Canonical Space and Maya Markets

Stephen Houston (Brown University)

In his account of the great Aztec market at Tlatelolco, Bernal Díaz del Castillo spoke of its varied merchandise. Among the wonders: gold, precious stones, rope, deer skin, wild animals, honey cake and tripe, pottery, pitch-pine, human excrement for salt and curing of skins, paper, timber, boards, metal axes, gourds, flint knives—Díaz almost grew weary of their description, “porque es para no acabar tan presto de contar por menudo todas las cosas” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:96–99). But there were also male and female slaves, many lashed to long poles across their necks. The slaves were brought and sold in such quantity as to recall, for Díaz, the Portuguese trade of Blacks in “Guinea” (Díaz del Castillo 2011:97–99). Free and enslaved people were so plentiful at Tlatelolco that they could be heard, he said, a league away.

A joint description in text and image comes Fray Diego de Durán, in a manuscript now in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid (Figure 1). Probably written in his hand, albeit drawn from varying sources, this document of c. 1574–1581 drew on illustrations that were in part cut from another document and then glued on the page before relevant passages (Milne 1984:3; Robertson 1968:343). This is one of those images, as can be seen from the distinct color of its paper, slightly skewed placement, and overlap with previously written text. Puzzling out where Durán and his associates got their information is to grapple, perhaps fruitlessly, with the fusions, rejections, authorial complexity, and tumult of the era. Was the document and its kin informed by biblical history (Driggers 2020:184–185; Milne 1984:384), previous books or oral history (Milne 1984:381), pre-Columbian or early Colonial pictorials of assured skill and knowledge (Driggers 2020:189) or adorned with paintings taken from Franciscan workshops under the supervision of Bernardino de Sahagún (Milne 1984:393)? What can be assumed is that the preparation of this document was thoughtful. Mutual reinforcement took place between text and image.

Figure 1. Market, Historia de las Indias de Nueva España e islas de la tierra firme (Durán 1579:301v,

The written description is, at times, focused on physical attributes. “The markets of this land were all closed (off) by large (standing) walls and facing (opposite) the temples of the gods or to one side” (Durán 1880:217, my translation). Durán also emphasized the orderly timing and specialization of markets, so that, for example, dogs could be had in Acolman, slaves in Azcapotzalco and Izocan [Itzocan] (Durán 1880:219). Slaves, some taken in war, demonstrated grace of movement by being forced to dance or sing. (One can imagine the heaviness of heart.) Others had committed crimes, fallen into debt from gambling, disobeyed parents or become so hungry from want that slavery seemed the only recourse for their families. There would be fewer mouths to feed (Durán 1880:220–222). “Collars” of wood or metal kept the slaves symbolically marked, psychologically disadvantaged, and physically manageable. Grabbing a person’s arm or leg risked injury; grabbing a neck-stick kept the slave at safe distance (Durán 1880:220). [1] These sticks go far back in time, appearing in a Late Classic stucco of captives or slaves from the Maya city of Tonina, Chiapas (Houston et al. 2006:fig. 5.13). Presumably, sticks could double as garrotes, if not to execute then to control by restricting air and blood flow to the brain.

Payment for slaves was in textile mantles, gold jewelry, and greenstone (Durán 1880:224). The denial of liberty extended to cages or wooden chambers, evidently to house slaves or those castigated by law (Durán 1880:222). Relative freedom of movement may have accorded with the kind of slave. Enemy warriors or intended sacrifices for priestly “olocaustos” (Durán’s word) were let loose at peril. They might fight or flee. A child or debtor posed less risk. Colonial sources indicate that market stalls (“a house, a post”) could be personal property (Johnson 2018:100–101). Regulating the whole were ordinances and religious orientations, the latter of special disdain to Durán (1880:215-216; for “directors” of markets, see Sahagún 1979:67–69).

