Saturday, November 14, 2015

The big pyramids and the small houses

Most cities -- ancient and modern -- show a big contrast between large civic architecture and the houses of the common people. I've been thinking about this contrast a lot recently. Last week I helped guide a tour of visitors from the Heard Museum to the Aztec Templo Mayor in Mexico City, and then to Teotihuacan. Most of what we saw was the big civic architecture. The Templo Mayor was one of the largest pyramids in ancient Mesoamerica, sitting in the heart of the biggest city of the pre-Columbian past (known as Tenochtitlan in Aztec times). This was a BIG pyramid, and the archaeological ruins are quite impressive, both for the size of the structure and for the richness of the offerings that have been excavated in and around the temple. The visitors were suitably impressed.

On that same short trip to Mexico, I started correcting the proofs of my new book, At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic Life (due out in February). The topic is the households and communities of Aztec commoners in the provinces, near Cuernavaca. These people didn't build huge pyramids, and they didn't engage in the sensationalist human sacrifices that the Aztecs are known for. They were everyday folks, farmers and traders who strived to make a good life for themselves. Yet their lives were connected to the big pyramids, whether they liked it or not. A painted bowl from Yautepec (site of my second major excavation project) somehow ended up in an offering at the Templo Mayor. Some of the taxes paid by the folks whose houses I excavated went to build the pyramids and support the luxurious lifestyles of the Aztec nobility.

When we got to Teotihuacan, my colleague Saburo Sugiyama led the tour. Saburo has been excavating at Teotihuacan his whole career, and he knows the site like no one else. Most of what we saw on the tour were temples and pyramids, and some houses of the Teotihuacan rich and famous. There wasn't time to go see where the regular folks lived. You have to go outside the official archaeological zone to see the apartment compounds. Yet those residences tell an amazing story. Somehow, the people of Teotihuacan managed to forge a prosperous way of life for themselves. The average Teotihuacano had a far more luxurious life than the average Aztec, a millennium later. In fact, the Teotihuacan commoners had a better quality of life than just about any of the commoners of ancient Mesoamerica. How did they achieve that?  Sounds like the topic for a research project.........Some of the answers are in the artifacts excavated over the years at Teotihuacan, and stored in our laboratory at the site.

How did these ancient urban societies manage to link the commoners who lived in their small houses to the kings and nobles who lived in big palaces and built huge temples? To me, this is one of the key questions in the study of ancient cities, states, and empires. To get an answer we have to know about both kinds of contexts, and we need to have concepts and theories that link them together. Just looking at one kind of setting is not enough. We need a broad perspective, and that is something archaeologists are struggling to come up with. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Is there a science of human settlements?

I returned two days ago from a meeting with our scaling group at the Santa Fe Institute. We started working on "urban scaling" in premodern societies a couple of years ago (for some background,  see this post,   or this one). We quickly became convinced that the scaling models should apply to all human settlements, urban and non-urban alike. Rural settlements in an urban society should conform to the scaling regularities, as should settlements in small-scale farming societies without state institutions. We now have data that confirms the latter. And according to the basic behavioral model that underlies the scaling project (Bettencourt 2013), even the non-permanent settlements of hunter-gatherers should display similar quantitative regularities.

At this meeting, we decided to "go public" with the project. We decided on a name for the project, and we will soon set up a website. We are:

"Settlements as social reactors: Data, theory, and models through history" 

Bonn cathedral
The project directors are:
  • Luis Bettencourt, a physicist at the Santa Fe Institute
  • Jose Lobo, an economist at Arizona State University
  • Scott Ortman, an archaeologist at the University of Colorado
  • me (archaeologist at ASU).
(Rudolf Cesaretti (ASU) was our Research Assistant last year, and Caitlyn Davis (Colorado) is a Research Assistant this year. John Hanson will be a postdoctoral scholar (at Colorado) for the project starting in January. We have been funded by the Santa Fe Institute, the ASU-SFI Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, and a grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to Scott Ortman).

A 12th century English manor
We have a model, a theoretical approach, and growing data that can be described as a "science of human settlements." We don't claim to explain everything about human settlements, but we do have the tools to explain a number of key features in a rigorous scientific fashion. When I got back from Santa Fe, I decided to gather information on past comprehensive scientific approaches to human settlement in order to have some background for our own contributions. But I found -- much to my surprise -- that there is no previous approach like this.

