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Where Did the Murals Come From?

Teotihuacan: A.D. 1–750

The site of Teotihuacan, which is about an hour north of Mexico City, was a single large city built on a grid plan. Begun before A.D. 1, with a population estimated at 40,000, Teotihuacan lasted for over seven hundred years. At its peak, 100,000 to 200,000 people lived within the city’s boundaries, roughly eight square miles. Throughout its history, Teotihuacan was the most populous and influential city in Mesoamerica. Although we can only reconstruct its urban plan, Teotihuacan must have had innovative economic, social, political, religious, and military organization. In A.D. 500, Teotihuacan was the size of seventeenth-century Paris.

After the collapse of Teotihuacan in A.D. 750, the city’s formidable pyramids awed even the Aztecs. Because the temple complexes were so huge, the Aztecs believed they could only have been built by the gods, calling the site Teotihuacan, “the Place of the Gods” in Nahuatl.

The largest structures at Teotihuacan, the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, containing respectively about one million and one-quarter million cubic meters of building material, were built in the first century A.D. Teotihuacan’s dramatic rise to prominence can be attributed to many factors, including agriculture, obsidian production, long-distance trade routes, and military prowess.

It is unknown why the culture of Teotihuacan ultimately collapsed. The years after A.D. 600 were associated with major changes in the political and economic situation of Mesoamerica. The most striking of these changes was the growth of many new, aggressively expansionist centers at war with one another. The emergence of these new centers is possibly related to changing patterns in trade. Teotihuacan leadership may have been baffled by these changes and unable to chart a beneficial course of action. The highly integrated and corporate structure posited for the city, perhaps once an advantage, may have become a disadvantage in the seventh-century world of aggressive conflict between many highly expansionistic centers.

Where did the murals come from?

The sudden flood of new archaeological and art historical evidence furnished by the appearance of the Wagner murals provided the impetus for the discovery of the buildings from which they had originally been removed. The number of murals involved together with the exceptionally fine quality of many of them and the unique subject matter forcibly raised the question of provenance with new urgency. Where had all these paintings come from? How could the walls of so many ancient buildings have been chiseled out and removed without coming to the attention of someone in authority?

In 1984, with funds granted by the Fine Arts Museums Foundation, René Millon traveled to Teotihuacan in the hope of locating the original site for the Wagner murals. His team established in survey and excavation the provenance of six of the seven groups of paintings in the Wagner collection in the eastern part of the Barrio of the Looted Murals. The only group for which provenance was not definitively located was the Feathered Feline and Bird Border. They were also unable to find evidence for the provenance of two other major murals, the Coyote with Sacrificial Knife and the Coyotes and Deer. Five of the six sites surveyed and explored through excavation comprised a single large compound, which was named Techinantitla.

It now seems virtually certain that the walls of Techinantitla along with another site, Tlacuilapaxco, were the source of all of the Wagner murals, including those for which no direct evidence yet has been found. More than this, it also appears highly probable that all the other Teotihuacan murals that have appeared in museums and private collections since 1960 came from these two compounds as well. Many are companions of murals in the Wagner collection; others are linked to Wagner murals by stylistic details, shared glyphs, and other elements. This means that these two ancient buildings are the probable source of the majority of the looted murals from Teotihuacan.

Techinantitla, a single, very large compound, was at least 75 by 95 meters. The five sites lie to the north of Tlacuilapaxco, the compound from which many of the Maguey Ritual paintings were taken. The size of the compound makes it one of the largest structures of the apartment-compound type known at Teotihuacan. Of course, it is possible that it was not a residential compound, but rather a public or semi-public building. Techinantitla is the Nahua name for the land on which the complex is located.

The principal temple associated with Techinantitla covers an area of 12 by 20 meters. This makes it larger by several meters than any other temple so far found in an apartment compound. It seems likely that Techinantitla was the principal compound in its barrio, which raises the question of whether its main temple served all the people of the barrio. Other possibilities are that it was the main temple for an even larger entity, or for a cult that transcended the limits of the barrio. Another possibility is that it was directly linked to cults associated with the Pyramid of the Moon.

–Excerpted from Feathered Serpents and Flowering Trees: Reconstructing the Murals of Teotihuacan, 1988

View of Teotihuacan from the Pyramid of the Moon