Posthumous $1 million donation by family of the late George L. Cowgill continues ASU archaeologist's commitment to ancient site
Imagine a renaissance city where revolutionary ideas in urban planning, politics, economy, ecology and the arts all arose at the same time, creating a high standard of living that was largely equitable for nearly all residents.
It’s hard to imagine even by today’s standards, yet one ancient Mesoamerican city seemed to have achieved that status, for a time, and the archaeological remnants from that period and location are available for research and discovery today.
Teotihuacan is a famed UNESCO World Heritage site located in central Mexico that receives 2 million visitors each year. Yet few of these countless visitors throughout the decades have given back as much as one — a man by the name of George L. Cowgill.
The late archaeologist and professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change died this summer after spending much of his lifetime studying and preserving the majesty of Teotihuacan.
“George’s dry humor often enlivened his professional and personal interactions,” remembered ASU Professor Emeritus Barbara Stark, “as did his wide knowledge of research on ancient civilizations.”
Over decades, Cowgill proved himself an invaluable ally and friend of Teotihuacan with regards to the global scientific community, the Mexican government and peoples — who allowed him and other researchers access to their history, resources and communities — and countless students, supporters and members of the public, whose interest only grew with each new discovery.
In 2018, this legacy continued with a posthumous $1 million donation to ASU made by his family to help honor this lifelong commitment and create further opportunities for worldwide scientific and cultural access and appreciation of the site.
Falling under Teo's spell
Cowgill began the Teotihuacan portion of his career in 1964 under the invitation of famed researcher René Millon, who was looking for help with an ambitious project to map the scope of the city in its entirety.
Other major efforts by Cowgill spanned decades, including an excavation alongside ASU Research Professor Saburo Sugiyama at the site’s Feathered Serpent pyramid, and the development of a database — one of the field’s largest at the time — of Teotihuacan surface artifacts. Along the way, he pioneered several novel enhancements to quantitative methods in the industry’s scientific tool kit, in areas such as chronological seriation, artifact classification and spatial analysis.
In addition, he was a co-founder of the first externally owned research lab onsite, the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, and strategically grew its resources, infrastructure and influence over nearly three decades as its director.
Today, as an ASU-owned facility managed by the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, the lab continues to serve as a main base camp for scientific discovery, including use by researchers and visiting anthropology students from the United States, Mexico and the rest of the world. It also houses thousands of boxes containing the roughly 1 million artifacts and samples recovered from the site to date.
“George ran the lab as an incubator of ideas to be tested in field projects by scholars of different perspectives and nationalities, and thought that all artifacts, whether common or rare, mundane or exquisite, deserved careful study and fierce protection,” ASU Professor Ben Nelson said.
Over the course of his career, Cowgill authored more than 130 professional publications, and his 2015 book “Ancient Teotihuacan” is considered the definitive general work on the city.
In 2004, he and Millon were also jointly awarded the Alfred Vincent Kidder Award for Eminence in the Field of American Archaeology by the American Anthropological Association.
Despite Cowgill’s and others’ exhaustive efforts, current estimates are that only a paltry 5 percent of the total area that is Teotihuacan has been excavated and analyzed. The other 95 percent still remains buried.
Lessons from the past and a future that endures
The Aztecs did not build Teotihuacan, but it was they who named it a “city of the gods.” And Cowgill’s findings over the decades consistently reveal a culture that was — at its peak — certainly worthy of such a grand title.
For example, it boasted extensive trade networks and marketplaces, and also influenced far more regions through its culture — including ritual programs, specialized crafts and a political prestige; things that other societies envied and emulated — than it absorbed through force.