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Can the large settlement sites of the Maya be classed as cities?

This post will aim to address whether the large settlements of the Maya can be classed at cities. I will attempt to answer this question by investigating what we mean by a city and our changing perception of what a city is; I will also assess what these Maya settlements were and what features they had which made them cities. It is my firm belief that many of the large settlements of the Maya civilisation were cities.

It is very important to understand what we mean by “city” when talking about the Maya settlements and it is equally important that we clearlyunderstand the Maya structure of these settlements so we can truly determine whether they are ‘cities’. The initial issue in deciding whether large Maya settlements were citiesis determining whichdefinition to use. It is far more advisable to move away “from universal definitions of cities and urbanism and an increasing recognition of their ability” (Joyce, 2009, p.189)in orderto encompassfar more culturesand societies which have large city-like settlements which may not quite fit the western idea of a city. Movements have been made to create a more solid definition of what a city is; in the west, places like London and Paris are classed as cities with their very similar infrastructures and systems, as such it seems unreasonable to apply the same standards to ancient Mesoamerican settlements. Due to this “scholars have developed more flexible definitions that, while less precise, encompasses a broader range of communities and traditions that most archaeologists consider urban” (Joyce, 2009, p.189), this allows the vast and complex settlements of the Maya to more easily be called cities. Many of these new definitions seem to place emphasis on the role of a city being a seat of political power (Joyce,2009, p.189) which more accurately represents both ancient and modern cities all over the world as opposed to the traditional western outlook on cities which is rather niche in comparison.In order to assess whether large Maya settlements were cities we also have to determine that our vision of Maya culture is accurate.There is a traditional mythic view of Maya society which is widely incorrect or exaggerated; we used to think that the Mayans were a people “flourishing in the jungle, with intelligentsia devoted to the arts and sciences […]all the while removed from the plights of war, over-crowded cities, and despotic rulers, as the common people devoted themselves to the cult of their rain gods and peacefully tilled their fields(milpa) with corn, beans and squash”(Fash, 1994, p.183). This view of the pious, traditional and yet advanced Maya civilisationno longer rings strictly true; new discoveries about the Mayans involvement in warfare, sacrifice and a multiple class system have shattered our previous beliefs of the Maya as a progressive classical society. Fash(1994, p.184) uses settlement densities around major Maya centres to determine that there was considerable social differentiation beyond the simple two class system (peasants and priests)we previously thought they operated with. The Maya structure of society and settlements is made more difficult by the society we live in and are used to today, as people who live in the 21stcentury in the 1stworld find it hard to understand the complexities of the ancient Maya, Fash (1994, p181) states “it is becoming harder for the complexities of the ancient and diverse Maya cultural tradition to be fathomed by the scholars who attempt to describe and understand it”, this is an argument echoed by Becker (2004, p.127) who claims that due to our modern outlook the Maya “have long challenged our ability to understand and make sense of them”, hence it seems very important that we not only adapt our definition of a city to be more encompassing and inclusive ofother cultures but it also seems necessary that we truly understand who the Maya were and what actually made their large settlements eligible for city status.

The organisation of the Maya society and, more importantly, large settlements is a prominentreason for the consideration of the Mayan settlements to be renamed as cities. The Mayan way of life and culture was just as (and if not more) complex than that of the culture of the west at the time and as such they created “cultural tradition that is daunting in its diversity and intoxicating in the creativity”(Fash, 1994, p.181). This culture stood the test of time and stuck to its aboriginal roots right up until the Spanish arrived on their shores(Brown, 2003, p.1619). The political and military organisation of the settlements in question, and of their society as a whole, plays a large role when determining that the Maya large settlements are cities. A considerable piece of evidence was discovered which supports the argument that these sites should be considered cities in the form of defensive structures. These fortifications were built in the centers of Tikal, Becan, Muralla De Leon and in Yucatan and were built with the intension to defend the area from other humans;these were defensive structures relating to warfare(Fash, 1994, p.183). This clearly demonstrates the military presence at these areas and the importance of these sites to the Maya. Many cultures keep their military forces atthe centre of their cities and the Maya clearly did the same here,this military force would be used to both defend the city but also to conduct military conquest in further afield lands using the city as a headquarters. If the military were to take the land of neighbouring tribes or other areas these would be “graduallyreduced to subject provinces of the victorious polity, whose major settlement went on to become the capital of a large state”(Folan et al 1995, p.278) increasing the power of the city they hailed from and increasing both their military and political power.In order for this newly obtained land to be of use to the original city that subjugated it swift and easy communication would have to be established. To solve this issue the Maya created sacbeob, these were raised roads which wouldn’t flood in the wet seasons meaning that communication and trade would continue all year round. It is fair to say that the sites which are the source of a sacbeob are probably cities as they are linked to their smaller satellite sites; these include Tikal, Caracol, and Seibal.These sites also use sacbeob within thecity to connect different districts and areas within the settlement and can often still be located today (Folan et al, 1995, p.278).Calakmul represents an excellent case study when considering what it takes to be considered a city. Calakmul is likely to be the capital of one of the largest and most substantial areas of the Maya states. This belief is based, initially, off the fact thatthe glyph of Calakmul was present at other Maya centres and was used frequently by other sites both near and far, as well as by other ruler and the elite. Furthermore Calakmul was mentioned as one of “The Four On High” which was a text commissioned by Honduras, rulerof Copan, in 731AD,(Folan et al, 1995, p.278)this clearly identifies the relevance of the site to the Maya cultureand represents that the Maya held this settlement in the same regard as we would hold a city today. Calakmul, and other sites too, are also structured in a specific pattern with their satellite sites called a “Central Place Lattice” The satellite sites are spaced roughly 34 km apart from each other and Calakmul (Folan, 1995, p.278). This pattern was likely used to aid with communication, andit shows that Calakmul is the main city in the area (see fig 1).

