Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Old Bluffton: A Ghost Town Rises from the Lake

Old Bluffton (from Texas Observer)

Greeting from Lake Buchanan, Texas! We are spending Christmas with Cindy’s parents, Jim and Maxine Heath of Buchanan Dam, Texas. Their house sits on the (sometime) shore of Lake Buchanan, formed when the Little Colorado River was dammed in the 1930s. I say “sometime shore” because the lake level has been down considerably for several years due to drought. Right now, the lake is 25-30 feet down, and the shore is a quarter mile or more below their yard. Previously, they could launch their sailboat directly from their property.

House foundation
The lowering lake level brought up the remains of the ghost town of Bluffton, submerged when the lake was formed. You have to travel nearly two miles on the old lakebed to reach the ruins. I made a brief attempt last February; I was dog-and-house-sitting for my in-laws while writing my current book. But the descent from the modern road to the lake-bed seemed too steep and difficult for my 2-wheel-drive Ford Ranger (my daughter April teases me about my wimpy truck-- she drives a big F-150). With Jim Heath’s four-wheel drive Chevy Suburban, however, it was not hard to get out to Old Bluffton. We were returning from visiting the Fall Creek Winery a few miles to the north (excellent Texas wines!).

Bluffton cemetery being moved before the flood
Bluffton was founded by the David family, who moved from Arkansas in 1883. The town burned down at one point and was rebuilt some distance to the south. Residents harvested pecans and grew corn and cotton. When construction began on the dam, the Lower Colorado River Authority bought up people's properties. Some residents moved to the new town of Bluffton nearby and others left the area. Engineers in 1937 calculated that it would take four years for the lake to fill in behind the new dam, but heavy rains shortened that time to a few months. All but one grave from the cemetery were moved prior to the flood.
House foundation

The ruins today are not very spectacular. I only had a short period to see the site and take a few photos. Visitors to the site seem to be aware they are not supposed to remove artifacts, and people have piled up broken glass, potsherds, and rusty iron objects on top of the cement and stone remains at the site.

Artifacts piled on a cement slab
Artifacts piled on a building stone


Not much is left of old Bluffton. The ruins are considerably sparser and in much poorer condition than the many old mining towns and other ghost towns that litter my state of Arizona. But the fact that we know something of the history of the town and the names of its residents gives this site a rare immediacy. The glass jars and rusty nails seem familiar - they look like they could be five years old, not 75 or more. 
My father-in-law and I look at an old well
Another way to visit old Bluffton is with the Vanishing Texas River Cruise. They sometimes stop at Old Bluffton (I've taken their river tour of Canyon of the Eagles; it was great). Or you can find instructions on reaching the site on a number of websites. For more information, check out the website describing a field trip to the site by the Llano Uplift Archaeological Society. They have nice photos and a sketch map. (I attended one of their monthly meetings last February - a nice group of archaeologists and knowledgeable amateurs.) There are articles about Old Bluffton in the Texas Observer, focusing on the history of the town, and on the website, Texas Escapes.

Friday, December 14, 2012

How to compare cities, using digital methods

 I am writing from the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, where a very nice conference on comparative urbanism just finished up. This is a quick post about the session, and maybe I will write something in more detail at a later time. The session was called “ACUMEN: Assembly for Comparative Urbanism and the Material Environment." with the subtitle: “Digital methodologies for social research for processes of urban landscape development.” The conference was the brainchild of Benjamin Vis, an archaeologist who is now in the Ph.D. program in Geography at the University of Leeds. It was held at Haley’s Hotel in Leeds, a comfortable place to talk about urbanism with a bunch of fascinating people (although they aren't going to win any awards for their internet service - I may or may not get this thing posted before I leave town!). There is some information at the pre-conference website.

The ACUMEN conference brought together people working on various approaches to comparative urbanism and using various current methods, in particular historical/archaeological GIS analysis. There were geographers, historians, archaeologists, architects, and some folks difficult to classify. In addition to presentations by established scholars, the conference include a “PechaKucha,” an event that was new to me. A group of people, mostly students, gave very brief presentations of their research, limited to 20 slides and six minutes.

