ASU's Teotihuacan Research Laboratory is a growing collection that serves as resource for many scholars, projects
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about ASU’s Teotihuacan lab. Click for the first and third installments. Lab director Michael E. Smith will appear Wednesday in Tempe to talk about new discoveries; find event information at the bottom of this story.
It’s 7:30 a.m., and about eight archaeologists from six universities are loading up instruments, backpacks, surveying instruments, water jugs, buckets and tripods into a big gray van.
“We start early,” says one of the student archaeologists, “and we finish late.”
They pull gray tarps and shovels from a tool storage shed. The Arizona State University Teotihuacan Research Laboratory complex doesn’t look that big, but there are storage spaces and workspaces tucked in every corner. They all wear hats (even though it’ll only be 76 today, the city is at high altitude and the sun gets intense) and boots (the ground is rough, and digging turns up lots of rocks).
The van backs out of the complex. Lab director Michael Smith comes out of his guesthouse.
“Oh man, I wish I was going,” he says as he watches them go.
No other university has a lab at Teotihuacan. This year it turns 30. ASU professor emeritus George Cowgill, the world’s top authority on the ancient city, took over the facility in 1986.
From the street it looks like a CIA black site: towering gray walls, a black steel gate, and a buzzer high out of kid reach. No ASU logo, seal or Sparky.
The main two-story building is devoted to storage and workspaces, with desks under the windows and row after row of boxes that rise to the ceiling and fade into the dark. With an estimated 10,000 boxes of artifacts from excavations as old as 40 years ago, this is the heart of the lab.
The complex has a row of tiny guesthouses that lead back to what is affectionately called the Old House. It contains living quarters for students and visiting scholars, a dining area and kitchen (sign over sink: “Due to budget cutbacks we had to fire the maid. Do your own dishes”), and a small library of airport paperbacks (“If there’s anything classy in there, it belongs to George Cowgill,” Smith said). The living quarters are bare bones; it’s not a resort.
A side office has a trestle table packed with computers, scanners, filing cabinets, and shelves laden with binders and yellowed stacks of reports dating back to the early 1960s. ASU research professor Saburo Sugiyama uses it as an office when he’s in town. No one’s really sure what’s on the shelves.
“I don’t even want to look at it,” Smith says.
Cooperation among scholars and nations
The archaeology lab is an example of ASU’s engagement with Mexico.
“We’re in San Juan Teotihuacan, and we have Mexican employees here in the lab, and a lot of Mexican archaeologists use the lab — colleagues use the lab here,” Smith said. “On the current fieldwork project, there are probably more Mexicans than Americans working on that project. It’s a setting for cooperation between U.S. and Mexican students and scholars and workers. It’s a real part of ASU’s outreach to foreign countries, and Mexico in particular. I think people like working here.”
The lab is a resource for many different universities and projects studying Teotihuacan and other nearby sites. In June, there were researchers and students from Penn State, Boston University, George Mason University, Harvard, MIT and the National University of Mexico as well as ASU.
“Right now we have a group from MIT looking at our obsidian,” Smith said. “We have a group from the National University of Mexico looking at some of the mural paintings here. It’s quite extensive, the number of projects from around Mexico and the U.S., that use our facilities here.”
Oralia Cabrera Cortés is the lab’s director of operations. She studied under Cowgill at ASU, earning both her master’s and doctorate.
Scientists and students contact the lab to find out what’s in the collection, then the requirements to study the collection. They file a research proposal with their credentials, intentions and project objectives. Typically they come in the summer, but the lab is open all year.
After visiting scholars do their analyses, they provide the lab with reports and copies of their theses. They have about 70, most relating to the Teotihuacan Mapping ProjectBecause of its combination of scale and detail, the Teotihuacan Mapping Project is the one of the best maps of any ancient city. It shows where artifacts were found, leading to an understanding of how the city functioned. Archaeologists call it “indispensable” for planning work at the city. It was initiated by professor René Millon of the University of Rochester, who directed the detailed mapping of the entire city in the 1960s, combining air photos and mapping with surface reconnaissance of more than 5,000 buildings, making notes on visible features, and collecting nearly a million pottery fragments and other ancient objects from the buildings, but also some from excavations of the Feathered Serpent Pyramid.
Keeping collections is crucial to understanding the history of Teotihuacan, Cabrera said.
“It’s also a very costly activity,” she said. “The INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia / National Institute of Anthropology and History) is the institution in the country that curates and is in charge of facilitated research in archaeology in Mexico. They do have a series of facilities across sites and states. They try to maintain as much as they can. But to maintain collections requires a lot of space that sometimes is not possible to have — and a lot of money too.”