Thursday, December 17, 2015

The original status symbols of Teotihuacan

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
Some are made of stone, and others are ceramic. Many are stepped, with or without simple decoration. Some types are more complicated, with depictions of animals, gods, and geometric designs. I asked George Cowgill whether the Teotihuacan Mapping Project had included fragments of almenas when they made collections of artifacts from the surface. The answer was yes, but it seems that no one had gotten around to analyzing these things. So when I was at the ASU lab last May, I engaged the help of Teotihuacan archaeologist Clara Paz, and we took a look.
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
But the real secrets of this collection only came out back at Arizona State University, when I matched up the collection numbers with Cowgill's Teotihuacan database. When doing household archaeology -- as opposed to monumental archaeology, focused on big architectural contexts -- the major discoveries typically come long after the fieldwork is done. They come when one has studied the artifacts and looked at their distribution at the site.  (If you want to explore this theme of the nature of discoveries in household archaeology, read my book, At Home with the Aztecs, due out in a couple of months).

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
Members of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project divided the houses of Teotihuacan into these three categories. Most of the apartment compounds at the site are of intermediate status. Compounds that were larger or fancier than most were classified as high status. And small houses built of perishable materials are the low-status residences. As you climb the status hierarchy, an increasing proportion of the houses had almenas. This finding supports my old undergraduate hypothesis that these were status symbols. But the picture is complicated. Even the lowest status houses could have an almena or two. And temples also had these things. Want to know more? You can read the article (in Spanish) here.
Fig. 6.  Three almenas in the sculpture garden at Teotihuacan
What's next? There is still more to do with these several hundred almena fragments from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. With more time and more student help, I want to study these things in greater detail, to learn more about their forms and materials. And the whole almenas in museum collections and publications can yield more information if analyzed systematically.

This was just a small study of a small collection of artifacts, but it illustrates some important points.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


  1. Stay tuned for more developments about this paper. We located a new box of almenas in the lab, and in November I cataloged and measured and photographed them. The editor of Mexicon said I could submit revision to the text, figures and tables to incorporate the new results. But when the journal came out, my revisions were nowhere to be seen. I think I will distribute an alternative version of the paper with the updates. Stay tuned.......

  2. The corrected version is now posted on

  3. I wonder if Maya Battlements (i avoid using spanish terms as Almenas or Cresterías when writing in English, it gets messy) are a oversized evolution of those at Teotihuacan. They seemed to do the same lineage job (some of them even have maya rulers and gods sitting in them)

  4. @Don Cheyo - Good question! So far, I have avoided worrying about almenas outside of Teotihuacan. Marshall Becker wrote a paper on almenas from ihuEl Salvador, and he reviews the evidence from other parts of Mesoamerica. Maybe he includes this question. His paper is under review at a journal right now.