I gave the opening talk, and a summing-up at the end. Benjamin called me the conference “Ambassador,” but I am still not sure what that meant. It was fascinating to hear about a bunch of creative and important urban research projects. My approach to comparative urbanism, which should be clear if you have followed this blog, has been to start with a theme that cuts across many periods and regions, especially ancient and modern cities. Themes I’ve written about (here and in articles) include informal settlements, urban sustainability, urban sprawl, neighborhoods, and gated communities. So far, my comparisons have not been done in great detail, except perhaps for the theme of neighborhoods.

Most of the participants in the ACUMEN conference used one or both of two alternative approaches to analysis and comparison. The first is methodological. GIS analysis is rapidly becoming the standard method in research on urban form (and other topics) in archaeology, geography, and history. We heard about some great urban-GIS analyses, particularly the historical mapping of Paris by Eric Grasso and colleagues, and studies of medieval British towns by Keith Lilley (I apologize for this hasty posting, without links; I will try to get them done, but it may have to wait till I am back in Arizona). GIS is a method to provide a standardization of data for comparing cities.

The second method to comparison discussed at this conference is theory- or approach-driven. The two main examples here were space syntax and urban morphology. Space syntax, a method of analyzing the uses of and access to spaces in buildings and cities, has become increasingly popular in some archaeological traditions. It is not a universal method, because its applications rely on complex room arrangements within buildings, or street patterns in cities. In my own case, Aztec houses have one room and Aztec cities do not have streets. But for the western urban tradition (plus a few examples from other traditions), space syntax is very useful. Sam Griffiths, a space syntax expert at the University College London (center of the space syntax movement), gave an interesting talk on the methods, its uses, and its limitations. A number of the other participants are using, or have used, space syntax previously. (links will be provided……).

Urban morphology is more of a method or approach than a theory. See the journal Urban Morphology for examples. This approach fits well with GIS (as in Keith Lilley’s work) and with space syntax. While only a couple of the participants work within the urban morphology approach, most of the work featured at the conference focused on urban morphology or form in a broader sense.

This was a great session, and we all left with new ideas and inspiration to try to keep the cross-disciplinary dialogue going somehow. Benjamin Vis will probably be setting up a website for ACUMEN before long, and I will talk more about this in the future.

I also got to spend part of a day in York, looking at Roman, Viking, and medieval remains. And it was great sampling the local ales.

Friday, November 23, 2012

"Connecting Past and Present:" Cities and global environmental change

"Connecting Past and Present: Lessons in Urbanization and the Environment." This is the title of a special section of three articles in the new issue of UGEC-Viewpoints. This newsletter/magazine is put out by the project, "Urbanization and Global Environmental Change," which in turn is part of a larger research network called "International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change."

These three papers lay out some of the basic arguments for why ancient cities might be relevant for understanding contemporary urbanization and its environmental impact today. The phrase "might be relevant" is important; I will return to it below.

The section starts off with my paper, "The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization."
I ask, "Why should researchers in this area pay attention to ancient cities?" and I suggest two reasons. First, the long-term perspective of archaeological data lets us look at cities that rose and fell over period of centuries and millennia. Second, ancient cities add to our sample of urban possibilities, allowing a broader perspective on the diverse ways people have designed, built, and lived in cities over the ages. These are things I've discussed quite a bit in this blog. I go on to describe our transdisciplinary urban project at Arizona State University, and then discuss two topics: low-density tropical urbanism (the theme of the other 2 papers in the special section) and research on ancient urban sustainability (drawing on my paper, Smith 2010).

We were asked by UGEC Viewpoints to say something about the policy implications of research, so I give a few opinions on that matter. Briefly, planners and policy makers don't care about ancient cities, and they are not going to look at our archaeological findings to provide clues or guidance for contemporary urban issues. But enlightened planners and policy makers do care about research on cities and urbanism in general, and if archaeologists can provide data to broaden that more general body of research, then our results might have an indirect effect on policy or planning.

