Teotihuacán: The Mysteries Of An Ancient City, And The ASU Scientists Looking For Answers

By Jorge Valencia
Published: Thursday, September 5, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Friday, September 6, 2019 - 12:44pm

Audio icon Download mp3 (5.68 MB)

Michael E. Smith
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Archaeologist Michael E. Smith is director of the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.

Many archaeologists consider the first big city in the Americas to be one that existed more than 2,000 years ago in Central Mexico, and a team of scientists working out of a little-known Arizona State University lab have long been looking for those answers.

On a recent Friday, in a building about two hours north of Mexico City, archaeologist Angela Huster pulled a binder off a cluttered shelf, dusted the cover and opened it. She began reading and realized it contained faded field notes about the fire that is believed to have brought life in Teotihuacan to an end.

“If this is what I think it is," she later recalled, "we've been looking for it for a while.”

Clay pottery
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Clay pottery excavated from the ancient city of Teotihuacan sits at the nearby lab operated by ASU.

Huster spent much of the summer combing through old files collected at ASU’s lab, just off the protected site for the ancient city of Teotihuacán. She and others are working toward answering some major questions about the city, including why did its civilization-ending blaze happen. 

Here are some basics known about Teotihuacán: it was a city that was around from about 100 B.C. to A.D. 650. It was prosperous, with two enormous pyramids at its heart, attracting merchants and migrants. And it peaked with a population of about 100,000.

Many of the files Huster, a post-doctoral researcher at ASU, combed through were written by two field researchers who worked with anthropologists for almost 40 years.

“These are people who probably knew more than half the archaeologists who have worked at Teotihuacán,” Huster said.

Zeferino Ortega Mendoza, one of those researchers, is retired but said it still nags at him that they haven’t been able to figure out the language spoken in Teotihucan. The Aztec empire, which existed about 700 years after Teotihuacán, gave names to the ancient city’s ruins in their own language — Nahuatl. But there’s no written record of written record of language in Teotihuacán.

“We never knew,” said Ortega Mendoza, who grew up in the area near the ancient city and whose own grandparents spoke a dialect of Nahuatl.

Amado Angel Llanos Reyes
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
Amado Angel Llanos Reyes washes fragments of clay pottery excavated from Teotihuacan.

Some archaeologists believe Teotihuacán was a multilingual society because it attracted migration from areas with their own native languages, said archaeologist Oralia Cabrera Cortez, operations director at the ASU lab.

“There was maybe a combination of the language that everybody in the place spoke, but then you had people that spoke other languages as well because they were coming from other places,” Cabrera Cortez said.

Much of what has been excavated in the ancient city has been found with a map developed by the original director of the ASU lab in the '60s and '70s. Archaeologist Michael E. Smith, the current lab director, said it was mostly accurate and is still in use.
 
“It's the basis for work today,” Smith said. “For archaeologists, particularly those working away from the central pyramids or the street of the dead, that's the basic orientation they use for were they want to work and what they want to do."
 
Smith took over the lab just three years ago. And when he arrived, he found his predecessors left him thousands of records in thousands of boxes.

"Some of the artifacts are very well analyzed and they're in a database, and we know all about them,” Smith said. “Others have just sat there, and haven't really been studied."
 
Lastly, perhaps the biggest question: Did Teotihuacan have a king? It’s unclear how the city was governed, and there's no evidence that a monarch existed. It’s one more riddle archaeologists Smith, Cabrera Cortez, Huster and others hope they can eventually answer.

More Stories From KJZZ

If you like this story, Donate Now!

Like Arizona Science Desk on Facebook