Monday, April 4, 2011

Cosmograms, Sociograms, and Cities Built as Images

Idealized Chinese Cosmogram Capital
Ten years ago a group of archaeologists published a collection of papers titled "Were Cities Built as Images?" (Carl et al. 2000). They discussed the notion that ancient urban planners laid out cities as pictorial diagrams. In some urban traditions, such as Imperial China and ancient Khmer Angkor, cities were designed explicitly as models of the cosmos ("cosmograms"). For many ancient urban traditions, however, there is little or no evidence for urban cosmograms, but this has not stopped many writers from asserting a cosmological source for urban design principles. A concept used much less frequently is the "microcosm" or "sociogram," referring to an urban design that encodes not cosmology, but features of social organization. I think this latter category may have been more common than is typically appreciated.

Imperial China: Capital Cities were Cosmograms

Feng shui masters pick new capital site
The best examples of ancient cities laid out in imitation of the cosmos are the imperial capitals of ancient Chinia (see figure above). Written sources describe a belief that the emperor had to act in harmony with heaven or else his luck would run out and the kingdom would suffer. One aspect of this belief was the idea that the emperor should build a new capital in a propitious place and that it should be built as a model of the cosmos: a symmetrical rectangle with nine gates, crossing avenues, and a royal compound in the center. The figure at left shows the imperial feng shui masters selecting the site for a new capital. For these Chinese cities, see Wheatley (1971) and Steinhardt (1990).

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
Microcosms and Sociograms

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
Although Knight limited his definition of sociogram to ranked clans in pre-state societies, it can be generalized to urban state societies. For example, three decades ago Richard Blanton (1978) made a similar interpretation of the structures that line the plaza at the Classic-period capital Monte Alban in Oaxaca, Mexico (see map at left). Blanton argued that Monte Alban was created by a series of formerly competing chiefdoms in the Valley of Oaxaca who came together to built the impressive mountaintop city. If correct, then the main plaza at Monte Alban was a sociogram in which each of the structures lining the east and west sides of the plaza represented one of the original chiefdoms. In 1988, Olivier de Montmollin provided a parallel interpretation of the highland Maya city of Tenam Rosario, arguing that rural social groups were represented in the arrangements of plazas and structures in the capital city.

Cosmograms Today?

Burley's plan of Canberra
Urban cosmograms like the ancient Chinese capitals no longer exist in the modern world. Although some specialized religious compounds may be designed as cosmograms, whole cities are not. In the account of Amos Rapoport (1993), modern capital (and other) cities have lost the high-level symbolism and meaning of many ancient cities.Cities are more secular in layout today. But this has not stopped conspiracy enthusiasts from claiming that esoteric knowledge has been used to create secret cosmograms of some modern cities and buildings. Peter Proudfoot (1994), for example, claims that planner Walter Burley Griffin used esoteric symbols from the field of Theosophy to design the layout of Canberra in the early twentieth century. Burley's wife was a follower of Theosophy, and according to Proudfoot this led Burley to design Canberra as a secret Theosophical cosmogram. It is a fascinating book that reveals far more about the author than about the city 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.


Blanton, Richard E.
1978    Monte Alban: Settlement Patterns at the Ancient Zapotec Capitol. Academic Press, New York.

Carl, Peter, Barry Kemp, Ray Laurance, Robin Coningham, Charles Highan, and George L. Cowgill
2000    Viewpoint: Were Cities Built as Images? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10:327-365.

de Montmollin, Olivier
1988    Tenam Rosario: A Political Microcosm. American Antiquity 53:351-370.

Knight, Vernon J., Jr.
1998    Moundville as a Diagrammatic Ceremonial Center. In Archaeology of the Moundville Chiefdom, edited by Vernon J. Knight, Jr. and Vincas P. Steponaitis, pp. 44-62. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Proudfoot, Peter R.
1994    The Secret Plan of Canberra. University of New South Wales Press, Kensington, NSW, Australia.

Rapoport, Amos
1993    On the Nature of Capitals and Their Physical Expression. In Capital Cities, Les Capitales: Perspectives Internationales, International Perspectives, edited by John Taylor, Jean G. Lengellé, and Caroline Andrew, pp. 31-67. Carleton University Press, Ottawa.