The second paper in the UGEC Viewpoints special section is: Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provide More than History?
They talk about the project IHOPE-Maya, which involves a number of specialists in Maya archaeology and some formal modelers who are examining Classic Maya society in terms of concept or resilience and sustainability. This is an exciting endeavor. The Maya had fascinating cities and distinctive urban social and cultural expressions, but most fieldwork has been very particularistic. That is, archaeologists excavate Maya sites to learn about Maya sites, without much comparative analysis and without much concern with using their results to shed light on broader questions. The authors state,

"With respect to the ancient Maya, determining the degree to which they successfully altered their environs – or regionally damaged it – within the constraints of their technologies and innovations has great potential for assessing present-day societal adaptations." (p. 20)

This is an important new direction for Maya studies. I must admit that I find some of the article puzzling. I am not sure what the authors mean by this statement:

"Perhaps our Western technologies are now finally poised to revisit a notion of urbanism reclaimed from the past." (p.21)

They go on to make a comparison between Maya and modern urbanism that seems very abstract:

"the internet and the cultivation of market-driven co-operatives based in rural settings are the loose equivalent of the roads and calendars (the internet) and resource-specialized communities (the cooperatives) of the Maya."  (p.22)

Tikal, Guatemala, one of the largest of the Classic Maya cities
In the third paper, Christian Isendahl attacks the problem of "urban essentialism" ("Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism"). Urban essentialism is one of the perspectives that holds back our understanding of general patterns of modern and ancient urbanism. Isendahl shows,

"how deep-rooted the modernist perception of urban essentialism has been over the last century, dominating and streamlining how we tend to think about urbanism as a largely uniform type of social formation, even in the pre-modern past."  (p.27)

In other words, many people--both the public and scholars--have this idea that there is a single kind of urbanism and a single kind of city, when in fact there is much variation around the world and through history. Isendahl focuses on the topic of urban agriculture, and how it goes against the standard western view that rural and urban and completely different and opposed settings:

"The body of evidence indicates that agricultural production cannot comfortably be regarded as ‘the antithesis of the city’ — as common essentialist-flavored understandings of urbanity seem to suggest — but is in many cases a fully integrated urban activity, viewed at the long-term and global scales." (p.28)

Above, I use the phrase "might be relevant" for the role of ancient cites in contributing to our knowledge of general patterns of urbanization today. Here is the problem. While archaeologists have lots of data on issues of cities and the environment, resilience, social patterns, and so on, we have yet to analyze those data in a framework that can be used by scholars working on contemporary urbanism. Right now, about all we can do is bring up some isolated examples. So while there are some urban scholars out there who think that past cities are relevant to contemporary concerns, archaeologists have yet to get our act together to produce reliable scientific findings that those scholars could use. This is the basic theme of Smith (2010). For a broader statement of the idea that archaeological can contribute to wider social-science research, see Smith et al. (2012).

For more discussion of these issues, look over my past posts, and check out some of these papers:

Barthel, Stephan and Christian Isendahl
2012    Urban Gardens, Agriculture, and Water Management: Sources of Resilience for Long-Term Food Security in Cities. Ecological Economics ( in press; published online).

Costanza, Robert, Sander van der Leeuw, Kathy Hibbard, Steve Aulenbach, Simon Brewer, Michael Burek, Sarah Cornell, Carole Crumley, John Dearing, Carl Folke, Lisa Graumlich, Michelle Hegmon, Scott Heckbert, Stephen T. Jackson, Ida Kubiszewski, Vernon Scarborough, Paul Sinclair, Sverker Sörlin and Will Steffen  (2012)  Developing an Integrated History and future of People on Earth (IHOPE). Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 4(1):106-114.

Isendahl, Christian  2012    Investigating Urban Experiences, Deconstructing Urban Essentialism. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:25-28.

Isendahl, Christian and Michael E. Smith 2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 30 (in press; published online).

Scarborough, Vernon L., Arlen F. Chase and Diane Z. Chase  (2012)  Low-Density Urbanism, Sustainability, and IHOPE-Maya: Can the Past Provice More than History. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:20-24.

