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Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands$

Brett A. Houk

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780813060637

Published to Florida Scholarship Online: September 2015

DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813060637.001.0001

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Comparisons and Urban Planning

Comparisons and Urban Planning

Chapter:
(p.232) 10 Comparisons and Urban Planning
Source:
Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands
Author(s):

Brett A. Houk

Marilyn A. Masson

Michael E. Smith

John W. Janusek

Publisher:
University Press of Florida
DOI:10.5744/florida/9780813060637.003.0010

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter treats the cities covered by this book as a group to consider urban planning in the eastern lowlands. The discussion begins by rank ordering the cities in terms of size and then comparing plazas, carved monuments, ball courts, and causeways to illuminate similarities and differences. The chapter closes by looking at the coordination of buildings within cities and the standardization of cities. The first approach is used to evaluate individual urban plans, while the second looks at a group of cities to identify common planning characteristics. While all of the cities in the sample were planned, the application of this approach suggests that stronger levels of centralized planning were involved at some cities than at others. At either end of the spectrum are more-planned Caracol and less-planned Altun Ha. Ranking the remaining cities is not an easy task, because not only is the planning scale subjective, it appears as if different planning agendas or concepts were at play in the eastern lowlands. Therefore, what may seem less planned may actually be “differently planned.”

Keywords:   urban planning, rank ordering, plazas, Caracol, Altun Ha

This chapter treats the cities covered by this book as a group to highlight various aspects of urban planning in the eastern lowlands. The discussion begins by comparing the cities to illuminate similarities and differences. A major component of this is evaluating the sizes of sites, a task that is more difficult than might be imagined. A qualitative comparison of certain aspects of the cities in the sample follows. Rather than considering all the features of site plans described in chapters 5 through 9, the ones that highlight the most diversity are considered here: plazas, carved monuments, ball courts, and causeways. The chapter closes by applying Michael Smith’s (2007) approach to studying ancient urban planning to the cities of the eastern lowlands. Described in more detail below, Smith (2007) proposes that planning can be examined by looking at the coordination of buildings within cities and the standardization of cities. The first approach is used to evaluate individual urban plans while the second looks at a group of cities to identify common planning characteristics.

Rank Ordering

As long as there have been debates about whether or not the Maya had cities, there has been disagreement between scholars about how to compare cities at the most basic level: size (see Adams and Jones 1981). How do you objectively measure the size of a Maya city? In the modern Western world, cities exist as political subdivisions with carefully surveyed limits, and, in the United States, every 10 years the federal government counts the number of citizens living in each city as part of the national census. With these kinds of data, it is quite easy to compare two cities by size, population, or population density. Imagine, however, if an archaeologist were to visit the ruins of an American city a thousand years from now, long after the printed and electronically stored data (p.233) on city limits and population had turned to dust and electrons. How would he or she determine the size of cities? In many parts of the country, it would be fairly easy to establish boundaries around cities based on the limits of suburban settlement and adjacent farmland, but on the East Coast or along the I-35 corridor in Texas a future archaeologist might have trouble drawing accurate boundaries. Population would be even trickier. Which structures were residential? Were they all occupied at the same time? How many people lived in each house? Each apartment?

Archaeologists face the same problems when trying to determine the size and population of ancient cities. A compounding issue in the Maya area is the incomplete nature of the data on settlement distribution away from the epicenter of most sites. In most parts of the Maya world, archaeologists must physically walk survey transects to map and count ancient structures; therefore, only a small sample of the entire area of the lowlands has been carefully mapped, although the application of LiDAR promises to change that (e.g., Chase et al. 2012).

It is clear, however, that there is tremendous variation in the size of Maya cities based strictly on comparing their site cores. The average tourist who visits Caracol one day and Pusilhá the next can tell you that Caracol is larger—much larger, in fact—even though each city has an emblem glyph and impressive numbers of carved stone monuments, signaling a degree of political autonomy.

Richard E. W. Adams and Richard C. Jones (1981:303) proposed that an objective method of comparing Maya cities based strictly on published site maps was to quantify their paved areas by counting the number of courtyards. The reasoning behind this approach is that the monumental architecture at Maya cities is grouped around plazas and courtyards despite differences in the function of buildings (i.e., temples, palaces, ball courts, etc.). Adams and Jones (1981:304, 306) recognized problems in this system based on “sample quality and size” but still presented a rank ordering of Maya cities to look for evidence of hierarchical organization within various regions of the lowlands. Using their data as published in 1981, our hypothetical tourist could tell you that Caracol scored a 17 on the courtyard count, while Pusilhá only scored a 3, thus confirming in a quantifiable way the size difference between the two cities.

However, just as no two archaeologists will produce identical maps of a Maya site, no two archaeologists will count courtyards the same way. Thomas Garrison (2007:263) noted that, using the same map, one study counted 7 courtyards at the site of Xultun, while a second study listed 20 courtyards. (p.234) Turner et al. (1981) proposed a more sophisticated system to rank-order cities based on area and volume of construction, weighted based on other cultural features, but the method is difficult to employ and has not been widely adapted.

Thomas Guderjan (1991c:104) took the same conceptual approach—that “volume of construction … is directly related to political authority and power”—and modified Adams’ and Jones’ original courtyard counting system to include structures over 10 meters tall and “hallmarks of political power” like stelae and ball courts to compare Maya sites in northwestern Belize. Garrison (2007:267) later applied Guderjan’s modified system to look at a larger sample of sites in northwestern Belize and northeastern Petén. Stated as an equation, the modified system proposed by Guderjan (1991c:104) looks like this:

( number of courtyards ) + ( number of ball courts ) + ( number of stelae ) + ( number of plazas × 2 ) + ( numbe of 10-m-tall buildings × 0.5 ) = site score

While Adams (1999:195) praised the modifications to his system for its ability “to more clearly define ancient political and economic relationships among sites,” it is not entirely evident that the arbitrary weights assigned to various categories are meaningful. Furthermore, the same difficulty in counting courtyards still exists but is now compounded by the fact that plazas carry additional weight. Another complication is that most published maps do not include the heights of structures, requiring supporting data to determine how many buildings are 10 m or taller. And why not give a higher score to buildings taller than 20 m, or 30 m?

In the original Adams and Jones (1981:303) study, counting courtyards was a proxy for making quantitative assessments of the paved areas at sites. Turning back to their original premise, this chapter uses a system for comparing the sizes of cities that measures the horizontal area covered by monumental architecture in the epicenter. The analytical foundation behind this approach is that the built environment of the civic-ceremonial architecture of a city’s epicenter represents the end product of the labor and resources required for its construction. Therefore, a bigger plaza, for example, represents more labor and raw material than a smaller one and expresses a stronger statement about political power through its monumentality—consider that artificially constructed horizontal spaces and not just tall buildings make such statements. This is an example of middle-level meaning, which was discussed in chapter 2, and is the reason why our hypothetical tourist is likely more awestruck by (p.235) the towering buildings and broad plazas at Caracol than she is by the smaller ones at Pusilhá.

The process of comparing cities using this method is rather straightfor-ward but not entirely without problems. For example, what is considered part of the epicenter and what is not? The litmus test is function and scale: if a group of architecture appears to have a public function, like a big plaza with stelae, temples, and ball courts, or if it clearly required community participation in its construction, such as an acropolis or elite palace, I include it in the calculation. In this manner, sacbeob, which are not considered in the models described earlier, contribute to the equation because they represent important elements of the built environment. The volume of construction mass is lost, however, in this system of comparison. The sheer mass of the largest Maya buildings communicated much about the political power of the ruling families to citizens of and visitors to their cities. As a result, some cities, like Caracol and Xunantunich, may not score as high in this system as they would in another because the monumentality of very tall buildings like Caana and the Castillo is minimized. Other cities, however, such as those in southern Belize with their “Hollywood Set” style of construction, may be ranked higher in this system than they would be in one that included construction volume as a variable.

Even though my method of comparing core areas is rather simple to do, problems arise from inconsistencies in how sites have been mapped. For example, the published maps of Uxbenka are topographic maps with prismatic structure outlines superimposed on them. They do not include prismatic outlines of plaza platforms, and the system used here includes plazas and platforms in its calculations. To calculate site core area, a computer drafting program is used to create polygons representing the areas of monumental architecture. By scaling the drawings, it is possible to calculate the surface area of each polygon. These areas are added together for each site to derive the monumental core area. Table 10.1 lists the areas, data sources, and technical issues with each site, and Figure 10.1 shows the monumental areas of the sites used in the calculations at the same scale.

