In the new NSF podcast "Dig This," archaeologist David Carballo describes life for the working class of ancient Teotihuacan and lessons that still apply today

NSF's Dig This!

In the new NSF podcast "Dig This," archaeologist David Carballo describes life for the working class of ancient Teotihuacan and lessons that still apply today

National Science Foundation


In the new NSF podcast "Dig This," archaeologist David Carballo describes life for the working class of ancient Teotihuacan and lessons that still apply today. Interviewer: Jordan D’Eri Interviewee: David Carballo

JORDAN: Deep in the highlands of Mexico there’s an ancient city called Teotihuacan. It’s a city known for iconic ruins with names like the Sun and Moon pyramids and the Street of the Dead… but today… we’re digging into the past to look at something else. In its heyday… Teotihuacan was roughly the physical size and contemporary of Imperial Rome... lasting from around 100 B-C-E to 6th century C-E. For context… that’s about 800 years before the Aztecs show up in the same area. At roughly 100,000 people… and a little less than 8 square miles… Teotihuacan isn’t much by today’s standards… but it’s still a very big place for a preindustrial city. To put it in perspective… try to imagine yourself as an average working class citizen navigating a city of that size without any wheeled vehicles or horses. That’s what Teotihuacanos faced every day. So how did they do it?

DAVID: It’s extremely planned, so it has a layout that people would call orthogonal rather than grid-like because it’s really one main thoroughfare…. And so it’s of the scale and sort of the organization that you don’t see many places.

JORDAN: That’s David Carballo… an assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University. And unlike a lot of the monumental archaeology we hear about in this area… his research is about the people who drive society even today… the working class. Over the next twenty-five minutes or so… we’ll explore the working-class’s role in everything from city planning to culture… how that led to the city’s success… and how the lessons we learn from the little guys can have huge impacts on today’s society. Now… we travel back in time…. to an area about a mile and a half outside Teotihuacan’s city center… to a working class neighborhood known as the Tlajinga district.

DAVID: And so for ancient cities this is quite a ways out. And these people have no subway or wheel vehicles or even horses. And so everything is walking back and forth to the center of town. And they would have been commoner class or working class, meaning we don't have high elites, nobles, living in this area. I would maybe place some in the sort of bottom quartile or third of the city's socioeconomic spectrum. And like in other parts of the periphery of this city the people who live out in those areas tend to be-- first, there's a heavy migrant presence. So like cities today, Teotihuacan relied on migration coming from different areas to replenish the population, to create ties for their day would have been globalized on a much smaller scale, of course. And also commoners who were just born in the city. And a lot of the economic activity you see out there, obviously these people would have been farmers as well. But they are intensely producing crafts, but they are utilitarian type goods. So, basic pottery, stone tools. If there's ornamentation, it tends to be simple like made of slate or other more common materials rather than the elaborate stuff like the fancy painted pots or the nice textile working or working green stones and other imported, more semi-precious stones.

JORDAN: This was about the size and scale of Rome at around the same time. So I'm just very curious as how that's able—how society was able to function so well when they didn't use things like horses or carts.

DAVID: Right, yeah, so the footprint of the city, like the area that is densely urbanized is very similar to Imperial Rome. So the population was considerably smaller, and that's largely because at Teotihuacan you're living in one story ranch style housing where in Rome it could get up to three, four stories. So there might have been Rome had three to five times the population of Teotihuacan. But still this is-- most of the audience might-- certainly has heard of Rome as an ancient city where far fewer would have heard of Teotihuacan. But we're dealing with something that is comparable in the Americas during its day. And it is roughly contemporary. And so Teotihuacan arrives at about 100 B.C. and declines sometime in the 6th Century A.D.

JORDAN: Very cool. So you were mentioning before just the craftsmanship of the things in Teotihuacan and just how well society sort of ran. What-- would you mind going into what your theories are on that, how a city of that size was able to function that way?