Durán’s focus on slaves may account for the image. Was this some glancing allusion to the Babylonian captivity of the Old Testament, or to the benighted state of the Aztecs? By the thinking of the day, they were, after all, a “lost tribe” of Israel, Christianity their redemption (Driggers 2020:184). Or was he placing emphasis on such trade because it was in fact a dominant concern? That emphasis can be overstated in view of the stupendous inventory of trade goods at Aztec markets. At the same time, by many accounts, human trafficking was undoubtedly present. Some comments on the scene identify three buyers and six sellers (Russo 2005:73). That is unlikely. Two of the latter, a male and a female, bear wooden staves at the neck, marking their status as slaves. This would mean that all the sellers—there are four, two of higher status to judge from their mats—happen to be women. This gendering contrasts strongly with slave merchants elsewhere in the world, especially the male slavers of ancient Rome or the horrors of Price, Birch, and Co. in Alexandria, Virginia (Harris 1980:129–132;

Durán highlights payment in mantles, gold, and greenstone. These occur throughout the scene, some in baskets. They could simply have been precious objects for sale (Driggers 2020:52). If the focus were on slaves, they might also have been payments from past transactions. The small squares resemble 1/5 tablets of gold (although their white color fails to fit that view) or, from a tablet superimposed on mantles in the Tribute Record of Tlapa, a unit of 400 textiles (Gutiérrez 2013:fig. 6.3). Perhaps the female slave is spinning for the vendor’s needs or displaying a valued skill to a buyer.

Durán (1880:215) also stressed “round stones worked as large as a round shield and in them sculpted a round figure as a figure of the sun with some paintings in the manner of roses around them with some round circles.” In Aztec writing, this corresponds to the sign for TIĀNQUIZ, “market” (Peñafiel 1895:pls. 79, 99). The buyers and sellers sit within the sign. Yet another emblem, perhaps a stone marker or altar (momoztli), appears dead center. That sign contains an inner, gold circle, a token of the sun, affirming a proposal that the celebrated Calendar Stone of the Aztecs was such an altar, albeit in Tenochtitlan rather than Tlaltelolco (Stuart 2018:214-215). In Durán’s words, it was “a figure of the sun” but ensconced within a market, its circular outline tied to both meanings.[2] A perceptive study of these carvings and their relation to markets has recognized several such “disks” in the corpus of Aztec sculpture (López Luján and Olmedo 2010).

Glyphs or stylized and condensed depictions of markets occur in several manuscripts of Colonial date (Figure 2). The sign itself has an almost flowery, jewel-like fringe and roseate glow but above all a circular outline (Mundy 1996:fig. 67). The visual overlap with the fans of merchants, pōchtēca, and the main disk in the place name of Pochtlan is probably no coincidence (Peñafiel 1895:pl. 59). Others point to a connection, common among the Aztecs, between war, trading, and similar insignia among high-ranking soldiers (López Luján and Olmedo 2010:18; a suspicion also gathers around the so-called La Ventanilla “Composite Stela” at Teotihuacan as a publicly mounted disk—of foreign merchants?—in the style of El Tajín, Veracruz [Cabrera Castro 2-17:108, fig. 14.2]). At times, the TIĀNQUIZ shows the dotted circumference of a formal “wall,” TENĀN/TENĀM (Figure 3b, c, d, e, cf. Codex Mendoza signs for the towns of Teotenanco [folio 10r] and Tenançinco [folio 10v]; Karttunen 1983:224). Some glyphs feature a confused welter of footprints, a sign of dense movement (Figure 3b, d); the “sand,” XĀL, in Xaltianquizco, may be both lexical and practical, a surface suited to shuffling feet (Figure 2b).

Figure 2. TIĀNQUIZ signs and depictions: (a) Codex Mendoza, c. 1541 (folio 67r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (b) Codex Mendoza, Xaltianquizco, c. 1541 (folio 16v, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford); (c) Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, c. mid-16h-century (Museo Regional de Cholula [Museo Casa del Alfeñique]; Asselbergs 2008,, photograph by Bob Schalkwijk); (d) Matrícula de Huexotcinco, c. 1560 (folio 541r, National Library of France,; (e) Relación Geográfica map of Tetlistaca, 1581 (JGI xxv-12, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin); and (f) Relación Geográfica map of Muchitlan, 1582 (JGI xxv-13, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

Echoing Durán, there is some pairing with temples, including Christian churches, or in many instances—depictions of Conquest-period Guatemala come to mind—walled precincts that contrast with cleared circular places (Figure 3c; Asselbergs 2008:figs. 24–27). As Durán notes, such areas were suitable for dance, and, in one source, lightened circles without walls denote markets: i.e., some were more formal than others (Figure 2c, Asselbergs 2008:fig. 12). The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, as in Codex Mendoza, show them pierced by roads or with routes passing nearby. A more daring idea is that the circularity was cosmic in intent, to fix markets “in the center of the universe” (Russo 2005:75). That might have been reflected in the walls and four-part entrances of an unusual, rectangular depiction of a market in the Relación Geográfica of Cempoala, Veracruz (Figure 3). The object or place in the center with scalloped edge is the target of movement, a focus within a broader precinct.