To flesh out the context for the cities discussed in this volume, Table 10.1 includes an arbitrary sample of other Classic period cities. By no means is the list intended to be complete or even representative, but it includes a number of additional sites with published site maps. The table includes regions so that the cities can be compared to one another in terms of proximity, and, even though not all sites are listed, the largest sites from each region appear on the table, which allows for comparisons across regions. (p.236)

Table 10.1. Site core area calculations

City

Regiona

Monumental Area (m2)

Map Source

Issues (see notes)

Caracol

VP

236,955

D. Chase and A. Chase 2004c:Figure 1

1, 2

Lamanai

NB

109,385

Pendergast 1981:Figure 3

3

Nohmul

NB

86,393

Hammond 1981:Figure 7.2A

La Milpa

NWB

82,156

Hammond and Tourtellot 2004:Figure 31.1

4

El Pilar

BV

74,206

Ford 2004:Figure 15.2

5

Xunantunich

BV

73,690

LeCount and Yaeger 2010a:Figure 1.1

Chan Chich

NWB

68,469

Houk 2012b:Figure 1.3

6

Buenavista del Cayo

BV

65,407

Yaeger et al. 2009:Figure 3

3

Ka’Kabish

NB

62,159

Haines 2011:Figure 2

Gran Cacao

NWB

57,201

Lohse 1995:Figure 2

Baking Pot

BV

56,249

Audet 2006:Figure 3.5

1

Maax Na

NWB

53,778

King et al. 2012:Figure 2

3, 7

Pusilhá

SB

51,741

Braswell, Prager, Bill, Schwake, and Braswell 2005:Figures 2–4; Pitcavage and Braswell 2010:Figure 1

3

Dos Hombres

NWB

47,014

Houk 2003:Figure 5.2

Altun Ha

NB

46,423

Pendergast 1979:Map 2

1, 3

Tipan Chen Uitz

BV

41,316

Andres et al. 2011:Figure 2

Pacbitun

BV

38,054

Healy, Hohmann, and Powis 2004:Figure 13.1

1, 8

Uxbenka

SB

35,855

Prufer 2007:Figure 2

3

Blue Creek

NWB

35,775

Driver 2002:Figure 4

Minanha

VP

32,916

Iannone 2005:Figure 3

Lubaantun

SB

32,306

Hammond 1975:Figure 21

Yalbac

BV

29,409

Lucero 2007:Figure 2

3

Punta de Cacao

NWB

25,391

Guderjan et al. 1991:Figure 50

9

Nim Li Punit

SB

23,161

Leventhal 1990:Figure 8.2

3

San José

NWB

18,918

Thompson 1939:Figure 1

3

Notes: (a) Region Key: NB, northern Belize; NWB, northwestern Belize; BV, Belize Valley; VP, Vaca Plateau; and SB, southern Belize.

(1.) Intrasite causeway(s) add(s) to site core area.

(2.) Only area depicted on published figure included in calculation.

(3.) Edges of plazas and/or artificial platforms not consistently depicted on map.

(4.) Two elite courtyards included in calculation because they contain thrones.

(5.) Causeway’s area calculated based only on parapets because the causeway itself is not elevated. Possible causeway in Guatemala not included in calculations.

(6.) Large eastern intrasite causeway adds to site core area. Western causeway’s area calculated based only on parapets because the causeway itself is not elevated for its entire length.

(7.) Large open areas with few structures; score is probably inflated.

(8.) “Tzul Causeway” not included in calculation.

(9.) Likely causeway (personal observation) linking ball court and two groups of architecture included in calculation, but feature does not appear on published maps.

(p.237)
Comparisons and Urban Planning

Figure 10.1. Site core areas shown at common scale.

In terms of monumental area within site cores, Caracol is over twice as large as the next largest city, Lamanai, and that is probably an understatement based on how Caracol’s area was calculated. In northwestern Belize and the Belize Valley, the largest cities fall in the 74,000–87,000 m2 range, approximately one-third the size of Caracol. The largest city in southern Belize, however, is less than 22 percent the size of Caracol. The differences in size are reflected on Figure 10.2. (p.238)

Comparisons and Urban Planning

Figure 10.2. Cities in this volume presented at an exaggerated, but common, scale to illustrate size differences in monumental cores.

Base map courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech, SRTM mission.

Patterns, Trends, and Observations

Size alone is not the only useful way to compare Maya cities. The tables in this section include only the cities discussed in this book to highlight a number of points. Although the discussion is subdivided into topics, there is a tremendous amount of overlap because so many of the urban features are interrelated. By necessity, some observations are more involved than others.

(p.239) Emblem Glyphs

Most but not all of the cities have known emblem glyphs (Table 10.2); those that do not have emblem glyphs include sites with either no stelae (El Pilar and Nohmul) or with stelae lacking texts (plain or eroded). As Altun Ha and Lubaantun demonstrate, stelae are not a requirement for possessing an emblem glyph. I would also argue that the old adage that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” applies in this case. Because an emblem glyph has not been discovered does not mean that a city did not at one time possess one; therefore, that El Pilar, Nohmul, or Chan Chich do not have emblem glyphs should not be used to make arguments that those cities were by default always politically subordinate to one of their neighbors or did not have their own royal families.

Plazas

Plazas are “owed primacy in understanding site layouts” because they are the central organizing unit in Maya cities (Ringle and Bey 2001). Maya plazas served a range of functions, as described in chapter 2, and represented sizeable construction projects in their own right. This section is more concerned with plaza form, size, and variability than it is with function because the goal is to highlight similarities and differences in city plans. Table 10.2 contains information on the largest plazas at the cities covered in this book. The open plaza area is defined as the space between the front bases of buildings around the plaza minus the footprint of any structures within the plaza. In the case of a ball court in a plaza, the area taken up by both structures and the playing alley between them was subtracted from the plaza area. Archaeologists often refer to the “main plaza” at a site so definitively and confidently that the uninformed visitor might assume the Maya left a sign that designated it as such. The term, however, is a descriptive construct that archaeologists impose on the data. In a city with more than one plaza, one of them usually stands out as the largest, as the one surrounded by the biggest buildings, and as the location of the majority of the stone monuments at the site. In this case, the label is not likely to cause confusion and is probably an accurate reflection of the importance of that plaza as an urban feature at that particular city. Plaza A, also known as the Great Plaza, at La Milpa is an example of this type of plaza: it is by far the largest space at the site, and it contains four of the five largest structures at the site, the city’s two ball courts, and easily more than 90 percent of the stone monuments in the site core.

As Table 10.2 demonstrates, it is not always clear which plaza is the main (p.240)

Table 10.2. Comparisons of cities

Stelae

Plazas

City

Region1

Monumental Area (meters2)

Emblem Glyph

Stela

Stela Density2

Period of Stela Use (k’atuns)

Stela Frequency3

Ball Courts

Causeways

Main Plazas

Open Plaza Area (m2)

Percentage of Monumental Area4

Altun Ha

NB

46,423

Yes

0

0.0

0.0

0.00

0

2

Plaza A

5,390

11.6%

Caracol

VP

236,955

Yes

24

1.0

23.3

1.03

2

36

B (Caana plaza)

8,220

3.5%

Chan Chich

NWB

68,469

No

1

0.1

?

?

1

2

Plaza A-1

12,490

18.2%

Dos Hombres

NWB

47,014

No

3

0.6

?

?

2

1

Plaza A-1

11,650

24.8%

El Pilar

BV

74,206

No

0

0.0

0.0

0.00

2

1

Plaza Copal

12,240

16.5%

La Milpa

NWB

82,156

Yes

23

2.8

19.3

1.04

2

1

Great Plaza

17,710

21.6%

Lamanai

NB

109,385

Yes

9

0.8

?

?

1

0

High Temple plaza

6,600

6.0%

Lubaantun

SB

32,306

Yes

0

0.0

0

0.00

3

0

Plaza V

1,950

6.0%

Minanha

VP

32,916

No

8

2.4

?

