|Idealized Chinese Cosmogram Capital|
Imperial China: Capital Cities were Cosmograms
|Feng shui masters pick new capital site|
Ancient Mesoamerica: Cities were Not Cosmograms
There is a common "cartoon view" of ancient societies which holds that ancient peoples were obsessed with religion, death, and the afterlife, thinking about these things more than they thought about daily life. Everyone has heard this about ancient Egypt, but the belief is much more common. "Those people were not logical people like us," the cartoon view holds, "They were irrational prisoners of their religion." This view is nonsense. Ancient people were very much like you and I. Although they lived under very different cultural and social conditions, ancient people were logical and rational. Religion was important to them, but they were generally not fanatical or obsessive about it.
One expression of this cartoon view is the idea that all ancient cities were like the Chinese capitals in being cosmograms. The extent to which some writers are willing to speculate in the absence of evidence in order to uphold the cosmogram view is impressive (and depressing). I have debunked this view for the Classic Maya cities in Smith (2005). To put it simply, there is no evidence that the Maya, or the Aztecs or any other ancient Mesoamerican peoples, viewed their cities as cosmograms. Spanish writers recorded thousands of pages about the religious beliefs of the Aztecs and Mayas, providing great detail about the gods, rituals, and myths, but there is not a word about cosmograms.
|The central district of Moundville|
The absence of cosmograms does not mean that for form and design of ancient cities were arbitrary or devoid of social meaning. Vernon Knight (1998) used the concept of "sociogram" to describe a model in which aspects of social organization were expressed in the arrangement of public platforms at Mississippian chiefdom capital Moundville (see figure). A series of temple mounds and residential mounds were arranged around a plaza in a form similar to the way that clan buildings were arranged around plazas in Chickasaw villages as described by European observers. Kate Spielmann (2008) adds several archaeological examples of such sociograms, mostly for the village and town layouts of small-scale societies.
|Monte Alban, main plaza|
|Burley's plan of Canberra|
The basic message of this discussion is that not all ancient cities in the wide urban world were alike. Chinese and Khmer capitals were built as cosmograms, but Aztec and Maya capitals were not. Smaller Chinese cities were probably not cosmograms either. But the idea of encoding social meaning in city layout may have been broader and more widespread than the cosmogram concept. Are modern cities, or perhaps parts of them, laid out as sociograms? I'll have to think more about that; if you have examples or suggestions, please pass them on.
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de Montmollin, Olivier
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