Mike Smith has an interesting post about the scale of monumental architecture, focusing on the fact that the Templo Mayor in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, one of the best-known archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, would fit comfortably as one of several similarly sized elements on the enormous platform at the heart of Tzintzuntzan, the capital of the Tarascan empire, the main rival of the Aztecs. Mike suggests that this may reflect the relative strength of the two empires, and notes that in their only major direct battle the Tarascans won. As he also notes, however, it’s not necessarily clear that comparisons of scale in this sort of architecture can be easily made between different cultural traditions, although they do probably work within a single tradition.
I have a couple of thoughts about this. For one thing, the scale of the platform at Tzintzuntzan is somewhat surprising to me, and it reinforces a sense that I have been getting from several lines of evidence, namely that West Mexico was a much more important area of Mesoamerica politically and culturally than is often evident in discussions of Mesoamerican archaeology, which tend to be dominated by the better-documented and more intensively studied areas such as Central Mexico, Oaxaca, and the Maya region. This is particularly important from my perspective because all of the evidence regarding contact between Mesoamerica and the Southwest seems to point to West Mexico as the main source of Mesoamerican influence further north, whether it served merely as a conduit for ideas and items originating further south and east or as a source of ideas and objects itself. Evidence for its importance within rather than just outside of Mesoamerica tends to point to the latter option. Another line of evidence, which I will discuss in more detail at some point later, is some recent research arguing that maize was initially domesticated in West Mexico, which implies that the whole Mesoamerican cultural system may have originated there as well.
Another way the post is interesting, however, is in the way it points out the importance of scale in making comparisons among different cultural systems. In this respect it reminds me of an important paper by Mike’s colleague Ben Nelson comparing Chaco Canyon to La Quemada, a slightly earlier center that is one of the northernmost examples of the full-blown Mesoamerican culture pattern (though still well to the south of the Southwest). Nelson’s objective in the paper is to take apart the often-discussed but poorly defined notion of “complexity” and to look at the various ways in which a society might be considered “complex” separately. He focuses particularly on hierarchy and scale, and concludes that La Quemada was more hierarchical than Chaco but operated at a much smaller scale. This is a rather odd conclusion, since it leaves open the question of how the Chacoan system could possibly have operated at such a large scale if it didn’t have Mesoamerican levels of political hierarchy, and I’m not totally convinced by his arguments for the non-hierarchical nature of Chaco. Nevertheless, it’s an important paper, not just in its innovative approach to these perennial issues but in its very helpful use of clear and easily understandable maps to show Chaco, La Quemada, and the difference in scale between them.
One issue, however, is that it’s not totally clear if Chaco and La Quemada as Nelson defines them are actually units at an equivalent scale. He talks about the Chaco system as a whole, including the outliers, which is fair enough, but he restricts his discussion of La Quemada to just the main site and a handful of smaller sites closely surrounding it which he calls “outliers.” Since Nelson is probably the foremost expert on La Quemada out there these days, I’m willing to believe that are not any sites further out that show connections to it, but only if he explicitly makes a case for that, which in this paper he does not. Looking at his (quite striking) map comparing the extent of the road systems of Chaco and La Quemada, it occurred to me that they would look a lot more comparable in spatial scale if the Chaco map were limited to the area within the canyon rather than the entire extent of the system. It’s hard to say what the appropriate unit of comparison is for cross-cultural studies like this, of course, but that just brings us back to the issue of whether they are truly and meaningfully comparable at all.
Turning back to the Templo Mayor, after reading Mike’s post I became curious about the absolute scale of it. According to Wikipedia it is 100 by 80 meters at its base. That makes it approximately the same size as Pueblo Bonito, which is interesting. Of course, the Templo Mayor was part of a larger complex of buildings that covered a considerably larger area (which again raises the question of whether comparing it alone to the Tzintzuntzan platform is meaningful), but then so was Pueblo Bonito. It would be very interesting to see the absolute sizes of various Southwestern and Mesoamerican communities and their monumental centers plotted side by side.
Nelson, B. (1995). Complexity, Hierarchy, and Scale: A Controlled Comparison between Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and la Quemada, Zacatecas American Antiquity, 60 (4) DOI: 10.2307/282045