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Mesoamerican Plazas

Arenas of Community and Power

Edited by Kenichiro Tsukamoto and Takeshi Inomata

Publication Year: 2014

Until now, archaeological and historical studies of Mesoamerican plazas have been scarce compared to studies of the surrounding monumental architecture such as pyramidal temples and palaces. Many scholars have assumed that ancient Mesoamericans invested their labor, wealth, and symbolic value in pyramids and other prominent buildings, viewing plazas as by-products of these buildings. Even when researchers have recognized the potential significance of plazas, they have thought that plazas as vacant spaces could offer few clues about their cultural and political roles. Mesoamerican Plazas challenges both of these assumptions.
The primary question that has motivated the contributors is how Mesoamerican plazas became arenas for the creation and negotiation of social relations and values in a community. The thirteen contributions stress the significance of interplay between power relations and embodied practices set in specific historical and material settings, as outlined by practice theory and performance theory. This approach allows the contributors to explore broader anthropological issues, such as the negotiation of power relations, community making, and the constitution of political authorities.
Overall, the contributions establish that physical interactions among people in communal events were not the outcomes of political machinations held behind the scenes, but were the actual political processes through which people created, negotiated, and subverted social realities. If so, spacious plazas that were arguably designed for interactions among a large number of individuals must have also provided critical arenas for the constitution and transformation of society.

Published by: University of Arizona Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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p. v

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Introduction. Gathering in an Open Space: Introduction to Mesoamerican Plazas / Takeshi Inomata and Kenichiro Tsukamoto

Takeshi Inomata and Kenichiro Tsukamoto

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pp. 3-16

Plazas are focal points of Mesoamerican public life. Throughout Mesoamerican history, plazas have been essential components of the site layouts of cities, towns, and even small villages. The integration of formal plazas into public spaces dates back to the Early Formative period (ca. 1650 BC) in Mesoamerica (Clark 2004), and plaza-centered designs continue today in many Latin American cities (Low 2000; Richardson 2003; Wagner et al. 2013)...

Part I. Plaza Constructions and Public Events

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1. Plaza Builders of the Preclassic Maya Lowlands: The Construction of a Public Space and a Community at Ceibal, Guatemala

Takeshi Inomata

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pp. 19-33

The spacious plaza was the focus of communal life at virtually all Maya settlements during the Classic and Postclassic periods. The results of recent investigations at the Preclassic center of Ceibal (also spelled Seibal) have shown that a prototype of this form of social interaction and spatial practice emerged at the very beginning of a sedentary community during the Middle Preclassic period. The construction of a public space and the celebration of...

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2. Social Identities, Power Relations, and Urban Transformations: Politics of Plaza Construction at Teotihuacan

Tatsuya Murakami

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pp. 34-49

The built environment, including monumental buildings, public spaces, and urban forms, is an important locus where social identities and power relations are represented and enhanced, and is actively manipulated by central authorities and other sociopolitical and economic forces (e.g., DeMarrais et al. 1996; Low 2000; Rabinow 1989). However, the built environment is not a static representation of preexisting ideas (Hirsch 1995), but the meanings inscribed...

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3. Multiple Identities on the Plazas: The Classic Maya Center of El Palmar, Mexico

Kenichiro Tsukamoto

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pp. 50-68

In Classic Maya society (ad 250–900), many centers had a wide variety of plazas in and around their civic core. A representative case in this regard is the Classic Maya center of El Palmar, where plazas of different sizes and means of access were constructed at both the civic-ceremonial core or the Main Group and at its outlying groups. How did these many plazas play roles in constituting social relations, more specifically, identities, in the wake of power negotiations...

Part II. Plazas in Broader Spatial Contexts

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4. Early Olmec Open Spaces at San Lorenzo, Veracruz

Ann Cyphers and Timothy Murtha

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pp. 71-89

Plazas are important elements of the prehispanic built environment in Mesoamerica. The human interaction that takes place in plazas varies from informal public gatherings to specialized activities carried out in carefully designed spaces (Low 2000). They are considered “recognizable elements in the built environment” (Moore 1996a:789, emphasis added). Understanding the myriad of interpersonal relations that may be played out within plazas is contingent...

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5. Empty Space, Active Place: The Sociopolitical Role of Plazas in the Mixteca Alta

Marijke Stoll

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pp. 90-107

There is no question that plazas were important for many prehispanic Mesoamerican communities. Serving multiple purposes, plazas were made most meaningful through human interaction and social bonding where community members could gather to participate in and witness ceremonial events. Public architecture such as plazas surely affected the spatial arena in which social agents interacted and related to each other...