The population and their interactions with the environment also play a role in determining whether a site is a city or not. In Coba the population was estimated to be proximately 20,000-60,000based on calculating the amount of roofed over space in Coba in 213 different survey zones which contained 6,000 buildings (Folan et al, 2009, p.60). This vast amount of people was substantial for a Mesoamerican settlement and as such earns city status due to its expansive population, this amount of people, however,had a considerable effect on the environment, they planted more trees such as pom for incense and balche for an intoxicating drink around their living spaces which allows us to analyse the effect this amount of people had on their surroundings (Folan et al, 2009, p.59). Coba, when compared with other large Maya settlements ranks alongside the Maya centre of Tikal and Calakmul in regards to its population (Folan, 2009, p.60); these high estimates clearly further demonstrate the complexity of the Maya city structure as well as their social structure(Folan, 2009, p.61). It can also be inferred that due to these massive figures that the political structure of these places must have been advancedand complex, making the cities of the Maya political, military and trading hubs amongst all their other functions.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of any city its ability to maintain a growing and yet stable economy, the higher the population of a site, the higher the maintenance costs; but a high population density also means a substantial opportunity for a great production increase. The presence of an economy is extensively hard to find in the cities of the ancient Maya. The main and most obvious aspect of an economy is a market. The issue arises however when looking for material evidence of such a thing. Normally we have stone buildings and other such permanent features left behind as evidence of past activities but “much of ancient material culture was made of rapidly biodegradable materials”(Dahlin, 2007, p.363) this includes the stalls which would have been made of wood and fabric for easy travel, the things they sold on mass such as clothing, textiles and wooden idols; there is such a lackof archaeological evidence of this that Dahlin claims that perhaps “90 percent” (2007, p.363) of the evidence cannot be found due to its degradable nature, especially because of how quickly these things degrade in a tropical environment.As well as this the presenceof exotic items doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a market in the location where it was found as these items could be distributed by the elite hierarchy or given as taxation or tribute completely separated from a market economy (Dahlin, 2007, p.367).One way archaeologists can begin to detect the presence of a previous market place is by studying the chemical residue left over by human activities in Maya sites, specifically phosphorus. Human activity leaves a trail of phosphorus in the soil of the surrounding area, this cannot easily be removed and as such still remains from the Maya. The phosphorus in the soil of many suspected market areas were several times higher than that of background samples, showing that many people had gathered there regularly over a long period of time (Dahlin, 2007, p.364).In addition to humans leaving phosphorous in their wake, some artefacts, though long gone, may leave chemical anomalies behind in the soil allowing archaeologists to further decide if there wasmarket activity in an area.Many “market activities have been attributed to large open areas strategically located In or near urban centre and made accessible by means of formal transportation arteries”(Dahlin, 2007, p.364)hence archaeologists have identified a large open space at Chunchucmil as a market area and Chunchucmil itself as a market economy. This is further supported by the fact that Chunchucmil had a large population and as such it exceeded its ability to produce food and other necessities for its people and as such needed to become a market economy to survive. Upon studying the area they found little physical evidence but upon pursuing chemical analysis they “we found that geochemical patterns […] best explained as the result of ancient utilitarian market activities involving large volumes of organic substances […] necessities and widely used goods”(Dahlin, 2007, p.364). This clearly suggested the presence of a market at Chunchucmil. Evidence of the importance of the market to Maya cities andculture in general is also present in their language and literature. Archaeologists have found several linguistic terms and glyphs that are related to markets and merchants; market translates as ‘K’iwik’, merchant as ‘Pplom’ and traveling merchant as ‘Ah pplom yoc’. As well as this it can also be inferred that the Maya economy was substantial as the traders had their own deity ‘Ek Chuah’ (Dahlin, 2007, p.367), this demonstrates that trading was involved in their religion/mythology and was a key part of their culture. All aspects of Maya society can be interlinked with a market if one is present at the site, “Markets provided economic benefits to commoners, while labour and taxation laws provided a degree of coercion. Religion was a public good materialised in temples, ball courts, shines and ritual objects that drew people to cities”; the difference between whether a settlement does or does not have a market is very substantial and will determine the advancement and expansion of the site and ultimately whether or not a large settlement becomes a city.

In conclusion, I believethat the large settlements of the Maya, in most cases, are cities. What truly makes a large settlement a city a combination of factors: good political and organisation and administration(making the city a conduit of political power), a military presence which makes the city a father state or a capital to the smaller sites surrounding it, a large population with dense nucleation, (Sanders, 1988, p.522) and a flourishing economy where people are creating products or services with the intent of gaining something of greater or equal value as payment (Dahlin, 2007, p.364).


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