Archaeologists have been so obsessed with "settlement patterns" that we haven't bothered to define the concept of settlement. And archaeological settlement pattern research is divided into two camps: work on hunter-gatherers, and work on sedentary agricultural societies. Each camp analyzes things differently and pays little or no attention to the other camp. For the most part, this is fine. The settlements and settlement dynamics of hunter-gatherers are very different from those of sedentary agrarian societies, and they require different concepts, methods, and theories. But without a comprehensive approach, how would we know whether or not there are continuities and regularities of human settlements that cut across the hunter-gatherer / agrarian divide?
Hadza campsite

Neighborhoods of RV's in Quartzsite
The basic messages of this blog are that "urban" settlements around the world and through history share many features, and that many things we may describe as "urban" in fact are found in non-urban settlements. The existence of neighborhoods is one of the obvious examples (see my prior post on this, or "cities of tipis?",or check out the article, Smith et al. 2015). My neighborhood research shows that the seasonal aggregation sites of some nomadic hunting peoples are organized into neighborhoods. This research provides some basis for integrating hunter-gatherer and agrarian settlements into a common framework, but it is not a very general approach.

So where is the comprehensive theoretical approach that can analyze human settlements from nomadic campsites to modern cities? The closest thing I could find is Roland Fletcher's work on the limits of settlement growth (Fletcher 1995). I admire this work very much. Fletcher analyzes some of the negative consequences of the growing sizes and densities of settlement. But there are also positive consequences of settlement size that he does not analyze, and his work is too limited to be considered a general "science of human settlements" (and he, like most of the authors I've been checking yesterday and today, fails to provide a basic definition of "a settlement"). I also looked at the field of settlement geography. There are many models and data in this field, but nearly all of it ignores (or treats badly) non-agrarian settlement.

So it looks like our "social reactors" model of settlement scaling (Bettencourt 2013) may be the most comprehensive scientific approach yet to human settlement size and its consequences. Is that too grand a claim? Stay tuned: our publications will be appearing before long. And I'll have more to say here about settlement scaling and its place in the wide urban world.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A.  (2013)  The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340:1438-1441.

Fletcher, Roland  (1995)  The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland  (2015)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8(2):173-198.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Reconstructing life in an ancient city

Teotihuacan shows off the best archaeological research in the two major approaches to fieldwork at ancient cities: monumental archaeology and social archaeology. Recent and continuing excavations of the main pyramids by my ASU colleague Saburo Sugiyama and by Mexican archaeologist Sergio Gómez are uncovering new information about the ancient religion and politics of the city. This is the monumental approach. I'll talk about this work in a future post.

And current work by David Carballo and Kenneth Hirth in the Tlajinga area of Teotihuacan showcases the advances and accomplishments of the social archaeology approach.

(((WONK ALERT !!!  I use the term "social archaeology" here to describe analyses of ancient social patterns using rigorous methods.  I do NOT use the term in its idiosyncratic postmodern definition that refers to subjective and speculative interpretations of the archaeological record, as exemplified by papers in the "Journal of Social Archaeology" and other works of that ilk. In my usage here, social archaeology focuses on excavation of houses and analyses of the conditions and activities of ancient households, especially non-elites. If you want to know why I don't like the alternative, postmodern meaning of "social archaeology" concept, see this post in Publishing Archaeology)))

Here, I want to point to an excellent description of the current Tlajinga project that focuses on households and obsidian tool production in domestic contexts. Check out the new article, "Lessons from Teo," in the Boston University Research magazine. It is quite good! The artifact analyses of that project are being done in the ASU Teotihuacan Research Laboratory.  I wish we had more university PR departments that produce stories as intelligent, literate, and exciting as this one. My hat is tipped to David Carballo for telling the story of the Tlajinga excavations, and to the Boston University writing and filming crew for doing such a good job communicating that story.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Why do all cities have neighborhoods?

I've been writing about urban neighborhoods for several years now. I have made the claim that all cities have neighborhoods. In fact, neighborhood organization is one of the very few urban universals. There are very few features shared by ALL cities, throughout history and around the world. Besides neighborhoods, other candidates for urban universals include the provision of urban services, and the fact that if a society has an elite class, then many or most of its members live in cities.  See: Do all cities have neighborhoods? (2011), or

I find that I always hesitate a bit when writing that "all" cities have neighborhoods. That is a tough claim to prove. We simply don't have information about all the cities that have ever existed, so a claim for the universality of something like neighborhoods must rest on indirect evidence. Here are the three lines of evidence that make sense to me.