Scarborough, Vernon L., Nicholas P. Dunning, Kenneth B. Tankersley, Christopher Carr, Eric Weaver, Liwy Grazioso, Brian Lane, John G. Jones, Palma Buttles, Fred Valdez and David L. Lentz  (2012)  Water and sustainable land use at the ancient tropical city of Tikal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:12408-12413.

Smith, Michael E.  2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

2012    The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

Smith, Michael E., Gary M. Feinman, Robert D. Drennan, Timothy Earle, and Ian Morris  2012    Archaeology as a Social Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109:7617-7621.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cities, semi-urban places, and definitions

I periodically think about how we define terms like city and urban. There is no final and ultimate definition of terms like this. Definitions are tools. They help us solve intellectual problems and they help us understand the world. A definition that works in one context may not be helpful in another.

As I have discussed here previously (Original post on definitions), there are two major approaches to defining cities and urbanism: the demographic and the functional. Louis Wirth's influential demographic definition uses four features to define cities: permanence, high population, high density, and social diversity or complexity. The alternative functional approach says that any settlement that fulfills urban functions for a hinterland can be called urban. An urban function is an activity or institution in a settlement whose effects extend beyond the settlement. See the original post for more discussion and some references.

Role of 3 factors in definitions of city and urban
In a later post, I discuss how these and other definitions of city and urban vary in the importance they give to three factors: population, social complexity/ diversity, and influence or function. The other day I made up a diagram to illustrate this point. It is a kind of "triangular graph" that shows the relative importance of these three variables (at the 3 points). The two ellipses show how the major urban definitions rely on these three factors. Wirth's (demographic) definition relies entirely on population and complexity, so it lies far away from the functional point on the graph. The functional definition runs from the functional corner up toward the complexity corner. The reason for extending the area toward the top is that urban functions almost always require social complexity in the urban center. For example, a political capital typically requires different occupations and often different social class composition, if only to fulfill the basic operations of the government.

Camp meeting
In our attempts to understand complex social phenomena (like urbanism), sometimes examples at the extremes shed light on broader patterns. For this reason, in my class on ancient cities I always cover case studies whose urban status is the subject of great debate. The European Iron Age oppida is one example (functionally urban, but not demographically), or Chaco Canyon (just about nobody besides Steve Lekson considers this settlement to be urban). These cases help students see just what urbanism is all about.

In a paper I am now revising, my coauthors and I follow a parallel logic. In order to support a larger argument that neighborhoods are universal in human settlements, we examine a group of "semi-urban settlements" to see if they have neighborhoods. (the answer is yes in all cases except disaster camps). I talk about this study in a previous post. Our paper got a judgment of "revise and resubmit" from a journal, and one complaint of the reviewers was that we didn't define the term "semi-urban" very well. So I've been thinking about how these settlements relate to the standard definitions of urbanism. I made up a second triangular graph to help me understand these settlements.
Two categories of semi-urban settlement in the definition triangle

Actually, there are two very different kinds of semi-urban settlements, each with different dynamics of change (and different neighborhood processes as well). The first category I call "voluntary camps." These are things like religious camp revival sites, festival sites (like Burning Man), RV camps, and the the various urban "Occupy" campsites from last year. I am fascinated by these settlements, and I am convinced that they can teach us much about cities and urban dynamics. In terms of defining this category, the main traits are that these are limited-purpose settlements, rapidly settled, temporary, and voluntary. On the triangular graph they lie close to the Population corner. They do not have urban functions, and they may or may not have social diversity.

Japanese-American internment camp
The second group of settlements classified as "semi-urban" are those that planner Kevin Lynch called "the city as practical machine." I've talked about these previously. This category includes things like military camps, company towns, internment camps, refugee camps and disaster camps. The key feature of these sites is their top-down design and establishment in order to fulfill a specific activity within the larger society. Their specialized activity, whether confinement, economic exploitation, or something else, can be considered an urban function, so I place these settlements at the function/influence corner of the graph.

