Teotihuacan «place where men became gods; birthplace of the gods» is the name given to one of the most important Mesoamerican cities in the pre-Columbian era. It was also the place of the dead. Those buried there were teutl, heroes made divine. As with the gods, whom no one could see because they wore masks, the eminences of the Teotihuacan or Toltec upper social layer who were buried there also wore masks for their entry into the underworld. The masks were the link between the deceased and divinity, the means through which they communicated, and which allowed them to reach a heavenly world.

In this context the splendid Teotihuacan masks still represented a human face, as they had oval eyes, long eyebrows, a rather wide nose, a half-open mouth and squared ears. There were two sizes: the large ones measured between 20 and 28 cms., and smaller ones between 13 and 19 cms. They were exquisitely carved from hard stone, some of them covered with mosaic made from turquoise, coral or obsidian, and others made from softer material, plastered in a turquoise colour to symbolize the god of rain, in red to represent the god of fire, or in black to personify Quetzalcoatl.

Studies of the masks of the Teotihuacan culture classify them into three large groups:

Serpentinite: of note for the colours which range from a brilliant grey-green to a dark green and are sometime veined with serpentine minerals.
Travertine: highlighted by tones from a yellow-white, brownish-yellow, reddish-orange to blueish-green; others are translucid or decorated with pyrite incrustations.
Limestone: made from calcareous rock with colours ranging from bright to dark grey, even to dull or polished black; with circular elements carved into the cheek area.

The tradition of portraiture was unknown in the great city of Teotihuacan, but masks which represent the human face are characteristic of this site. This mask in question has a special feature with relation to most examples: instead of having a short wide forehead, it has a long straight forehead. The long narrow triangular nose is between the two oval eyes with long very marked eyebrows. The mouth is elliptical and half-open with prominent lips. The depressions of the eyes and mouth suggest that it could originally have been decorated with shells or incrusted stones to represent eyes and teeth. Although the mask was carved from green stone, it was possibly originally painted like other masks of this type. The large square ears have holes in the lower area, which suggests that they may have been previously decorated with earrings, perhaps in some sort of stone.

At both sides of the forehead there are perforations, suggesting that the mask was to be tied to an object or be used by a living person. However, given the weight of the stone and the fact that the eyes and mouth are not perforated, the wearing of the mask must be discarded. Instead it may have been used on a sculpture of a human figure or on the cadaver of a noble or priest. It would have been tied on using cords or ribbons through the lateral holes.

The architecture in Teotihuacan reached astounding levels of perfection, not only for the astronomical orientation of the buildings and roads, but also for the forms and decorations. Embedded stone heads representing gods, columns covered with bas-relief of geometric design and monumental decoration are some of the examples of this outstanding work.

Their pottery was also masterfully made. Particularly of note are their incense burners and braziers which had lids heavily decorated and painted in various colours. The representations of the heads of gods and priests with enormous headdresses are characteristic and indicate the skill acquired by the master potters.

This culture was governed by a group of nobles and priests who held power and control over all spheres of society. This elite were masters in many areas of knowledge of the period, such as astronomy, economics, religion, war, art and the calendar, all of which were used to reinforce their power and manage a highly stratified society. Lower down on the social scale were the storekeepers and specialized craftsmen who produced goods of great values for the upper class. At the bottom of the social rung were the peasants who lived in the more humble sections of the city near the farm areas.


- The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas from the Museum of Primitive Art. New York. 1969.

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