First, every description of a city that is sufficiently detailed and focused to mention the existence of neighborhoods, does in fact mention neighborhoods. This is far from an air-tight argument. But I've been looking at city descriptions like this for a number of years now, and so far this claim has held up. These include ethnographic reports of cities around the world, historical accounts of cities before the modern era, and archaeological reports of ancient cities. Archaeologists started thinking seriously about neighborhoods about eight years ago, and guess what? Since then, many reports of neighborhood organization have popped up. Check some of the works in the bibliography below.

Second, many bin-depth studies of neighborhoods, in the past and the present, have found that neighborhoods are crucial social and spatial units within their city. They are important in many ways for urban residents, and they are important for the overall operation and functioning of the city. Some of my favorite such studies are Robert Sampson's analysis of Chicago neighborhoods today, Abraham Marcus's study of Aleppo in the 18th century, and Eva Lemonnier's identification of neighborhoods at the ancient Maya city of La Joyanca. See: Why are neighborhoods important? (2014).   Or, in Publishing Archaeology, see Archaeological concepts of community confront urban realities today (2015).

Third, I carried out a study, together with a bunch of undergraduates, of neighborhood organization at semi-urban settlements (Smith et al, 2015). The study was based on the assumption that if neighborhoods formed at these rapidly-formed, often chaotic, and sometimes specialized settlements, then they would form at any good-size human settlement. We found neighborhoods did indeed exist at Plains Indian aggregation sites, arts festivale, RV camps, protest camps, shantytowns, military camps and forts, internment camps, company towns (including ancient Egyptian workers villages), and refugee camps. The only kind of settlements where we could not confirm or discomfirm the presence of neighborhoods was disaster camps.  See : Neighborhoods in semi-urban settlements (2011).

So, if neighborhoods really are urban universals, why is that the case? In our 2015 article, we give two types of answers: ultimate causes, and proximate causes. These concepts, borrowed from evolutionary biology, refer to the deep underlying causes of social phenomena (the "ultimate" causes) and to the basic day-to-day reasons for their formation ("proximate" causes). The underlying, ultimate cause of neighborhood formation is that people in cities need, or want, to live their lives on a smaller scale than the entire city. Some studies suggest that this is caused by constraints on human memory; one can only recall so many people, and effective social networks cannot be too large. Other studies suggest that living in cities causes social stress, and neighborhood organization is a way of relieving that stress.

It is interesting to note that neighborhoods can form in two very different ways. The most common path throughout history was the bottom-up approach. People living in an area interact with those around them (their neighbors), and eventually clusters or people, or communities, develop on their own out of the day-to-day actions of people. But in some cases, city or government authorities create neighborhoods. They organize cities from the top down, and people move into ready-made neighborhoods.

In our paper we identify the following proximate causes of neighborhoods: For bottom-up neighborhoods, simple sociality--interacting with your neighbors-- is the primary cause of neighborhood formation. Group preservation and defense also contribute to neighborhood formation in some cases. For top-down neighborhoods, established by authorities, the most common proximate causes are administration (the need to administer the residents) and control/surveillance. Sociality is a secondary consideration; if not present from the start, it quickly develops once people start living in their pre-made neighborhoods.


 Arnauld, Marie Charlotte, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Michael E. Smith (editors)
2012    The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Hakim, Besim S.
2007    Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts. Urban Design International 12: 87-99.

Lemonnier, Eva
2011    Des quartiers chez les Mayas à l'époque classique? Journal de la Sociéte des Américanistes 97 (1): 7-50.

2012    Neighborhoods in Classic Lowland Maya Societies: Identification and Definition from the La Joyanca Case Study (Northwestern Peten, Guatemala). In The Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities, edited by Marie Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla, and Michael E. Smith, pp. 181-201. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Marcus, Abraham
1989    The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity: Aleppo in the Eighteenth Century. Columbia University Press, New York.

Sampson, Robert J.
2012    Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    The Archaeological Study of Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Cities. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 29 (2): 137-154.

2011    Classic Maya Settlement Clusters as Urban Neighborhoods: A Comparative Perspective on Low-Density Urbanism. Journal de la Société des Américanistes 97 (1): 51-73.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland
2015    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Are Rural and Urban always very Different?

