011 on the organization, conservation, and management of the PHEA’s collections of modern, archaeological, and paleontological skeletal remains and artifacts. She joined the project in 2015, assisting with the excavations of Front C and initial management of artifact processing at Casa del Rio. With her background in conservation and osteology, she helped curate maxilla necklaces from previous excavations at Teotihuacan as well as processed skeletons for a new comparative osteological collection for the project.


 Ángel Corona Muñoz (2015)

Ángel participated in the first season of the project in 2015 as an archaeologist in Front A.


Mariela Pérez Antonio (2015-2017)

Mariela Pérez, Plaza of the Columns 2016

Mariela received her degree in Archaeology from the Universidad Veracruzana with her thesis entitled “Public and Social Utility of Archaeological Research in Teotihuacan.” She has experience in various excavations, beginning with her 2011 fieldwork with the archaeological project Río de los Pescados in the central semiarid region of Veracruz. In 2012 she participated in the project El Sistema Urbano de la Ventilla in Teotihuacan and analyzed the materials from the archaeological project El Palmar: Urbanization of the Social Space in the Maya Lowlands at Campeche in Mexico. In the same year, she worked for the archaeological project Estero Rabón: Reconstructing the Life of the Olmecs, both in the excavation and analyses of the materials.

In 2015 she joined the excavation team at Teotihuacan and is currently analyzing the first season’s ceramic material.


Omar Rodríguez Campero (2015-2017)

Omar Rodríguez
Omar Rodríguez, Plaza of the Columns 2015

As a graduate from the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH), Omar holds twenty years of research experience in Mesoamerican cultures, particularly in the Mayan culture. He has served as field manager of various research projects at the archaeological sites of Calakmul, Balamku, and Dzibilnocac in Campeche, Mexico. He has also participated in a paleontological research project in Tocuila, Texcoco, in partnership with the Autonomous University of Chapingo and the Laboratory Branch and Academic Support of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), as well as with the Projects of Formative Research in the Mezquital Valley at the state of Hidalgo. From 2003 to 2006, he served as head of the ancient Mayan city of Calakmul, collaborating on the management, design, and implementation of signage at the site. Among his professional interests are architectural conservation, protection and dissemination of cultural heritage, and semiotics applied to historical disciplines.


Adriana Sánchez López (2015-2017)

Adriana Sánchez
Adriana Sánchez

Adriana is an archaeologist from the National School of Anthropology and History (ENAH). Her thesis topic is a thematic interpretation on a specific area of Teotihuacan. She has worked in various projects in the historic center of Mexico City with the Archaeological Salvage Sub-Directorate (Subdirección de Salvamento Arqueológico, now Directorate), and her subsequent experience has led her to participate in the San Francisco River Project in the city of Puebla. She remained in the Mayan area for nearly 13 years, where she worked with several researchers and ultimately managed the archaeological research project “Tabasqueños,” a site in the Chenes region. There in Campeche, she devoted her extra time to a program implemented by the Center of National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), providing workshops for foster children and their guardians. Since March 2011, she has participated in several projects in Teotihuacan, including the conservation project “Quetzalpapalotl-Jaguares” and “Estructura I” of the Moon Plaza.


Ariel Texis Muñoz (2015, 2016)

Ariel Texis
Ariel Texis

Ariel is an archaeologist at the University of the Americas at Puebla (UDLAP) and thesis candidate of the Tlalancaleca Archaeological Project at Puebla. As a native to Tlaxcala, the smallest state of Mexico, he grew up under the influence of the Nahuatl culture that is still present in the villages of the region. For this reason, Ariel aims to preserve his ancient heritage, both the tangible and intangible. In 2010 he joined the Department of Anthropology at the UDLA where he is currently working towards his bachelor’s degree in Archaeology.

Ariel has worked in multiple archaeological sites, including Tepeticpac (Tlaxcala), Yaxuná (Yucatán), and Cholula. Besides contributing to the Project of Plaza of Columns during the 2015 and 2016 seasons, he is currently developing his research project “Tlalancaleca: Ceramics and Regional Dynamics” on material from salvage projects from Tlalancaleca in Puebla.


Adriana Isabel Vera Martínez (2015)

Adriana Isabel participated in the first season of this project with Front A and excavated in the heart of the Plaza of the Columns as well as along the Avenue of the Dead (La Calzada de los Muertos).