DAVID: Yeah, so, I mean, a few things are striking about Teotihuacan compared to cities really anywhere in the ancient world but its contemporaries within Mesoamerica, which is what we call much of Mexico and parts of Central America in the Pre-Columbian period. It's extremely planned, so it has a layout that people would call orthogonal rather than grid-like because it's really one main thoroughfare that the Aztecs called the Street of the Dead much later in time. So the Aztecs are later people who are finding this ruined city and giving it many of the names we use today. And so it's of the scale and sort of the organization that you don't see many places. And possibly-- or very likely that articulates with the economy. So people are living in very large house complexes. We call them apartment compounds, and they are of all different sizes and configurations. But they hew very closely to this orthogonal pattern, meaning that they're grid-like and they run up to 60 to even 100 meters on a side. And they would have had multiple households living inside of them. And we think this would have been highly productive economically, that you're basically pooling a lot of labor. You're creating cooperative labor relations that have a division of labor within a living unit. And so they specialize in certain craft goods that could be exchanged for others. And at the heart of this is some sort of market based economy. There's also of course a political economy driven by state and religious institutions, palatial institutions. But we do see that Teotihuacan for its time had a lot of free enterprise, you could say, or a more commercialized economy. And so people are migrating to it largely for economic opportunities that they didn't have elsewhere in more rural areas and the sort of much higher level of specialization that created this more robust economy.

JORDAN: So it sounds a lot like a lot of modern cities.

DAVID: Yeah, the things that make Teotihuacan rare or I wouldn't say unique but atypical for Mesoamerican cities as a whole are also the same things that make it seem more modern—its scale, its planning, the robustness of its economy, the degree of migration to it. JORDAN: Cool, so then because of this connection and just the similarities between Teotihuacan and, you know, sort of modern cities, what-- how would you say that your research impacts modern day planning and just looking towards the future?

DAVID: Well, I think it gives us a perspective-- archaeology in general has a seat at the table in discussions of human urban life waves for a few different reasons. So, first off, we increase our sample size by some 4,000 years. So if you're only looking at contemporary and historically documented cities, you're missing so many possible configurations of urban arrangements that have happened in the past that have very sparse history or are prehistoric completely. And you're getting them in all sorts of settings-- ecological and different continents. We also-- archaeology is a discipline that's best suited for charting really long-term change in human social organization. So we can look at how societies urbanize over time, the different patterns or pathways to becoming urban, how things fall apart with what works and what doesn't work. And then finally one of our calling cards as archaeologists is that humans inhabit a material world, and so we look at the stuff people make or the stuff people ate, the architecture that they lived in. And so the sort of physicality or materiality of cities are also important from an archaeological perspective.

JORDAN: Ok, so is there anything with Teotihuacan in particular that, you know, that kind of fits into that? That maybe you're learning some lessons from this, you know, particular study that you're doing that would carry over?

DAVID: So one major lesson is that we have neighborhoods. Like we have very defined neighborhood organization. Neighborhoods are important like a sociologist or other urban studies a scholar would tell you today. A lot of human interactions are happening at the neighborhood level where there are frequent interactions that are face to face. Often times cities have some cellular type organization to them, meaning that neighborhoods are embedded in districts or some sort of larger wards, an intermediate form of organization and those parts that comprise the whole of the city and seeing how those parts fit together in terms of, you know, what's happening economically, socially, politically is very important. We also-- the plan at Teotihuacan is tethered to this central artery called the Street of the Dead. And so the theme of how, you know, this broader urban plan was realized is also relevant to thinking about historical cities. So some other cities in history have had a main central artery. So, for instance, Alexandria, which is the biggest city of its day for the first few centuries B.C. before Rome had this canopic way, which was really impressive east-west artery. It was very centrally planned. So Alexander had a designer make this grid pattern. So there we have a model of like very top-down planning. Then you can think about New York City and its development. And so, you know, when the Dutch made New Amsterdam they laid out Broadway at the southern tip of the island. And it ended at the wall. But then they consolidated these foot paths that probably have some Native American precursors but then were also paths that people would take cattle out grazing past the settlement that became consolidated and extended the central artery. And then everything became consolidated with the commissioner's plan of 1811. So there we have an example of this more sort of piecemeal grid development. And so we're trying to get at that issue for Teotihuacan by looking at the Street of the Dead, which continues down through the (Tlajinga District) far to the south. And our investigations are the first to be looking at this extension. And I think that the model that I would favor right now is less of a complete planned top-down model and one that allows for some neighborhood or even household apartment level planning. So we see that the central artery was extended by digging down into this volcanic substrate, which is essentially the bedrock of the area. And that seems like a major labor project that would have maybe was enacted at the level of the city or, more likely, probably the district level with thousands of people. But then you see people situating their apartment compounds in a very much more uneven way compared to the center of the city. So the central Street of the Dead is like lined with these very elaborate temple complexes with high walls and nice architecture. And out where we are there are these very rudimentary retaining walls and only in some areas and not in others. So it seems like once this extension was excavated as like a major construction project that people filled in the landscape in a more piecemeal fashion. And so I think you have a mix of higher level and lower level planning processes going into it. And so those lessons obviously resonate to urban planning today.

