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The Almenas of Teotihuacan

photo of the almenas on the Quetzalpapalotl Palace

This project is associated with the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory. Its aim is to determine the purpose behind the stone and ceramic roof ornaments, called "almenas,"  that have been found throughout the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan.

The 1950s excavations at the Quetzalpapalotl Palace. Arrows point to the almenas.

Teotihuacan Roof Ornaments: Status Symbols or Pink Flamingos?

Many of the buildings in Classic-period Teotihuacan were decorated with stone or ceramic roof ornaments called “almenas.”

The reconstructed Quetzalpapalotl Palace (top photo) shows several of these roof ornaments in place. When Jorge Acosta excavated this building in the late 1950s, he found that the almenas had fallen on top of debris from the structure's collapsing walls, demonstrating that almenas had once adorned the roofs of buildings.

Why did the residents of Teotihuacan decorate their roofs with almenas?

To begin to answer this question, Professor Michael Smith spent some time in summer 2015 studying the almenas gathered during the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. These artifacts had been stored in the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, but had not been analyzed since their initial collection in the 1960s.

Typology of almenas. These are the most common forms. The Quetzalpapalotl Palace almenas are type 1.

First, he worked out a typology of almenas based on published examples with the help of ASU anthropology major Jenny Melgoza. Archaeologist Clara Paz Bautista, an expert on Teotihuacan, helped with the classification of the almenas from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project.

After adjusting the typology so it could be used with the small fragments of almenas, they went through the collection of 745 fragments and assigned them to their correct type, while also recording additional information. They photographed each piece in batches of 15 fragments. Then Smith compared the almenas to the types of buildings where they were found.

Few sites have been mapped in as much detail as Teotihuacan. The datafiles of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project allowed him to match up each almena fragment to one of the several thousand structures at the ancient city.

What was learned?

Archaeologist Clara Paz Bautista classifying almenas.

One of the most interesting patterns was that high-status residences (like the Quetzalpapalotl Palace) were far more likely than low-status residences to have almenas, with intermediate-status residences, like the famous apartment compounds, in between the two extremes. This suggests that almenas on houses may have served as status symbols. But even the smallest, poorest house could have an almena or two. Another finding was that almenas were equally common on temples and residences.

Although there is still much to learn about the roof ornaments of Teotihuacan, this small project has clarified aspects of the artifacts and their use. They were probably not the ancient equivalent of pink flamingos—objects displayed for fun or for diverse individual reasons. Instead, it looks like almenas were used to mark the status or wealth of a household, or the prestige of a temple.

This modest exercise was the first research project ever directed at Teotihuacan almenas. It was only possible because the artifacts had been curated at the ASU Archaeological Research Facility at the site.

Smith and Bautista have written a brief article about the study, which has been submitted to a journal.

Relevant publications:

Acosta, Jorge R.
1964   El Palacio del Quetzalpapalotl. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Cowgill, George L.
2015   Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Millon, René
1973   Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Volume 1: The Teotihuacan Map, Part 1: Text.University of Texas Press, Austin.

Smith, Michael E. and Clara Paz Bautista
2015    Las almenas en le ciudad antigua de Teotihuacan. Article under review at a journal.

Photo of Michael E. SmithMichael E. Smith
ASU School of Human Evolution and Social Change