?

1

1

Plaza A

6,700

20.4%

Nim Li Punit

SB

23,161

Yes

21

9.1

3.9

5.45

1

0

Stela Plaza

1,840

7.9%

Nohmul

NB

86,393

No

0

0.0

0.0

0.00

1

1

“Giant Plaza”

13,460

15.6%

Giant Plaza

4,540

5.3%

Pusilhá

SB

51,741

Yes

22

4.3

9.0

244

3 or 4

1

Moho Plaza

7,050

13.6%

Stela Plaza

2,560

5.0%

Uxbenka

SB

35,855

Yes

23

6.4

20.4

1.13

2

1

Group E Plaza

3,700

10.63%

Group B Plaza

2,260

6.3%

Group C Plaza

2,120

5.9%

Stela Plaza

1,930

5.4%

Xunantunich

BV

73,690

Yes

9

1.2

?

?

2

3

Plazas A-I and A-II

9,550

13.0%

Plazas A-I

5,010

6.8%

Notes: (1.) Region Key: NB, northern Belize; NWB, northwestern Belize; BV, Belize Valley; VP, Vaca Plateau; and SB, southern Belize.

(2.) Stela density is number of stelae per 10,000 m2 of monumental area.

(3.) Stela frequency is the number of stelae erected per k’atun for cities with estimated beginning and ending dates of stelae use.

(4.) Percentage of monumental area by plaza is calculated by dividing open plaza area (the space between the front bases of buildings around the plaza, minus the footprint of any structures within the plaza) by monumental area.

plaza. This is particularly true at the cities in southern Belize, where the largest plaza is not necessarily the stela plaza at the site. In fact, Uxbenka’s stela plaza is the smallest plaza at the site, and at Pusilhá the stela plaza is nearly one-third the size of the Moho Plaza. This pattern contrasts sharply with La Milpa, which has a comparable number of stela but a truly massive main plaza. In fact, the Great Plaza at La Milpa could accommodate the stela plazas at Uxbenka, Pusilhá, and Nim Li Punit and still have over 11,000 m2 of open space to spare.

(p.241) La Milpa’s Great Plaza is over 130 percent larger than the next largest plaza in the sample, the “Giant Plaza” at Nohmul (the space that existed prior to about 800 CE), and is nearly 150 percent larger than the Plaza Copal at El Pilar. While La Milpa’s main plaza is the largest, other cities in northwestern Belize also have unusually expansive plazas, a pattern I noted in an earlier study of cities in the region (Houk 1996:315). To gauge just how large these plazas are, Table 10.2 includes a column that expresses open plaza area as a percentage of (p.242) the monumental area of each site. In northwestern Belize, Dos Hombres tops the list at 25 percent, followed by La Milpa (22 percent) and Chan Chich (18 percent). The only other site with a plaza larger than 18 percent of its monumental area is Minanha (20 percent), a much smaller city than the other three. In contrast, the stela plazas at the cities in southern Belize all account for less than 8 percent of their respective site’s monumental area, and the plaza in front of Caana at Caracol comprises only 3.5 percent of that great city’s monumental area.

Carved Monuments

Many of the sites in this study have stone monuments, including stelae and altars. Pusilhá has four zoomorphic altars, which are unique in the eastern lowlands. Their closest counterparts are at Quiriguá, Guatemala. Stelae, however, are the most common kind of stone monument and the most consistently documented in archaeological reports. They are, thus, the focus of this section.

From the outset, however, be aware that the following discussion is fraught with unavoidable problems that render these comparisons little more than a thought experiment. These problems fall into two general categories: counting stelae and preference for stelae.

A number of factors have the potential to throw off our counts of stelae at Maya sites. First, the Maya sometimes buried stelae during the renovations of major buildings. Second, stelae have the tendency to walk off, as they say. In particular, carved stelae are sometimes looted from sites because of their high values on the art market. Third, the Maya occasionally destroyed stelae when they conquered another city-state. Therefore, the numbers of stelae presented for each city are really an approximate count and are always a minimum number possible.

The second category of problem is related to the idiosyncratic displays of political power at sites. Not all Maya cities used stelae; some preferred other forms of artistic expression to convey the same kind of information. For example, at Palenque in Mexico, there are no stelae. Instead, rulers placed their portraits in stucco adornment directly on buildings (Sanchez 2005). Unfortunately, a stucco facade on a Maya building was the first thing to fall off following abandonment, making it difficult to infer even if one was present, much less interpret its iconography. This issue is not as significant as the question of missing stelae in the eastern lowlands because the regional trend appears to have been a preference for stelae when appropriate raw material was available.

(p.243) The presence of stelae at a site is often considered an indication of some degree of political independence; one of the markers of Tikal’s political weakness at the end of the Early Classic period is the fact that four consecutive kings did not—perhaps because Calakmul did not allow them to—erect any stelae in the 130-year period following the defeat of the city in 562 CE (Martin and Grube 2008:40; Sharer and Traxler 2006:377). That stelae were targets of desecration and destruction following a military defeat is another indication of their status as symbols of royal power (see Sharer and Traxler 2006:377).

As the data from the eastern lowlands demonstrate, the presence of stelae does not correspond to site size (i.e., not all large cities have stelae), nor are stelae necessary for a city to possess an emblem glyph. In some areas, the decision whether or not to erect stelae may have been affected by the available stone resources. Some areas, like southern Belize, have bedrock capable of producing large monuments that can be shaped and carved while other areas, like northern and northwestern Belize, have bedrock poorly suited to monument making. The limestone in northwestern Belize, for example, is coarse grained and often full of inclusions, which limits the size of stelae and makes them poorly suited for carving. Plain stelae may have once been decorated with stucco and painted, and it is possible Maya kings made do with wooden monuments in areas with poor stone resources. We know that some sites had carved wooden lintels, so the proposition that the Maya had wooden stelae is not far-fetched, but it is certainly unverified. If wooden monuments were ever used, the kings that dedicated them would have known they would not last long in the tropical climate of the lowlands and would therefore be a poor substitute for the long-lived stone stelae.

In our sample, only five cities have more than 21 stelae, and three of those are southern Belize cities (Table 10.2). La Milpa, with 23 (including 3 from its secondary centers), and Caracol with 24 are both situated close to the Petén, where there was a long-lived tradition of stelae use. Caracol boasts a large number of carved altars and ball court markers in addition to its stelae. While La Milpa has perhaps a dozen altars, none are carved.

Another way to compare stelae is to express them as a density, such as, in this case, the number of stelae per 10,000 m2 of monumental area. Despite their high numbers of monuments, Caracol and La Milpa have stela densities of 1 and 2.4 per 10,000 m2, respectively.

While high numbers of stone monuments at Caracol and La Milpa are not surprising given the sizes of those two cities, the southern Belize sites are remarkable because they are much smaller cities with equally high numbers of monuments and dramatically higher stela densities (4.3–9.1). Caracol, we (p.244) know from multiple lines of evidence, exercised considerable political power over its smaller neighbors and was an important member of Calakmul’s alliance; La Milpa was likely the dominant center in its corner of the world, at least during the Late Classic period. The southern Belize cities, however, never were able to dominate their neighbors, and they seem to have coexisted “as small regional polities” during the eighth century; their politically weak kings, who could not muster the force to dominate their neighbors, carved stelae (at Pusilhá, Uxbenka, and Nim Li Punit) and constructed elaborate hilltop acropoli (at Pusilhá and Lubaantun) to express their status (Braswell and Prufer 2009:51–52).

Another curious feature of the southern Belize cities with stelae is the manner in which they were displayed. In contrast to Caracol, where stelae are found across the site, or La Milpa, where most stelae are found in the largest plaza, the vast majority of stelae at the southern cities of Nim Li Punit, Uxbenka, and Pusilhá are grouped together in very small stela plazas. Perhaps Prufer and colleagues (2011:218) put it best when he described the stela plaza at Uxbenka as a “monument garden”; the phrase highlights the intimacy of the architectural setting for the royal monuments at the sites.