For most people, the terms "urban" and "rural" conjure up different kinds of places, different kinds of contexts. Urban is cities: dense populations, lots of activity, good access to markets and goods, not much green space, dirty streets. Rural is farms: open land, not many people, boring and tranquil, distant from the busy city. R. Crumb's sequence "A Short History of America" (above) exemplifies this standard view; in this case, a transition from rural beauty to urban ugliness.

But there are other ways of viewing rural and urban. Anthropologist Anthony Leeds, for example, suggested that the terms rural and urban are best used not as opposites, but rather as terms for different settings within a single society:

any society which has in it what we commonly call "towns" or "cities" is in all aspects an "urban" society, including its agricultural and extractive domains . . . the terms "urban" and "rural" come to stand to each other not as opposites and equivalents. Rather, the inclusive term describing the whole society is "urban" while the term "rural" refers only to a set of specialties of an urban society characterized by being inherently linked (under any technology known) to specific geographical spaces. (Leeds 1980:6-7)

Urban house
I like this viewpoint very much, partly because it helps make sense out of some of my archaeological findings at Aztec sites in the central Mexican state of Morelos. My first major excavation project after my Ph.D. focused on "rural" sites: small sites located far from the urban centers of the time. As I described briefly in this blog a couple of years ago, I was initially surprised to find what seemed to be "urban" traits at these sites: an active economy, many imported goods from all over Mesoamerica, complex social and ritual activities, and participation in the current widespread styles of the day. I had expected to find poor, isolated, downtrodden peasants. Instead I found wealthy, prosperous, and well-connected farmers.

So, "rural" Aztec sites had "urban" traits. I then went on to excavate at an urban Aztec site, Yautepec. My initial expectation there was that if the peasants were prosperous and successful, the urbanites would be fabulously wealthy and well-connected. But instead, the urban households were almost identical to the rural households in many respects:
  • The houses were virtually identical in materials and size
  • The basic kinds of domestic artifacts were virtually identical. Each area had its own styles of painted pottery, but everyone used obsidian blades, everyone had some fancy serving vessels, and the same kinds of domestic rituals took place in the urban and rural houses.
  • Rural and urban households all had ceramic vessels imported from several distant areas, they all had bronze tools and ornaments from the enemy Tarascan territory hundreds of miles away.
  • Rural and urban households all participated in extensive Aztec style networks in goods like ceramic vessels, ceramic figurines, and ritual implements.
  • And the kicker was that the basic population density in urban neighborhoods was very similar to the density within the ritual sites. There was quite a bit of open land within the city of Yautepec, and at least some of it was dedicated to agriculture.

From the standard view of rural and urban as opposites, these findings are simply bizarre. But from the view of Anthony Leeds, they make more sense. There is no inherent reason why urban residents could not practice agriculture, or why rural residents could not be wealthy and well-connected to the outside world.
Rural house

I am not saying that rural and urban contexts were the same in Aztec central Mexico. Yautepec had more elites running around, and there was a royal palace. Yautepec almost certainly had a tall pyramid dedicated to the patron god where victims were sacrificed periodically. There were more economic specialists in the city. But still, rural and urban life were just not all that different in this part of central Mexico.

Why was this? Well, I am out of space here and can't go into the details. But here are three quick reasons: (1) Aztec commoners in this area belonged to an organization called a calpolli that structured rural and urban life in similar ways. (2) The Aztec marketing system was extensive and efficient, bringing goods, ideas, and styles to rural as well as urban people. (3) These particular farmers (both urban and rural) had a big advantage over their cousins in other areas: they could grow cotton, which could be woven into money (literally).

I discuss Aztec rural and urban contexts in my book, Aztec City-State Capitals, and in an article with Christian Isendahl. And I provide a longer answer in my new book, At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic  Life (due out in February 2016).

So, the next time you see some nonsense about how rural and urban  are complete opposites (as in this photo; or rather, as in the text that labels it), think about the perspective of Anthony Leeds. Rural and urban are two different sectors of an urban society. Life in thees contexts may be very different, or it may be very similar.

Isendahl, Christian and Michael E. Smith
2013    Sustainable Agrarian Urbanism: The Low-Density Cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 31: 132-143.

