image title

A champion for the past and future of Teotihuacan

October 23, 2018

Posthumous $1 million donation by family of the late George L. Cowgill continues ASU archaeologist's commitment to ancient site

Imagine a renaissance city where revolutionary ideas in urban planning, politics, economy, ecology and the arts all arose at the same time, creating a high standard of living that was largely equitable for nearly all residents.

It’s hard to imagine even by today’s standards, yet one ancient Mesoamerican city seemed to have achieved that status, for a time, and the archaeological remnants from that period and location are available for research and discovery today. 

Teotihuacan is a famed UNESCO World Heritage site located in central Mexico that receives 2 million visitors each year. Yet few of these countless visitors throughout the decades have given back as much as one — a man by the name of George L. Cowgill.

The late archaeologist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change died this summer after spending much of his lifetime studying and preserving the majesty of Teotihuacan.

“George’s dry humor often enlivened his professional and personal interactions,” remembered ASU Professor Emeritus Barbara Stark, “as did his wide knowledge of research on ancient civilizations.”  

Over decades, Cowgill proved himself an invaluable ally and friend of Teotihuacan with regards to the global scientific community, the Mexican government and peoples — who allowed him and other researchers access to their history, resources and communities — and countless students, supporters and members of the public, whose interest only grew with each new discovery.

In 2018, this legacy continued with a posthumous $1 million donation to ASU made by his family to help honor this lifelong commitment and create further opportunities for worldwide scientific and cultural access and appreciation of the site.

Falling under Teo's spell

Cowgill began the Teotihuacan portion of his career in 1964 under the invitation of famed researcher René Millon, who was looking for help with an ambitious project to map the scope of the city in its entirety.  

Anthropologists George Cowgill and Rene Millon

Famed anthropologists and Teotihuacan Mapping Project colleagues René Millon (left) and George Cowgill.

Other major efforts by Cowgill spanned decades, including an excavation alongside ASU Research Professor Saburo Sugiyama at the site’s Feathered Serpent pyramid, and the development of a database — one of the field’s largest at the time — of Teotihuacan surface artifacts. Along the way, he pioneered several novel enhancements to quantitative methods in the industry’s scientific tool kit, in areas such as chronological seriation, artifact classification and spatial analysis.

In addition, he was a co-founder of the first externally owned research lab onsite, the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, and strategically grew its resources, infrastructure and influence over nearly three decades as its director.

Today, as an ASU-owned facility managed by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the lab continues to serve as a main base camp for scientific discovery, including use by researchers and visiting anthropology students from the United States, Mexico and the rest of the world. It also houses thousands of boxes containing the roughly 1 million artifacts and samples recovered from the site to date.

“George ran the lab as an incubator of ideas to be tested in field projects by scholars of different perspectives and nationalities, and thought that all artifacts, whether common or rare, mundane or exquisite, deserved careful study and fierce protection,” ASU Professor Ben Nelson said.

Over the course of his career, Cowgill authored more than 130 professional publications, and his 2015 book “Ancient Teotihuacan” is considered the definitive general work on the city.

In 2004, he and Millon were also jointly awarded the Alfred Vincent Kidder Award for Eminence in the Field of American Archaeology by the American Anthropological Association.

Despite Cowgill’s and others’ exhaustive efforts, current estimates are that only a paltry 5 percent of the total area that is Teotihuacan has been excavated and analyzed. The other 95 percent still remains buried.

Lessons from the past and a future that endures

The Aztecs did not build Teotihuacan, but it was they who named it a “city of the gods.” And Cowgill’s findings over the decades consistently reveal a culture that was — at its peak — certainly worthy of such a grand title.

For example, it boasted extensive trade networks and marketplaces, and also influenced far more regions through its culture — including ritual programs, specialized crafts and a political prestige; things that other societies envied and emulated — than it absorbed through force.

“George’s willingness to seek answers to the future from lessons of our past has since proved prescient,” explained Michael E. Smith, the current director of the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory and a student of Cowgill’s at Brandeis University in the 1970s. “In a world where our ability to simply ‘spread out’ as a solution for population growth is rapidly diminishing, these lessons from the past may be key in creating safer, fairer and more effective cityscapes of tomorrow.”

As Cowgill himself explained in a 2013 interview, “We shouldn’t think of past cultures as disappeared. They have a continued life in another form. They remain relevant.”

