Ancient cities emerged independently in the early evolution of civilizations throughout the world. How and why cities originated and became the centers of complex social systems is an enduring and vital focus of inquiry in archaeology. It is clear in light of their wide distribution that cities were integral to the development of most complex societies, and they are now the dominant form of human settlement in emerging global civilization. The lowland Maya of Mesoamerica lived in large cities already in the Preclassic or Formative period (1000 BC-150 AD.) Indeed, the largest city in the Mesoamerican World before the Current Era was El Mirador in northern Petén, Guatemala. To understand the origins and development of Maya cities is to have a clear grasp of their functional roles within the larger societies of which they and their inhabitants constituted a vital part. Archaeologists and other experts on the Maya past agree that cities had ritual centers that were the locus of religious spectacle and ceremonies. These public festivals had decidedly political goals of reinforcing the participation of everyone in the work of the polity as guided by emerging elite. Common beliefs and cosmogonic narratives linked to shared notions of authority based in kinship and the role of sages in accessing the supernatural must have informed the earliest public ceremonial activity. In brief, Maya political ideology was anchored into common religious beliefs reinforced through public ritual. Discerning the content of those rituals through the comparative study of early civic-religious centers can lead to the elucidation of the common beliefs and practices foundational to governance, a key function of the first community centers and their progeny, city centers.
The Precolumbian Maya were, throughout their long experience with complex society, sun worshippers. This primary celestial object, universally a focus of human attention, is pervasive in Maya religion and politics as an agent of elementary change in the count of days and the cycle of the agricultural year. History, in this uniquely literate New World civilization, was woven on the daily path of the sun. The cyclicality of life was manifest in the daily resurrection of the sun from the underworld following death at dusk. Insofar as archaeology and astronomy are collaborative aspects of a single effort, solar cosmology is the foundation of that effort. Over a long and productive career, Anthony Aveni and his collaborators have been constructing a bold and interesting model of Maya solar cosmology, one that is increasingly attracting the attention of a new generation of scholars of the ancient Maya. A core feature of this model is the E Group, a civic-religious architectural design first identified at the site of Uaxactun in Petén, Guatemala and famous for both its function as a solar observatory and for the elaborate stucco decoration of its western building, EVII, in its buried Late Preclassic phase, EVII-Sub. In essence, the E Group consists of a long rectangular eastern platform with three shrines on top and a square western pyramid with radial design and in the case of the type site four stairways.In a recent synthesis, AnthonyAveni and his colleagues (Aveni et al 2003) make a cogent case for the proposition that the Uaxactun E Group, with its certain orientation to true cardinal directions, served to observe sunrise on the solstices and also sunrise on the equinoxes from the vantage of the western building regarding the eastern platform and shrines. He and his associates further argue that although not all E Groups are oriented to the cardinals like the original one, that they all likely served as horizon-focused solar observatories associated with seasonal cycles of the year. Finally, he and his colleagues suggest that the lowland Maya reformed their calendar in the Classic period to focus on zenith passage of the sun and that this reform is associated with the introduction of Teotihuacan influence and what is now called the New Order in Petén. While this working group is focused on the origins phase of solar cosmology and its material referents, there is a clear path towards a sequential phase of inquiry focusing on the Classic period developments with the notable addition of fully recorded calendars and historical texts.
Inevitably the subjects of E Groups and the origins of Maya centers require consideration of the origins of the calendars used by the lowland Maya to schedule ceremonies and to tie public gatherings to their past and the future. Much of the work on calendars is being accomplished by epigraphers researching the earliest inscriptions but it also involves archaeoastronomers and archaeologists. Some of the earliest documented inscription fragments are now known from San Bartolo in Petén. Pru Rice has cogently reviewed and synthesized the evidence of early calendar use in Mesoamerica with an eye towards understanding later lowland Maya usages and institutions.
There are a number of exciting new developments in the field and in analysis surrounding E Groups. Francisco Estrada-Belli and his colleagues working at Cival and other sites in northeastern Petén, William Saturno and his colleagues at San Bartolo in the same region, James Doyle working at El Palmar northwest of Tikal, are all coming up with data and interpretations on Middle Preclassic E Groups. Stanton and Magnoni are working again at Yaxuna in the northern lowlands, where the earlier project of Freidel and colleagues mapped a large E Group associated with a massive Preclassic acropolis and other relevant civic-religious architecture dating back to the Middle Preclassic as well. Aimers and Rice have collaborated on important summaries and syntheses of E Groups and other civic-religious architecture in Belize and Petén. Arlen and Diane Chase are also experts and well published on this topic. Cynthia Robin has excavated an E Group at the small “commoner” center of Chen in Belize that begins in the Preclassic and continues into the Classic. She has a substantial fresh data base for discussing the relationship between the rituals and practices of ordinary Maya in their own modest centers and the development of the great centers and cities. A seminar bringing key scholars, both established and rising, to discuss and synthesize the current state of knowledge on urbanism and Maya Solar Cosmology should result in both advances in our understanding and some clear charting of future research directions in the field. The archaeologists listed as primary participants and alternatives represent a wide range of theoretical perspectives and empirical experiences relevant to the theme; the archaeoastronomers among the organizers include major scholars in the field and experts with long experience in the investigation of the themes of the working group.