Analyzing Ancient Mayan Elites through their Strategies for Urban Planning

Review by Jesse Harasta
February 20, 2017

Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands

by Brett Houk
Published April 28, 2015

University Press of Florida

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Brett Houk’s text is a well-written, easily engaged work that unfortunately tries to do too much at once. From the first chapter, the author informs us that he will attempt to provide an analysis of elite meaning making through urban planning, an instructional text for students new to the field of Mayan studies and a guidebook for keen visitors traveling to Belizean sites. By comparing fourteen sites scattered across modern Belize – and doing so using an easily comparable style of both writing and mapping – Houk allows for new levels of comparative analysis in an understudied region.

 The book is roughly structured into three sections. After the introduction come several chapters dedicated to the new student, including discussions of what are the primary architectural components of Mayan cities, how archaeologists study and map these sites and a broad outline of Mayan cultural history and Classical period political history. The second section is a summary of a number of Eastern Lowlands sites, each given a chapter and including maps and descriptions. The final chapters interpret the previous data using Michael Smith’s 2007 theory of deriving meaning through the analysis of ordinal scales of comparison, bringing an analytical lens to the previous information. Houk attempts to put Smith’s theories into practice, using them both within single sites and for comparison between sites.

 While recognizing the problems with the traditional periodization of Mayan history, Houk wisely uses it to ground his work in others that students, scholars and tourists might encounter. Unlike some texts, this work does a good job of discussing the Preclassic and Postclassic periods and draws readers to both the continuities and ruptures between periods. In particular his concise chapter on the Preclassic would be a boon to instructors trying to quickly give students an understanding of the broad swatch of Mayan history and the role of the Preclassic.

 Readers might have some problem with the title’s “Eastern Lowlands” as the book would be better titled “Ancient Mayan Cities of Modern Belize” as it includes a chapter on Caracol, which stands out as an exception to much of what Houk argues with his other sites. In general, Houk builds upon his and Gregory Zaro’s earlier arguments in the article “Cities at the Edge of History,” (presented at the 2012 meetings of the Society for American Archaeology) where he made a case for the importance of Belizean settlements with a paucity of written records. Houk does an admirable job in the final chapters of showing how urban planning and the archaeological analysis of the making of meaning through space can open up new vistas in the study of areas of the Mayan world where, for whatever reason, epigraphy can provide few insights.

 Near the beginning of the third chapter, Houk notes that in this work “more text is devoted to talking about rocks than about dirt” (pg 47) and this is an apt observation. Mayan agriculture is given little space, and the same goes for the farmers who cultivated the dirt. Instead, Houk focuses upon “rocks”, namely the monumental architecture at the epicenters of the sites he examines. At the heart of the work is the following assumption: “Because Maya rulers were so intimately tied to their cities, the developmental history of a Maya city is a proxy for the political and economic success of its rulers” (pg 20). Hence, the work spends most of its time on the analysis of monumental architecture, aiming to use it in a replacement for the epigraphy and symbolic analysis that has proven so fruitful for understanding the lives of Mayan elites in other regions.

 While this focus upon monumental architecture and elite lives is a perfectly legitimate and important topic for the book’s intended scholarly audience, it may do a disservice for the book’s other audiences: Belizean tourists and students. Tourists of course have a great interest in the monumental cores of Mayan ruins and will probably find nothing lacking in the text, one might hope that a scholarly guide to the ruins might help them challenge their assumptions and understand the lives of agriculturalists and artisans. An instructor intending to use this text in a low-level classroom will need to carefully choose supplementary works to ensure that students emerge with a well-rounded perspective on ancient Mayan lives.

 In the end, Houk recognizes that while Belize has been the site of significant archaeological work, the nation lacks easily accessible summaries of this information for scholars, students or tourists. He attempts to address this gap by producing a book that addresses all three audiences and while he is always conscious of who he is writing for and to, the book suffers in the process. He would have done better in the end to produce a guide for students and serious-minded visitors and a text dedicated to his application of Smith’s theories, rather than burying them at the end of the text. The former would be certainly appreciated by proponents of Belizean heritage tourism and historical instruction while the latter would be useful for the Mayan scholarly world which at times overlooks Belize beyond Caracol and would appreciate the thoughtful analysis of how Mayan elites utilized urban planning to make meaning.

Houk, Brett A. and Gregory Zaro.  “The Cities on the Edge of History”. (Paper presented at the 77th Annual Meeting of the Society  for American Archaeology, April 18-22, 2012. Memphis, Tennessee)

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

 Jesse Harasta is an Assistant Professor in the programs of Social Science and International Studies at Cazenovia College in Upstate New York. His research interests include heritage languages, the material culture of language and landscape studies.