Exploring Heaven on Earth: Testing the Cosmological Model at la Milpa, Belize. (News & Notes)

By Tourtellot, Gair; Wolf, Marc et al. | Antiquity, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Exploring Heaven on Earth: Testing the Cosmological Model at la Milpa, Belize. (News & Notes)


Tourtellot, Gair, Wolf, Marc, Smith, Scott, Gardella, Kristen, Hammond, Norman, Antiquity


Two years ago, we reported the discovery of two outlying minor centres, La Milpa West and La Milpa North (LMW, LMN) in locations predicted by a model based on prior knowledge of the La Milpa East and South (LME, LMS) centres (Tourtellot et al. 2000). LME and LMS were found during systematic surface mapping of settlement transects orientated in those cardinal directions from the civic core of the large Classic Maya city of La Milpa in northwestern Belize (Tourtellot et al. 1993). Both were 3.5 km from the Great Plaza and set upon elevations high enough to be intervisible with activities on the top of the largest pyramid, Structure 1, in the absence of hilltop forest growth (FIGURE 1).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

These four cardinally positioned and equidistant groups, three of them with a large plaza, absence of obvious dwellings, a small pyramid, and LME at least with a plain stela (Stela 19, still in situ), suggested a cruciform spatial organization of ritual groups overlying the working landscape of La Milpa's dense settlement and landscape engineering of agricultural terraces, berms and water-management features (for which see www.bu.edu/lamilpa). Such a design could be designated as cosmological in both origin and function (cf. Coggins 1980 for a prescient application on a smaller scale): we surmised that a late ruler had utilized the deforested landscape with its enhanced viewshed to impose on the city a cardinally oriented quincuncial Maya cosmogram, consisting of the pre-existing La Milpa central precinct with its Great Plaza and tall pyramids, and four new outliers each with its own plaza, three with freestanding small pyramids and LMN with its pyramid sandwiched between two palace courtyards. The dominant east-west axis, tracking the path of the sun, and that between the northern and southern outliers representing the heavens and the underworld respectively, were both 7 km long, crossing in the Great Plaza.

We could not, however, avoid the possibility that these discoveries were serendipitous, and that numerous surrounding hilltops supported similar groups of structures in an arbitrary, topographically determined manner: nor could we ignore two alternative structured models, one in which intercardinal minor centres formed a more complex cosmogram (FIGURE 2), the other of a ceremonial circuit, not necessarily regularly spaced or on the highest points, of hilltop shrines, like the noted ethnographic example documented by Vogt (1969) at Zinacantan, Chiapas.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

Our 2002 season thus included a Hill Survey outside our previously mapped transects and Survey Blocks (together covering some 6% of the estimated settlement zone) to test these hypotheses. We began with a list of at least 42 target hills noted from satellite imagery and topographic maps, and investigated these and more than 20 others; but we did not succeed in falsifying or complicating our initial hypothesis. No similar substantial pyramid-plaza groups lay on other hilltops, and in many cases the residential groups present were surprisingly small.

We relocated the `lost' Say Ka (Guderjan 1991: 73) group, 4 km east-southeast of its alleged position. It lacks a pyramid and lies well off the southeast half-cardinal axis and joins a class of often elegant courtyard groups (`mini-palaces') that lack pyramids, which may have been local control facilities at a level below the palace and noble houses of La Milpa Centre. Such a secondary tier of local control comprises Plaza Plan 2 and other large house groups which are well distributed across the community: the three found in 2002 brings the total to 18. …

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