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.