So, it turns out what one reason we had trouble coming up with a nice succinct definition of "semi-urban settlement" is that this category actually includes two very different types of settlement. But both are urban-like in some ways but not others, and few would be classified as "cities" or "urban settlements" on their own. But they are all part of the Wide Urban World, and they can all teach us much about cities and urban processes.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The "mysterious" ruins of Machu Picchu

Why do the media insist on claiming that all ancient cities were "mysterious"? Last night I watched a TV program on PBS called "The Ghosts of Machu Picchu." This was a "Nova - National Geographic Special." Most television shows about ancient cities are full of nonsense and I generally avoid them. But with one or two exceptions, the PBS series Nova does a good job explaining archaeology and ancient topics like cities. They usually take an objective, scientific viewpoint. Most research shown on Nova is driven by questions and problems that scientists solve with objective methods. National Geographic television programs, on the other hand, usually take a sensationalist approach that combines good research and known facts with an overblown dramatic perspective. For NGS, research is driven more by dramatic discoveries made by intrepid explorers than by testing models based on research questions. For NGS, ancient ruins are inherently mysterious.

"The Ghosts of Machu Picchu," as might be expected, combines these two approaches. A number of major experts were interviewed and shown at the site and in the lab. These individual segments were fine. I particularly liked John Verano talking about the skeletal material and Kenneth Wright on the fascinating hydrology of the site. Seeing Fernando Astete (the archaeologist in charge of the site) at Machu Picchu and nearby sites was great. But I got really tired of the constant barrage of statements by the narrator (NOT by the experts!) about how mysterious the site is. A few examples:

  • Machu Picchu is "a ruin that defies explanation."
  • "Who were the mysterious people who built it?"
  • "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?"
  • The site is "beautiful and baffling"
  • Scholars have "no written clues" about the site. [not true].

Yale explorer Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. He was mystified at this towering complex site on top of a mountain, but his research team made a number of errors and as a result the site got the "mysterious" label. Why was this site built? Who built it? Why is is to strange? Given the scanty knowledge available before 1990, perhaps the "mysterious" label made sense. But then John Rowe (1990) located a Spanish early colonial document that basically explained what Machu Piccu was: an estate of the Inca emperor Pachakuti. The Inca kings built a series of royal retreats down the Urubamba Valley from their capital, Cuzco, and this site was built for Pachakuti.

These Inca estates are a kind of settlement different from regular cities that were administrative centers of the empire. The diagram (from Susan Niles 1993) shows how this was organized. Sites like Huanuca Pampa were political capitals, and sites like Machu Piccho, Ollantaytambo, and others, were the royal estates. These were attached directly to the kings, rather than run by the empire. Niles (1993) explains this well.

So there is little that is mysterious or baffling about the site, any more than one can say that ANY ancient cities is mysterious only because we have limited evidence. The only expert in the show who even suggested that there was a "mystery" about Machu Picchu was Johan Reinhard, an explorer/archaeologists who works for the National Geographic Society. The show did not mention Rowe's insights, although they did finally mention the document.

Major segments of the modern media seem to feel they have to claim that ancient cities are "mysterious" in order for people to pay attention to their stories or shows. But rather than building up false mysteries about sites like Machu Picchu, wouldn't it be better if they played up the truly interesting and important things about these cities? In its hybrid approach, "Ghosts of Machu Picchu" did this to some extent. The hydrology is incredibly fascinating. Major efforts were put into channeling water both to, and away from, the terraces at the site. This was an engineering marvel. The show never went anywhere with its question, "How could a people without iron tools or the wheel have produced such a masterpiece?" On one level, this question is silly. The Inca clearly did build the site without iron or the wheel. Many other ancient civilizations did similar things. But on another level, this is a great question, one that could provide an entry into Inca architecture and construction. But the show only talked a bit about that topic, which was not a major focus.