Smith, Michael E.
2005    Did the Maya Build Architectural Cosmograms? Latin American Antiquity 16:217-224.

Spielmann, Katherine A.
2008    Crafting the Sacred: Ritual Places and Paraphernalia in Small-Scale Societies. In Dimensions of Ritual Economy, edited by E. Christian Wells and Patricia A. McAnany, pp. 37-72. Research in Economic Anthropology, vol. 27. Greenwich, CT, JAI Press.

Steinhardt, Nancy S.
1990    Chinese Imperial City Planning. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu.

Wheatley, Paul
1971    The Pivot of the Four Quarters: A Preliminary Enquiry into the Origins and the Character of the Ancient Chinese City. Aldine, Chicago.


  1. "Ancient people were very much like you and I." Hear, hear to that!

    I was wondering whether you know where the term sociogram was first coined in the context of urban layout. Or have you just invented it? I've studied the well-known examples of postclassic highland Maya cities and I don't recall ever seeing it.

    As for sociograms in modern layout, I think that religious and social interest are typically invested in dominant/monumental buildings. The layout of which might spatially radiate out of them and affect the way the surrounding is built up. In that case one might recognise some degree of a cosmo- or sociogram, which is perhaps more a causal effect of convenience. At the same time, any display of power (socio-political/religious) through planning could be read in those terms. I suspect most cosmo- and sociogram complexes actually display a degree of monumentality through spatial dominance. Sociograms probably depend heavily on the historicity of lineage as well, which works well in 'localism' (in the sense that power structures were mainly tied to a single city for a relatively locally declared autonomy). More distanciated forms of power and organisation might not lend themselves so well to a local spatial display. Cosmograms could adhere to a different logic, as such form could be recognised outside of a local context as well. Then again, I've not seen the argument of cosmo- or sociograms even been made for modern or western cities.

  2. Hi Benjamin. I started thinking about these issues after reading Kate Spielmann's paper (in the bibliography). She uses the term "sociogram" and cites Vernon Knight's work at Moundville. I haven't seen it elsewhere. Some people have used "microcosm" for similar patterns, particularly de Montmollin, and also Christian Wells:

    Wells, E. Christian
    2000 Pottery Production and Microcosmic Organization: The Residential Structure of La Quemada, Zacatecas. Latin American Antiquity 11:21-42.

    I think this issue needs more work. Too many archaeologists got hung up on cosmograms, and in writing critiques of that work I didn't pay much attention to the "sociogram" concept. It seems to work well in mid-range societies. Most of the state-level cases (e.g., the Mesoamerican examples) do not seem to me very strongly supported empirically. It would be very interesting to explore how common the pattern is in historically-documented societies.

    If you want to see something wild, check our Proudfoot's book, or the paper by Taylor, who says that the builder of Philip II's Escorial encoded secret magical knowledge into the design (this is debunked by Kubler).

    Kubler, George
    1981 Building the Escorial. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

    Taylor, René
    1967 Architecture and Magic: Consideration on the Idea of the Escorial. In Essays in the History of Architecture Presented to Rudolf Wittkower, edited by Douglas Fraser, Howard Hibbard, and Milton J. Levine, pp. 81-109. Phaidon Press, London.

  3. The Guadalajara Cathedral and surrounding plazas in Guadalajara, Mexico present some interesting religious symbolism (perhaps a sociogram?). Seen from the air the Cathedral and adjacent plazas form a six block urban cross (Google Earth gives you a fairly good view). The cathedral is, of course, situated at the centre. As I understand it, the blocks surrounding the cathedral were levelled in the mid-20th Century to create the plazas that you see today. It looks like the municipality created it purposefully.

    I really enjoy the blog. Keep writing.


  4. Very interesting about Guadalajara! I was wandering around those plazas in 2009, and I had no idea that the arrangement forms a cross when viewed from above. Was that deliberate? What would be the symbolically correct compass orientation for a Christian cross? This one has the "up" side to the west. If that is not a correct orientation, then maybe it was an accident of the grid layout of the city.