Thursday, September 21, 2017

Teotihuacán's master artisans

Almena showing a bird with water pouring from its beak. Creatures from the natural world with water pouring from their mouths a recurrent theme at Teotihuacán. Architectural features like this decorated the rooflines of palaces and other structures. The city was full of skilled artisans who crafted almenas and a wide variety of other products. Some of the craftsmen were Teotihuacanos, but others came from regions throughout Mesoamerica. Their often eclectic styles reflected the cosmopolitan nature of Teotihuacán.

I will illustrate this last posting of my Teotihuacán series with photos showing the work of some of those ancient artisans. All of these pieces can be found at the archeological site's two museums.

Small seated figure shows the skill of Teotihuacán sculptors. The natural posture and the overall delicacy of this piece makes it my favorite.

Censer with the "goggle eyes" that reveal its connection with Tlaloc, the rain god. Censers were devices for burning incense, usually copal, and were closely associated both with the altars found both in public spaces and private homes.

Dressed in high-status regalia, a vigorous young male strides along. He wears a headband, large ear spools and a multi-strand jade necklace. The youth is bare-chested and his skirt-like garment is supported by an elaborate belt with an emblem in the center that bears a startling resemblance to a swastika. The emblem did not then possess the evil association it gained from modern Nazism. Instead, it is probably related to the four-petal flower, a symbol representing the four cardinal directions, another recurrent image at Teotihuacán.

Clay masks and other artifacts were often produced using pottery molds. This allowed mass production and a degree of standardization and quality control. The materials used came both from the local area and through the trade networks.

A female figure shows the influence of western Mexico's Teuchitlán culture. She wears a modest head dress, ear spools, a necklace, and a loincloth. The bumps on her shoulders and upper arms are for personal decoration. In order to create this effect, people inserted smooth stones under the skin. This feature shows up in many Teuchitlán Culture sculptures. The presence of this artifact at Teotihuacán indicates a trade link with the Teuchitlán Culture and raises the possibility that people from western Mexico may have been part of Teotihuacán's multi-cultural population.

Ceramic bowl showing Gulf Coast influence. The bowl was found at El Tajin, located in Vera Cruz State near the Gulf Coast. It was the ancient capital of the Totonacs. The shape of the bowl and its tri-pod feet are in the Teotihuacán style, but the scroll-and-hook design on the side of the bowl comes from the Totonacan culture.

Individuals of high social status often wore elaborate head dresses and clothing. Many small figures like this have been unearthed at Teotihuacán. The markings on the clothing indicate that it may once have been painted. High-status individuals would have included priests, nobles, and military leaders.

The lid and base of this graceful tri-pod pot are decorated with cacao beans. Cacao beans were used to make chocolate, a sacred drink reserved for the elite. In addition, dried cacao beans were often used as currency.

A figure, possibly an athlete or a soldier, prepares to throw something. The lack of any shield, armor, or other martial regalia suggests an athlete to me. He may be demonstrating his prowess with a spear.

Cacao fruit and a maiz cob. Maiz (corn) was the staff of life for all civilizations of Mesoamerica and was raised in a wide variety of climates and topographies. The earliest maiz cobs yet found were located in a cave in Oaxaca and date back more than 6,000 years.  Cacao is a hot-country plant, grown mostly in humid lowland areas. The earliest evidence of the consumption of cacao was found in pottery excavated from Maya sites in Honduras dating back to 1500 BC.

Articulated figure used in burial ceremonies. The otherwise-nude figure wears ear spools, a necklace, and bracelets, all representing jade jewelry. The arms and legs are attached in a way that they can be moved. Some figures like this have removable head dresses and jewelry.

A selection of razor-sharp obsidian blades. These are not weapons, but tools used for fine work. Obsidian can be made sharper than a modern surgical scalpel. The mining of raw obsidian cores, as well as the production of finished products like those above, was a major industry at Teotihuacán.

Two great lords and a priest.  The elaborate dress of the two standing figures indicates that they are great lords. The one on the left is a warrior who carries a shield decorated with feathers. In the foreground, a man sits beside a woman giving birth. The basket with the handle indicates he is a priest or shaman. This is the only Teotihuacán representation of child-birth that I have ever seen.

Two household bowls and a human bone made into a tool. The bowls are nicely made but show no decoration so they may have been mass-produced for use by commoners. One end of the bone has a drilled hole which indicates it may have been used as a tool. Teotihuacanos used the bones of deceased family members to create household tools and other personal items. This may have been a way of keeping a close connection with relatives who had passed into the Underworld.

"Host"figure with a removable plate which reveals another figure inside. These figures were used for ritual purposes and offerings may have been placed inside them. The face is painted with bright red specular hematite and there are traces of paint on other parts of the body. The hidden figure in the door of the host is believed represent the divine essence residing within each person.

Pot in the form of a grinning feline. Found in a burial, this fine example of Teotihuacán pottery shows the importance placed on felines. They appear in wide variety of murals, sculptures, pottery, and jewelry. The appearance of feline images among grave goods further emphasizes their cultural importance.

Stone sculpture of a human head and torso. The piece has classically Teotihuacán features, with narrow eyes, a broad face, and parted lips. I particularly like the vertical striations of the rock, which heighten the beauty of the sculpture.

Long necklace made from shells with coral pendants. All these materials came from either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts of Mesoamerica. Its location in the center of Mesoamerica enabled Teotihuacán to become the hub of a great trade network.

Bust of a high status individual. The head dress displays two rows of Teotihuacán's four-petal flowers. The petals represent the four cardinal directions, as well as the four quadrants into which the great city was divided.

Clay duck head, and the mold from which it was made. A wide range of objects for ritual and everyday use were manufactured at Teotihuacán, often using mass production techniques such as this mold. Mass production could produce uniform quality, as well has the large quantities needed for both domestic and trade purposes.

"Theatre" censers were another mass produced item. Although theatre censer's may differ from each other in their details, the overall formats are almost always identical. A human face always appears in the center, as if on a stage, surrounded by birds, chalchihuites (circles representing something of high value, such as jewels), and various esoteric designs. Evidence of mass production of theatre censers has been found next to the Pyramid of the Plumed Serpents within the Citadel. This suggests that the manufacture and distribution of this type of censer was an activity conducted by the Teotihuacán State

Theatre censer, disassembled. The different parts of the censer were individually created in molds and then assembled into the theatre format. It was very common for a butterfly pendant to be attached to the nostrils of the central face. Butterflies were symbols of dead warriors. Theatre censers were widely distributed for use in family compound altars, possibly to commemorate warriors who had belonged to particular families. Thus, the display of the censers also showed reverence for the Teotihuacán State and its army. This would explain the State's interest in producing and widely distributing them. The chalchihuite necklace below the face indicates the person was highly valued.

Another exquisite example of Teotihuacán pottery. These two small pots are part of an identical set. Both have the tri-pod base, slightly fluted shape, and conical lid typical of pots produced in Teotihuacán. A small, finely crafted bird serves as the handle in the center of each lid. The birds were probably made with molds.

Unusual pot with human head on on the lip. The function of the pot is not clear. It may have been used for washing the hands and face of the owner. The small tray attached to the lip (opposite the head) may have provided a tray for soap or various toilet articles. 

Small bust of a priest. The head dress indicates high status, while the "goggles" around the eyes may mark him as a priest of Tlaloc. The Rain God's priests wear similar goggles in various murals found in Teotihuacán's apartment compounds. 

This completes my series on Teotihuacán. I hope you have enjoyed this posting, as well as the rest of the series. If so, please leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below.

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Hasta luego, Jim

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