Posted by: Johan Normark | April 4, 2009

Sacbeob 1: A brief introduction

Almost two and a half years have passed since I defended my dissertation on causeways (sacbeob, Yucatec for “white roads” or “artificial roads”) at the sites of Ichmul and Yo’okop. I have already mentioned them in a couple of posts. Now, I will present causeways as they have been described in Mayanist research. One can see this series of posts as running parallel with my other series on Posthumanocentric archaeology. The aim is to at the end present my Posthumanocentric interpretation of these causeways. Remember that most of the other interpretations of causeways rely on the arborescent culture schema that I do not follow. For references, see my dissertation which can be found here.

Sacbe 3 at Yo'okop

Sacbe 3 at Yo'okop

Since the Prehispanic people of the Americas lacked wheeled vehicles or draft animals, demands on communication were simple (Hassig 1991:21-22). Therefore, most means of communication went along informal routes, such as paths and trails, which had minimal or no labour investment in their construction or maintenance. These routes were the result of necessity and they had an irregular pattern as they avoided natural obstacles (Trombold 1991:3). Trade in the Prehispanic Americas only needed communication routes that were one person wide. To increase the transported volume of goods, it was easier to increase the traffic in the single-file flow on paths. Such past informal trails are difficult to find as they soon disappear in the tropical environment. However, trails have been preserved by volcanic ash in Costa Rica (Sheets and Sever 1991:60).

Formal routes are planned and purposefully constructed. These routes are evidence of labour, engineering and maintenance, which indicates an organization that planned and altered the landscape to facilitate and control the way people moved (Beck 1991:67). Formal routes can be divided into roads and causeways. My interest here is in causeways which have raised road beds (Trombold 1991:3). However, some of the “causeways” are barely above the ground level, though they still have a constructed surface, which the routes in the Maya area generally did not have. Causeways can be further divided into real and mythological routes (Folan 1991:222).

Causeways are found in all types of terrain, climate, geographic area and vegetation (Shaw in preparation-a). They are also known from the late Middle Formative to the Postclassic. Archaeological data suggests that the earliest known causeways in the Maya area were constructed during the late Middle Formative period (600/500 to 300 B.C.) (Kurjack and Garza 1981:301). Some of the early causeways reached considerable proportions. One causeway at Nakbe was 24 meters wide, several meters high and was covered with one meter thick layer of saskab (limestone marl) (Suasnávar 1994). The early causeways at the large Late Formative site of El Mirador also reached considerable lengths. One of them probably went to Calakmul, 38 km to the north (Folan, et al. 1995).

Thus, from early on in the “urbanization” process of the Maya area, causeways were part of both large and small centres. Coba, Chichen Itza, Izamal, Calakmul, Caracol and El Mirador are examples of large sites from various periods that had extensive networks of causeways extending to smaller centres. These sites are believed to have been centres for larger political formations. As it is believed that causeways joined different groups, or played a considerable role in cosmograms, it should be noted that many sites lack causeways. Causeways are also absent or there are only a few, at some large sites. Tikal, considered to be one of the most powerful sites in the 8th century A.D., lacks any known extensive road network, apart from the one within the site centre (Harrison 1999).

The Ichmul-Xquerol causeway and a sheep farm

The Ichmul-Xquerol causeway and a sheep farm

Shaw (2001g:267) asks one of the critical questions concerning many Mayanists: “why are some sites able to dominate, manage, and/or coerce their populations without causeways, and why do others make such extensive use of these expensive, but effective, links?”. I believe that the key to this question is that the causeways should be seen as a serial phenomenon of various actualizations which cannot all be summarized into one explanation since they all differed at particular locales (Normark 2004c). It is not proven that causeways were used to dominate people, but it is likely that social formations with elaborate and formal road systems were less responsive to change than those without them (Hassig 1991:25). Thus, roads affected the way people behaved, as their presence directed and removed people. Later constructions tended to follow established material patterns rather than cosmological patterns, although some adjustments of site layout may have taken place based upon memories of an old layout (Stanton and Freidel 2005). In some ways the causeways could be seen as externalised memories. Olivier treats roads as memories. He argues that moments in time can be connected although they are temporally “distant” from each other and that the memory of the past is masked since it adopts the form of the present. As an example he uses the Roman decumanus (main road) that survives as a memory of ancient urbanity in Paris in the form of the boulevard (Olivier 2004:212).

People living at sites without causeways did not have the same issues as those with causeways. Therefore, I believe that there can only be site-specific answers to Shaw’s question. However, even though Mayanists often choose single sites for research, they also tend to seek the “Big Picture” to fit their site into something greater. Hence the blurry concept of “Maya culture” sneaks in and flattens out every Other to the Same. No such blueprint model shall of course be used in a Posthumanocentric study.

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