Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

(ca. 100 BCE–800 CE)

Teotihuacan (ca. 100 BCE–800 CE), located twenty-seven miles northeast of present-day Mexico City, was the largest city of the ancient Americas. At its height in ca. 400 CE, the city covered eight square miles and was home to an estimated population of 125,000–200,000 residents. The culture is renowned for the large scale and ceremonial grandeur of its monumental architecture, built ca. 100–250 CE; introduction of collectivized residential structures known as apartment compounds between around 250–550 CE; and development of many complex arts, including mural painting, mold-pressed ceramics, and stone sculpture. Teotihuacan interacted with several important contemporary Maya capitals, including Tikal, Guatemala and Copán, Honduras and also developed relations with the Zapotec of Monte Albán, Oaxaca. In around 550 CE, the city’s core monuments were burned by unidentified persons. After 600 CE Teotihuacan’s population dropped markedly, and from 600–800 CE the city was probably home to 30,000 or fewer residents. Nonetheless, Teotihuacan’s legacy continued to resonate throughout Mesoamerica for at least a millennium.

City Layout and Monumental Architecture

Teotihuacan’s ceremonial center and major monuments are exceptionally orderly in their layout. The city incorporates three monumental temple platforms known as the Sun Pyramid, the Moon Pyramid, and the Feathered Serpent Pyramid. These structures sit along a north-south ceremonial causeway known as the Miccaotli, or Street of the Dead, which measures 1.5 miles in length and averages 130 feet across. This road introduced a spatial orientation of 15.5 degrees east of due north, and from it branched a gridded street system unique among Mesoamerican cities. Two monumental low-lying structures called the Ciudadela and Great Compound sit opposite one another on either side of the Miccaotli in the city’s south.

Archaeoastronomers have found that the placement of several important buildings likely reflects alignments with specific celestial bodies, such as the sun and the planet Venus, on dates that were consequential for the Mesoamerican religious and agricultural calendars. Some scholars have suggested that the city’s monumental architecture was laid out in accordance with a master plan, though others have hypothesized that these large constructions were built in the absence of such a plan but in accord with guiding principles that left this final impression in retrospect.

Architecture was an important artform at Teotihuacan, and the city’s three largest monuments have been the subjects of thorough archaeological excavations. The Sun and Moon Pyramids number among the largest temple platforms of the Western Hemisphere, while the Feathered Serpent Pyramid is remarkable for its elaborate sculptures, human sacrificial program, and rich dedicatory offerings. These monuments incorporate stairways that face the Street of the Dead which permitted powerful social elites to ascend the temples in moments of ritual activation and to employ their stepped platforms as proscenia.

Access to the bases and summits of the three temples was likely restricted to varying degrees. The Sun and Feathered Serpent Pyramids are enclosed by four-sided raised platforms that likely made them inaccessible to ordinary residents of Teotihuacan. The Ciudadela, which encloses the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, is notable for its incorporation of fifteen monumental temple platforms at even intervals of its constituent platforms. Though the Plaza of the Moon Pyramid opens onto the Miccaotli on its southern border, it likewise may not have been accessible for typical urbanites on ordinary days. Thus, the relative elevation of and selective access granted to structured ceremonial spaces may have contributed to the ordering of Teotihuacan’s internal social hierarchy. Human sacrifices were buried in each of these monumental structures, though the origins, treatments, and ages of the killed individuals varied from building to building. Rich offerings of precious objects made of materials such as jade, obsidian, rubber, and shell have also been archaeologically documented at each temple.

Two additional monumental complexes are not well understood but were probably important for Teotihuacan civic identity. Of these two, the aforementioned Great Compound possibly served as a centralized market, though more excavation would be required to verify this proposal. Scholars generally concur that the importation of foreign goods was critical for the city’s economy, as indicated by the recovery of specialized craft goods such as worked obsidian (1994.35.468) and “Thin Orange” wares (1994.35.50; 1983.497.17). “Thin Orange” bowls would have been stackable (1994.35.54; 1983.497.14; 1978.412.45), permitting easy transport over long distances by traders. The second complex, a series of buildings that straddle the Miccaotli between the Río San Juan and the Sun Temple, called the Street of the Dead Complex possibly served as an elite administrative center.

Residential Architecture

Following the completion of the three major monuments, the great enclosures, and the Street of the Dead, the residents of Teotihuacan maintained a rapid rate of construction, but instead of public monuments they erected single-story residential units known as apartment compounds. Archaeologists estimate the existence of between 2,000–2,300 of these structures, which housed about eighty-five percent of the city’s population. It is thought that 60–100 individuals lived in each residence. An apartment compound typically measured 200 x 200 feet and consisted of dozens of connected rooms arranged around open-air courtyards. The whole of each compound was enclosed by a thick exterior wall. This broad access to residences that would not rapidly deteriorate, as did houses that were built elsewhere in Mesoamerica, provided average Teotihuacan residents with a degree of housing stability that was unique for the region. Apartment compound occupancy may have followed the rules of patrilocality, or settlement in the male spouse’s home, and craft specialization, in which skilled craftspeople lived together in their places of work. Only around thirty of the thousands of suspected examples have been partially or fully excavated.


Teotihuacan developed several distinctive artistic traditions spanning a wide range of media. Specialized ceramics such as hollow effigy figurines (i.e., 2015.226 a, b), of which only about a dozen examples are known, are particularly evocative yet difficult to interpret. The example in the Museum’s collection originated in the Maya region in Escuintla, Guatemala, about 750 miles southeast of Teotihuacan, where the object was likely produced.

While many Teotihuacan art works are abstract, artists also produced figural stone sculptures, which, though geometricized, are oftentimes well-appreciated by present-day viewers. Teotihuacanos especially valued green stones because of this color’s resemblance to water and, consequently, its associations with agricultural fertility. Most examples of such figural sculptures portray isolated faces (00.5.1437; 1979.206.527; 1987.394.721) that are oftentimes called masks. These objects may have been attached to wooden armatures or mortuary bundles that have since deteriorated. Full standing human figurines (00.5.970; 1979.206.585) are also known from Teotihuacan, though they are less common. One seated figure is held by the Museum (1979.206.714).

Mural paintings covered the walls of many of the city’s buildings, though most surviving examples occurred in apartment compounds. Commonly portrayed subjects included deities, rulers or priests, and carnivorous animals. Aspects of many of these common subjects of representation have been found in the city’s archaeological record. For example, excavations at the Moon Pyramid have documented pumas, eagles, serpents, and other predators that were buried as part of the edifice’s dedicatory programs; all are animal types pictured in paintings. Similarly, greenstone beads, obsidian blades, and ceremonial mirrors have surfaced in archaeological excavations. However, other paintings were highly abstract. For example, a mural fragment (2012.517.1) in the Metropolitan collection depicts a deity with attributes of an architectural profile.