Gabriel Vicencio Castellanos (2015)

Gabriel Vicencio
Gabriel Vicencio, Plaza of the Columns 2015

Gabriel Vicencio Castellanos is a recent archaeology graduate from the University of the Americas at Puebla. He began his fieldwork experience in 2008 with the Interaction Policy Project at the Center of Yucatan. During his three seasons with the project, he has had the opportunity to work on the site of Yaxuná as well as participate in other archaeological caving projects in central Yucatan. Several years later in 2012, Gabriel began to specialize in the analysis of obsidian, preparing his thesis “The Knives in Tepeticpac: Analysis of Obsidian in an Architectural Site in Tepeticpac, Tlaxcala.” In addition to his contributions to the tlaxcalteco project, he has helped support the mapping project of Teotihuacan, analyzed the obsidian material from a Teotihuacan workshop, and worked on the first season of excavation at the Plaza of the Columns Project.

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan is one of the most iconic archaeological sites in Mexico. Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, it continues to attract a large influx of tourists every year.

The ancient city of Teotihuacan is famous not only for its monumental pyramids but also because of the entire city’s precise and deliberate grid layout characterizing a grand urban planning scheme.

Archaeological site of Teotihuacan, Mexico

The ancient city of Teotihuacan is exceptionally captivating in the eyes of the public and researchers alike, perhaps due to the many unanswered questions that continue to surround this enigmatic culture. What was the dominant spoken language back then? What did the inhabitants call their city? According to sixteenth-century Spanish records/historians, Aztecs who once visited the site were the ones who bestowed the current name of the city. In their native Nahuatl language, “Teotihuacan” means “the place where men become gods” or “the city of the gods.” Awestruck by its scale, the Aztecs believed this sacred center to be where the gods created the fifth sun.


Previous investigations

Gumersindo Mendoza came from a very humble family and spoke the native language of Otomi. Characterized by a keen sense of ambition and intelligence, Mendoza traveled to Mexico City and graduated as a pharmacist. There, he expanded his studies and also learned to speak Spanish, English, French, and German. Photography by Cruces y Campa ca. 1865, Mediateca INAH. Source: http://mediateca.inah.gob.mx.
Gumersindo Mendoza came from a very humble family and spoke the native language of Otomi. Characterized by a keen sense of ambition and intelligence, Mendoza traveled to Mexico City and graduated as a pharmacist. There, he expanded his studies and also learned to speak Spanish, English, French, and German. Photography by Cruces y Campa ca. 1865, Mediateca INAH. Source: http://mediateca.inah.gob.mx.

Carlos Singüenza and Góngora carried out the first excavation in Teotihuacan during the seventeenth century (ca. 1675; Schávelzon, 1982), and it is said that this groundbreaking event marked the first archaeological excavation in America. Two centuries later, Gumersindo Mendoza, a Mexican native from the village of Aculco, State of Mexico, undertook one of the earliest systematic studies at Teotihuacan. Mendoza’s 1878 publication “Las Pirámides de Teotihuacan” summarized and analyzed the available information regarding the pyramids, such as a general description of the area (vegetation, geological features, etc.), previous and current excavations and findings, dimensions of the pyramids, as well as an interpretation about the design and use of this ceremonial center. In addition, Mendoza proposed numerous hypotheses concerning the creation and destruction of the city, as well as who were the inhabitants of the city.

Click here to know more about Mr. Gumersindo Mendoza (Spanish).

In Mendoza’s day, the area where the Teotihuacan pyramids are located did not look like what we see now. In fact, most of the structures we see today were covered with soil and plants resulting from endless agricultural fields that once occupied the surrounding areas. Can you imagine what the pyramids must have looked like over 130 years ago?

To give you an idea, check out this 1878 painting by the famous Mexican painter Jose Maria Velasco:

View from the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan, by Jose Maria Velasco, 1878
View from the Moon Pyramid, Teotihuacan, by Jose Maria Velasco, 1878

From 1905 to 1910 Leopoldo Batres, Inspector of Archaeological Monuments, directed the first series of excavations and restoration projects at Teotihuacan. This project was set in motion to open the archaeological park to the public on September 13, 1910, celebrating the 100th year anniversary of Mexican independence. The site was inaugurated by the president of the nation, General Porfirio Diaz, and Secretary of Education, Justo Sierra, among other prominent figures of the time.