Machu Picchu has lots of lessons for our understanding of processes of urbanism around the world. It shows how an urban society can have two very different types of state-built cities, each for different purposes. It shows how the urban expressions of royalty could be different from the urban expressions of imperial administration. It shows the nature of limited-purpose cities. It shows how standard patterns of stoneworking, buildings, and urban planning concepts were adapted to the individual particularities of a spectacular and precarious setting. (I was waiting for a comparison of the layout of Machu Picchu to that of Patallakta, the agricultural town shown in the show. Such a comparison is very revealing of Inca urban planning practices). Machu Picchu shows how urbanism looks in a society that has a noncommercial economy (no money, no markets, no merchants; this was a command economy). This site has many lessons for the Wide Urban World, only a few of which were touched on in "Ghosts of Machu Picchu." These are interesting topics for research, but they aren't "mysteries."

In addition to Niles and Rowe, two recent monographs have good information about Machu Picchu:

Burger, Richard L. and Lucy C. Salazar (editors)
2003    The 1912 Yale Peruvian Scientific Expedition Collections from Machu Picchu: Human and Animal Remains. Yale University Publications in Anthropology. Yale University, New Haven.

Niles, Susan
1993    The Provinces in the Heartland: Stylistic Variation and Architectural Innovation Near Inca Cuzco. In Provincial Inca:  Archaeological and Ethnohistorical Assessment of the Impact of the Inca State, edited by Michael A. Malpass, pp. 145-176. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.

Reinhard, Johan
2007    Machu Picchu: Exploring an Ancient Sacred Center. Monograph. Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Los Angeles.

Rowe, John H.
1990    Machu Picchu en la luz de documentos del siglo XVI. Histórica (Lima) 14(1):139-154.

One more thing: If you ever wondered about that rope bridge in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," it is an Inca bridge, built for the film by the descendants of the Incas, who still use these bridges today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Why are Aztec cities interesting?

I excavate Aztec cities for a living. At the drop of a hat I can go on and on about Aztec cities, describing all kinds of details only a few people in the world would care to hear about. I've written a book on the subject, Aztec City-State Capitals. Here, I want to discuss three things that are interesting about Aztec cities:

  1. Aztec cities were expressions of their political context.
  2. Aztec rural and urban life were remarkably similar.
  3. Urban agriculture was the norm in Aztec cities.


Aztec cities were expressions of their political context.

This theme follows from my previous post, The power of the state to remake cities.  Most cities before the modern era were political capitals. This was certainly true for the Aztecs, Mayas, and other groups in Mesoamerica and the Andes. The biggest and most prosperous Aztec city--by far--was the imperial capital Tenochtitlan (now called Mexico City). Its size and opulence were direct consequences of the success of the Aztec Empire in: (1) conquering foreign peopless and getting them to pay taxes, and, (2) promoting commerce throughout Mesoamerica. Tenochtitlan is BY FAR the most extensively documented Aztec city, thanks both to a rich historical record and to the spectacular results of recent excavations at the main temple, the "Templo Mayor."

Teopanzolco (City-state capital)

But Tenochtitlan was the most atypical Aztec city. Compared to its 150,000-200,000 residents, the median Aztec city covered just one square km, with 5,000 people. These were the capitals of city-states, the dominant Aztec political form. While the empire gets all the publicity, the city-state was the active government for nearly all of the Aztec people. This is where people went to market, paid their taxes, socialized and married their spouses. The capitals of Aztec city-states reflected their small size and the limited powers of their kings. Their main pyramids were dwarfed by Tenochtitlan's Templo Mayor, their royal palace was a pale reflection of Motecuhzoma's palace in Tenochtitlan, their weekly market was a puny affair compared to the central imperial marketplace at Tlatelolco, and their level of opulence and prosperity was much lower than Tenochtitlan. But these WERE the capitals of
Acozac (City-state capital)
semi-independent governments, and their kings did have power over the local domain. So they all had some good-sized pyramids, a big public plaza, a distinctive royal palace, and other markers of urban political status.

Aztec rural and urban life were very similar

Rural house

I began my career excavating Aztec rural sites. When I started out, a fresh PhD in 1985, I expected that rural provincial sites would be poor and isolated, and that their residents would be downtrodden because they were exploited and dominated by the empire. Boy, was I wrong! I found that Aztec peasants were prosperous and successful, and their communities wealthy and resilient. I am now writing a book about these excavations. The residents had ready access to imported goods from all over Mesoamerica, they produced a steady stream of cotton textiles at home (which served as a form of money), and there were other signals of wealth and complexity. I published an article using the concept of "rural complexity" to describe my findings. In a number of ways, these rural Aztec villages were very "urban-like" in their complexity.

