Agro-Urban Landscapes: The Example of Maya Lowland Cities

By Isendahl, Christian | Antiquity, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Agro-Urban Landscapes: The Example of Maya Lowland Cities


Isendahl, Christian, Antiquity


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Introduction

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.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

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.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

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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