The lack of stelae at Nohmul and Altun Ha is possibly explained by the geographic location of those two cities, as is the slightly below-expected density at Lamanai (0.8). The complete lack of monuments at Lubaantun and El Pilar is harder to understand. To explain the lack of stelae at Lubaantun, Hammond (1981:179) speculated that perhaps Lubaantun and Nim Li Punit were dual capitals of the same polity, with the former serving a political and economic role and the latter acting as the “dynastic cult center” for the ruling dynasty. Braswell and Prufer (2009:46) conclude the sites are too far apart for that to be the case, and the 15-km distance between them is the typical spacing between major sites in the region and other parts of the eastern lowlands, including the Belize Valley and northwestern Belize. As noted in chapter 5, another possibility is that Lubaantun’s rulers founded their city at a time when stelae use was waning, and they were simply not concerned with the practice.

The low stela density at Dos Hombres and Chan Chich may indicate very short spans of political independence for those two cities. However, the ages of the stelae are unknown, so their dedications cannot be tied into the cities’ chronologies. This observation does bring up another important consideration: stela density is likely related to not only the size of a center but to time as well. Maya cities grew incrementally, and stelae are another component of the built environment that also accumulated incrementally. A city may have (p.245) experienced architectural growth even during times of political subjugation, but rulers were unlikely to erect stelae during those periods.

To examine the temporal aspects of stela dedication, we can chart stela frequency by first estimating the duration of monument use (based on the oldest and youngest monument dates) and then dividing that age span by the number of monuments erected during that period. This method obscures punctuated flurries of monument dedication, assumes that we know the beginning and ending dates of stelae use, and is more subject to error than stela density, but it provides a composite picture. To estimate the period of monument dedication at a particular city, we need reasonable beginning and ending dates, and unfortunately we only have those data for La Milpa, Caracol, Uxbenka, Pusilhá, and Nim Li Punit.

At La Milpa, rulers were erecting stelae as early as about 400 CE (based on stylistic comparisons) and as late as 780 CE, a period of approximately 19.3 k’atuns. For reasons illuminated in the following, the k’atun—a period of 7,200 days—is more useful than a solar year when discussing stela frequency. The city has 20 known monuments within the site’s epicenter (three at secondary centers are not considered in this analysis), which equates to a stela frequency of 1.04 stelae per k’atun (Table 10.2). At Caracol, monument dedication began about the same time but lasted to ca. 859 CE (23.3 k’atuns), and the stela frequency for Caracol is 1.03 stelae per k’atun.

Given the much higher stela density counts in southern Belize, one might expect the model to completely fall apart. However, it works surprisingly well at Uxbenka where, if we assume a period of stela dedication between roughly 378 and 780 CE (20.4 k’atuns), the stelae frequency is 1.13. Pusilhá, however, has a much higher frequency of 2.44, with 22 stelae erected in approximately 9 k’atuns. Nim Li Punit is the real curve buster, with a stela frequency of 5.45 between roughly 734 and 810 CE—this calculation does not include the strange Short Count monument that may date to 830 CE, nor does it consider the possibility that some undated stelae may actually be associated with the newly documented Early Classic occupation at the site.

This thought experiment suggests that during periods of stelae use—perhaps indicating political autonomy—rulers erected monuments at the pace of about one stela per k’atun, likely as part of a k’atun-ending celebration, with about one additional stela every 100 to 200 years or so to commemorate other important events. This is really not a surprising revelation, but it suggests that most plain or eroded stelae were likely erected as part of k’atun-ending celebrations as well.

As a test of the model, we can apply it to Minanha and Xunantunich, two (p.246) cities for which we cannot calculate time spans for monument dedication. Both of these cities are located in areas where stela use at apparently independent centers was common, and both flourished over short spans of time. Minanha’s eight stelae imply a period of monument use spanning 7.69 k’atuns, using an average stelae frequency of 1.04 stelae per k’atun. Counting back from 810 CE, when Minanha’s royal court apparently fell from power (Iannone 2005:34), 7.69 k’atuns suggests an approximate beginning date of 658 CE, which is only 17 years earlier than the proposed founding of the dynasty based on other lines of evidence (e.g., Iannone et al. 2008:150).

At Xunantunich, we have an ending date for monument use, 849 CE, but not a beginning date. The nine stelae at the site suggest a period of monument use spanning 8.65 k’atuns, or almost 171 years. Working back from 849 CE, the proposed beginning date for monument use at Xunantunich is 678 CE, which is only 3 years later than the beginning of the Hats’ Chaak phase, the period of growth when the visible plan at the site began to be constructed.

If accurate, this model can be applied to sites like Chan Chich and Dos Hombres, for which we have not established date ranges for monuments, to speculate perhaps about the duration of their periods of independence. In this case, the stela frequency approach suggests that Chan Chich’s rulers were only independent for about a k’atun, while those at Dos Hombres may have enjoyed around three k’atuns of sovereignty.

Ball Courts

All of the cities in the sample have at least one ball court except for Altun Ha (Table 10.2). More than half of the sites have two or more ball courts. Possessing a ball court has long been considered an indication of the regional importance of a site (e.g., Garrison and Dunning 2009), and ball courts, perhaps more so than any other urban feature at Maya sites, served important social functions related to community integration, ritual, and political competition. As Jon Lohse and colleagues (2013:121) note, the ball game, its attendant public rituals, “and emphasis on performance, [indicate] a focus on individual rulers as ritual specialists.” This is evident in ball game imagery on the markers at Lubaantun and Late Classic Stela 4 at La Milpa depicting a ruler with a dancing dwarf dressed as a ball player and holding a ball (see Grube and Hammond 1998:129; Lohse et al. 2013:106; Wanyerka 2003:18). As discussed in chapter 11, at several of the cities in our sample ball courts appear to be components of processional architecture.

There is a high degree of variation in ball court size and architecture. Most of the excavated examples have sloped aprons for playing surfaces, but the ball (p.247) courts at Lubaantun and Chan Chich have tiered playing surfaces. Low walls surround most of the southern Belize courts, a trait not seen elsewhere in the eastern lowlands. Chan Chich and Xunantunich have ball courts physically attached to larger structures while the other cities have freestanding ball courts. Excavations in alleyways frequently, but not universally, encounter caches or markers. When present, ball court markers may convey important political information, such as the likely emblem glyph for Lubaantun (Wanyerka 2009:415) or the account of Tikal’s defeat on Altar 21 at Caracol (Martin 2005).

The most obvious trend in the ball courts of the eastern lowlands is the overwhelming preference for north–south orientation. Of the 23 confirmed ball courts in Table 10.4, 21 are oriented north–south. The two exceptions are one of the ball courts in the Great Plaza at La Milpa and one in the Moho Plaza at Pusilhá. In a separate study of ball courts in northwestern Belize, Lohse et al. (2013:101) report 9 of 11 ball courts (or 6 of 7 ball courts that are not also included on Table 10.4) are oriented north–south, varying from 4.5° west of north to 17° east of north. The reason that some courts are oriented east–west is unclear, but Schultz et al. (1994:51) speculate that at La Milpa, where the two courts are morphologically dissimilar but coeval, the contrasting orientations reflect different “emphases for the ballgame,” by which they mean perhaps the north–south-oriented South Ballcourt was used for a more ritualized or ceremonial version of the ball game.

In terms of placement on the urban landscape, ball courts are usually found in plazas or on separate platforms linked to a plaza by a sacbe. At Dos Hombres, the small second ball court is oddly placed outside of the main plaza, and the rural ball court 2.5 km from the site core is unique.

Causeways

All but three of the sites listed on Table 10.2 have at least one sacbe. When discussing sacbeob, Caracol is clearly the mountain cow in the room. The count of 36 causeways is based on an article by Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (2001a), which provides an excellent summary of and discussion about the variety and significance of the system of causeways at Caracol. As recently collected LiDAR data are fully analyzed (Chase et al. 2011), this count may increase. The site has both internal and external causeways, and, in nearly every case, all roads lead to Caracol. The intrasite network was built in the Late Classic and links both residential and nonresidential groups to the site’s epicenter, and the intersite causeways—identified via satellite imagery—include two projected to extend 24 km to the southeast and a third projected to connect Caracol to Naranjo, 42 km to the northwest. Perhaps the most (p.248) significant feature of the intrasite network is that it links termini groups to the site center but rarely to each other. As A. Chase and D. Chase (2001a:277) note, if you ignore the causeways and simply consider the placement of the causeway termini groups, then the secondary centers appear spaced almost equidistantly over the landscape. The causeway network, however, makes it apparent that the system is actually highly centralized, despite the equitable spacing of the termini groups. La Milpa, which occupies a similar landscape of rolling hills and flourished as Caracol did during the Late Classic period, has its own ring of secondary centers approximately 3.5 km from its epicenter, but none are linked to the site center by a causeway. Caracol’s network is unique in the eastern lowlands and represents an unprecedented degree of political and economic integration for a major Classic period city.

Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (2001a:279) contrast Caracol’s road system with that of Tikal, another major Late Classic city, to highlight the likely administrative function of Caracol’s system. At Tikal, the causeways are much wider than those at Caracol, 21–70 m compared to 2.5–12 m, and architecturally connect ritual groups to one another. The longest causeway at Tikal, the approximately 750-m-long Mendez Causeway, connects the site center to the Temple of the Inscriptions, similar to other examples of sacbe termini at other cities (see Minanha, for example). This contrasts sharply with Caracol’s special-function termini, which comprise small plazas with low range buildings and no temples.

Takeshi Inomata (2006:817) proposes that the construction of very wide causeways at Tikal during the Late Classic period was partially in response to the decreasing space available in plazas for mass spectacles and the increasing population of the city as a whole. The unusually wide causeways could accommodate large number of spectators, who likely lined the edges of the causeways during ritual processions by the elite. In this manner, more of the community could participate in the public spectacles put on by the king than would have been possible using only plazas as stages for ritual (Inomata 2006:817).

In the other cities considered here, variation in sacbe form is apparent. Most sacbeob are elevated platforms, and a distinction is made between elevated sacbeob with low parapets along their edges and what Garrison (2007:317) termed “sunken causeways” in which parapets bound a wide but not elevated corridor. The only examples of sunken causeways in the eastern and southern lowlands are known from Chan Chich, La Honradez, El Pilar, and San Bartolo, suggesting that this type of causeway is extremely rare and highly localized (see Garrison 2007:317).

(p.249) The causeways listed in Table 10.2 at sites other than Caracol connect large groups of architecture together (at Nohmul, La Milpa, Dos Hombres, Altun Ha, and Pusilhá), connect to apparent termini shrines (at Xunantunich, Minanha, and possibly Chan Chich), radiate outward with no apparent connection (at El Pilar), or have absolutely no apparent connections (only at Altun Ha). At La Milpa, Dos Hombres, and Nohmul, the causeways provide direct architectural connections between the main plaza at the site and the rest of the monumental core, a pattern seen at other cities in northwestern and northern Belize and northeastern Petén (see Hammond 1981; Houk 2003).

The causeways at Chan Chich are unusual in two respects. First, they are both very wide (about 40 m), and, second, they are of contrasting form. The Western Causeway is of the rare sunken variety; it appears to terminate at a small hill top shrine structure approximately 390 m west of the main plaza. On the other side of the structure, a narrower, elevated sacbe continues west, beyond the mapped limits of the site core in the direction of the secondary center of Kaxil Uinic. The Eastern Causeway is elevated and extends for over 400 m from the site core before disappearing or possibly ending at a shrine structure (Houk 2013b). The Western Causeway may have an analog in the Bryan & Murphy Causeway at El Pilar, which is 30 m wide, sunken, and may connect to a small hilltop structure about 390 m to the west.

Causeways served multiple functions in Maya city planning, from utilitarian transportation corridors to routes for ritual processions. Additionally, studies have shown that causeways functioned as elements of water management systems at a number of Maya cities (Scarborough et al. 2012; Shaw 2001), and it is likely that many of the causeways in the eastern lowlands did so as well. However, water management studies require highly accurate topographic maps to identify drainage patterns, so in most cases it is not possible to do more than speculate on what role many of these causeways may have played as either dams or catchment surfaces. A likely example of a causeway doubling as a dam is Sacbe 1 at Xunantunich, which appears to have artificially impounded the aguada on the eastern side of the Castillo.

An Analysis of Urban Planning at Eastern Lowland Cities

This book looks at the cities of the eastern lowlands through two lenses: the built environment and ancient urban planning. Much of this book has relied on the former in its presentation and description of each city under consideration. (p.250) The remainder of this chapter peers through the second lens to examine Maya city planning, saving a discussion of meaning behind the cities’ plans for chapter 11.

Without ethnographic sources to indicate how and to what degree the Maya planned their cities, archaeologists must rely on other sources of information. This chapter relies on two approaches that focus on coordination of buildings within cities, which serves to organize space in a formal manner, and the standardization of cities (Smith 2007:6–7). Smith (2007:7) proposes using these two approaches in concert to examine the degree of planning evident in a particular city or group of cities, and he applied this approach to Aztec cities of central Mexico (Smith 2008). Following that model, this section applies Smith’s (2007) approach to studying urban planning by examining coordination among buildings and spaces and standardization among cities to the Classic period cities discussed in this book. This is a really a test of the approach, one that Smith (2007:41) called for when he outlined the methods, noting “its validity and usefulness can only be established through confrontation with the archaeological and historical records—the messy empirical reality—of specific ancient cities.”

Coordination

Under the rubric of coordination, Smith (2007:8–25) considers coordinated arrangement of buildings and spaces, formality and monumentality, orthogonal layouts, other forms of geometric order, and access and visibility. Each term is briefly defined in Table 10.3, even those that do not apply in the Maya area. Assessing many of the criteria in Table 10.3 is an exercise in subjectivity, although it does attempt to impose a degree of rigor on the analysis. Because the point of this exercise is to assess the degree of planning evident in each city, I have ranked each city for the various categories in comparison to the other cities in the sample.

Coordinated Arrangement of Buildings and Spaces

Table 10.4 presents data on coordinated arrangement of buildings and spaces. The data are organized by descending size of monumental precincts—those areas used to determine rank ordering and expressed here as a percentage of the largest city’s monumental core. I also examined published maps and identified the one or two most common structure and feature orientations at each site and then calculated the percentage of structures and features following these orientations (within 1° either way). All structures have a primary (p.251)

Table 10.3. Definitions of terms used to study coordination among buildings and spaces

Category

Definition

Method

Coordinated Arrangement of Buildings and Spaces

Degree to which buildings and feature share a common orientation and are coordinated with respect to each other. Smith (2007:8) points out that in some cases the common orientation may reflect something other than central planning, such as topography and shorelines.

Percentage of buildings and features in monumental precinct sharing a common orientation, and subjective assessment of coordination (low, medium, high).

Formality and Monumentality

Formality refers to the arrangement of buildings in an orderly fashion, and monumentality refers to buildings that are larger than needed for utilitarian purposes. The two are often combined in ancient cities.

Monumental area ex-pressed as a percentage of largest city in the sample (Caracol).

Orthogonal Layouts

Use of grid patterns to arrange buildings and spaces. Orthogonal layouts do not occur in the Maya area and are rare in Mesoamerica.

Not applicable.

Other Forms of Geometric Order

Cities following a strict geometric layout that may orthogonal or non-orthogonal (such as circles), although this form of planning is rare in ancient cities and not documented in the Maya area.

Not applicable.

Access and Visibility

Access refers to features, such as walls, that limit access. Visibility refers to viewshed and includes the area that can be seen from a point as well as the areas from which a given point can be seen. Assessing visibility requires the use of a GIS loaded with three-dimensional mapping data.

Qualitative assessment based on formal entrances and walls within the monumental area.

Source: Smith 2007:8–29.

axis, which runs through the center of the building from front to rear, and a transverse axis, which is almost always perpendicular to the primary axis. For the sake of comparison and simplicity, orientation in Table 10.4 refers to whichever axis is oriented generally north–south because a structure with a primary axis of 0° and one with a transverse axis of 0° share the same orientation; it does not imply that most structures are oriented north–south. These calculations only consider buildings and features included within the monumental core area of each site. Additionally, most published site maps include magnetic north, without giving the year the data were collected, and not true north. Therefore, while the orientations and calculations are internally consistent within each site, there is an unknown degree of error in each orientation, which makes comparisons between sites more difficult. I have also ranked the (p.252) degree to which buildings are coordinated with respect to each other for each site as low, medium, or high. This is a qualitative and subjective assessment, and other analysts might disagree with these scores. As with structure orientation, different levels of mapping precision may affect how building coordination is scored. Finally, Table 10.4 lists the number of causeways per site as an access-related factor.

