Archaeological wonders in ‘Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire’

Art and artifacts excavated from Teotihuacan — Mexico’s most significant archaeological site — are on view at the de Young Museum in an immersing exhibition that looks at the culture and religious practices of one of Mesoamerica’s great cities.

Curated by Matthew R. Robb, “Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire,” delivers substantial ancient exposure.

Organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (in collaboration with the Secretaria de Cultura through the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia de Mexico), the exhibit contains more than 200 ceremonial, functional and decorative objects discovered at Teotihuacan, which, from about 100 B.C.E. to 550 C.E., was Mesoamerica’s largest city and cultural, economic and religious heart.

Located near what is currently Mexico City, Teotihuacan spanned eight square miles and was home to more than 100,000 people during its peak.

Acquired from collections in Mexico and the United States, the objects on display include numerous ritual and monumental items from Teotihuacan’s three largest pyramids — immense structures built without the assistance of wheels or work animals.

Objects recently excavated from the site of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid, named for the avian-reptilian deity pictured on its side, are prominent in the show.

The pyramid site includes a vast plaza, called the Ciudadela, where large public rituals occurred, and a manmade tunnel, likely an important sacred space.

Significant offerings discovered at the site include greenstone figures with bags of tiny mirrors and other symbolic objects. Some experts believe that these statues may represent Teotihuacan’s founders.

As with many ancient-treasure shows, dark aspects of human nature are evident alongside the impressive artistry. In this case, at the pyramid, tombs containing more than 130 sacrificed warrior-priests were discovered.

The Sun Pyramid, which is more than 200 feet high, and the smaller but still imposing Moon Pyramid, symbolize dualities such as fire/rain and masculine/feminine.

Featured objects that came from these pyramid sites include andesite sculptures of wildcat heads and a rattlesnake tail; objects reflecting complex burial rituals; and black blades skillfully carved at obsidian workshops.

The exhibition also focuses on Teotihuacan’s residential complexes, which housed groups of families and contained ambitiously created murals on the walls of public spaces.

These colorful artworks were painted onto wet plaster, fresco style. A presentation featuring a large red and green feathered-serpent and flowering-tree mural is an exhibit highlight.

Sections detailing symbolic iconography introduce viewers to the Storm God, the Old Fire God, and feline and avian creatures. Their images appear on tripod vessels, disks, effigy vessels and elsewhere. (An eye-catching effigy vessel featuring a colorful chicken-like bird attracted a crowd of viewers at the de Young one afternoon last week.)

Additional attractions include exquisite shell jewelry, elaborate ceramic incense burners and a stone circular relief depicting a death deity.

Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; through Feb. 11
Admission: $13 to $28; free for ages 5 and younger
Contact: (415) 750-3600,

Leslie Katz

San Francisco Examiner’s arts and entertainment editor Leslie Katz has been assigning, editing and/or writing news stories about the Bay Area’s rich cultural scene since 1997. Reach her at (415) 359-2727 or

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