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Most history buffs are aware of the Maya, Inca and Aztecs, and perhaps even the Olmec and Anasazi, who flourished in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Europeans. But the city of Teotihuacan, just northeast of modern-day Mexico City is often overlooked.

Teotihuacan (pronounced “tay-oh-tee-wa-KHAN”) was a thriving metropolis for six centuries or more, with as many as 100,000 people living in a complicated and unique city laid out around an idea of harmony and order, according to Boston University archaeologists who continue to study the site. The ghost city’s pyramids, temples, and other impressive structures that still stand are a testament to the peak of the city’s power and prestige.

But David Carballo and his team look past the huge monuments, focusing instead at the city’s working-class districts for clues as to how the large regional hub became so prominent, according to a BU publication.

“Teotihuacan is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. This city was clearly built to impress,” said Carballo, in a videotaped interview. “It never was a lost city… Monumental archaeology, as we like to call it, is focused on the pyramids – not so much (about) asking questions of what life was like in the city.”

That ancient life holds lessons for modern-day planning, Carballo told Laboratory Equipment.

"In a nutshell, I think that some of the lessons from Teotihuacan are that, (one), economic opportunity and migration are always connected and what make cities the engines of complex societies - stifling either one of them is the death of cities and the broader regions they support; (and two), successfully integrating the diverse populations that constitute cosmopolitan cities requires a dominant ethos that emphasizes what unites rather than what divides," Carballo told Laboratory Equipment in an email.

Carballo and his team have spent years analyzing the city – and reconstructing what life must have been like there from the 1st Century B.C. to the 7th Century A.D. Carballo’s new book explaining how the city was organized and ruled, “Urbanization and Religion in Ancient Central Mexico,” will be published on Nov. 2 by Oxford University Press.

The BU team has focused on the working-class district called Tlajinga, on the outskirts of the city. The scientists have found what they believe are the remnants of a profitable and bustling obsidian trade, which was a far-flung cottage industry in the city – and a major economic engine of the place.

But even in the working-class section of the city, they found well-organized apartments clustered around central courtyards showing organization and residents living in close proximity to one another. Class differences were shown by how elaborate and decorated the living quarters were, Carballo said.

The archaeologists also found remnants of some striking artwork and other manufactured goods – pottery, murals, adorned turtle shells.

“You’re really seeing goods from all over Mesoamerica coming into the city,” Carballo said.

The ruins of the city survive as a testament to the abandoned city’s level of luxury and prosperity, even outside the elite ruling classes who presided over the temples and pyramids, according to the scientists.

The comfort of that ancient city could provide lessons for how to organize increasingly complex modern cities, they are finding.

“To be in the bottom quartile or third of Teotihuacan society still put you in relative comfort domestically compared to other parts of Mesoamerica or other parts of the world of 1500 years ago,” he said.

Teotihuacan continues to pose riddles and offer surprises to investigators at the site. Earlier this year, an archaeological team digging for a royal tomb under one of the large pyramids in the city found a large amount of liquid mercury stockpiled there.

The city was repeatedly pillaged and burned in the 7th Century A.D., leading to its demise. The ethnic identity of its inhabitants remains unknown, no writing system has ever been identified from the ruins, and even its original name has never been identified.

 

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