The Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities (Part 1)

LiDAR-generated hillshade showing terracing, household remains and field boundaries in present-day Yucatan, Mexico / Journal of Archaeological Science

John Beardsley, director of garden and landscape studies at Dumbarton Oaks, opened the Landscapes of Pre-Industrial Cities symposium in Washington, D.C. with a promise that the invited speakers would explore “the origins and future trajectories of urban landscapes” — shedding light, through case studies spanning millennia, on the complex evolutions and experiences of urban settlements over time.

Two days later, after 13 scholars of archaeology, art, and anthropology had presented their work, Beardsley, asked: “When we look back at these pre-industrial cities, are we seeing what we want to see? I’ve heard a lot about flexibility, resilience, multiplicity, diversity, ecological socialism, self-organization — these are all very contemporary values and things that we want to see in our cities now.” Beardsley posed: “Are we projecting these values back in a mistaken way, or are we excavating earlier adaptations that provide useful lessons for us?”

Tim Murtha, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, offered a response: “I think the answer is both. And that’s the hardest thing for an archaeologist to say, but I’m okay saying it because I teach in a landscape architecture department.”

Murtha continued: “What if that’s not a problem? What if that allows us to start thinking about present cities and future cities and exposing those values as part of our archaeological imagination?”

Murtha’s work in the ancient Mayan lowlands has challenged the archaeological imagination of his predecessors, who largely focused on the structural and engineering feats of population centers and treated regional landscapes as peripheral and less significant. Murtha has used LiDAR, a remote sensing technology, and climate and hydrologic modeling to explore regional landscapes from eastern Veracruz to the northern tip of Yucatan (see image above).

He found evidence of intricate and highly-varied patterns of terraces, reservoirs, and field boundaries, seemingly formed in response to their geological surroundings and without reference or connection to the nearest city.

“Households dominated these landscapes in a regionally-expressive mosaic,” Murtha said, suggesting that archaeologists and planners “need to concentrate less on the potential exceptionalism of our places and density-dependent analysis, and pay more attention to the regional narratives of landscapes and households as expressions of coupled human and natural systems.”

Archaeologists are also using LiDAR in Cambodia to enrich our understanding of an ancient landscape that today is dominated by temple architecture. J. B. Chevance, with the Archaeology and Development Foundation’s Phnom Kulen Program in Cambodia, and Christophe Pottier, Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient in Paris, said remote sensing technology coupled with field work has allowed archaeologists to situate the spectacular historic temples of Angkor within a similarly spectacular historic landscape, which over hundreds of years saw deforestation, diversion of rivers, and the construction of hydraulic channels and agricultural fields to serve shifting human settlements.

Chevance’s work focuses on Phnom Kulen, the birthplace and early capital of the Khmer empire, located close to the Angkor World Heritage Site but largely unexplored. Chevance said that for years the archaeological approach to the Khmer empire considered only the remains of monumental architecture, sculpture, and inscriptions. “Studies were therefore mostly oriented toward the elites, religious architecture and religion, whereas the common life and the territorial approach were not relayed.”

Temple of Damrei Krap, Phnom Kulen, Cambodia / Archaeology and Development Foundation

Pottier said the emergence of LiDAR technology in the mid-1990s allowed archaeologists to see beyond the narrative of Angkor urbanism as “a story of boxes and squares,” a narrative that he said was developed largely by architects taken by the geometries of Angkor’s monumental remains.

Pottier instead traced the more recent LiDAR-enabled discoveries of regional networks of roads, canals, rice fields, and small-scale ponds and temples that defined the forms of dispersed population centers, which themselves shifted over hundreds of years, often rebuilding in a way that incorporated sites that had been abandoned but were formerly significant. He contrasted this new understanding of a complex human landscape with the popular vision of Angkor as a city of temples amid a green jungle.

“These are two completely different versions of urbanism and territorial development,” Pottier said. “The vision of Angkor itself is only a matter of how you map it.”

Georges Farhat, a symposium organizer from the University of Toronto, also addressed the role of representation, along with the potential pitfalls of examining ancient cities through a modern Western lens.

“We heard over the course of these two days issues of representation suggesting that what we see defines what we think, and what we are able to visualize will determine what we will be able to understand,” Farhat said. “We also heard about the importance of excavating patterns the way you excavate fossils — it determines what you conclude or draw from the field.”

Timothy Pauketat, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said that in his work to understand Cahokia, a pre-historic Native American city in present-day Illinois, he attempts to align his “scientific Western approach” with a sensory one, imagining how the experience of the swampy site along the Mississippi River might have inspired the people who built the waterways, residential neighborhoods, and monumental precincts that defined Cahokian urbanism.

Cahokia Mounds / Cahokiamounds.org

Early archaeologists at Cahokia assumed the site was never inhabited by humans, Pauketat said, because of their own inability to imagine that people might select to live among what Charles Dickens described, when he passed through Cahokia’s eroding earthen monuments on an American tour, as “a swamp, the bush, the perpetual chorus of frogs, the rank unseemly growth and the unwholesome steaming earth.”

Pauketat offered: “But what if the auditory affects of the frogs that bedeviled Dickens were positive, entangled with the experiential aspects of a place of fertile soil, life-giving rains, and sweet flavors of an exotic and water-sensitive plant? That it’s quite possibly the pre-urban landscape of this region, with embodied spiritual energies of water and weather and fertility, that might attract people?”

Michael Heckenberger, a professor at University of Florida who studies the experiential aspects of past and present Amazonian building and planning practices, has worked with the indigenous Kuikuro community in the Upper Xingu region of Brazil to uncover pre-Columbian roads that connected a dense network of towns and villages nestled within the Amazon. Heckenberger said that from the scale of the house to the scale of the region, the design of places was in relation and proportion to the human form and physical context, in what he called “a corporeal and relational calculus.”

In describing his ongoing partnership with the Kuikuro, Heckenberger advocated more broadly for dialogue with peoples and places that can offer lessons about the design of settlements that serve human and ecological health.

Priyaleen Singh, at the School of Planning and Architecture in New Delhi, advocated the same in her case studies on the disparate development trajectories of Old and New Bhubaneswar in India. Old Bhubaneswar was built from the sixth to ninth centuries C.E. as a pilgrimage center, with distinctive temple architecture, a network of pools, or tanks, and a wealth of open spaces integrated into the urban fabric in the form of courtyards and shade-giving groves. New Bhubaneswar, planned by Otto Koenigsberger in the 1950s, adhered to Western planning practices of the time, separating districts by use and, Singh argues, eschewing the human scale.

Tenth-century temple and open space with newer development in the background, Bhubaneswar, India / Bernard Gagnon

“Natural ecology and cultural ecology were overtly interwoven and expressed in design forms and other cultural expressions of the open spaces in Old Bhubaneswar,” Singh said. “Temple tanks and groves — besides constituting the genius of the place and giving meaning to the landscape — also ensured that nature was both respected and integrated with the everyday life and experience of the people. Traditional design vocabularies encouraged a participatory relationship with nature, encouraging an experiential aesthetics as opposed to a purely visual one.”

Singh pointed in contrast to mono-functional green spaces, slick nature-themed marketing, and the growing dominance of non-native plant species within New Bhubaneswar development. “In New Bhubaneswar, nature and its elements have been reduced to a mere beautification exercise, and image-making has overshadowed the more real ecological demands.”

Read part 2.

This guest post is by Lindsey Naylor, Student ASLA, master’s of landscape architecture candidate, North Carolina State University.

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