At most of the cities included in Table 10.4, more than one common structure orientation is evident in the published maps of epicenters. In some cases, the competing orientations occur in the same plaza or courtyard, which suggests a lower level of coordination between buildings, but in other cases the different orientations occur in different areas of the site. A good example of the latter is Dos Hombres, where the structures in the northern plaza and the ball court share a 0° alignment, while most of the structures south of the ball court are oriented 9° east of north. The degree to which buildings are coordinated with respect to each other in each area of the site is high, despite the competing orientations in the overall site plan.

The sites with the most structures sharing a common orientation include El Pilar (82 percent), Chan Chich (64 percent), Dos Hombres (62 percent), Pusilhá (59 percent), and Caracol (51 percent). In all other cases, fewer than 50 percent of the buildings share a common orientation. The sites with the most inconsistent orientations include Nim Li Punit (13 percent), Lubaantun (21 percent), Altun Ha (25 percent), and Nohmul (27 percent). Not surprisingly, these four sites show low degrees of coordination between structures. Lamanai is an interesting case; although it is the second-largest city in the sample, only 32 percent of its structures share a common orientation, and the degree to which buildings are coordinated with respect to one another is low. In this case, however, the city planners appear to have been more concerned with coordinating structures with the New River Lagoon rather than with each other.

Formality and Monumentality

Table 10.4 considers monumentality as a measure of the horizontal size of the monumental architecture at the site because structure height or construction mass is not available for each structure at every site. In general, however, monumental area and size of structures correlate closely: Caracol is the largest site and has the tallest and most massive structure (Caana), Lamanai is the second-largest site and has the second-tallest building (High Temple), while the smallest sites have smaller structures—the tallest building at Nim Li Punit, for example, is only 11 m tall. All of the sites exhibit formality in their architecture, and in all cases plazas serve as the formal organizing unit for (p.253)

Table 10.4. Measures of coordination among buildings

City

Area1

Core Area Rank

Primary Orientation (Degrees East of North)

Secondary Orientation (Degrees West of North)

% of Buildings Following Primary Orientation

% of Buildings Following Secondary Orientation

Coordination

Monumentality

Formality

Causeways

Caracol

VP

100.00%

7

0

51%

34%

Medium

High

High

36

Lamanai

NB

46.16%

19

32%

Low

High

Medium

0

Nohmul

NB

36.46%

13

3

27%

10%

Low

High

Medium

1

La Milpa

NWB

34.64%

1

16

33%

23%

Medium

High

High

1

El Pilar

BV

31.31%

−3.5

82%

High

High

High

1

Xunantunich

BV

31.10%

−8

−14

37%

13%

Medium

High

High

3

Chan Chich

NWB

28.90%

1

64%

High

Medium

High

2

Pusilhá

SB

21.81%

−16

−8

59%

10%

Medium

Medium

Medium

1

Dos Hombres

NWB

19.83%

0

9

62%

32%

High

Medium

High

1

Altun Ha

NB

19.58%

−6

−18

25%

14%

Low

Medium

Low

2

Uxbenka

SB

15.15%

10

36%

Low

Low

Medium

1

Minanha

VP

13.88%

15

−10

45%

19%

Medium

Low

High

1

Lubaantun

SB

13.63%

0

8

21%

21%

Medium

Low

Medium

0

Nim Li Punit

SB

9.79%

−3

−7

13%

7%

Low

Low

Medium

0

Note: (1.) Region Key: NB, northern Belize; NWB, northwestern Belize; BV, Belize Valley; VP, Vaca Plateau; and SB, southern Belize.

(p.254) most of the monumental architecture at the sites. While monumentality can be quantified in a number of ways, formality is more subjective. However, sites with higher degrees of coordination between structures and those that have sacbeob physically linking different groups of architecture arguably also have a higher degree of formality than those with inconsistent structure alignments within plazas and dispersed architectural groups.

Access

Without geographic information system (GIS) data on each city, assessing visibility is not possible, but some subjective statements on access can be made. The two features most related to access are causeways, which direct the flow of traffic, and walls or structures, which restrict the flow of traffic. Both types of features reflect urban planning (Smith 2007:24). Caracol, with its 36 causeways, shows the highest degree of concern with controlling access. Arlen Chase and Diane Chase (2001a:279) interpret the causeway system at Caracol as having an administrative function within the economic and political systems of the kingdom. Many of the sacbeob terminate in special-function plazas directly related to the causeways and apparently built at the same time, suggesting a high degree of planning went into their design and construction (A. Chase and D. Chase 2001a:278).

Other sites in the sample used causeways to apparently direct access into particular areas of the site, as seen clearly at Xunantunich, El Pilar, and Chan Chich. At other sites with causeways, the primary function was likely ritual or symbolic (although traffic flow would have also been a factor) because the causeways link distinctive groups of architecture.

A number of sites demonstrated features designed to control or restrict access to elite or royal residential groups. At Caracol, for example, once a visitor entered the monumental precinct, he or she would have found vast areas of the city open. Access between plazas does not appear to have been restricted, but the palaces and acropoli at Caracol demonstrate an abiding concern for limiting and controlling access to elite space. Caana best demonstrates this; access to the summit required a visitor to climb dozens of meters and pass through two buildings before reaching the small courtyard on the structure’s summit.

Walls are less common but are found at Pusilhá, Lubaantun, and Nim Li Punit around the ball courts. At Xunantunich a wall constructed between Structure A-1 and Structure A-3 restricted access to Plaza A-I. At Dos Hombres two low walls on the margin of Plaza A-1 restricted access. The most extensive wall is the low feature that encircles the modified hilltop at Chan Chich (p.255) where the Norman’s Temple group is located. This wall may be defensive in nature, but it has not been formally investigated.

Standardization

Standardization includes architectural inventories, spatial patterns, and orientation and metrology (Smith 2007:25–29). Table 10.5 defines each term, and Table 10.6 presents criteria used to assess standardization between cities. The data are organized by descending size (core area as a percentage of Caracol’s size). The table includes either counts or presence/absence for certain building types and features common at Maya sites. Note that counting plazas is a tricky thing; I counted large, accessible, bounded or clearly defined areas onto which monumental structures face as plazas, and indicted a “+” in cases where additional spaces may or may not be considered plazas. I did not count tightly enclosed or private spaces as plazas. Determining what may or may not constitute formal processional architecture is also subjective, and I indicated those cities with possible routes as “X?” and those with likely routes with an “X.” That topic is explored more in chapter 11. Reservoir presence or absence should be considered preliminary data; formal water management studies have not been undertaken at most cities in the sample; therefore, additional reservoirs may await discovery.

For each site, I have classified the site core type as dispersed (D), moderately integrated (MI), or integrated (I). In a dispersed city, the groups of architecture comprising the monumental center are not necessarily proximate

Table 10.5. Definitions of terms used to assess standardization among cities

Category

Definition

Method

Architectural Inventories

Basic inventory of public buildings, spaces, and features.

Presence/absence and numerical counts of specified features and building types.

Spatial Patterns

While difficult to objectively document, common spatial patterns at a series of cities provide evidence for urban planning.

Qualitative assessment of published maps.

Orientation and Metrology

Orientation refers to similarities in orientation among cities, and metrology is the identification of standard units of measurement or the use of symbolically significant numbers in building plans.

Comparison of primary orientation of monumental architecture.

Source: Smith 2007:8–29.

(p.256)

Table 10.6. Measures of standardization between cities

City

Area1

Core Area Rank

Causeways

Sunken/Parapet Causeways

Stelae

Ball Courts

Plazas

Stela Plaza

E-Group

Triadic Temple

Acropolis

Palaces

Reservoirs

ProcessionalArchitecture

Core Type2

Primary SiteAxis3

Primary Orientation (Degrees East of North)

Caracol

VP

100.00%

36

24

2

4+

X

X

X

X

X

X?

I

N-S

7

Lamanai

NB

46.16%

0

9

1

4+

X

X

X

D

N-S

19

Nohmul

NB

36.46%

1

0

1

4+

X?