That’s not to say life at Teotihuacan was always idyllic — in fact, Cowgill was involved with the discovery of the first pyramid at Teotihuacan associated with ritual human sacrifice. And despite hundreds of years of evident prosperity, the city also met a comparatively swift decline and abandonment in its final years, culminating in the burning of its civic center in A.D. 650.

However, one of Cowgill’s greatest insights was never to let sensational or surface-level assumptions take away from the big idea of Teotihuacan — that even in a place of this magnitude, everyone matters and deserves to have their story told.

“The great pyramids, the haunts of rulers and high priests, are important, but the dwellings of ordinary folk are also vital for understanding a complex urban society,” he said in 2011.

A democratic and egalitarian idea, as manifest in the man as in the city he studied.

Throughout his life, “George brought people together, whether through the scientific conferences hosted in his name and or by lending his extraordinary knowledge to museum displays and public learning opportunities,” said President’s Professor Kaye Reed, director of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Now, this gift in honor of his memory will enable Cowgill’s major physical legacy — the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory — to continue and enhance its core missions.

Local and international students, scientists and others will continue to learn about and preserve the past of Teotihuacan through research and curation, and new approaches to in-person and online outreach, education and scholarship will be developed, Smith said.

“This donation is an incredible legacy and will be invaluable to keep the discoveries coming at Teotihuacan for generations to come.”

Top photo of Teotihuacan by Ken Fagan/ASU Now

image title

It turns out dead men do tell tales

October 23, 2018

ASU scientist to advance the reliability of forensic science evidence by studying isotopes in human skeletons

In 2000, duck hunters found the body of a young woman near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. Her remains were badly decomposed, but she had long hair.

Hair, which grows at about a centimeter per month, can hold travel history. When forensic scientists analyzed the isotopes in the woman's hair, they could see she repeatedly moved from the Pacific Coast, up near Washington or Oregon, to Utah and back again. She did that over a few seasons from year to year. They connected that information to a woman who had been traveling between different members of her family. The timeline matched. Eventually, with DNA, they were able to match her identity to her remains.

“That’s really powerful,” said forensic chemist Gwyneth Gordon, a research scientist at Arizona State University. “You could really write someone’s biography with this.”

Gordon, who has just been awarded a $570,000 grant from the Department of Justice to investigate the variation in isotopes in human skeletons, says the science basically tells a life history through chemistry.

“You see this on the news all the time when they say, ‘Oh, King Henry used to eat a lot of fish,’ or ‘We found this body and we can tell they came from New England,’” she said. “That’s what it’s used for.”

Using isotopes to trace where people are from has moved from anthropology to forensic science. The science uses combinations of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, strontium and lead isotopes. Each different isotope system has its own set of information.

“One of the difficulties with anthropology is they don’t know what the real answer is because everybody died hundreds or thousands of years ago,” said Gordon, a research scientist with the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “You make these measurements and you make the best estimate you can, but there’s not been a lot of validation work where we know the answer. We’re going to test it.”

During the two-year study, Gordon will determine the accuracy of results by doing detailed validation and work on the underpinning science. The research has important implications for using chemistry to identify the remains of victims of crimes, natural disasters and war.

“There are a lot of concerns in forensics about reliability and getting things into court,” she said. “In order for this technique to really be used robustly, we’ve got to have that underlying science really solid. … What we’ve gotten funding for is to really look into a lot of detail at people. … We’re going to test these techniques that have been shown in case studies and really rigorously test it.”

Cases where isotope analysis helps make an identification get publicity, but cases where there’s no result do not.

“Is that because the interpretation was wrong, or because the science wasn’t there, or because there wasn’t enough additional information?” Gordon said. “We don’t know. It has the potential to do more identifications. It’s a powerful tool, if you know how to use it right.”

Gordon will be working with three human decompositional facilities at the University of Tennessee, Texas State San Marcos and Colorado State. Often dubbed “body farms,” they are research facilities where bodies are placed outside to face the elements so scientists can better understand the process of decomposition. The University of Tennessee has the largest human skeleton collection in the world. Donors fill out an extensive questionnaire about their diets, travel history and other details so scientists can learn how to better read isotopes.

“Your bones are constantly turning over, and they turn over at different rates,” Gordon said. “Your bones will record the last five to 20 years of your life.”

Samples also use a lot of material — like an entire rib — to analyze. Gordon thinks that can be reduced.

“We don’t think that’s necessary,” she said. “We think you may able to do it with just one little bone of the finger or toe. That would be much less destructive. … We’re also testing that.”

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU News