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Public Gathering Spaces of Rome, Cahokia, and Cuzco

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Landscapes are represented and conceptualized by what aspects are considered important in the physical world by a particular group of people. Throughout history, and into present day, there is a need for public space for communal gathering. Plazas are landscape features that are effective in symbolizing the values of a community and express a communal union (Dalan 169). These gathering spaces promote public interaction of populations, which vary based on the size, location, and design of the space, influence the layout of cities and prompt physical changes of the landscape to create them. Public gathering spaces afforded political, civic, and spiritual activities for ancient civilizations, modified the existing landscape of the Roman, Mississippian, and Inkan empires, and influenced the settlement strategies for the cities of Rome, Cahokia, and Cuzco.

The creation of spaces for public use and their influence on the landscape can be seen in the Roman civilization. Throughout the Roman Empire, public gathering spaces, or forums, are found in city plans. One specific example is the Roman Forum. Rome began to form around 1000 BCE in a low lying area enclosed by hills. The location of the Forum was in a marshy meadow which flooded often. In 600 BCE, the Romans built infrastructure, channeling springs and digging ditches, to combat the flooding that took place in the location of their forum (McGregor 35.) A large sewer was built to direct stormwater and waste into the Tiber River, which lies to the west of the Forum (Gates 329.). The Forum became a marketplace around 575 BCE, graced by streets, shops, and mud-brick houses. After 550 BCE, private life had moved away from the forum and houses were no longer beside the square (Grant 36.). With the additions of the sewers and built infrastructures, the space of the Forum transformed from a private, marshy area into a massive public center.

While it was such a massive piece to the city, The Roman Forum did not sit in the geographical center of the city (Grant 43.) Dispite that, it is said that the whole Roman Empire looked in the direction of the Forum. It was the center of affairs of the empire with the idea that all roads of Rome lead to the Forum (Grant 43.) Eight main roads connected the Roman Empire to the Forum. These roads include one of Rome’s oldest roadways, the Sacred Way, at the northeast end of the Forum (Grant 44.) The building of the Forum influenced the street network of Rome, highlighting the importance of this public space of the civilization. The original shape oriented the Forum along the cardinal directions, however, reconstruction of the Forum resulted in the long sides pointing to the northeast and southwest (Grant 41.) The Roman Forum shaped the layout and design of the city. It influenced the street layout while creating a social and civic center. This center extends through the whole empire with the eight roads that connect the Forum to the rest of the civilization.

The Forum was surrounded by basilicas, government buildings, and temples, defining a central space for public use (Laurence 15.) Basilicas are located alongside forums, as they provided a space for lawyers, judges, and other officials (Gates 327.) The Roman Forum was not only part of the physical landscape, but the political landscape too. It was a place for debates, speeches, and other civic activities. The structures surrounding the Forum draw on the idea of power and meaning, isolating a space for civic life (McGregor 36.) The Rostera, located at the narrow end of the Forum, afforded a place for speeches and elevated the speaker above the crowd. This reflected the ideologies of the Roman Republic, which was persuasion and debating (McGregor 38.) The Roman Empire began in 27 BCE and the program of the Forum shifted. When Rome was replanned in 14 CE, the space transformed from a political landscape to a showcase of power for the empire (Grant 21.) The public space of the Forum was an important asset for ancient Rome providing an area that supported the political, social, and civic climate of the civilization that we can still see today.

Transitioning from Europe to North America, the Mississippian period is another civilization where the city of Cahokia was influenced by the use of public plazas. Cahokia was situated in the Mississippi floodplain, near modern day East St. Louis, IL. The Cahokian period can be divided in two: the Emergent Mississippian, dating from 800-1000 CE, and the Mississippian, dating 1000-1040 CE (Dalan 70). During the early years of the Emergent period, plazas can already be seen in the plans of early Mississippian villages. These settlements centered themselves on open central spaces, fulfilling the need for communal gathering areas. The small villages transformed into larger settlements, like Cahokia, by the middle of the 10th century with a continued theme of central communal gathering spaces (Creekmore 300.)

By the middle of the 11th century, there was a rapid expansion and organization in the city of Cahokia. The configuration of the city shows how the spaces within the city were constructed by social factors (Creekmore 297.). Cahokia follows a quadripartite, which consists of an orthogonal, symmetrical organization. Within the epicenter of Cahokia lied the Monks Mound and four large, central plazas. The North, East, West, and Grand Plazas surround the Monks Mound and house mounds of their own. This epicenter measured 1.5 km north-south and 1.25 km east-west. Outside the epicenter of the city, residences surround smaller plazas and mounds (Creekmore 305.) The residential organization of the city around plazas support the idea that community spaces were central to the values of this civilization.

The settlement of Cahokia evolved and grew around the Monks Mound and Grand Plaza (Dalan 71.) Establishing the Grand Plaza and the Monks Mound afforded the city of Cahokia a setting for rituals and community representation, despite the consistent change. Social landscapes within the epicenter gave the people of this civilization a significant sacred place (Creekmore 299.) Construction reworked the existing landscape by the movement of earth to create a proper gathering space. Lateral borrowing techniques redirected soil from the plaza area toward the mounds. The borrowing process aimed toward reclaiming the site, suggesting that the efforts were directed toward creating a level plaza surface (Dalan 93.) The reworking of the landscape expressed the importance of this communal space to the Cahokians and this idea is heightened through the scale of the space. “Considering not only the mounds, but this other evidence of reworking the landscape, provides a new appreciation of the nature, scale, and dynamics of landscape change at Cahokia…” (Dalan 42.) The Grand Plaza was not only a gathering space for the city of Cahokia, but the greater Mississippian region. The scale of the plaza suggests that the space could fit the entire Cahokian system (Dalan 131.) Creekmore suggests that “community squares and plazas are symbolically the heart and soul of these communities.” Dalan claims the plazas “gave community structure and emphasized the importance of ruling hierarchy and the masses.” The fashioning of the landscape created and defined a space for an integrated community, a value for this civilization.

The Inkan Empire, which lasted from 1438 to 1532 CE, also had public gathering spaces influence the structure of their cities within the empire. Tawantinsuyu, the name of the Inkan Empire, was split by a quadripartite division of both the society and space (VanHagen 166). Inkan officials controlled access and movement throughout the empire by the city layouts. The structured city landscapes imitated religious and political ideas while providing an emphasis on ceremonial traditions (VanHagen 168).

In the center of the empire was the capital, Cuzco. It is suggested through archeological findings that King Pachakuti carefully planned the capital during his reign in the 15th century (Hysolp 37). In early writings during the Spanish discovery of Peru, it is said that King Pachakuti planned the city in the form of the sacred giant puma. This theory is inconclusive and thought to be a metaphorical puma (Smith 31). Cuzco was the political, ceremonial, and administrative center of the Inkan empire (Van Hagen 170). Within Cuzco was the ceremonial core, which was divided into hanan and hurin, or upper and lower, sections which were further divided into four suyu, or quarters, reflecting the rest of the empire. Further dividing the central core of Cuzco were forty-one to forty-two radiating roads, called ceques (VanHagen 175). Ceques radiated from Cuzco to the rest of the empire, connecting the civilization to the ceremonial core, and ultimately, the central plaza.

Within the ceremonial core lied the central plaza. The large, earthen center plaza was divided in half by the River Saphy. East of the river was the Haukaypata Plaza while the Kusipata Plaza lied to the west (Hyslop 37). The Inkans altered the landscape to build this large, plaza in the center of Cuzco. The River Saphy was canalized and covered by wood beams and stone, making it no longer visible (Hyslop 42). The Hukaypata Plaza was covered in a layer of sand from the Pacific Ocean. Hyslop quotes “By bringing the sea sand to Cuzco, the Inka ritually situated the sea in the religious and political center of the Inka Empire,” reinforcing the idea that this plaza was literally the center of the empire. This supports the idea that the plaza was important to the Inkan’s, so much so, they altered and physically moved the existing Peruvian landscape to achieve a space that could be afforded by the public.

Political and spiritual buildings and great halls bordered the Hukaypata Plaza, even though there is little architectural evidence, the theory is supported by writings (Hyslop 41.) These buildings included shrines and temples, which were important to the Inkan culture. The plaza was a central hub for four ceremonial roads which extended to the districts of the empire. Around twenty other roads also lead to the rest of the empire, although, they were subordinate and less important than the four main roads. Smaller plazas also lies adjacent to the Haukaypata and Kusipata Plazas (VonHagen 177). The Haukaypata and Kusipata Plazas made up an important part of the ceremonial core of Cuzco and influenced the structure of the street network of Cuzco and the whole Inkan Empire. “Within the great plazas of the Huakaypata, massive rituals like the Situa enacted social dramas that emphasized the separateness of different components of Inka society and others that marked inclusiveness,” (Moore 101.) Moore’s theory promotes the idea that the plazas in the center of Cuzco afforded the social and ceremonial needs of the Inkan society. The Huakaypata and Kusipata Plazas defined a public space that was important to the city of Cuzco and the whole Inkan civilization.

Plazas were a key design elements in ruling Inkan settlements. Smaller Inkan settlement had a different structure to them and were not arranged to have central plazas. Inkan plazas were large, open, and central, often covered thousands of square meters and were situated in the center of the city’s architecture sector. Ushnu’s, a shrine made of stone for sacrifices or rulers to sit upon, were key features in Inkan plazas. The combination of the plaza and ushnu recurred throughout the empire, from Chile to Ecuador (Moore 792). Inka plazas were not only used as ritual spaces as public Inkan ceremonies were outdoors. The interiors of the surrounding temples and ushnus were reserved for royalty and religious figures (Moore 793). Plazas provided a public space for rituals and ceremonies throughout the empire. They allowed for a space that was essential for the Inkan culture, allowing a spiritual gathering area.

“Plazas are culturally defined spatial settings for diverse public interaction that may be sacred or mundane” (Moore 789). Each civilization discussed above created a space for public gathering and interaction. These public spaces impacted the structure of the cities. Each city changed the existing landscape to form a space for the public, like movement of earth, implementing infrastructure, or covering a main waterway. Throughout history, the need for public spaces can be seen through the layout of cities. Rome, Cahokia, and Cuzco are all cities that created a public space for communal gathering. The gathering spaces impacted the layout and plan of these cities and afforded a space for the needs of the civilizations.

Works Cited

  1. Creekmore, Andrew and Kevin D. Fisher. Making Ancient Cities. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  2. Dalan, Rinita A., et al. Envisioning Cahokia. Northern Illinois University Press, 2003.
  3. —.“The Construction of Mississippian Cahokia.” Cahokia: Domination and Ideology in the Mississippian World, edited by Timothy R. Pauketat and Thomas E. Emerson, Lincoln, Univeristy of Nebraska Press, 1997, pp. 89-102.
  4. Grant, Michael. The Roman Forum. London, The Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited, 1974.
  5. Hyslop, John. Inka Settlement Planning. University of Texas Press, 1990.
  6. Laurence, Ray, et al. The City in the Roman West. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011
  7. McGregor, James. Rome from the Ground Up. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2005.
  8. Moore, Jerry D. “The Archaeology of Plazas and the Proxemics of Ritual: Three Andean Traditions.” American Anthropologist. vol. 98, no. 4. 1996. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/681886 Accessed 25 Sept. 2018.
  9. —. “The Social Basis of Sacred Spaces in the Prehispanic Andes: Ritual Landscapes of the Dead in Chim´u and Inka Societies.” Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory. vol. 11, no. 1, 2004. link.springer.com/content/pdf/ Accessed 14 Oct. 2018.
  10. Smith, Michael. “Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning.” Journal of Planning History, vol. 6, no. 1, February 2007, pp. 3-47, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1538513206293713 Accessed 25 Sept. 2018.
  11. VonHagen, Adriana and Craig Morris. The Cities of the Ancient Andies. “City and Countryside in the Inka Empire.” Thames and Hudson,1998.
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