Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Bad Map of Teotihuacan

The ancient Mesoamerican city Teotihuacan is the source of a contradiction that has really bothered me since I first started researching the site as an undergraduate. As one of the best-mapped ancient cities of Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan has had more bad maps published than perhaps any other Mesoamerican site. Two of the most remarkable and interesting things about the city are its great size and the large extent of central orthogonal planning of his residential neighborhoods. These features were revealed by the Teotihuacan Mapping Project starting in the 1960s, and the resulting map of Teotihuacan shows them very well (Map 1); from Millon et al. 1973.

Because of the importance of the site, Teotihuacan figures into just about any account of Mesoamerican prehistory, world prehistory, or ancient urbanism. Naturally textbook authors want to include images of the site. But why do textbook authors insist in including misleading maps of the site? For decades, pre-Teo Mapping Project maps were used in textbooks. These maps suggest that the site consists only of the main pyramids, the central street, and a few other civic buildings. I don’t have an image of these early maps handy, but most Mesoamericanists will know what I am talking about. The big problem with these maps is that they suggest that the city had lots of empty land in its central area, which is FAR from the truth. Thus they are misleading and inaccurate.

I did find a later version of this kind of map from Muriel Porter Weaver’s (1993, p. 191) textbook (see Map 2). Now this was a very good textbook, the standard before Susan Evans’ excellent text came out in 2004, and Weaver knows better. In fact, her caption reads, “Simplified map of civic-ceremonial center of Teotihuacan. Dwellings filled the spaces between constructions shown.” I guess this absolves Weaver of the charge of inaccuracy, but the map is still misleading. Why didn’t she just use the Teo Mapping Project map (Map 1 here)? I can’t answer that.

Now I find another, different, bad map of Teotihuacan in Berry (2007:211); see Map 3 here. This is quite a bad and bizarre map (compare it to the others), but then it is published in a bad and bizarre book. Brian Berry is perhaps the foremost urban and economic geographer of the 20th century, and, according to the back cover of this book, “he was for many years the world’s most frequently cited geographer.” When I saw a citation for the book, I initially got excited. I thought that Berry may have turned his analytical skills to ancient cities, which could produce some important insights. But instead it seems that after his retirement, he indulged an interest in ancient cities and self-published a non-scholarly book (no bibliography, no sources cited at all) that consists mainly of outdated information about the astronomical and ritual significance of ancient cities.

Since my undergraduate days, textbook maps of Teotihuacan have improved; many now include the map of Millon et al. instead of the misleading empty spaces maps of old. But I guess the era of bad maps is not over yet. I would guess that parallels problems could be identified for sites in other parts of the world. Although the secondary literature is always going to lag behind research findings, in this case the ignorance must have some other explanation. Perhaps publishers want simplistic maps like Maps 2 and 3 here instead of complicated maps like Map 1. I really don’t know the answer here.
Ps – I am tempted to use the example of Berry’s book to explore a couple of broader peeves I have about publishing archaeology. One is the prevalence of sloppy scholarship on the topic of cosmological significance of ancient cities. Another is the disrespecting of archaeological data and publications by scholars in other disciplines who assume that their ignorance of the archaeological record allows them to avoid citing archaeology while making up stories about the past. For the latest example of the latter, see a paper in last weeks Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Basu et al. 2009).

Basu, Sudipta, John Dickhaut, Kristy Towry and Gregory Waymire (2009) Recordkeeping Alters Economic History by Promoting Reciprocity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:1009-1014.

Berry, Brian J. L. (2007) The World's First Cities. Private publication. Available at:

Evans, Susan T. (2004) Ancient Mexico and Central America. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Millon, René, R. Bruce Drewitt and George L. Cowgill (1973) Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Volume 1: The Teotihuacan Map, Part 2: Maps. University of Texas Press, Austin.

Weaver, Muriel Porter (1993) The Aztecs, Maya, and Their Predecessors: Archaeology of Mesoamerica. 3rd ed. Academic Press, San Diego.


nilc said...

Here is a very good map

Michael E. Smith said...

I disagree that the map shown is a good map. It has the same problems of the maps I am criticizing - most of the 2,000 apartment compounds are missing. Only a few of them are shown. The map gives the impression that the city is full of open space, which is not accurate.

This map may be "good" from the point of view of graphics, but it is not good from the point of view of showing what Teotihuacan may have looked like.

manuel ramirez said...

The million map does look very great; however, there have been recent finds after those years. The Million map needs to be updated and I believe the map would be larger. Another thing, Teotihuacan was the largest city in the world think about it. Supposedly, by historical books such as: 1491, Life of the Aztecs and so on the city of Tenochtitlan covered 6 square miles and had 350,000 inhabitants. Now, Tenochtitlan was inspired by the Toltecs and the Teotihuacan culture on city building by grid planning. So, how in the heck is Teotihuacan covering over 20 square miles only inhabited by 200,000. Shouldn't Teotihuacan be somewhere between 700,000-800,000? Lastly, recent finds have pushed the mapping of Teotihuacan even further. I believe it was the largest city in the world for many many centuries. Thank you.