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Archaeologist captures ancient city’s life and legacy

June 26, 2015

As a grad student at Harvard, George Cowgill wrote a term paper that included work by René Millon at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, in central Mexico. He later met Millon at a cocktail party at an anthropology conference, and in the course of a few martinis they hit it off.

Hired at Brandeis University in 1960, Cowgill was somewhat at loose ends when Millon invited him to join his unprecedented effort to map the entirety of Teotihuacan, and he eagerly signed on in 1964. It has been his focus ever since.

Building a legacy

Cowgill has become a leading expert on the city. His awards include the Kidder Medal for eminence in American Archaeology from the American Anthropological Association and the award for excellence in archaeological analysis from the Society for American Archaeology.

He recently published the first comprehensive book on the city. "Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico," published by Cambridge University Press, covers the metropolis from its beginnings to its demise.

Cowgill’s work on the city, which housed around 80,000 people in its heyday, sheds light not only on this ancient pre-Aztec site, but also on early cities in general. Teotihuacan was an exceptionally planned and highly organized city. Much of what has been learned about it—such as details of the city’s growth pattern, neighborhoods and districts, political and social organization, infrastructure and collapse—can be applied to our world today in fields such as urban studies and sustainability.

Teotihuacan is known for its massive pyramids, which rival those of Egypt, but “tourists rarely see more than the restored central district of the city and are given no idea of the vast extent of surrounding ruins, most of which are today only gentle undulations on a surface largely covered by vegetation or, increasingly, by modern settlements,” Cowgill says.

Located 25 miles northeast of Mexico City, and covering over eight square miles, its ruins so impressed the Aztecs centuries later that they gave it the name it now bears, which means roughly “place were divinity comes into being.” Today Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a draw for millions of tourists annually.

The ruins of the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan

Examining an empire

Teotihuacan was multiethnic, complex and warlike, with a cultural and political reach that extended for many hundreds of miles, run by key outposts more than by acquisition of territory. However, people of Teotihuacan affiliation intervened in the politics of Maya centers more than 700 miles to the east, and even set up new dynasties there.

Although Cowgill has participated in amazing discoveries at the city—including nearly 200 sacrificial victims, many with fine jewelry, weapons and jade figurines—he is most interested in learning about the lives of Teotihuacan’s thousands of ordinary people. Some 2,300 residential compounds at the site each held up to five apartments.

Cowgill suspects that Teotihuacan began as a collectively run city, but dictatorial rulers may have gained control, building what are today called the Sun Pyramid, the Moon Pyramid, the Ciudadela (Citadel) and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, and intensifying the scale of human sacrifice. This may have led to a reaction and a return to more collective institutions.

Making sense of societal collapse

Teotihuacan flourished for centuries, but evidence of decline appears by AD 550. The population shrank and imported goods became scarcer. The reasons for decline are not clear, but Cowgill suspects that the growing power of lesser elites may have been one important factor.

“They may have increasingly siphoned off surpluses that would formerly have accrued to the state. It is also possible that developing cities not far away, whose growth had formerly been suppressed by the power of Teotihuacan, were beginning to grow and compete with the city.”

By AD 650 or so, the civic-ceremonial center was burned and the Teotihuacan state collapsed. This may have been due to an internal rebellion, but Cowgill thinks invasion by outsiders is more likely. Soon after the collapse, the city was occupied by a series of new cultures that have continued ever since.

In his book, Cowgill attempts to answer primary questions about Teotihuacan: what was its political character, why and how did it arise and why did it collapse? Another reason is to stir interest in this bygone city and promote further research there.

Advocating for research

More than half the archaeological sites in central Mexico have disappeared in the last 50 years due to human expansion and the lack of funding for archaeological sites. Many ancient Teotihuacan structures face—or have already succumbed to—destruction driven by the growing modern population. Cowgill says that only about 1/20th of the city has been excavated, and further work is urgent.

When Cowgill was invited to Arizona State University in 1990, he brought not only his knowledge, but also the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, located on the outskirts of the ruined city. It is used as a research base and archival repository by many institutions from around the world. The collaborative projects and international ties are a source of pride for Cowgill, ASU and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, which oversees the center.

Cowgill hopes that his book will help attract donors for an endowment for the center.