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6. The Social Construction of Public Spaces at Palenque and Chinikihá, Mexico

Rodrigo Liendo Stuardo, Javier López Mejía, and Arianna Campiani

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pp. 108-120

In this chapter, we reflect on the mechanisms through which political activity becomes incorporated into communal social and cultural life by the creation of spaces for permanent collective action. Our impression is that routine aspects of communitarian life are usually framed by cyclical events capable of attracting a sizable number of individuals leading to a collective experience with political connotations. Hence, our goal is to highlight the potential of the...

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7. Interpreting Plaza Spaces Using Soil Chemistry: The View from Honduras

Kara A. Rothenberg

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pp. 121-129

Archaeological research is often based on material remains, such as architecture, lithics, and pottery. However, much of ancient material culture was made from biodegradable material and has thus not survived in the archaeological record (Cavanagh et al. 1988). This is especially true in humid tropic and subtropic areas of Mesoamerica. Additionally, analysis of the use of space can be difficult at archaeological sites that were abandoned gradually...

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8. Plazas in Comparative Perspective in South-Central Veracruz from the Classic to the Postclassic Period (AD 300–1350)

Alanna Ossa

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pp. 130-146

Plazas are recognized as important public spaces in Mesoamerica from the Formative period to the present day (Clark 2004; Low 2000). Despite this recognition, they have not often been directly analyzed archaeologically for political and social information. For ancient Veracruz, the studies of plazas have typically been embedded within the study of public space, monumental...

Part III. Plazas and Images

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9. Early Transformations of Monte Albán’s Main Plaza and Their Political Implications, 500 BC–AD 200

Javier Urcid and Arthur Joyce

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pp. 149-167

In the field of Mesoamerican studies, the archaeological investigation of political institutions and processes based on the analysis of material culture has been approached from a number of perspectives (Inomata and Tsukamoto, this volume). These include, but are not limited to, the form of architectural units and their distributional patterns (Hirth 1995), performativity (Inomata 2006a), textuality (Sugiyama 1993), and the cultural biographical approach...

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10. Plazas and the Patios of the Feathered Serpent

William M. Ringle

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pp. 168-192

Rites of investiture are critical opportunities for demonstrating, or at least simulating, the orderly and legitimate transfer of power. Sanctioned by precedent and often by a state religion, and incorporating symbols and ritual objects of the highest importance, they are moments of peak political drama for which a substantial audience is required. Although such rituals often have a hidden, esoteric component, as classic rites of passage it is almost inconceivable...

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11. Plaza, Atrium, and Maya Social Memory in Sixteenth-Century Itzmal

Amara Solari

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pp. 193-210

In August 1573 two Franciscan friars, Gregorio de Fuente Ovejuna and Hernando Sopuerta slowly made their way across the eastern expanse of the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite nearly four decades of colonization effort, this region of the province remained marginally Christianized, in Spanish eyes a wholly uncivilized corner of their expanding territory in New Spain. Beyond sustaining traditional Maya settlement patterns, in this region the indigenous population...

Part IV. Commentary

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12. Ancient Plazas: Spaces of Inquiry in Mesoamerica and Beyond

Jerry D. Moore

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pp. 213-224

The city where I live—Long Beach, California—was incorporated in the late nineteenth century, when an orthogonal grid was surveyed and superimposed on the beachside bluffs and low hills, the floodplains and wetlands of this portion of southern California. This region’s prehistory dates to before circa 9000 bp, and at contact the area was occupied by the Garbrileño-Tongva who had established dozens of villages across the coastal plain. Founded in the...


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pp. 225-256


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pp. 257-260


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pp. 261-266

E-ISBN-13: 9780816598793
E-ISBN-10: 0816598797
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816530588
Print-ISBN-10: 0816530580

Page Count: 272
Illustrations: 10 photos, 51 illustrations, 7 tables
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 874965785
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Mesoamerican Plazas

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Subject Headings

  • Maya architecture -- Mexico.
  • Mexico -- Antiquities.
  • Plazas -- Central America.
  • Central America -- Antiquities.
  • Indian architecture -- Central America.
  • Plazas -- Mexico.
  • Indian architecture -- Mexico.
  • Maya architecture -- Central America.
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