Urbanism in the Southwest!


“Montezuma’s Castle” and “Cliff Palace” began as cowboy enthusiasms, fanciful names for dramatic ruins.  Today those names are merely tourist bait.  The Park Service greets you with denials and corrections: it’s NOT a castle, it’s NOT a palace.  Ignorance excuses the excesses of early archaeology.   We know better now.   Ruins are more fitly named for a nearby creek or peak or, better still, a Native name.   In fact, most sites today are simply numbered: LA 49 or 5MT5.

Similarly, “city” is seldom used in our region’s archaeology, save with irony.   “City” does not fit our version of the ancient Southwest.   “La Ciudad,” a site under Phoenix, was named early, safely exoticized in Spanish.   I am not aware of other major sites (successfully) called “city” in the Southwest.   “Abandoned cities of the plains” and “Ancient City of the Sun” might be found on the web and in glossy magazines, but never in proper archaeological reports.

That’s too bad: the Southwest, I will argue, was urban.   That claim has been made before, three times: for Paquimé (aka Casas Grandes), for “budding urban settlements in the northern San Juan,” and for Chaco Canyon.   And three times, the claim has been denied: we’ll have no cities here.   I examine each of those three cases in turn, and add a fourth (Phoenix), below; but first a brief discussion of what “city” means, and why Southwestern archaeology eschews the term.

It is my impression that many (most?) Southwestern archaeologists share a vision of “city” that harks back to classic definitions of Weber, Wirth, and Sanders: densely packed, large, hustling, bustling and – importantly – integral to states.   (We don’t want states in the Southwest; see “Chaco as Altepetl“.)   The conventional definition of “city”– basically demographic: total population and density — remains influential in recent urban studies; for example, The Ancient City lists seven criteria, mostly familiar (Marcus and Sabloff 2008:12-13), and Urbanism in the Preindustrial World (Storey 2006) offers a telling rule-of-thumb: “I have always thought that a true urban center needed to have a population density of at least 1,000 persons per sq km.   However, I now think that the density need not be that high.   A true city … can have a population density even in the low hundreds of persons per square kilometer, as long as the overall site is in the tens of square kilometers” (Storey 2006:22-23).   We don’t see those densities and areas at Southwestern sites!    It’s true: we have no Londons, no Tenochtitlans, no Romes.

But not all roads lead to Rome.   It has become abundantly clear that ancient cities were not circumscribed by Western – focused models of urbanism, and their attendant criteria of density and size.   Indeed, as Michael Smith notes, using the standard criteria for urbanism there were only two cities in ancient North America: Teotihuacan and Tenochtitlan.   Joyce Marcus nailed the problem: “trying to define the city so as to satisfy Western social scientists, not Mesoamerican Indians” (cited in Hirth 2003:59).

North American urban centers (with those two notable exceptions) did not look like Rome.   Nor did many cities on other continents and in other eras.   What to do with thousands of urban centers disenfranchised by the old Wirth/Sanders criteria?   A new definition of “city” appeared in recent years, which avoids density/area criteria and focuses instead on relations or functions between center and hinterland.   Bruce Trigger (1972, 2003) was perhaps the first archaeologist to formally state this new definition of “city”: “The key defining feature of an urban center is that it performs specialized functions in relation to a broader hinterland.”   What “specialized  functions”?   More on this below – but for now please note that Trigger’s version of urbanism has been adopted and developed by many archaeologists currently researching cities, such as George Cowgill (2004), Michael Smith (2005, 2008) and others.

Notably, Mesoamerican urban centers were not necessarily large in size nor densely populated.   Michael Smith (2005; see also his Aztec City-State Capitals, 2008) offers the most useful information:  most Aztec cities ranged in size from 10 ha to 90 ha.   For the metrically challenged (like me), 10 ha is a football field, squared; 90 ha is slightly less than a square kilometer.   The populations of these urban centers was as small as 600 to a median value of about 10,000 (and of course a few much larger).   These centers fell far short of 1000 people/ha or even “several hundred” people/ha; Smith notes two density classes: low from 10 to 38 persons/ha, and a higher density class of 44 to 72 persons/ha (and a third density particular to Teotihuacan: 157/ha).   Look at the lower (but not the lowest!) end of those ranges: those are Southwestern numbers!

It is worth noting, too, that “city” has (perhaps) been de-coupled from “state.”   While most cities indeed were firmly embedded in states (and, according to Norm Yoffee, critical to their rise), counter-examples have been offered of ancient cities in putatively non-state societies.   I offer this comment to coat the bitter pill of urbanism in the Southwest.   Cities may go down easier absent the taint of states.

But I see no reason to shy from Southwestern states (see “Chaco as Altepetl“), with Southwestern cities.    Three times we’ve seen claims for Southwestern cities rise and fall, and a fourth is added here: Paquimé, northern San Juan, Chaco, and Phoenix.

