Posted by: Johan Normark | September 26, 2012

Water and temporality in ancient Maya settlement

I may attend a session at the ESEH 2013 biennial conference ‘Circulating Natures: Water-Food-Energy’ in Munich, Germany from 20-24 August 2013. Anyway, here is the abstract in its current form. Comments are welcome before I set the final abstract.

Water and temporality in ancient Maya settlement

Water is a neglected archaeological object. It is often reduced to a medium for seafaring, irrigation, symbolism, palaeoclimate, etc. Its own qualities and capabilities are usually of little concern to archaeologists. One way to shift the focus towards water itself is to make use of object-oriented ontologies. In philosopher Graham Harman’s quadruple object, only objects and their interiors exist. Time and space themselves only unfold on the inside of an object. Space is the tension between the real object and its sensual qualities. The simultaneous withdrawal of real objects from one another and their partial contact through sensual objects is what space is. Time is the tension between sensual objects and their sensual qualities.

The hydrological cycle is an object whose interaction with other objects like crops, reservoirs, architecture, etc. creates local spaces and temporalities. In the Maya lowlands in southern Mexico and northern Central America, the time period known as ha’b lasted for 365 days. It is named after water (ha’) and refers to the annual rain cycle that ultimately was affected by the sun’s movement (the sun was also the lowest temporal unit for the Maya and its daily and annual path also formed the spatial layout of the Maya world). In the Long Count system, ha’b also referred to a period of 360 days. Winik-ha’b was a period of 20 ha’b (better known as katun). These periods were associated with frequencies of droughts. Chronomancy merged with hydromancy. Hence, larger scale objects, like the hydrological cycle, came to affect the way time was perceived by the ancient Maya.

The Classic period (AD 250-900) political systems emerged through the management of water on greater scales. Kings were also rulers of the time-periods (katuns) that were sensual profiles of the hydrological cycle. Maya monumental architecture came to reflect these internal relations within the hydrological cycle. The causeway systems at the Mexican sites of Ichmul and Yo’okop were both connected to water-related features and architecture associated with rulers. The causeway systems were primarily constructed during the dry Terminal Classic period and they were likely used for water petition as well as integrating a dispersed population. To use a Deleuzean term, the king and the associated State striated the landscape to create a new space. During the so-called “Maya collapse”, all these striations dissolved, became smoothened, by reforestation made possible by both human depopulation and the return of a wetter climate.

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