Then I excavated houses at an urban site, Yautepec. At first I thought that since the rural peasants had been very prosperous and well-connected, the urbanites would be fabulously wealthy and very different from their rural cousins. Wrong again! The urban households were almost impossible to
Urban house
distinguish from the rural households. Small, one-room houses built of adobe bricks were the norm in both settings. The basic domestic artifact assemblages were almost identical (same kinds of cookware, serving ware, obsidian tools, ritual items, craft objects, and so on). Each area had its own distinctive style of painted pottery, but painted bowls and jars were abundant in both settings. The same exotic imported goods were present in the middens of both contexts (bronze tools and
Serving ware, rural & urban
ornaments, greenstone beads, etc.). Surprisingly, population density was the same in both contexts (about 50 persons per hectare). So after excavating urban-looking villages, I then found a rural-looking city. Yes, the fact that Yautepec had a royal palace and some big pyramids made a difference. But for people's everyday lives, there was just not much to distinguish the rural and urban sites.
Urban fields, Tenochtitlan

Urban agriculture was the norm in Aztec cities

In every case where archaeologists have looked specifically for evidence of agricultural production within a city, they have found it. In Yautepec, people had both home gardens and irrigated fields. In Calixtlahuaca (my present excavation) and a series of Aztec cities in the Teotihuacan Valley, agricultural terraces were abundant within the city limits. Tenochtitlan, Xochimilco, Xaltocan, and other cities in and around the lakes in the Basin of Mexico all contained raised fields (chinampas) as part of the urban landscape. At Otumba, people grew maguey plants, both for their products (fiber and sap) and as stabilizers for terrace fields.
Urban fields in Zinacantepec

I have already written a post on Aztec urban agriculture, so I won't say much more here. For a more technical treatment, see Isendahl and Smith (2013).

The larger context of Aztec cities

Some of the features of Aztec cities go against the grain of both popular and scholarly thought on urbanism. Cities are supposed to be radically different places to live than the countryside. Open any urban textbook and you will read about this.  Urban agriculture is supposed to be something new and different. Well, there is a lot of variation in cities across space and time. Our current western pattern of urbanization is not the only urban trajectory, and premodern city traditions like the Aztec may be able to give us some new ideas or options to think about as we face the future of the Wide Urban World.

Isendahl, Christian, and Michael E. Smith    2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 30 (in press).

Matos Moctezuma, Eduardo    1988    The Great Temple of the Aztecs. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Rojas, José Luis de    2012    Tenochtitlan: Capital of the Aztec Empire. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E.
    2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

    2012    The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

    n.d.    The Archaeology of Aztec Families and Communities. Book in preparation.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The power of the state to remake cities

Paris before and after Haussmann
Cities are always connected closely to their controlling governmental regime. Rulers often create, or re-make, capital cities in order to make political statements. Urban planning and architecture can convey public messages about power, control, memory, legitimacy, symbolism, and other governmental concerns. Cities that are not capitals usually have to accommodate rulers, officials, or bureaucrats who manage, supply, or regulate them. It is impossible for us to fully understand the forms and activities of cities--ancient or modern--without taking their political or administrative context into account.

I have always been intrigued about the remodeling of Paris in the 19th century under the direction of Baron Haussmann. When Cindy and I were in Paris a couple of years ago, we visited the apartment of a friend. She lived in an old building, and her apartment had a strange shape and layout. She told us that Baron Haussmann had widened her street, and in the process the front part of the building (perhaps 3 to 5 meters) had been shaved off and a new exterior wall added. What had been a narrow curving alley was turned into a wider and straight street.

The Paris we see today is largely a creation of Baron Haussmann. This is not to deny that the layout of the earlier Roman and Medieval cities influenced the form of contemporary Paris - these influences are clear throughout the center of the city.  (And when you visit Paris, be sure to tour the excavations of the Roman and Medieval ruins under the plaza in front of Notre Dame. You go down a poorly marked stairway that looks like a metro stop, at the opposite end of the plaza from the cathedral. The ruins are fascinating, and the exhibit is very well done.)

