1 Installation of “ Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.”

The ancient site of Teotihuacan (100 BCE–700 CE) in Mexico was known as the birthplace of the gods to the Aztecs (1300–1521 CE). It is still a major draw for tourists today, but few know about the different arts the site produced. There have been many new finds in the last several decades because of increased public interest in ancient Mexico, and many objects are just now being understood by scholars. No one is sure what language was spoken there, and the identities of local deities is still a hotly debated subject. In some ways their material culture is easier to appreciate.

A case could be made that Teotihuacan was the birthplace of elite ceramics in the New World. The city does not boast the earliest ceramic evidence, but it yielded an incredible range of ceramic forms and techniques. The city covered about 20 square kilometers and supported many palaces. During its heyday, it may have been the sixth largest city in the world with a population of 100,000 or more. Many elite houses had workshops that produced a variety of luxury items, including ceramics. These objects were used as trade items for a culture that did not use anything like money to store or move wealth.

Ancient Greek pottery is often regarded as the standard by which all other ceramic producing cultures are judged. Ancient Greek black-figure ware (620–480 BCE) reflected the then current styles of ancient painting. Over time, this style became more naturalistic, and painting dominated the repertoire of high-end ceramics.

2 Ancient ceramics from Teotihuacan show a range of styles.

In contrast, the Teotihuacan culture boasted a range of ceramic styles. Luxury ceramics could feature abstract figures rendered in vivid colors. There are also painted ceramics that are similar to frescoes, mold-made ceramics, very large and ornate multi-part incense burners, as well as architectural ceramics. The latter were particularly important because distinctive ceramic ornaments on the perimeters of flat roofs may have identified particular houses (before such mundane things as house numbers were invented). Figurines are also present. Unlike stone statuary, which was relatively stiff, the artists of Teotihuacan fashioned ceramic figurines in a variety of expressive styles.

Modern art historians regard the fresco-painted vessels as the most luxurious. No one is sure if the ancient culture of Teotihuacan felt exactly the same, but these vessels are all found in contexts that suggest they were highly valued. Many of these vessels have overt religious images. A number were intentionally broken, likely at the conclusion of a ritual. The high quality of painting suggests that there was more than one artist involved in the production of these vessels. Just like in ancient Greece, the potter and the painter were likely two different artists. Firing could be done by yet another expert.

3 Tripod vessel with goggle-eyed deity painted on stucco, 450–550 CE. 4 Incensario with mica inlays, 350–450 CE.

There is some debate about why there were so many different ceramic styles produced at the site. A good example is presented by what is termed thin orange ware. Studies have shown that these extremely thin vessels were made in Puebla. They were imported into Teotihuacan in large numbers. They were so light that they would have stood in sharp contrast to the pottery used for everyday activities. Some of these vessels were covered in stucco and painted in Teotihuacan, which suggests a further rise in their status. Ancient artists could be highly specialized, and Teotihuacan artists had great skill in painting.

5 Tripod vessel with blow-gunner painted on stucco, 450–550 CE. Photo copyright and courtesy of the Museum Associates/LACMA.

Some scholars suggest that because each different pottery style uses a unique set of raw materials and forming techniques, different types were made in different locales. One or more workshops can then be said to follow a distinctive cultural tradition (in other words, a specialist workshop). Other scholars suggest that many workshops would have produced more than one ceramic type (generalist workshops). This is particularly the case if different ceramic forms follow a similar clay body recipe.

As with so many archaeological questions, there are many cases where reconstructing the past will yield no more than further questions. A major question is one of ethnicity. Like any major city, different ethnicities were concentrated in different areas. They may have brought distinctive traditions with them. What we are looking at might not be the result of heady experimentation by individuals but rather the expression of a range of ceramic styles developed over hundreds of years. Different artistic styles might be representatives of ethnic groups that practiced distinctive traditions in a multicultural city.

6 Vessel from Tlaxcala with procession of figures, 550–650 CE.7 Storm God on a ceramic battlement, 400–500 CE.

The same kind of influences may be seen today in modern cities. San Francisco—with its diverse population—was the perfect place to host the exhibition titled “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire.” The exhibition was curated by Matthew H. Robb, chief curator of the Fowler Museum at UCLA and was on view at the de Young Museum. The show then traveled to The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It is the first major US exhibition on Teotihuacan in over 20 years. The lavish exhibition catalog of the same title, published by UC Press, is a useful reference for those who wish to draw inspiration from a vibrant artistic tradition.

1–3, 4, 6, 7 Courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF).

the author Dr. Murray Lee Eiland is an archeologist living in London. He has a particular interest in ceramics and regularly writes articles for magazines.