Rapoport developed a very useful scheme of how architecture communicates information. He identifies three levels of communication in the built environment: high-level meanings, middle-level meanings, and low-level meanings (see Rapoport 1988, 1990). High-level meanings communicate messages of symbolism, cosmology, and religion. In ancient societies, these high-level meanings are typically understood by only a small number of specialists and elites; many commoners know little of them. High-level meanings are culturally-specific; for example, Egyptian symbolism is completely different from Mayan symbolism. Today, scholars can reconstruct high-level meanings only if there are explicit written texts, or in some cases, very rich archaeological finds.
Middle-level meanings communicate messages of power, control, stability, wealth, and other positive values that rulers and elites want their subjects to receive. These meanings are more general and widespread than high-level meanings. Big buildings signal power, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or Classical Rome. Because these messages are valid across cultures (and not culturally specific), archaeologists can often interpret them from the mute remains of ancient architecture.
|The Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan|
Finally, low-level meanings concern the specific ways that people interact with buildings. They provide cues for how to behave appropriately, where to enter or exit, and other messages concerning movement, privacy, accessibility, and the like.
|The Coyolxauhqui stone|
|The birth of Hutziliopochtli|
The middle-level meanings of the Aztec Templo Mayor were messages of power and wealth. No other Aztec city had a pyramid this big, with such sumptuous offerings. The Aztec emperors were powerful, and the city and empire were wealthy. Visitors to the city from foreign lands may not have known the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth, but they could clearly understand the middle-level messages being sent deliberately by the Aztec emperors through their main temple. The low-level meaning of the Aztec Templo Mayor concerned access to the temple: who could approach it, who could climb the steps, and what were people expected to do when they approached the building.
|Feathered serpent temple, Teotihuacan|
Let's return to Teotihuacan to see if we can glean any information about high-level meanings from the main temples. We lack the myths of the Aztecs, in written and painted form. But one of the main temples, the "Feathered Serpent Temple", was covered elaborate carved images. One of the key images is the feathered serpent, a major deity at Teotihuacan. So in this case we can suggest that this temple was dedicated to a particular god. But we can't say much more than that about it's high-level meanings.
If you want to learn more about the three levels of communication, the place to start is with Rapoport's publications. I discuss them in several papers, and Flannery and Marcus discuss very similar ideas. There are several levels of meaning in the wide urban world, and some are more accessible to us today than others.
Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus
1993 Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3: 260-270.
1988 Levels of Meaning in the Built Environment. In Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Non Verbal Communication, edited by Fernando Poyatos, pp. 317-336. C. J. Hogrefe, Toronto.
1990 The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach. rev. ed. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Smith, Michael E.
2007 Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6 (1): 3-47.
2011 Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.
2012 The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.