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From the Streets: Public and Private Space in an Early Maya City

Abstract

Modern life in cities involves perpetual tensions between private and public spaces evoking the question whether such tensions existed when cities first emerged. This paper investigates such tensions at the lowland Maya site of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ in Petén, Guatemala. The city developed along with other such settlements in the Maya region, sometime between 2800 and 2500 years ago. This anomalous site has the earliest known rectangular urban grid in the Americas. Such grids have not been found in other preColumbian Maya settlements. Gridded urban space requires the invention of public space, streets, and the grid. Even with these three characteristics present, they require social mechanisms (city planning and the means to implement the plan) capable of “rationalizing” city space. They also necessitate the power to regulate public spaces if the grid is to exist over long periods of time. The gridded streets of Nixtun-Ch’ich’ seem to be the most public of all spaces at the site. Nevertheless, a longue durée examination of the site reveals that private space gradually extended into and decreased the size of public space. These transformations tend to suggest a shift from a more cooperative to a more competitive social environment, which may correlate with elaborated social differentiation and segmentation.

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Acknowledgments

Proyecto Itza was supported by the National Science Foundation (BCS-1734036), The Wenner-Gren Foundation (no. 9284), Queens College, and the Research Foundation of the City University of New York under permits extended by the Instituto de Antropología e Historia de Guatemala. I thank the Vergara family and the Centro Universitario del Petén for their assistance. I also appreciate the work of Evelyn Chan, Deybi Sandoval, Prudence Rice, Justin Bracken, Darling Burgos, Miguel Cano, Wilfido Chan, Adolfo Coloch, Melissa Darroch, Jemima Georges, Sheily Hernández, Elsa López, Marie Meranda, Victoria Reyes, Samuel Rose, Miriam Salas, and Yessica Tumax. I give special thanks to the many reviewers who helped improve this article.

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Pugh, T.W. From the Streets: Public and Private Space in an Early Maya City. J Archaeol Method Theory 26, 967–997 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-018-9404-0

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Keywords

  • Public space
  • Privatization
  • Urbanization
  • Maya
  • City planning
  • Collaborative states