Leeds, Anthony
1980    Towns and Villages in Society: Hierarchies of Order and Cause. In Cities in a Larger Context, edited by T. Collins, pp. 6-33. University of Georgia Press, Athens.

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

2016    At Home with the Aztecs: An Archaeologist Uncovers their Domestic Life. Taylor and Francis, New York.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Collapse or Longevity? Failure or Success?

When many people think of the ancient Maya, the term "collapse" often comes to mind. The Mayas were a group that were around for a while, but then collapsed. Archaeologists have spent a lot of time (and a lot of fieldwork and publications) trying to figure out how or why (or sometimes, whether) the Maya collapsed. If they collapsed, there must have been something wrong with Maya society, right? But the Maya cities lasted for some seven centuries before they were abandoned. Think about it. Seven hundred years. Were the Maya a failure (they collapsed), or were they a spectacular success (they lasted 700 years).

The idea that something must have been wrong with ancient cities or civilizations to make them collapse is a popular notion. And while it is a valid question to ask how or why a society like the Classic Maya collapsed, any such question should be paired with a consideration of just how long they managed to thrive. This collapse bias surfaced again today in a paper just posted in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:  "Human domination of the biosphere: Rapid discharge of the earth-space battery foretells the future of himanking" by Rohn R. Schramski, David K. Gattie and James H. Brown. This is a fine paper, about the global chemical energy supply on earth, and how it is being depleted at an incredibly fast rate right now. But they had to throw in a dig at ancient societies:

At local and regional scales, many multiple past civilizations (e.g., Greece, Rome, Angkor Wat, Teotihuacan) failed to adapt to changing social and ecological conditions and crashed catastrophically
Let's take a different look at those four ancient societies in comparison to contemporary nation-states:

So, which of these societies seem successful, and which ones seem too young to judge? I am dating the start of the European nation-states to 1648, the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which created the modern system of nation-states. If European nations manage to survive another half century or so, they will have matched the longevity of ancient Greece (I am using the Classical and Hellenistic periods here). And if they last another 350 years they will match those failed collapsers, the ancient Maya.

I am the last one to deny the significance of the Classic Maya collapse. I think the revisionists who claim that they didn't really collapse are just plain wrong (see some of my posts on Publishing Archaeology about this, such as this one about Jared Diamond and his critics). But if the Maya managed to thrive in the jungle for seven centuries, maybe that fact should outweigh their eventual collapse. They spent centuries doing many things right, and then they got trapped for a few crucial decades and collapsed.

I will just chalk up the collapse quote above to the fact that scholars outside of history and archaeology tend to be clueless about ancient societies. I think the authors of the new paper are correct when they claim that ancient collapses "are of questionable relevance to the current situation." Much as I'd like to believe that the sustainability (or lack thereof) of ancient societies might have lessons for us today, in fact the technological, energetic, and demographic situation today is radically different from that of ancient societies like the Maya. I do think that ancient cities and societies have lessons for us today, and that is a major theme of this blog. But the nature of overall societal sustainability may not be one of those lessons.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Can we decipher the "meaning" of ancient buildings?

Many people wonder about the "meaning" of ancient buildings and sites. Why was the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan built? Was it dedicated to a specific god? What meaning did it have to the people who built it, and those to witnessed ceremonies there for centuries afterword? I am a skeptic about talk of ancient "meanings" of this sort (see a previous post about high-level meanings.) I agree with my colleagues Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (1993) that this kind of religious symbolism and meaning cannot usually be deciphered without written texts that explain ancient myths and beliefs. There are no such texts from Teotihuacan, so it is unlikely that we can figure out just what this pyramid meant in ancient times. But we do have some clues. This position is explained in general terms by architectural theoretician Amos Rapoport, one of the top scholars on wide urban topics and one of my heroes.
Amos Rapoport

Rapoport developed a very useful scheme of how architecture communicates information. He identifies three levels of communication in the built environment: high-level meanings, middle-level meanings, and low-level meanings (see Rapoport 1988, 1990). High-level meanings communicate messages of symbolism, cosmology, and religion. In ancient societies, these high-level meanings are typically understood by only a small number of specialists and elites; many commoners know little of them. High-level meanings are culturally-specific; for example, Egyptian symbolism is completely different from Mayan symbolism. Today, scholars can reconstruct high-level meanings only if there are explicit written texts, or in some cases, very rich archaeological finds.