Manuel Gamio, explorer of Teotihuacan during the 1910s. Source: Iguíniz (1912)
Manuel Gamio, explorer of Teotihuacan during the 1910s. Source: Iguíniz (1912)

After Batres, several Mexican and foreign researchers continued intensive excavations and restoration projects in the areas surrounding the pyramids of Teotihuacan. Most notably, in the beginning of the twentieth century, Manuel Gamio and his collaborators carried out innovative investigations concerning the archaeological, cultural, geographic, and environmental setting of the Valley of Teotihuacan. The results of this first interdisciplinary work were published as a three-volume work called “La Población del Valle de Teotihuacan” (1922).

Below you can observe Gamio’s first reconstruction of the ancient city of Teotihuacan at the height of its occupation:

Rendition of the ceremonial site of Teotihuacan in his last period, by Arq. Marquina (Gamio, 1922)
Rendition of the ceremonial site of Teotihuacan in his last period, by Arq. Marquina (Gamio, 1922)

Between 1964 and 1970, René Millon from the University of Rochester, New York, assembled the Teotihuacan Mapping Project, integrating researchers from Mexico, the United States, and Canada. Their objective was to create the first detailed topographic map of Teotihuacan using aerial photographs and archaeological survey. In 1973 the results of the project were published in two volumes that included detailed maps of the city in unprecedented detail and magnitude, covering an area of over 20 square kilometers (or over 12 square miles).

Millon’s map, 1973

The project produced an exceptionally detailed map of the ceremonial area of Teotihuacan where the Sun and Moon Pyramids are located. Millon used results from the archaeological survey to propose a hypothetical reconstruction of the city, indicating the location of individual structures. This project uses the same nomenclature assigned by Millon (1973) to designate areas excavated in the Plaza of the Columns and the Plaza North of the Sun Pyramid.


To learn more about Teotihuacan, please visit the National Institute of Anthropology and History’s website at INAH where you can take virtual tours of the site. If you are able to visit Teotihuacan in person, make sure you take the time to explore some of the apartment compounds (like Atetelco, Tetitla, Tepantitla, etc.) where you will encounter their elaborate mural paintings (or wall frescos) that often are missed in the rapid tour of the monumental center. They form an important corpus of information about daily life Teotihuacan.

If you would like to know more about the ancient city of Teotihuacan, take a look at the Arqueología Mexicana, Special Edition No. 28: Teotihuacan, Periódico Cultural “La Vírgula,” and at the Periódico Mural “Tlalte Ollin” for many more interesting facts.

The city of Teotihuacan is located just 40 km northeast of Mexico City, so hop in a car or on a bus, and come visit the area. We guarantee you’ll love it!


References

Gamio, M. (Dir. de investigaciones, varios autores). 1922. La Población del Valle de Teotihuacan, el Medio en que se ha Desarrollado su Evolución Étnica y Social. Iniciativas para Procurar su Mejoramiento por la Dirección de Antropología. Tomos I, II, y III. Dirección de Antropología, Dirección de Talleres Gráficos, Dependiente de la Secretaría de Educación Pública, Mexico.

Iguíniz, J. B. 1912. Las Publicaciones del Museo Nacional de Antropología, Historia, y Etnología. Apuntes Histórico-Bibliográficos.  Imprenta del Museo Nacional de Antropología, Historia, y Etnología, pp. 99.

Mendoza, G. 1878. Las Pirámides de Teotihuacan. Anales del Museo Nacional de Mexico 1: 186-195.

Millón, R. 1973. Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Vol. 1, Part I: Text, pp. 154. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Millón, R., Drewitt, R., and Cowgill, G. 1973. Urbanization at Teotihuacan, México. Vol. 1, Part II: Maps. The Teotihuacán Maps. Austin: University of Texas Press. 147 map sheets + 3 folding maps.

Schávelzon, D. 1982. La Primera Excavación Arqueológica de América: Teotihuacán en 1675. Anales de Antropología I: 121-134. “Arqueología y Antropología Física,” del Instituto de Investigaciones Arqueológicas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

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