JORDAN: Awesome, thank you. One of the things that I saw that in the original that kind of stood out to me is that, one, that you were talking about how the design itself was harmonious. I know you just kind of went into the whole piecemeal process and putting together a city design that, you know, makes sense and that is easy for a community to operate in. But you brought up this idea of harmony, and I was hoping that you could explore that a little bit.

DAVID: Yeah, yeah, so that's another very distinctive element of Teotihuacan for ancient cities. So a lot of ancient cities tend to be focused around a palace. And it's very obvious who was in control of them. They-- the kings or pharaohs or emperors just have all sorts of media advertising their existence. And they have lavish tombs and palaces and portraits or other forms of art depicting them. At Teotihuacan we don't have that. And so the art's been analyzed for well over a century, and all of the major monuments have been excavated. And there's never been a royal tomb discovered that anyone would agree on consensually. And there's the art is deemphasizing the individual. It emphasizes cosmic themes, supernatural and natural themes, deities, themes of fertility and abundance like what needs to happen to keep the whole thing going. And so when people are rendered they're rendered in social roles much more than individuals. Now there might be some individualism there. There are these sort of glyphic compounds next to some of them that might be identifying individuals. But they're rendered almost in cookie cutter-like fashion where they're in some sort of procession as either priests or warriors. And they're doing things that are important to the city and its place in the cosmos. But we're not seeing-- we're always subservient to the gods or this bigger idea of cosmic order. And they're not highlighted for their own right. And so that's very atypical, and you might think of a city that was formed involving a large amount of migration and was formed on a scale that was larger than anyone had seen within this particular part of the world at the time that that would have been a successful strategy or that would have contributed to some of this longevity is this message of unity rather than divisiveness. People are on the same page of what they should be doing to keep things going.

JORDAN: Very cool. So you think that kind of helped Teotihuacan?

DAVID: Yeah, I think that largely was a more integrative strategy, but I wouldn't totally gloss over the fact that there was a social hierarchy in place here and there were haves and have-nots and that there were people who lived in very large elaborate residences with these painted murals and had much greater access to trade goods coming from all different parts of Mesoamerica. Whereas people who were living out on the periphery that I'm studying lived in much simpler dwellings and had much less access to these trade goods. But one of the things that we're finding that's interesting in Tlajinga is they have some access to them and some access to pretty nice stuff like fancy painted pottery. But in one of the video clips we're talking about how we could see that the stucco that was painted had broken apart, and somebody patched it together. So it could have been like an heirloom or something that was kicking around in the family for a while and was precious and had to be taken care of. They didn't have ready access to those sorts of goods or this stone mask that we found. Same story, that there's access to pretty nice stuff out in this commoner periphery. But it's a rarity compared to the center of town.

JORDAN: Awesome, OK. What would you say that your biggest surprise was so far in your research? And if you can pick one what would your favorite artifact be?

