The production of space and identity at classic-period Chunchucmil, Yucatan, Mexico

Aline Magnoni, Traci Ardren, Scott R. Hutson, Bruce Dahlin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

7 Scopus citations


While some researchers have questioned the degree of lowland Maya urbanism, this chapter demonstrates that Chunchucmil was a major urban center, with a population of 30,000-40,000 people and the highest settlement density of any site in the Maya lowlands. Located along a vigorous maritime trade route, it developed as a city in the late Early Classic (AD 400-650) with a complex infrastructure and market economy to accommodate its residents and the influx of rural and foreign visitors. This paper looks at the production and construction of urban spaces by Chunchucmil's residents and how lived experience helped to create a distinctive built environment. In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree or the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurement of its space and the events of its past…. As this wave from memories flows in, the city soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all of Zaira's past. The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corner of streets, the gratings of windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1974 [1972]:10) In this chapter we reconstruct the experience of urbanism in ancient Chunchucmil, a large Classic Maya urban trading center in northwest Yucatán (Figure 5.1). First, we define the material characteristics of urbanism at Chunchucmil and then we focus on the social experience of living in a distinctive Maya urban center. Just like the explorer Marco Polo in Italo Calvino's novel (1974 [1972]), Invisible Cities describes to the emperor Kublai Khan a myriad of fantastic cities with a multiplicity of forms and inhabitants - each unique and distinct in its own way and each being the result of the relations between peoples and their places; we also attempt to show that Chunchucmil is substantially different from other Classic-period cities in the Maya region.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMaking Ancient Cities
Subtitle of host publicationSpace and Place in Early Urban Societies
Number of pages36
ISBN (Electronic)9781107110274
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2014.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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