X

X

X?

I

~N-S

13

La Milpa

NWB

34.64%

1

23

2

3

X

X

X

X

I

N-S

1

El Pilar

BRV

31.31%

1

X

0

2

4+

X

X

X

X?

X?

MI

~N-S

-3.5

Xunantunich

BRV

31.10%

3

X

9

2

3

X?

X

X

X

X

I

N-S

−8

Chan Chich

NWB

28.90%

2

X

1

1

4

X

X

X?

X

MI

~N-S

1

Pusilhá

SB

21.81%

1

22

3 or 4

3+

X

X

X?

D

~N-S

-16

Dos Hombres

NWB

19.83%

1

3

2

3+

X?

X

X

X

I

N-S

0

Altun Ha

NB

19.58%

2

0

0

2+

X

X?

D

~N-S

-6

Uxbenka

SB

15.15%

1

23

2

4+

X

D

~N-S

10

Minanha

VP

13.88%

1

8

1

1+

X

X

X

X

I

N-S

15

Lubaantun

SB

13.63%

0

0

3

4+

X?

X

I

N-S

0

Nim Li Punit

SB

9.79%

0

21

1

3+

X

X

MI

~N-S

-3

Notes: (1.) Region Key: NB, northern Belize; NWB, northwestern Belize; BV, Belize Valley; VP, Vaca Plateau; and SB, southern Belize.

(2.) Site core types are dispersed (D), moderately integrated (MI), or integrated (I). See text for definitions.

(3.) Primary site axis is based on the generalized alignment of the monumental architecture from one end of the site to the other, and not necessarily on the primary orientation of structures. In the case of moderately integrated and dispersed cities, the primary axis reflects the general trend in the different groups of architecture and is expressed as approximately north–south (~N-S).

to each other and are not connected by sacbeob. In a moderately integrated city, most of the monumental architecture is connected together, but one or more groups may be disconnected from the rest of the site, as is the case with Chan Chich’s Western Plaza and Norman’s Temple group. In an integrated city, most or all of the monumental architecture is linked by sacbeob, connected platforms, or a combination of the two, such as at La Milpa and Dos Hombres. The primary axis for each site core is based on the generalized alignment of the monumental architecture from one end of the site to the other and not necessarily on the primary orientation of structures. In the case of moderately integrated and dispersed cities, the primary axis reflects the general trend in the different groups of architecture and is expressed as approximately north–south (~N-S). The methods used to identify the primary axis of a site are more fully described below.

(p.257) Architectural Inventories

As is the case with all Mesoamerican civilizations, the plaza is the central focus of monumental architecture, and all of the cities in the sample have at least one clearly defined plaza. Most have at least three public plazas. All sites in the sample, except for Altun Ha, have at least one ball court. Most cities have an acropolis and at least one palace-type group, but not all do. In fact, Altun Ha has neither.

Other architectural assemblages are rare, including E-Groups and Triadic Temples. Both assemblages first appeared at Maya cities in the Late Preclassic period, although in some cases versions were constructed during the Classic period. The possible E-Groups in the sample include one initially constructed during the Late Preclassic period, at Caracol, and three Late Classic assemblages. Caracol’s E-Group was used throughout the Classic period as well. The (p.258) three sites with well-documented E-Groups cluster in western Belize. Aimers (1993) and Aimers and Rice (2006:Table 1) list Nohmul as having an E-Group, but Hammond (1985) does not mention one at the site.

The only two clearly defined triadic temples in Table 10.6 include the Late Preclassic High Temple at Lamanai and the Late Classic Caana at Caracol. A structure at Dos Hombres may be a smaller Classic period version of this architectural type, but the identification is uncertain (Houk 1996:136).

Spatial Patterns

The architectural inventories themselves are not as interesting as the ways in which the various elements were combined to create each city. Ashmore and Sabloff (2002:204) note that Maya city planners had an architectural lexicon with which to convey political or ideational messages, “but the choice of specific components varies from place to place and through time.” Equally important is not only which components of city building were chosen but how they were arranged. It is in common spatial patterns that evidence for sources of planning ideas begins to emerge.

As Michael Smith (2007:26) notes, “common spatial patterns at a series of cities provides stronger evidence for urban planning than architectural inventories” but “are more difficult to document objectively.” As examples of common spatial patterns among Maya cities, Smith (2007:27) observes that (1) the public architecture is concentrated in the epicenter of a site and planning is limited to the epicenter (i.e., the surrounding residential zones are unplanned) and (2) monumental buildings and temples are arranged around plazas. These two patterns are largely true of the cities under consideration here, although there are a couple of exceptions. Two of the southern Belize cities have more than one node of monumental architecture, and at Caracol the evidence for central planning in the form of the elaborate road system extends far from the epicenter, although individual residential structures surrounding the site core and its secondary centers may still be considered unplanned, in Smith’s (2007) view.

A number of common spatial patterns are present in the sample of cities that are not as universal as the two previous examples. For example, although the core of each city is centered on at least one plaza, the size of plazas is highly variable. One common pattern highlighted in Table 10.2 is that the sites with the largest plazas (over 10,000 m2) occur north of the Belize River, primarily in northwestern Belize. As Garrison’s (2007:Table 6.3) research demonstrates, the pattern of large plazas extends across the border into northeastern Guatemala to include Xultun, San Bartolo, and Kinal as well. These exceptionally large plazas account for significant percentages of the monumental precincts (p.259) at these sites, particularly at La Milpa and Dos Hombres, where the main plazas comprise over 20 percent of the monumental areas.

These large plazas contrast with the small stela plazas found at the southern Belize sites of Uxbenka, Nim Li Punit, and Pusilhá. These stela plazas are another common spatial pattern with a geographically restricted distribution. Stela plazas are small, even by southern Belize standards: they comprise between approximately 5 and 8 percent of the monumental area of their sites. While other sites have comparable numbers of stelae, their monuments are displayed very differently.

Another spatial pattern with a restricted geographic range are radial causeways connected to the main plaza at sites. Three sites in a roughly north–south line—Chan Chich, El Pilar, and Xunantunich—all have wide causeways that extending east–west from their main plazas; each site also includes at least one sunken or parapet-lined sacbe.

Orientation

In the site-planning debate mentioned in chapter 2 that played out primarily on the pages of Latin American Antiquity between 2002 and 2007, Ashmore and Sabloff (2002) contended that Maya kings and city builders during the Classic period favored a north–south orientation for the monumental precincts of their kingdoms. This “dynastic axis” replaced a Preclassic preference for a “solar axis,” or east–west alignment, in city planning (Ashmore and Sabloff 2002:210). Michael Smith (2003:224) was critical of the basic premise that the north–south axis is even an empirical phenomenon. While it is certainly true that all of the cities included in this study have complicated site plans with east–west elements, I would argue—and do below with actual data—that most, if not all, display a pronounced north–south orientation, although the precise orientation varies from city to city and even within the same city (i.e., Minanha and Dos Hombres). In some cases the orientation applies to the entire monumental core; in others the preference for a north–south alignment is reflected in individual architectural groups.

Michael Smith (2003) challenges Maya archaeologists to be explicit in their methods and procedures in determining the primary axis of a site’s orientation. In this study, I calculated the primary axis by examining the maps of the site core areas used in the rank ordering calculations and drew a line from one end of the monumental architecture to the other along the longest axis. In the case of dispersed site cores, I drew multiple lines and identified the most common orientation. Because of the importance of plazas in Mesoamerican urban traditions (e.g., Smith 2008:127), I considered the primary axis to be based on (p.260) the arrangement of plazas, not secondary urban features like sacbeob. This is not to say that sacbeob were not critical elements of Maya cities but rather that the core of a city was defined by plazas and the buildings and platforms connected to them. By masking out the sacbeob on the maps of cities, which have been simplified to only show their monumental cores, the primary axis becomes easier to identify (Figure 10.3). In some cases I have drawn more than one axis, anticipating situations where reasonable people might quibble over one choice or another.