Paquimé: Charles Di Peso boldly proclaimed Paquimé a city in his monumental 1974 report.   He spoke of “urban renewal” (a phrase then current in American cities); thereafter “the city of Paquimé prospered and reached the zenith of its development…a massive, multistoried, high-rise apartment house covering some 36 hectares” (Di Peso 1974:313) with population of almost 5,000 people.  By most definitions, 5,000 people on 36 ha qualify easily as a city.   (That’s a density of 138/ha: pushing Teo numbers!).   And beyond demographic criteria, Di Peso’s Paquimé performed specialized functions in relation to a broader hinterland: it was a trading center and a political capital.   Recent work has not been kind to Di Peso’s Paquimé.  Indeed, his name for the site has been largely abandoned, replaced by Casas Grandes.  Paquimé’s/Casas Grandes’ region has been dramatically reduced (see “Regional Scales“).   Michael Whalen and colleagues (2010) halved the great city, cutting it down to size (see “Scalar Thresholds“).  Paquimé’s diminishment evokes a palpable sense of relief among conventional Southwesternists – even a slightly righteous satisfaction – keeping the Southwest safe for towns and villages.   (Why?)   In my book, however, Di Peso was more right than wrong — Paquimé was indeed a great and possibly powerful city, the capital of a secondary state of considerable size.   Perhaps we see what we want to see: I published a defense of Di Peso’s large Paquime based on the available data (Lekson 1999); Whalen and his colleagues (2010) looking at the very same data cut the site in half.

San Juan:  Art Rohn raised a few eyebrows in 1981 when he presented a paper on “Budding Urban Centers in the Northern San Juan.”  Rohn concluded: “by the thirteenth century some Pueblo settlements in the Northern San Juan had reached the threshold of true urban size” (Rohn 1983:178).  He was referring to a dozen very large settlements dotting the fields and plains west of Cortez, Colorado.  These sites were literally overshadowed by the famous cliff-dwellings of nearby Mesa Verde; but the large sites on the plains of Cortez were much larger than any sites on the National Park, and contained  far more people in ancient times than did their contemporaries Mesa Verde.  The largest was Yellow Jacket for which Rohn estimated a population of 1,500, which he later upped to 2,700 (Ferguson and Rohn 1986).  Subsequent work by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center places that figure at 850 to 1,360 (Kuckelman 2003).   Rohn presciently recognized a threshold at about 2,000 to 2,500 “as a demarcation between a small urban settlement or pueblo and a large one or city” (p.177 and elsewhere).  He saw the Budding Urban Centers banging up against that threshold and never crossing it.  Rohn was working with a Wirth/Sanders-style list of criteria (craft specialization, markets, waste removal, transportation, political complexity) which he did not see at Yellow Jacket or other Cortez sites.   I agree with Rohn: Yellow Jacket never made the leap to complexity (see “Scalar Thresholds“) and — more importantly! — it never performed specialized functions in relation to a broader hinterland required for urbanism.  The site was briefly interpreted as a “Four Corners Anasazi Ceremonial Center” (Lange and others 1986) based on its very large number of “kivas” (almost 200!).  But “kivas” were a canard, and “ceremonial center” a mistake typical of its times.  Quantities of kivas did not indicate phenomenal religiosity.  “Kivas” were, instead, indicative of homes and households.  Rohn (and many others) used the number of “kivas” as a direct index of population, as indeed they were: “kivas” were in fact pit-houses, one per family.  Yellow Jacket was not a regional ceremonial center, but instead a very large and important settlement in the hinterlands first of 11th century Chaco Canyon, and later of 12th-13th century Aztec Ruins – marked, respectively, by the presence at Yellow Jacket of an 11th century Chacoan Great House and a 12th century Aztec Bi-walled Great Tower.

Chaco Canyon:  Gordon Vivian recognized a half-century ago that Chaco Canyon was a complicated settlement with multiple building types, perhaps indicating multiple ethnicities – and not a step on the path to Pueblo lifestyles (Vivian and Matthews 1964).   I built upon that foundation years later, interpreting the architectural variation not as ethnic diversity (although that was surely present) but rather as clear archaeological evidence of a class-structured society.   In it’s most recent iteration, my interpretation sees Chaco as Mesoamerican in form, if not in fact, paralleling or mimicking the central cluster of an altepetl polity.   Does that make Chaco urban?  I thought so, even before I was introduced to altepetl, most notably, I suppose, in a chapter on “Architecture” in The Archaeology of Chaco Canyon (2006, SAR Press) – the chapter was co-authored with Thomas Windes and Peter McKenna, neither of whom are culpable for my urban pretentions.  Chaco’s population was probably no greater than 2,700, and quite possible less.  Its population densities would at or below the lower figures for Aztec cities.  Chaco’s claim is based largely on its relationship to its hinterlands, and the specialized functions it performed for those hinterlands.  Chaco was the political capital of a polity (large in area if not in population), and also an economic and – yes! – ceremonial center.   My original proposals for an  urban Chaco were critiqued by Michael Smith (2008) in an SAA poster titled “Urbanization in the Southwest?”  Accepting the “pilgrimage center” interpretation then (and now) dominant in Southwestern thinking, Smith found Chaco wanting: “accommodations for pilgrims and their activities is not an urban function” and “a settlement does not have to be a city to be an important place.”  Smith did not have all the data.   With the addition of palaces, political  complexity, monumental architecture, regional economies, and a historical context favoring polity over piety, Smith now concurs that Chaco was probably urban, under the functional or relational definition of city (Michael Smith, personal communication, Jan. 12, 2011 – a gentleman and a scholar!).

