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Understanding ancient urbanism: site planning and unintended consequences of the Classic Maya city as a model

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MAYURB (Understanding ancient urbanism: site planning and unintended consequences of the Classic Maya city as a model)

Reporting period: 2020-01-01 to 2021-12-31

A common theme that runs through cross-disciplinary definitions of a city is movement, interaction and the organization of people in space, that is: functionality. In a city the relationships between people are influenced by nearness, transportation, opportunities and transactions. All these activities are sustained by the physical network provided by infrastructure. In pre-industrial cities, specifically in Mesoamerican Classic Maya (~250-900 CE), urban research has generally concentrated on the settlements’ civic-ceremonial core, where the emblematic constructions of the court’s life and religious buildings are located, in detriment of the comprehension of the whole city extension, its planning, internal management and sustainability. This is mainly due to the extreme variability of ancient Maya settlements in terms of configuration, which makes often impossible to identify the city edges (as features like defensive walls or ditches are very rare) and reconstruct its gradual development.
Building on this panorama, MAYURB has five objectives:
- To define the urban layout of Palenque to understand the city performance through its composition, zoning, functioning and accessibility at different scales of analysis, i.e. periphery and its connection with the city, neighborhoods and architectural compounds.
- To elucidate to what extent Palenque’s form is the result of landscape morphology, authority’s decisions, basic dwelling-needs satisfaction and negotiation, corporate groups participation, the effect of religion and worldview on buildings’ astronomical orientation, social differences and subsistence.
- To understand the unintended consequences of city life and growth at Palenque through time, by identifying infrastructural investment inside and outside the city, the location of neighborhoods and architectural compounds and their formal arrangement -if any- and their relationship with land suitability, resource access, labor force investment and waste management.
- To explore the participation of community in shaping the urban fabric and the role of place in forging relations or in contributing to social differentiation. In fact, the difference in the urban condition of the actors can result in a differentiation of appropriating and organizing space, resources, mobility and accessibility.
- To propose a novel methodological framework and contribute to a theoretical enhancement for the study of ancient urbanism, which rely on the strength of interdisciplinary collaboration and interchange between the disciplines that investigate the urban environment and its relation with its inhabitants.

The novelty of the action relies on its comprehensive understanding of the ancient city, with a perspective that delves into site planning theory, explores the conditioning imposed by location, tradition and practical needs while considering the city as a pattern of relations between human groups. The Classic Maya city of Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico, offers an outstanding case of analysis to address these topics, because of its nucleation and unique location, on a geographically constrained plateau crossed by permanent watercourses. The paramount role Palenque fulfilled as a capital city entangled in the political dynamics of the Classic period (250-900 CE), enhanced its capacity to concentrate people and activities, favoring the diversity of inhabitants, housing, events and relations, all of these conditions resulting in urban complexity. The exploration of the forces shaping the city are instrumental to understand the way people were cooperating to structure, live and take advantage of their urban environment.
During the two years of the Outgoing phase, Dr. Campiani was based at the Anthropological Research Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where she focused on the first three objectives, while implementing the completion of the fifth. With the help of the GIS platform that is at the core of MAYURB, and with the support of the Spatial Analysis Lab at IIA-UNAM, she investigated the urbanizing forces that could have participated in city genesis and growth, while exploring Palenque composition, zoning and functioning.

The work was carried out under the supervision of Dr. Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo (National Autonomous University of Mexico) and Dr. Luisa Migliorati (Sapienza University of Rome). Research and dissemination activities were carried out remotely because of Covid-19 pandemic.

The team spirit with fellows Postdoc at IIA-UNAM and other colleagues at several Institutions in Mexico, North America and Italy allowed Dr. Campiani to organize diverse events, as virtual symposium and seminars. These activities implemented the interaction with colleagues from different background, promoting novel interdisciplinary scientific collaborations.
MAYURB research objectives were addressed through virtual trainings, workshops, and directed reading and research seminar with her supervisors. The importance of the interdisciplinary collaborations she established has been demonstrated in an article published Open Access in 2021 about one of the most astonishing buildings of Maya architecture, the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. Thanks to a novel methodological framework involving digital archaeology, anthropology, architecture and mortuary archaeology, Dr. Campiani and colleagues reinterpreted this mausoleum and proposed the existence of hidden chambers, while relating the temple to its architectural and natural surroundings. Dr. Campiani has also collaborated in another Open Access article with other colleagues, using the same comprehensive approach, demonstrating its feasibility and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. A book on Palenque written with colleague Dr. Davide Domenici is currently being published. Other book chapters and an edited book on urbanism in ancient Mesoamerica are in preparation.
A usual separation between architecture and archaeology has prevented a deeper understanding of focal topics related to pre-Hispanic urbanism, such as city functioning and organization. Hence, in order to comprehend the Classic Maya society starting from its urban material remains, it is necessary to envisage an alternative strategy involving an interdisciplinary approach in the research methodology, this is why Dr. Campiani choose the support of a supervisor specializing in ancient topography. Spanning from urban to anthropological theory and ancient topography, MAYURB interdisciplinary approach will be complemented with the observation, analysis and excavation of architectural features associated with city use and functioning in 2022.
The main innovative aspects of MAYURB are to examine the Classic Maya city in relation with its inhabitants, considering the forces, differences and limitations involved in city planning and city use. The results MAYURB will cast might be of interest to urban planners, interested in city performance. This is also true for planning at a neighborhood scale, and to think at how belonging to a neighborhood would have implied certain rights and responsibilities while strengthening a sense of community. Nonetheless, it is relevant to observe how living in a highly stratified society would have changed the experience of this social niche and of the city itself.
3D view of Palenque as seen from the North. The proposed neighborhoods perimeter is highlighted