The Lure of Maya Cities

6276We are proud to announce the publication of The Ancient Urban Maya: Neighborhoods, Inequality, and Built Form. This new archaeology book describes what ancient Maya cities were like, showing how they drew people in from rural areas with awe-inspiring architecture, neighborhoods that offered community support, and bustling marketplaces.

The book is available at a discount price until May 13, 2016 in honor of the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting. To order, click here and use code SAA16 at checkout.

Today’s special guest post is written by author Scott R. Hutson. Here, he talks about urban life in Maya cities and gives us a look at his archaeological work at the ancient city of Chunchucmil in Yucatán, Mexico.


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Maya cities brimmed with priests, peddlers, potters, farmers, fishers, featherworkers and people from many other walks of life who came into contact in impressive public spaces.

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Though we now know that the ancient Maya were just as violent as other societies and that their remarkable writing system does not encode esoteric prophecies, we still overlook some of the ways that they resemble other societies—both ancient and modern. For example, from as far back as the nineteenth century writers have told us that the ancient Maya had cities, but we don’t usually think about those cities the way we think about ancient Rome or modern Tokyo. Though they were home to tens of thousands of people, Maya cities were not nearly as crowded as Babylon (28,000 people per km2), Timbuktu (20,000 people per km2), or most other Old World cities from Athens to Zaria.
Yet several Maya cities were more crowded than we realize. And some of the same troubles that haunted other pre-industrial cities—disease, sewage, inequality, alienation—also beset Maya cities. But archaeology often shows how resourceful people can be. Though they were constrained by deeply embedded customs and assumptions about what is proper and what is not, people in the past as in the present responded to challenges in creative ways, making life livable. The ancient Maya made city life look appealing to those who lived outside city limits.


Part of the skyline of Uxmal in Mexico

My new book The Ancient Urban Maya explores how ancient Maya cities attracted people. Much of the population of the Maya lowlands lived in rural villages, and though life in the countryside was less romantic than sometimes assumed, it was entirely viable. Maya political leaders benefited from getting people to cluster together, so they had to woo people from the countryside. They did so by hosting markets and building monuments. Markets and market exchange are turning up with greater frequency in Maya ruins as archaeologists rethink the nature of ancient economies and use new methods for finding and interpreting evidence of trade. Psychological research on how people respond to monuments and cityscapes of different kinds shows that the big temples and plazas that draw tourists to places like Tikal and Chichén Itzá today would have been attractive to people in the past as well. And while Maya kings worked hard to attract followers to their cities, those same followers made cities attractive in their own ways. Specifically, they organized themselves into neighborhoods.
Neighborhoods provide a sense of familiarity and distinction amidst a sea of anonymous faces. They foster networks of trust and social control, giving an urban twist to the phrase “it takes a village.” People who share neighborhoods often form communities that are larger than the household but smaller than the city as a whole. Social units of this intermediate size play an extremely important role in city politics and economics, but they have been difficult to identify in the ruins of Maya cities.
The Ancient Urban Maya
uncovers new data in a city that is ideally suited to a study of neighborhoods: Chunchucmil in Yucatán, Mexico. At Chunchucmil, dozens of kilometers of stone fences separated walkways throughout the city. These walkways generally extended from the site core out to the edges, in the same way that spokes on a bicycle extend from the hub to the tire. People interacted quite a bit with others living on the same spoke, but much less so with people from other spokes. To get from one spoke to another, you would first have to walk to the site core. Since each of these “spoke neighborhoods” had its own temple complex, they were also politico-religious organizations that had a powerful voice in the affairs of the city.


A portion of the cityscape of Oxkintok, Mexico—some of it excavated, some not

My book also explores the community attractions that arose in Maya cities as an unintended consequence of lots of people settling together in close quarters. Maya cities brimmed with priests, peddlers, potters, farmers, fishers, featherworkers and people from many other walks of life who came into contact in impressive public spaces. Bazaars, plazas, and other busy places are not just good for people-watching. They present the possibility for chance encounters that may lead to unexpected opportunities, resources, and social networks. The human resources found in cities—an abundance of individuals with diverse skills, backgrounds, and interests—drive social, economic, and technological developments, and have done so for millennia.
Maya cities had many draws: markets, opulent and carefully-choreographed ceremonies, an enchanting mix of different and unequal people, and well-integrated neighborhoods. The Ancient Urban Maya shows how both leaders and less powerful people shaped their cities and benefited from the experiences that cities offered.
HutsonAUphotoScott R. Hutson
is the author of The Ancient Urban Maya: Neighborhoods, Inequality, and Built Form (on sale through May 13 with code SAA16). He is associate professor of anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of Dwelling, Identity, and the Maya: Relational Archaeology at Chunchucmil and coeditor of The Social Experience of Childhood in Ancient Mesoamerica.


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Categories: Archaeology, Author Guest Post


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