|Fig. 1. Almenas decorating the roof of the Bird-butterfly palace|
This photo of the "Bird-butterfly palace" at Teotihuacan (fig. 1) shows some of the roof ornaments that decorated the building in ancient times. These objects are called "almenas." They were placed at the edge of the roof of houses and temples throughout the ancient city. Back when I wrote my senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan as an undergraduate (Smith 1975), I thought that almenas were status symbols that marked houses of the high and mighty. I didn't have any data to prove or disprove this idea, it is just something that seemed to make sense. When I began looking closely at the site of Teotihuacan again in the past couple of years, I assumed that someone must have figured out how almenas were used, what they stood for, or their overall significance at Teotihuacan. But I was surprised to find that there were no systematic studies of almenas at all. Individual objects were described in art books, and a couple of interesting ones had received attention (for example, there is one with Maya style images. Wow, what was that doing at Teotihuacan??).
Many whole almenas are in museum collections, and quite a few have been published in museum catalogs, art books, and other works on Teotihuacan. I had an anthropology major, Jenny Melgoza, organize images of these objects and work out a typology (fig. 2).
|Fig. 2. Typology of almenas|
|Fig 3. Clara Paz with almenas|
There were hundreds of these things! We dumped out the field specimen bags, most dated to 1964. I don't think anyone had looked at these fragments for almost 50 years! We applied the typology to the fragments, and classified over 700 pieces. This was a pretty quick study: classify the piece, record some attributes (ceramic or stone? evidence of paint?), and took some photos. Clara did most of the work. We immediately noticed that type 4, with the fanciest and most complex design, was the most popular type.
|Fig. 4. Temple with almenas|
Here are a couple of our findings, reported in a paper that was just published in the journal Mexicon (Smith and Paz 2015). First, almenas were recovered from most types of structures at Teotihuacan: houses of different types, temples, platforms, and open spaces. An engraved image of a temple from a pot (Fig. 4) shows almenas on the roof. Second, and most significant, almenas are found more commonly on houses of high status than low status. This table (Fig. 5) shows the data.
|Fig. 5. Frequency of almenas on different types of structure|
|Fig. 6. Three almenas in the sculpture garden at Teotihuacan|
This was just a small study of a small collection of artifacts, but it illustrates some important points.
- First, artifacts can yield new insights many years after excavation, IF they are properly stored and cataloged. This is one of the reasons for the existence of the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.
- Second, fragmentary artifacts are often more informative than whole objects, particularly when the fragments have good contextual information and the whole ones lack such information.
- Third, quantification of artifacts is the key to unlock their potential information about the nature of past life and society.
And finally, check out the almena now embedded in one of the local churches near Teotihuacan (Fig. 7).
|Fig. 7. Almena in the wall of a church (arrow)|
Smith, Michael E.
1975 Temples, Residences, and Artifacts at Classic Teotihuacan. Senior Honors Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Brandeis University.
Smith, Michael E. and Clara Paz Bautista2015 Las almenas en la ciudad antigua de Teotihuacan. Mexicon 37 (5): 118-125.