One of the most consistent features of the epicenters of the sites in this sample is that their monumental cores are oriented north–south or, in the case of dispersed epicenters, trend toward north–south orientation of individual groups. In all cases but two, the dominant orientation is within 20 degrees of north. The two most problematic sites for this exercise are Caracol, where the monumental core arcs from south to northeast (note, however, that the dominant structure orientation is north–south) and Nohmul. In the latter example one-half of the site forms a north–south line of plazas and buildings, but the other half has a pronounced northwest–southeast axis. Even in that case, however, the primary structure orientation is 13 degrees east of north.

In some cases sacbeob that link groups of architecture together emphasize (but do not define) the north–south orientation, such as at La Milpa and Dos Hombres. In other cases the north–south orientation of the major elements of the site core competes—at least visually on maps—with prominent east–west sacbeob, as is the case at Chan Chich and Xunantunich. In both cases, however, the major buildings face north–south, and contiguous plazas and acropoli or palaces reinforce the north–south orientation. Even in dispersed site cores, such as Uxbenka and Pusilhá, most of the individual plazas or connected groups of plazas clearly have north–south primary axes.

As is discussed in chapter 11, the north–south axis is an important element of Ashmore’s (1991) site-planning study. Individual building assemblages and important structures may have east–west orientations, and in some cases the addition of sacbeob overlays an east–west axis—or, in the case of Caracol, multiple axes in various directions—on a city’s plan. However, in all cases the plazas or linked groups of plazas that constitute the bulk of the site core are aligned north–south. I am not claiming that this is the case for all Maya sites in the eastern lowlands, but only for those in this study. This conclusion supports Ashmore’s and Sabloff’s (2003:230–231) assertion “that disposition of prominent construction along a north-south line does dominate parts or all of many Maya civic precincts in Classic times” (emphasis original).

There is tremendous variation in not only primary axis orientation but also (p.261)

Comparisons and Urban Planning

Figure 10.3. Simplified site maps used to calculate orientation.

the primary structure orientation in the cities in the sample. In the case of Lamanai both site and structure orientations were clearly influenced by the shape of the New River Lagoon. In other cases local topography constrained or affected plaza orientations, and Maya planners and builders were clearly willing to accept some degree of deviation from the norm in the construction of their cities.

(p.262) Discussion: Degrees of Planning

Michael Smith (2007:29) contends that by thinking of ancient urban planning as an ordinal scale, rather than stepping into the old debate of planned versus unplanned, it is possible to compare cities and classify them as more planned or less planned. At the same time, however, he acknowledges that “the planning scale is not simple” and that, other than quantifying the extent of planned area, comparing cities relies on “subjective judgments that are difficult to quantify.”

While all of the cities in the sample were planned, it is evident from the application of this approach that stronger levels of centralized planning were involved at some cities than at others. At either end of the spectrum are Caracol and Altun Ha. On most scales under consideration here, Caracol demonstrates the highest degree of urban planning in the sample of cities we have examined. Not only does it have the largest monumental core but it also has sacbeob with specialized plazas that physically and symbolically link the epicenter to the surrounding secondary centers. Caracol also scores highest on monumentality in terms of number of large structures and size of structures, and it has the most complete architectural inventory of cities in the sample, including an E-Group and a triadic temple.

Altun Ha, on the other hand, evidences the lowest level of centralized planning. Although it is not the smallest city, its architectural inventory is the most incomplete in the sample, missing common things like carved monuments, a ball court, an acropolis, and clearly defined palaces. Furthermore, it demonstrates a low degree of coordination between buildings; only 25 percent of the structures and features in the epicenter follow the primary structural orientation. Despite the lack of evidence for strong urban planning based on the application of this approach, Altun Ha was a tremendously wealthy city, as evidenced by the quantity and quality of goods in caches and tombs. Power, it would seem, is not necessarily a prerequisite for wealth. And, as noted at the close of this chapter, other lines of evidence suggest centralized planning was stronger at Altun Ha than the preceding analysis suggests.

Despite its large size, Lamanai ranks lower on the planning scale than smaller sites. The New River Lagoon was clearly a major factor affecting the design of the city, and the pattern of urban growth was one of linear sprawl. The site map, in this case, is likely exaggerating the core area rank as the focus of occupation and construction moved from north to south along the shoreline through time. The city demonstrates a low degree of coordination between structures, and only 32 percent of buildings and features adhere to the most common orientation.

(p.263) Ranking the remaining cities is not an easy task because, not only is the planning scale subjective, it appears as if different planning agendas or concepts were at play in the eastern lowlands. Therefore, what may seem less planned—such as the lack of rigid coordination between buildings within a plaza—may actually be “differently planned.” I suspect, too, my own Western conceptions about what represents well planned, such as right angles and symmetry between buildings, is strongly affecting my subjective assessments of degrees of planning. For example, in my opinion, a number of cities demonstrate high—but not as high as Caracol—levels of planning, including Xunantunich, La Milpa, El Pilar, Chan Chich, and Dos Hombres. The first, while only demonstrating a medium level of coordination of structures and features and having fewer than 40 percent of its buildings following the primary structure orientation, nevertheless has very large monumental structures, sacbeob physically linking disparate groups of architecture, strong evidence for procession ways, and rich architectural inventories. The latter three all have high levels of structure coordination and high percentages of buildings complying with the primary structure orientation.

In contrast, in my view the southern Belize cities generally appear less planned, but I am not sure that is an accurate characterization. For one, they are smaller than the other cities just described, and the dispersed nature of Pusilhá’s and Uxebenka’s site cores would seem to require less planning than La Milpa’s tightly integrated epicenter. Three of the four southern Belize cities have low or medium levels of coordination between structures, and fewer than 36 percent of their structures follow the most common orientation. At Nim Li Punit, only 13 percent of the buildings and features share the same orientation, implying a rather callous disregard for symmetry and common Maya urban aesthetics. Only at Pusilhá, the largest of the southern Belize cities, was common structure orientation an apparent concern; there 59 percent of the structures share the same orientation. Is all of this evidence of less planning or different planning? Was the southern Belize approach to urban design more concerned with integrating architecture with the natural topography, for example, than it was with creating symmetrical plazas and parallel structures?

Thoughts on Analyzing Planning

How well this chapter succeeded in accomplishing its goal of determining the degrees to which the Maya cities of the eastern lowlands were planned is open to debate. However, the exercise is a useful one, similar in some ways to (p.264) formal analysis in art history. In formal analysis, an art historian considers the various formal elements used in a work of art; when a number of related or contemporary artworks are analyzed, patterns may emerge.

The method for studying urbanism employed in this chapter works in the same way and is what in anthropology we would consider an etic approach to the issue, that is, studying the issue from an outsider’s perspective. Even if the goal is to be subjective in such an analysis, the very analytical categories used potentially bias the conclusions. For example, the approach assumes that orthogonal layouts are more planned than non-orthogonal layouts, which is largely true in the modern Western world. However, it does not consider the emic view on planning—the insider’s perspective. We cannot even be sure that planning, as we conceive of it, was important to Mesoamerican city builders. My colleague Dr. Carolyn Tate made this observation to me during a discussion in early 2014 about Elizabeth Boone’s (2000) analysis of Mixtec codices. The Mixtec were a Postclassic (900 to 1500 CE) Mesoamerican group that lived west of the Maya area in northern and western Oaxaca (Coe and Koontz 2013). In what may be one of the few glimpses of Mesoamerican depictions of city building (see Boone 2000), the Codex Vienna shows rituals associated with the founding of Mixtec towns. This is a glimpse of an emic view of city building, and what was clearly important to the Mixtec were the rituals associated with founding a polity, not instructions on how to design the town.

Even if we cannot know exactly what the Maya thought was important about city planning, we can see the patterns that emerged from their planning decisions. Whether or not the issue of more planned versus less planned is significant, the similarities and differences highlighted here allow for an examination of what all of this means in chapter 11.

A final cautionary note on this type of planning analysis is that without very detailed topographic data for each city being examined, certain engineering aspects of urban planning may be lost. This is particularly true in the Maya area because of the overriding need to control and manage drinking water during the long dry season each year. Maya city builders effectively created large catchment basins with their plaster-covered buildings and plazas, and even at the seemingly less-planned center of Altun Ha they carefully constructed plazas to direct runoff in specific directions. This type of engineering is evidence for a higher level of centralized planning than the low degree of coordination between buildings and spaces would imply.