Art of the Ancient Mexican City of Teotihuacan. Opens at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“City and Cosmos: The Arts of Teotihuacan” is on exhibit until July 16 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), focusing on the ancient city (pronounced tay-OH-tee-wah-cahn) 25 miles northeast of Mexico City, best-known for its three massive pyramids (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was founded about 200 B.C., partially burned around 550 A.D. (probably during an internal rebellion), and occupied as late as the 8th century. It reached its peak in 450, when its multi-ethnic population was at least 150,000 and its influence had spread widely throughout central and southern Mexico and as far as Honduras. It was in ruins when the Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico around 1300 A.D. and they gave it a name, meaning “birthplace of the gods,” since they believed this was where the universe was created.

At the entry to the new special exhibition is a description of Teotihuacan’s militaristic culture and religion, which put a premium on human sacrifice to keep the cosmos in balance. Its rulers conquered the great Mayan city of Tikal in Guatemala and placed the first dynasty on the throne of Copan in Honduras. The museum notes that art helped unite the city’s diverse people and its styles were adopted by others, including architecture, iconography, jewelry, ceramics, carved obsidian and greenstone pieces, and volcanic stone sculptures.

Some of the items upfront are from a tunnel, discovered in 2003 underneath the smallest of the pyramids, which was dedicated to the Feathered Serpent god. The tunnel included sacrificial victims, hundreds of metallic spheres created for unknown purposes and a model of a landscape that included pools of liquid mercury representing lakes. The Pyramid of the Moon was said by the Aztecs to be topped by a stone figure representing the moon goddess. The Pyramid of the Sun is 246 feet high and 738 feet across, making it the third-largest in the world (number one is at Giza, Egypt, followed by the Pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, Mexico).

The expressions on the sculptures range from frightening (such as the skeletal deity) to stoic. Some items seem to have been models for modern minimalists. One vessel, Crazy Duck, looks as it were designed by an iconoclast with a sense of humor, who gave the bird a surprised look and decorated it lavishly with seashells.

The most striking items the exhibit are the distinctive murals, with various shades of red the dominant color. Estimates are that there may have been tens of thousands painted in Teotihuacan over the centuries.

The most exciting field in global archaeology now is in the Western Hemisphere, where much is left to explore, including dozens of ancient cities in jungles that have been located, but left virtually untouched. Much remains to be done even at tourist destinations like Teotihuacan (the inside of the Pyramid of the Sun has never been fully excavated).

LACMA is open daily except Wednesday 323/857-6180

By Scott S. Smith

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