Digging into ASU history at Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan mask

A photograph of an ancient mask from Teotihuacan, part of the exhibit at Noble Library at ASU.


The work of ASU archaeologists has been in the spotlight thanks to the Phoenix Art Museum’s current exhibition "Teotihuacan: City of Water, City of Fire" and its related programming.

Arizona State University’s presence at Teotihuacan, one of the largest cities in the ancient world and the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, began in the 1980s and continues today, according to Seonaid Valiant, curator for Latin American studies at the ASU Library, who has curated a new exhibit documenting this significant relationship using materials from ASU Library and archaeology collections.

"Teotihuacan is a historically significant site because since the time it was built, it has been in use as either a political or religious site," Valiant told KJZZ reporter Matthew Casey in a story published Dec. 19, 2018.

The exhibit, "ASU at Teotihuacan," on display through Jan. 30 on the second floor of Noble Library, visually documents ASU’s working archaeological lab in San Juan Teotihuacan and highlights the archival papers of late ASU Professor George Cowgill in the ASU Archives. 

A closing reception for the exhibit is scheduled for 3:30–4:30 p.m. Jan. 22 at Noble Library.

Question: How long have archaeologists been working at the site of Teotihuacan?

Answer: Unofficial excavations and looting began at Teotihuacan as early as the 1860s. The Mexican government took over the site and began official excavations in 1906. They prepared the ancient city so that it could serve as a showcase during the 1910 centennial celebrations. For example, the society of the International Congress of Americanists were given a tour of the site in September of 1910. The tour was followed by a state dinner, held in a local cave, hosted by President Porfirio Díaz. Excavations have continued at the site, off and on, since the early 20th century.

Q: How long has ASU had a presence at Teotihuacan?

A: As a graduate student from Brandeis University, George Cowgill started working with René Millon at Teotihuacan in the 1960s on the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. Cowgill officially joined Arizona State University as a professor of archaeology in 1989 and continued working at Teotihuacan until the 2000s.

Cowgill excavated at the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent, and he examined artifacts collected from the entire surface area of Teotihuacan. Cowgill’s documentation of these collections provided the first large archaeological database and systematic analysis of this material.

Following Cowgill’s move to ASU, he continued as the custodian of the research lab at Teotihuacan, and it became the center for multiple excavations. The addition of a second story to the lab in 1992 allows for the storage of the several million artifacts, many of which were collected by the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. Furthermore, the lab trains students from both the United States and Mexico and provides a home base for researchers working at Teotihuacan.

Q: What is ASU doing at Teotihuacan currently?

A: ASU’s work at Teotihuacan continues today. Michael E. Smith, who has been the director of the lab since 2015, has taken on the task of organizing and publishing the data collected by René Millon that, although not previously published, continue to be relevant.

A student of George Cowgill, Saburo Sugiyama is associated with both ASU and Aichi Prefectural University in Japan and has excavated at the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent in addition to smaller structures. He is currently excavating at the Plaza of the Columns at Teotihuacan in collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Q: What is on display in the Noble Library?

A: On exhibit in the Noble Library are photographs of the lab, maps and negatives created by René Millon, reproductions of the maps and graphs by George Cowgill, as well as a few small artifacts from the site. The exhibit highlights the ”work in progress” as archaeologists do their day-to-day analysis. The documents that they create and leave behind then become the primary sources for the next set of researchers.

Valiant is the author of "Ornamental Nationalism: Archaeology and Antiquities in Mexico, 1876-1911."

More Arts, humanities and education


Photo illustration of a notebook with STEM letters and doodles

ASU gathers highly effective classroom teachers to share their successes

In the Gadsden Elementary School District, near Arizona’s border with Mexico, most of the students are poor, and many are English…

An image of colorful video game equipment and screens in a photo credited to Stewart A. Elrod / Brandon Skeli on Flickr.

The future is a story

If there was one word reflecting the zeitgeist of today’s media environment, it might be “storytelling.” From its documented role…

A vintage maroon school desk floating on a flat ASU gold background

AI's role in enhancing education

Editor's note: This feature article is part of our “AI is everywhere ... now what?” special project exploring the potential (and…