In 1973, the archaeologist René Millon published two volumes of maps and information on the geography of the city of Teotihuacán, one of the largest cities in the world at its apogee circa 500 CE, when its population grew to an estimated one hundred and fifty thousand people. Millon's maps, which ultimately plotted out nearly fifteen square miles of the city's territory, were a real watershed in the study of this urban center. Teotihuacán is an outlier among urban centers in the pre-Columbian world for many reasons. It was home to multiple ethnic groups from around Mesoamerica; its many works of public art tended to de-emphasize the authority of its ruling classes in favor of more universal imagery symbolizing the maintenance of cosmic order; and its massive, preplanned urban grid included not only pyramids but also large, decorated “apartment compounds” to house its enormous population. These are just a few of the urban complexities that are masterfully treated in the catalog published for the exhibition Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire, both curated and edited by Matthew Robb.
Including twenty-six short essays organized into eight sections, as well as textual entries and beautiful illustrations of the approximately two hundred works in the exhibition, Robb gathered scholarship from seventeen specialists working in Mexico, the United States, and Denmark. He has devised an innovative and compelling structure: the essays proceed through the space of the city of Teotihuacán, with multiple chapters in the second through fifth sections (after an Introduction to the site), dealing with the three major pyramids at the site and the apartment complexes. Just as a map allows its users to separate themselves from the myriad of small details at ground level to see the bigger picture, so too this allows for a fresh look at Teotihuacán.
The essays are uniformly excellent and extremely informative, but given that there are so many chapters, by a large number of authors, summarizing the arguments of each one is outside the scope of this review. However, in general terms, the second through fifth sections include essays written by archaeologists that are extremely valuable for both laymen and scholars, since in roughly the past decade there have been so many finds across the site (particularly in tunnels under the main pyramids) that it is often quite difficult to synthesize the discoveries. These essays, by important anthropologists with centuries of combined field experience, convey new information that in many cases was available prior to this catalog only in Spanish, or in obscure journals and conference proceedings. These chapters capture both the laborious work of the archaeologist, synthesizing many field seasons in each work, and the excitement of major discoveries, as particularly in Sergio Gómez Chávez's use of first-person narration in parts of his “The Underworld at Teotihuacan: The Sacred Cave under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid,” describing his seven years of work to excavate the tunnel-cave. And since the cartographic focus is related to the contextual turn that Mesoamerican studies has taken particularly since the 1993 publication of archaeologist Leonardo López Luján's work on the placement and composition of offerings and offering caches of the Aztec Templo Mayor, it is particularly fitting that he and Saburo Sugiyama carefully examine “The Ritual Deposits in the Moon Pyramid.”
The catalog's reliance on archaeological data is a nod to the interdisciplinary sources that by necessity inform scholarship in pre-Columbian studies. This broad scholarly approach continues in chapters on religion and ritual of the Teotihuacanos (practices that responded to the natural and manmade contours of the city), and on specific deities, written by Robb and professors of cross-cultural and regional studies at the University of Copenhagen. Christophe Helmke and Jesper Nielsen, in their introductory chapter to this section, do an excellent job of bridging from the architecture of the city to the objects used in its rituals, frescoed testimonies of which decorate walls in many apartment compounds. The seventh section includes four chapters on the art and material culture of the city: the objects that people made, trade, and used in rituals. But neither are these typical essays for a museum catalog. While some are written by art historians, they include analyses of materials and techniques that are more technical than is common in many art-historical texts. Diana Magaloni's essay on the pigments used in mural painting at the site, for example, relies on the use of new techniques such as X-ray diffractometry (XRD), not only visual analysis of pigments, and Megan E. O'Neil delves into exacting detail on the decoration techniques of tripod vessels.
The first half of the book ends with a “Map of Teotihuacan” section, in which curator Hillary Olcott details the historiography of representing the site, including seven illustrations of plans and schemata made since the 1560s, and explaining the Millon map with particular care. (One small quibble with the catalog is that this section might have been brought forward to the end of the introductory section to make the book's use of the map more deliberate.) The authors here have updated Millon's map slightly but also highlighted its enduring importance.
The map sets the stage for the last half of the book, the catalog entries for the exhibition checklist's nearly two hundred objects. Here too the works described are anchored in their specific archaeological context wherever possible, noting their position within the site on a tiny version of the site map and including more detailed diagrams for objects that were archaeologically excavated. The first section of the catalog entries, “Introduction to Teotihuacan,” includes some of these scientifically unearthed works as well as many old favorites whose exact provenience is unknown but are iconic for the study of the city, such as stone masks and elaborately decorated, stuccoed tripod vessels. However, the ensuing eleven sections of catalog entries (these roughly follow the divisions in the text itself but include several specific apartment compounds) each deal with a specific feature of the city. Each is preceded by easily legible maps and diagrams where the relative positions of the works' find spots are clearly marked. This insistent focus on specific archaeological or geographic context is innovative and offers something new and very important even for knowledgeable pre-Columbian scholars. Exciting for specialists and laymen alike, for example, is the spread on the recently excavated objects, many of precious materials, found in the tunnel under the Feathered Serpent Pyramid and Ciudadela at the site. Images of some of these were available piecemeal on websites and in short summaries, but here the section is preceded by a precise plan with numbered objects, followed by pages of lavish color illustrations of each work.
The strength of Teotihuacan: City of Water is that like Teotihuacán itself, it is not exclusively geared toward elites. Robb and the organizing institutions made a conscious effort to make the exhibition and its research as widely available as possible to the general public as well as academics. While the scholarly catalog is a hefty 444 pages with a list price of seventy-five dollars, an accessibly priced pictorial booklet, which included a selection of gorgeously photographed objects and two richly detailed maps, was also for sale in the de Young Museum shop. Furthermore, exciting digital resources generated for the exhibition remain freely available on the museum's website, while ensuring the project's life beyond the temporal span of the show, or physical access to libraries and books. In addition to a lavishly illustrated digital story that outlines the themes of the exhibition, the de Young is the first American art museum to experiment with web resources in Minecraft, offering an interactive digital model of the city's ceremonial center that allows users to virtually walk through Teotihuacán. (See https://digitalstories.famsf.org/teo/#the-ciudadela-and-the-feathered-serpent-pyramid and https://deyoung.famsf.org/explore-teotihuacan-minecraft). Offering a rigorous scholarly treatment of new discoveries and technological aspects of the site, as well as a popular lens on the city, Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire is a valuable contribution to the field of pre-Columbian studies and a resource that will be used for many years to come.