It’s a sunny summer Sunday, and the Street of the Dead looks particularly lively as archaeologist David Carballo makes his way across. The broad thoroughfare cuts a one-and-a-quarter-mile swath through the heart of the ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, passing three monumental stone pyramids named after the sun, the moon, and the mythological Feathered Serpent, and gaggles of photo-snapping tourists. About 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, Teotihuacan—or Teo, as archaeologists call it—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited archaeological ruin in the Western Hemisphere. Today, as in ancient times, the center of Teo is a circus of commerce. One vendor hawks colorful clay whistles that trill a birdsong or rumble a jaguar’s growl. Another sells dangling pendants of serpents, skulls, plastic hearts, and peace signs. A group of friendly tourists stops Carballo, waggling their iPhones toward him, asking him to take their photo. They lean together, grinning from ear to ear, pyramids looming behind them.
Carballo, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) assistant professor of archaeology and author of Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico (Oxford University Press, 2015), has studied Teotihuacan since 1999, trying to learn how this ancient metropolis arose around the first century BCE and flourished for more than 600 years. He does this not by studying the grand pyramids and other remnants of Teo’s elite, but by examining a group of working-class neighborhoods in a district called Tlajinga. Carballo, who teaches a class called Archaeology of Cities and whose work is funded by a three-year, $238,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, says that understanding the economics and social structure of Tlajinga will give him clues to the economics and social structure of the city as a whole. That knowledge, in turn, may inform a host of questions about our modern cities: Who migrates to cities and why? How do rulers build and maintain complex infrastructure? And perhaps most crucial for our diverse society, how can a government attract strivers from many different cultures and mold them into a new, unified people? In other words, how can we all get along?
David Carballo. Photo by Cydney Scott
More than half the people in the world now live in cities, according to the World Health Organization, and as more people migrate to urban areas, finding answers to these questions becomes urgent. “Comparing ancient cities to modern cities is long overdue, and David Carballo has been at the forefront of this movement,” says George Cowgill, an Arizona State University (ASU) professor emeritus of archaeology, who is regarded as the world’s authority on Teotihuacan. Cowgill says that Carballo’s focus on the Tlajinga district, as well as other places, is critical for understanding the city at large. “Imagine studying Boston by just looking at the State House and a few skyscrapers—it’s ridiculous,” he says. “We need to know the whole range of the city, from the commoners to the elites.”
Carballo’s work is part of a scientific trend, says Curtis Runnels, a CAS professor and chair of archaeology, pointing to comparable studies in Pompeii and Giza. “In the early days of scientific archaeology, they focused on the big things they could see: temples, tombs, King Tut, and the whole business,” says Runnels. “Archaeologists have moved beyond that.”
“Teotihuacan is from the same time period—and it’s the same scale—as ancient Rome,” Runnels adds. “Who were the inhabitants and where did they come from? How did they organize such a city? You don’t answer those questions by looking at pyramids alone.”
The pyramids are good for one thing, at least: a sweeping view of the city. From a distance, the parade of tourists climbing the 248 steps to the top of the Sun Pyramid looks like a trail of determined ants. Carballo makes his way to the summit and points out Tlajinga, just over a mile to the south, and ethnic enclaves elsewhere in the city that housed Zapotec, Maya, and people from Mexico’s Gulf Coast. Like many modern cities, Teo had a compact downtown area arranged on an orderly grid, with temples, open market plazas, and stylish, elite apartment housing. Simpler neighborhoods like Tlajinga arose at a distance from downtown, as did Brighton to downtown Boston. Archaeologists estimate that Teo encompassed about eight square miles, with more than 100,000 inhabitants at its peak. For comparison, medieval London covered only about one square mile and its population didn’t break 100,000 until the 16th century.