The Almenas of Teotihuacan

Teotihuacan Roof Ornaments: Status Symbols or Pink Flamingos?

By Michael E. Smith

Fig. 1) The Quetzalpapalotl Palace today


Many of the buildings in Classic-period Teotihuacan were decorated with stone or ceramic roof ornaments called “almenas.”

The reconstructed Quetzalpapalotl Palace shows several of these roof ornaments in place (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2) The Quetzalpapalotl Palace, excavations

The careful excavation of this building in the late 1950s by Jorge Acosta first demonstrated that almenas had once adorned the roofs of buildings.

Acosta’s excavations showed that the almenas had fallen on top of debris from the collapsing walls of the structure (Fig. 2 [the arrows point to the almenas]), and this points to an original position on the roof.

Why did the residents of Teotihuacan decorate their roofs with almenas?

To begin to answer this question, I spent some time in summer 2015 studying the almenas collected by the Teotihuacan Mapping Project.

These artifacts are stored in the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory. No one had analyzed them since their initial collection in the 1960s.

Fig. 3) Typology of almenas

First, however, I worked out a typology of almenas based on published examples with the help of ASU anthropology major Jenny Melgoza.

Fig. 3 shows types 1 to 5, the most common forms. The ones from the Quetzalpapalotl Palace are Type 1.

Fig. 4) Clara Paz classifying almenas

Archaeologist Clara Paz Bautista, an expert on Teotihuacan, helped with the classification of the almenas from the Teotihuacan Mapping Project (Fig. 4).

Our first job was to adjust the typology to use with the small fragments.

Then we went through the collection of 745 fragments and assigned them to their correct type.

We also recorded additional information.

We photographed each piece, in batches of 15 fragments. The photo in Fig. 5 shows almenas of types 1, 2 and 4.

Then I compared the almenas to the kinds of buildings where they had been collected.

Few sites have been mapped in as much detail as Teotihuacan. The datafiles of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project allowed me to match up each almena fragment to one of the several thousand structures at the ancient city.

Fig. 5) Almena sherds

What did we learn?

One of the most interesting patterns was that high-status residences (like the Quetzalpapalotl Palace) were far more likely than low-status residences to have almenas, with intermediate-status residences (the famous apartment compounds) in between the two extremes. This suggests that almenas on houses may have served as status symbols. But even the smallest, poorest house could have an almena or two.

Another finding was that almenas were equally common on temples and residences.

Although there is still much to learn about the roof ornaments of Teotihuacan, our small project has clarified aspects of the artifacts and their use. They were probably not the ancient equivalent of pink flamingos—objects displayed for fun or for diverse individual reasons.

Instead, it looks like almenas were used to mark the status or wealth of a household, or the prestige of a temple.

This modest exercise was the first research project ever directed at Teotihuacan almenas. It was only possible because the artifacts had been curated at the ASU Archaeological Research Facility at the site.

Clara and I have written a brief article about our study, which has been submitted to a journal.

Relevant publications:

Acosta, Jorge R.
1964   El Palacio del Quetzalpapalotl. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Cowgill, George L.
2015   Ancient Teotihuacan: Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Millon, René
1973   Urbanization at Teotihuacan, Mexico, Volume 1: The Teotihuacan Map, Part 1: Text.University of Texas Press, Austin.

Smith, Michael E. and Clara Paz Bautista
2015    Las almenas en le ciudad antigua de Teotihuacan. Article under review at a journal.