Agro-Urban Landscapes: The Example of Maya Lowland Cities

By Isendahl, Christian | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview
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Agro-Urban Landscapes: The Example of Maya Lowland Cities

Isendahl, Christian, Antiquity



In most regions of the world people have organised space in ways that can be recognised as distinctly urban. Yet different urban experiments have given rise to a remarkable spatial diversity that is often overlooked in mainstream urban history. Recent comparative archaeological research shows that many pre-industrial urban settlements can be characterised as 'low-density cities' (Fletcher 2009). A straightforward definition of this term is that urban settlement components--residential areas and spaces associated with urban functions, i.e. political, administrative, religious, economic or other activities and institutions in a city that affect a larger hinterland (Marcus 1983)--are relatively dispersed in the landscape. Documented cases of early low-density cities include those of the Maya lowlands (e.g. Isendahl 2010) and the Khmer civilisation (Fletcher 2009), but the phenomenon is inadequately defined and under-investigated. Urban landscape research and cross-cultural comparative analyses are needed to document and explain these kinds of cities in a global context. In this paper I develop some of the methodological and theoretical issues in the investigation of pre-industrial low-density cities, using as a case study the Classic lowland Maya city at Xuch (Figure 1). I argue that 'land-use strategies which intersperse agricultural production with urban functions account for the spatial distribution of architecture in Maya cities, and justify the term 'agro-urban landscape' as an appropriate designation for this type of site.


Low-density cities of the pre-Hispanic Maya lowlands

The Maya lowlands cover about 250 000[km.sup.2] and form a heterogeneous environment in terms of topography, hydrology, soils, vegetation and climate, from the tropical rainforests in the south to the semi-arid north-west coast (Dunning & Beach 2011). The prehistory of the ancient Maya unfolded over several millennia with the development of state polities, urban centres, long-distance exchange networks, advanced technologies and complex resource management systems by the first millennium BC. They did, however, lack both wheeled transport and draught animals. The long-term political and economic history of the lowlands suggests a complex pattern of a series of regional and sub-regional cycles of growth and decline. Numerous large, medium and lesser cities and towns emerged, flourished and collapsed during the course of the Middle and Late Preclassic (1000 BC-AD 250), Classic (AD 250-1000) and Postclassic (AD 1000-1500) periods. By the Classic period, the lowlands were politically divided between a number of different polities, ranging in size and form from regional states to city-states and alliances of small-scale polities (Sharer & Traxler 2006). The longevity and details of Maya urban histories vary greatly and there were cities of both relatively long (i.e. > 1000 years) and short (~200 years) duration. Despite temporal and spatial idiosyncrasies over a 2000 year period, most Maya cities have a basic settlement pattern in common that indicates a broadly shared model of how to organise landscape (Figure 2). At the centre is a civic-ceremonial core complex with buildings and spaces of elite residential, regal-ritual, administrative and public functions, linked together by a network of causeways. The core complex is surrounded by an urban sprawl of residential household groups that have a tendency to cluster into urban neighbourhoods around subsidiary civic-ceremonial complexes.


The residential household group is the basic building block of commoner residential neighbourhoods in Maya cities and is fairly stable over time; it consists of a quadrangular basal platform constructed from limestone rocks, boulders and debris, which elevates the living surface from ground level on which houses were built on each side, facing inwards towards a patio (Figure 3).

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Agro-Urban Landscapes: The Example of Maya Lowland Cities


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