Analysis of CULTURAL CONTEXT – Teotihuacán
Write an essay (1-2 pages in length, double-spaced, 12 pt. font) discussing its CULTURAL significance. Be sure to cover the following points in your analysis:
• Identify the artist, title, period style and medium.
• Discuss the subject matter of the artwork. Does it contain any iconography, symbolism, narrative story or message?
• Discuss the cultural (religious, historical, political) context of the artwork.
• Why is this artwork culturally significant? What does it tell us about the culture/religion/region that produced it?
• Be sure to apply specific art historical terms (vocabulary) in your answer.
• Use complete sentences and paragraphs including an introduction and conclusion.
The essay must be 1-2 pages in length, double-spaced, 12 pt. font.
Outside research is not necessary. The midterm exam is testing you on how well you have understood and mastered what you have learned in the class modules and discussions. Remember to employ the art historical vocabulary and terms included in module information. If you do employ outside research, you are required to include all your sources in footnotes and in a formal bibliography (MLA format style).
Teotihuacán, or "the place where the gods were created,"1 emerged shortly after the fall of the Olmecs — around 150 BCE — and thrived until 750 CE. While little evidence remains regarding the identity of the civilization and its peoples, it is considered to have been the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas during its most prosperous period between 150 BCE and 450 CE.
At its peak, Teotihuacán had a population of more than 100,000 people. Over half of the population were likely farmers, who would leave the city and work on the agricultural lands surrounding the city. They resided in wooden houses, while the political and religious officials lived in stone houses decorated with paintings and murals — some even contained elaborate drainage systems.
Teotihuacán began as a civilization designed around cosmic principles. The city, built from earth’s stone, was organized in a geometric grid and aligned with the cardinal directions (east, west, north, and south). The streets and structures were all aligned with the placement of the sun and stars. Echoing the shape of the natural landscape of mountains and valleys, the main structures were laid out along the central road, which is known as the "Avenue of the Dead."2
Teotihuacán was a planned city which contained more than 2,000 structures. The largest of these structures is the Pyramid of the Sun, which is 63 meters (206 feet) tall and 215 meters (705 feet) square. This structure allowed the elite to have a privileged view of the universe. With each step, the climbers ascended closer to the heavens, creating the illusion of reaching the stars, the moon, and the sun. Although the original façade has decayed and eroded over time, according to recent excavations, it’s believed that this pyramid originally consisted of four stepped platforms.3
While the Pyramid of the Sun was considered a space reserved for ceremonial rituals, other stone structures — such as the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, or the Feathered Serpent, and the Pyramid of the Moon — were sites where important tombs and burial objects were discovered.
In 1998, archaeologist Saburo Sugiyama discovered a burial chamber within the Pyramid of the Moon containing human remains — perhaps those of an early ruler of Teotihuacán. The skeleton, an adult male who was bound and sacrificed, was buried in a square chamber measuring 11.3 feet by 5 feet deep. The man was surrounded by more than 150 different burial offerings, including obsidian and greenstone figurines, obsidian blades and points, pyrite mirrors, conches and other shells, and the remains of eight birds — probably hawks or falcons — and two jaguars, which may have been buried alive.
Teotihuacán was a deeply religious civilization and, as with other early Mesoamerican cultures, they practiced the ritual of human sacrifice. One theory suggests that when the city expanded, sacrifices were made in dedication to the new buildings. Animals that were considered sacred and represented mythical powers — such as wolves, eagles, falcons, and serpents — were sacrificed. It is no surprise that this ancient monumental earthwork, a city unifying the celestial and earthly realm, was the main inspiration for the architecture of future Mesoamerican civilizations, including the Maya and the Aztec.
Sometime around 700 CE, the civilization that built and occupied Teotihuacán for almost a thousand years suddenly disappeared. It is believed that Teotihuacán was conquered by northern tribes which sacked and decimated the city. It wasn’t until c. 950 CE, some two hundred and fifty years after the fall of Teotihuacán, that another powerful culture based in Tula, Mexico, began to dominate Central America. These people would later be known as the Toltecs.
1 This name was given by the Aztecs (a later Mesoamerican civilization) that discovered Teotihuacán after its fall. There are no remaining documents that provide insight into the original name.
2 The Aztecs believed they were tombs, inspiring the name of the avenue. However, current research has theorized that they were ceremonial platforms that were topped with temples.
3 Archeological department of Arizona State University, Jan. 2001.
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