Middle-level meanings communicate messages of power, control, stability, wealth, and other positive values that rulers and elites want their subjects to receive. These meanings are more general and widespread than high-level meanings. Big buildings signal power, whether in ancient Mesopotamia or Classical Rome. Because these messages are valid across cultures (and not culturally specific), archaeologists can often interpret them from the mute remains of ancient architecture.
The Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan

Finally, low-level meanings concern the specific ways that people interact with buildings. They provide cues for how to behave appropriately, where to enter or exit, and other messages concerning movement, privacy, accessibility, and the like.

The Coyolxauhqui stone
The birth of Hutziliopochtli
I will illustrate Rapoport's scheme with the Aztec major temple, the "Templo Mayor" in their imperial capital Tenochtitlan (today the ruins are in the middle of Mexico City). It turns out that we have a good idea of the high-level meaning of this temple, mainly because of a key find of a stone monument, coupled with written evidence of Aztec creation myths. The monument, a stone slab some 10 feet in diameter, depicts the Aztec goddess Coyolxauhqui, who has been dismembered. It was excavated in front of the main front steps of the Templo Mayor. This monument illustrates the birth of the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, whose first action after birth was to kill his sister Coyolxauqui (yes, that sounds odd; if you want the whole story, check one of the many books on the Aztecs, such as my book, The Aztecs). We know this myth from written sources, and from some early Spanish pictures (see the illustration from Sahagun's Florentine Codex). In terms of religious symbolism (high-level meaning), the Aztec main temple was a model of Serpent Hill, where their god Huitzilopochtli was born and killed his sister Coholxauhqui. The human sacrifices that took place on top of the Templo Mayor were re-enactments of Huitzilopochtli's birth.

The middle-level meanings of the Aztec Templo Mayor were messages of power and wealth. No other Aztec city had a pyramid this big, with such sumptuous offerings. The Aztec emperors were powerful, and the city and empire were wealthy. Visitors to the city from foreign lands may not have known the myth of Huitzilopochtli's birth, but they could clearly understand the middle-level messages being sent deliberately by the Aztec emperors through their main temple. The low-level meaning of the Aztec Templo Mayor concerned access to the temple: who could approach it, who could climb the steps, and what were people expected to do when they approached the building.
Feathered serpent temple, Teotihuacan

Let's return to Teotihuacan to see if we can glean any information about high-level meanings from the main temples. We lack the myths of the Aztecs, in written and painted form. But one of the main temples, the "Feathered Serpent Temple", was covered elaborate carved images. One of the key images is the feathered serpent, a major deity at Teotihuacan. So in this case we can suggest that this temple was dedicated to a particular god. But we can't say much more than that about it's high-level meanings.

A recent discovery at the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan furnishes a clue about possible high-level meanings at this largest temple. Archaeologists have known for some time that another major god at Teotihuacan was the "Old fire god," whose stone sculptures are often excavated in houses. A very large example was excavated a couple of years ago in the Pyramid of the Sun; the photo here shows archaeologists Alejandro Sarabia and Nelly Zoe Nuñez working on this find in the lab. While we are a long way from being able to show that rituals at this temple reenacted key myths (as at the Aztec case), this find does provide a clue about the possible symbolism (high-level meaning) of the Pyramid of the Sun. So while we are not "clueless" about the ancient symbolism of this structure, we really know very little about its high-level meaning. But its middle-level meanings are much clearer, as anyone who has approached the building from the west can attest. We can understand the power and wealth and stability communicated by this building, even if we know almost nothing of the culture, language, or myths of Teotihuacan.

If you want to learn more about the three levels of communication, the place to start is with Rapoport's publications. I discuss them in several papers, and Flannery and Marcus discuss very similar ideas. There are several levels of meaning in the wide urban world, and some are more accessible to us today than others.


Flannery, Kent V. and Joyce Marcus
1993    Cognitive Archaeology. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 3: 260-270.

Rapoport, Amos
1988    Levels of Meaning in the Built Environment. In Cross-Cultural Perspectives in Non Verbal Communication, edited by Fernando Poyatos, pp. 317-336. C. J. Hogrefe, Toronto.

1990    The Meaning of the Built Environment: A Nonverbal Communication Approach. rev. ed. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Smith, Michael E.
2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6 (1): 3-47.

2011    Empirical Urban Theory for Archaeologists. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 18: 167-192.

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