Museum curator to share years of research at SB Museum of Art
Just 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, the remains of an ancient Mesoamerican city stand as a historic landmark, leaving just a trace of what researchers believe was once a vibrant cultural center.
Teotihuacan’s (pronounced tay-oh-tee-wha-KAHN) pyramids loom large in the distance outside of Mexico City, and the site of the once bustling metropolitan area has evoked fascination and awe for hundreds of years.
Unlike the ancient legacies of the Olmecs or the Aztecs, the history of the people who once lived in the large multiethnic city of Teotihuacan is largely unknown. Without any ancient writings for context, researchers are unsure of how the city was built or by whom.
From what remains of the city, scholars believe Teotihuacan was once a lively, metropolitan city in ancient Mesoamerica. With its start in the first century A.D., the city reached the peak of its power and influence between 300-400 A.D. Similar in power and prestige to Rome, Teotihuacan likely housed nearly 150,000 people by the fifth century.
Over the years of excavations, archeologists have discovered hundreds of artifacts from the remains of Teotihuacan, but there are still many questions about this ancient city that are yet to be answered.
The mystery of the city is ultimately what spurred researcher and Fowler Museum Chief Curator Matthew Robb to start searching back in time.
Mr. Robb, whose museum is at UCLA, will discuss his research during a virtual talk Feb. 4 as part of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art lecture series “Art Matters.”
The talk will cover Teotihuacan and the discovery of stone masks that could tell more about its culture. Registration is free, and tickets can be reserved at tickets.sbma.net.
Mr. Robb has spent the past 20 years extensively researching this ancient city, searching to uncover the meaning behind cultural artifacts that are hundreds of years old.
Throughout his research, he discovered that Teotihuacan was likely a place that city residents in the modern day could resonate with. In essence, the people of Teotihuacan lived a lot like a modern city dweller in the 21st century.
Many citizens of Teotihuacan dwelled in apartment complexes or huge family compounds, the remains of which still exist to this day. Just like modern Shanghai or Paris, Teotihuacan would have been a landmark city in its time for both its architecture and its power.
“I do think in a lot of respects that it’s one of those places that you would recognize as a resident of a city,” Mr. Robb told the News-Press. “You would understand it. Cities are things that humans have always done.”
One of the great mysteries of Teotihuacan is the culture of the city. Unlike other ancient cities, there is no written history of Teotihuacan, leaving researchers to assume what the cultural context of the remains might have been.
For over a century, archaeologists have been digging in the remains of Teotihuacan, searching for remnants of the once lively city. Hundreds of objects have been collected over the years and showcased in museums around the world.
One of the most notable objects found at the remains of Teotihuacan is a collection of hundreds of mysterious stone faces. There are about 500 of these masks, some found in fragments, that Mr. Robb currently knows exists.
These masks, hidden for centuries, could give clues to cultural ideals in the ancient city. Throughout Mr. Robb’s research, he has sought to understand these enigmatic objects based on where they were found in the ruins and the materials they are made of.
Researchers believe obsidian manufacturing in Teotihuacan was an important part of the city’s economy, and these masks made of different kinds of stone could have symbolized various deities or royalty.
Around 550 B.C., Teotihuacan experienced a large fire, which burned up significant parts of the city. The fire weakened Teotihuacan’s power in Mesoamerica, and Mr. Robb believes during the fire, many of the face masks were smashed purposely, possibly signifying their cultural significance through such deliberate destruction.
Without a clear written history or a real sense of where these masks existed in ancient Mesoamerican society, Mr. Robb and his colleagues have tried to piece together clues to discover the meaning behind the objects.
“Whenever you’re dealing with a site in the ancient world … you always have to deal with layers of history that are between you and that place and that time,” Mr. Robb said.
He later added, “If you don’t have (good archeological context), it becomes a lot harder to speculate about what the meaning of these objects might have been.”
Mr. Robb’s research got the attention of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.
“The arts of the Ancient Americas are an inherently fascinating topic, we believe, for most people,” Eik Kahng, museum’s deputy director and chief curator, said. “As revamped by myself starting around 2015, this lecture series is devoted to aficionados of the history of art in all of its diversity and richness. We invite prestigious art historians, curators, and conservators from all areas of the discipline and are particularly keen this year to focus on the international cultural inheritance of our Latinx community.”
When the museum holds its grand reopening later this year, a selection of art from the ancient Americas will be presented in the Thayer Gallery.