Marville and Moncan images
In 1852, the French ruler Napoleon III hired  Baron Haussmann to modernize Paris, and the two decades of work produced perhaps the largest urban renewal project of all time. There were several components of Haussmann's remodeling: wide straight boulevards, a new sewer system that ran beneath them, and a new emphasis on railroad tracks and train stations. Planning historian Peter Hall has this to say about the boulevards:
They would simultaneously achieve several key objectives: they would free up traffic, give access to the new [train] stations, make the suburbs accessible, clear slums to make the city healthier, create a monumental city that would be the envy of the civilized works and--not least--guard the city against demonstrations and civil disturbances. (Hall 1998: 718).
Rounding up the Commune, 1871
Riots and demonstrations had been a real problem in nineteenth century Paris, and the narrow crooked streets made it easy for demonstrators to wall off sections of the city to keep the police and military out. Haussmann's redesign didn't eliminate public rebellions in Paris, but as the members of the Paris Commune in 1871 found out, the wide streets made it much easier for authorities to put down the rebellion and round up the rebels.

Marville and Moncan images
Most of the photos in this post are before/after pictures of specific places in Paris. Photographer Charles Marville took many photos in Paris before and during Haussmann's project, and they are fascinating (and very high quality) images. More recently, photographer Patrice de Moncan located the positions of many of Marville's images and took photos of those places today. They are published side-by-side in Marville and Mancon (2010), a fantastic book. Many of Marville's photographs are posted online, and there are other books that publish large collections.

Urban renewal
Some of my favorite Marville photographs are the shantytown images. While there are slums ringing Paris today, we usually don't think about the city being filled with shantytowns. But this shouldn't be surprising; see some of my earlier posts on shantytowns, or on visual and spatial order in cities.

One of Haussmann's sewers
Hall notes that left-wing critics of Haussmann have "argued that the demolitions were deliberately designed to clear neighborhoods with a strong working-class revolutionary consciousness" (Hall 1998:728). Haussmann was very attuned to the importance of neighborhoods in cities, and he designed the system of urban districts (arrondissments) still used today. The older neighborhoods had been grass-roots places where residents organized themselves (whether to simply structure and help urban life, or to resist the state). The new districts, by contrast, were administrative units imposed by the state to help regulate Paris. See some of my prior posts, such as "Do all cities have neighborhoods?", or "Neighborhoods in semi-urban settlements."

It is much harder to study urban renewal projects at ancient cities, before photography and before extensive historical documentation. If Haussmann had been redesigning Augustan Rome, we would probably know his name and have some idea of what he did. If he had been redesigning Teotihuacan, we would never know his name and we would have only the faintest idea that the city had been redesigned. In fact there was a program of urban renewal at Teotihuacan. Most of the residential neighborhoods of the ancient city were built over a single period of a century or less, covering what had been earlier houses, fields, and irrigation canals. Was there an ancient Baron Haussmann in charge of this operation? Was he an direct state official or an independent contractor? Did the public make fun of him in political cartoons? The more we can learn about how city forms and planning relate to social conditions and activities, the better we will be able to understanding ancient urban changes. And the better we can understand ancient cities, the better our chances of figuring out what is universal and what is unique in cities in the wide urban world, across the ages.

Gandy, Matthew
Haussmann as a busy beaver
1999    The Paris Sewers and the Rationalization of Urban Space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24 (1): 23-44. 

Hall, Peter
1998    Cities in Civilization. Pantheon, New York.

Jordan, David P.
1995    Transforming Paris: The Life and Labors of Baron Haussmann. Free Press, New York

Kirkman, Emily
2007     Haussmann's Paris: Architecture in the Era of Napoleon III. Art History Archive (online).

Marville, Charles and Patrice de Moncan
2010    Paris, Avant Après: 19e siècle, 21e siècle. Les Editions du Mécène, Paris.