PhoenixI think Chaco is a slam-dunk (small) city, built along Mesoamerican lines but local in its development.   Of more interest, perhaps, is Smith’s evaluation of Hohokam in the same SAA poster.   He looks at Classic Period towns, and determines that they were indeed urban based on two basic criteria: “political urban functions are inferred from platform mounds,” and “Hohokam…hinterlands correspond to either the canal system or ‘community’ (Smith 2008).   This is radical: “city” and “urban” are almost never used in Hohokam archaeology.   Indeed, two of the more important compendia on Hohokam settlement were titled The Hohokam Village (Doyel 1987) and the Hohokam Village, Revisited (Doyel, Fish and Fish 2000).   It takes a village.  Hohokam archaeology sees Phoenix as a score or more of independent peer villages, united only through the (important) requirements of  administration of canals which ran through several settlements.  The scales of  political control were calculated through partitioning by Thiessen polygons (Fish 1996).   Each platform mound village controlled only the territory half-way to the next nearest platform mound; thus, the scale was small, and safely non-urban.

Community size…for central sites witih platform mounds along the Salt River. From Suzanne Fish (1996) “Dynamics of Scale in the Souhtern Deserts”

Similarly, suggestions for market places forming a truly regional economy are made almost apologetically; markets smack of cities and states (Abbott, Smith and Gallaga 2007).   Perhaps not surprisingly, I disagree with Hohokam villages and I agree with Smith: Phoenix (and its environs) offers us a remarkable, non-Western city or, at least, urbanism in novel, non-Western ways.   Rather than each platform mound site constituting a separate quasi-political, economic unit, Phoenix might be seen as a vast segmented settlement, of the type Roland Fletcher (2009) calls “low density, agrarian-based urbanism.”  Fletcher’s cases, which confound the “standard Western compact pre-industrial model of urbanism” (p. 12), come mainly from tropical forest environments: Maya, southeast Asia, Madagascar.   Those cities extend up to 1000 sq km, or more, encompassing high proportions of agricultural lands (and consequently relatively low densities of population).  But key environmental parameters which fostered low density urbanism in tropical settings were paralleled by the Phoenix basin’s transformation from stinking desert to garden spot, via Hohokam’s remarkable canal systems.  As far as the crops knew, the valley of the sun had become a rain forest.   One very conspicuous difference, of course, is the absence of a monumental center: nothing in Phoenix provides an  obvious counterpart to Tikal’s pyramids and palaces, or to Angkor Wat’s temple complex.  We can assume that nothing comparably colossal will emerge from beneath Phoenix to surprise us; what we see is probably what we get.  But recall: cities without the state.  Perhaps a monumental core is not necessary.  Does Phoenix otherwise fit Fletcher’s model?  And if so, what does that say about the model, and about Phoenix?  Application of Fletcher’s “low-density, agrarian-based” model to Phoenix might transform Hohokam’s core from a valley of villages to a large, unconventional, low density proto-city.

Urbanism in the Southwest: so, what’s the score?  One hit (Chaco), one miss (Yellow Jacket), one outcome-under-review (Paquimé), and perhaps one whole-new-ballgame (Phoenix).  It seems clear – to me at least – that “city” belongs in the Southwestern archaeology’s lexicon, and that urbanism should become a useful focus for future Southwestern research.

Chapter Fragment: 3.B. Urbanism UNDER CONSTRUCTION

Video: Urbanism?

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3 Responses to Urbanism in the Southwest!

  1. teofilo says:

    There’s also Buried City in the Texas Panhandle.

  2. Steve Lekson says:

    And there’s a famous “Lost City” in Nevada, and a less well-known “Lost City of the Lukachukai Mountains” in New Mexico (or maybe Arizona?). Lost Cities are coming out of the woodwork! But thank you for the heads-up on the Lost Cityof the Cabeza Prieta!

  3. Dave in NM says:

    “Save with irony”, a large desert campsite in the Cabeza Prieta range west of Ajo, Arizona has always been referred to as “Lost City” by archeologists, including Gila Pueblo archeologist Frank Midvale, Harold Gladwin, Byron Cummings, Ed Spicer, Emil Haury, Paul Ezell, Bernard Fontana, others. The site is AZ Y:16:1. Obviously, the name “City” is fanciful, but it stuck long ago, and the site is still called “Lost City” in all contemporary reports on the Papagueria district.

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