DAVID: Well, for the artifact, it would have to be this stone mask because first you're staring at this face, which is the face of an ancient Teotihuacano. And it's in the typical Teotihuacan style that deemphasizes the individual again. And so you can't say that this is a single person. And they might have been used in this more generic way of ancestor veneration that could be a composite ancestor rather than a single individual. But those types of masks are, you know, seen as iconic for the city and its artistic tradition as a whole. And there's maybe some 120 that have been found and that exist in museum collections. But really only about ten or so have been well-excavated archaeologically. So this is important for archaeologists. When we go to museums and we see an artifact that just says the culture that its associated with, that's always unsatisfactory because we want to know exactly where did it come from and what's the bigger social meaning behind it. What does this tell us about the society that created this art. And so when you find something like that in situ, in its place of deposition, in this case it was in the central patio of an apartment compound face-down with a number of pottery vessels that have been ritually smashed around it. And so that, for us, is consistent with some sort of termination ritual at the end of the occupation of this area. And the patios are spaces where there's usually some sort of either multi-household or even district level ritual happening or neighborhood level ritual happening. And so this also gives another line of evidence that these things are used or some sort of ancestral rituals and that commoners have access to this so that many departments within the city likely had one of these. They had them way out on the periphery. So that one artifact is nice aesthetically, but more importantly gives us all of this social information that we don't get when they just appear in some collection that had been looted somewhere.

JORDAN: So then would also count as your big surprise as well that you found?

DAVID: I mean, yeah, I guess that's what my surprise-- the general level of access to imported goods. So there's another deposit that had all these marine shells, over 100 shells. And Teotihuacan is up in the highlands. It's 2,300 meters above sea level, so some 700 feet above sea level. And to have access to shells is a rarity. And it's coming in almost equal proportions from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. So it's signaling these trade ties that are extending across Mexico. And how are they getting that stuff? Well, you know, in this one particular compound, they were doing very utilitarian production, but they were specializing in making obsidian blades, which was the cutting tool of the whole city and broader Mesoamerica at the time. And they were mass producing these things. And something that we learned by studying all of the byproducts of this production is that there's a range of skill levels that you can see in the napping, meaning stone tool making. And that's telling us something about how production is organized, that it's—that there's a possibility of apprenticeship happening within the compounds and that this was a family trade that was being passed through generations. And so that's also I think one of the really interesting discoveries telling us something about the domestic economy and how it articulated with this broader interregional trade economy.

JORDAN: Where do you see this research taking you in the future?

DAVID: Well, I actually-- I will continue working in the Tlajinga area. And we want to keep this project open. But I am collaborating with a new NSF sponsored project that's now in the center of Teotihuacan rather than out on the periphery. And it's at a probably palatial compound called Plaza of the Columns. And this is in between the two major pyramids, the Sun and Moon Pyramid. It has huge structures of its own that are only starting to be explored by my colleagues. Sobora Sugiyama and Nawa Sugiyama are the other two PIs on this grant. The way that I've seen the two projects as intersecting-- so you have commoner residences and then this likely palace-- is by trying to investigate how commoners articulate with the political economy, meaning the palatial economy more driven by elite members of society. And so trying to explore in the palace whether there are things like storage facilities, kitchens, maybe a servant or retainer population who's residing within the palace walls itself. And so that would give us an idea of how this citywide political economy was functioning. And so that's going to be going on for the next at least two years. And I think I will be moving back and forth between the center and the periphery of this city to try to understand the whole.

JORDAN: That was David Carballo… an assistant professor of archaeology at Boston University. I’m Jordan D’Eri… co-editor of the Science three-sixty news service… and writer… editor and co-host of the Science three-sixty super science show… here at the National Science Foundation. If you have any super cool N-S-F-funded archaeology or paleontology-themed research you think I would dig… send it along to Jordan D’Eri… that’s me… at jderi at N-S-F dot gov. That’s j d-e-r-i at N-S-F dot gov. And to finally bring it all home… here’s a fun fact you can dig: Did you know the name Teotihuacan came from the Aztecs… meaning the ‘place where gods were born? That’s all for Dig This.