More things of heaven on earth: Reading ancient landscapes of the Americas

Susan Swiat Yorke
Anthropology Program, Rutgers
August, 2006


This study moves forward the investigation of the ways in which space is constructed in actuality, examining stories of place made manifest in the experience of the architectural composition as revealed by means of symbolic analysis and cross-cultural comparison. For the ancient inhabitants of both North and Middle America, the natural world was structured according to principles of cosmology; thus, drawing upon two examples representative of the many available, I chose as my subjects the Maya of Mesoamerica and the Chaco Anasazi of the American Southwest. Here mountains, springs, rivers, caves, and other natural features were linked to ancient happenings and supernatural forces, and recreated within the scope of the built environment.

This investigation explores the links between landscape, ancestry, and the supernatural. Issues including the endurance of myth, the replication of maps of the cosmos, the separation of zones, the repetition of messages via mirror images, and the equivalence of natural and artificial categories are explored. Patterns emerge as I pursue the extension of belief systems through time and space.

Chapters I-V comprise examinations of concepts of space, place, landscape, built environment, and site plan, and demonstrate the relationships between the above and aspects of worldview. One specific created element--the Maya ballcourt---is the subject of Chapter VI, in which I pursue the symbolic associations of this feature and its ties to creation myth as recounted in the tale known to us as the Popol Vuh . Chapter VII contains a discussion of characteristics of Maya kingship, political organization, and social stratification. The center of Copan is explored in Chapter VIII, as built and unbuilt landscapes from various time periods illustrate the pairing of opposing concepts, references to the "three-stone-place," the hearth of creation, and the notion of the cyclic continuum. Chapter IX's focus is the spatial organization of the site of Tikal, while Chapter X moves the analysis east to the site of La Milpa. Chapter XI proceeds northward, to the world of the Chaco Anasazi, where created and natural landscapes similarly recall legendary happenings while illuminating aspects of social order.