Figure 3. Market with four entrances, Cempoala, Veracruz, 1580 (JGI XXV-10, Benson Latin American Collection, The General Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin,

A vignette from the Codex Mendoza injects a certain pathos. Fathers instructed 6-year old boys to go to the market so that they might collect spilled maize or “beans and other miserable things that the traders left scattered” (Berdan and Anawalt 1997:120). The Codex is notorious for its austere model of parenting. Some punishments involved beating, jabbing with maguey spikes; dry chile was forced into the nostrils of immobilized children. A less literal view of the vignette is that it concerned “the disciplining of material and domestic space in order to achieve cosmic order” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). The raw nopal tuna gnawed by one child mirrors, in a symmetry of human and vegetal states, “their shared ‘rawness’ in Mexica thought” (Driggers 2020:119fn24). But I see a harsher reality. It is possible the scene reveals the depth of food insecurity in the Mexica metropolis—recall Duran’s mention of hunger and enslavement. Every bean or grain counted. Moreover, the scratching, plucking, and furtive chewing affect the archaeological study of markets. They might well have been intensively scavenged. What was dropped by vendors or buyers on the floor of the market did not necessarily stay put.

Figure 3. Scavenging in the market at age six, Codex Mendoza, 1541 (folio 58r, © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford).

A major concern in Mesoamerican studies is how later material, or that far away, relates to other reaches of its vast sprawl. This applies to markets. After much debate, most Mayanists concede the presence of such facilities during the Classic Period (e.g., Cap 2015; Dahlin et al. 2007; King 2015; Martin 2012). As one example of many, what had seemed to be unrelated features—a proposed water-conservation measure for agriculture at Ixtutz, Guatemala—can now be reinterpreted as market stalls (Chase and Chase 1983; cf. Chase et al. 2015:230; Jacobo 1993, who detected unusual concentrations of phosphate in this zone).

In 1984, equipped with a preliminary map from Ian Graham, I did a compass survey of Dos Pilas, Guatemala, a Classic Maya city with many inscriptions. Graham was a superlative mapper, a legend with limited resources yet boundless gumption. But he had not noticed that certain low walls on his plan went over masonry. They connected as a system of concentric walls, not just in its main plaza but around the pyramid of El Duende about 1 km to the east. Theodolite mapping in 1986 for my doctoral research laid these out in far greater detail (Figure 4; Houston 1987:Maps 3, 5; reproduced in Houston 1993:Site Maps 1, 3). In my dissertation, I interpreted the small, rectangular features marked in pale red as a “squatter” settlement and the walls, here in light blue, as “defensive bulwarks” of late date; these consisted of material obviously robbed from preexisting buildings (Houston 1987:383, 386).

Figure 4. Concentric walls at Dos Pilas, Guatemala (Houston 1987:Map 3).

There was always a problem. The walls went directly over buildings, in ways that did not make any practical defensive use of the elevated palace to the south. The layout seemed instead to be planar or geometric, designed to preserve a regular concentricity, a determined circularity. Nor, being chock-a-block, did the “squatter” settlement conform to any clear pattern of contemporary communities. I also had doubts the section to the north was ever finished. The builders appear to have piled up field stone at regular intervals, a standard practice for lengths of masonry, but they failed to connect them. Excavations by Joel Palka in these deposits, as part of a wider project by Vanderbilt University, later found abundant trade goods (Fine Grey) and confirmed the density of platforms (Palka 1980; Palka et al. 1991).[3] In 1984, guards at the site had shown me pieces of jade beads recovered from the “squatter” village. They had disturbed the alignments and low walls to make it easier to cut grass in the plaza. Loose stones dulled their machetes and were thus collected and piled up at the base of trees. The small platforms were probably far more numerous in the past.

My doubts grew when, decades later, I visited the site of Pueblito, Guatemala, with my former student, Sarah Newman. In important research that has yet to be followed up, Juan Pedro Laporte and his team discovered what appeared to be market stalls and identified them as such (Laporte and Chocon 2008). During my stay, I saw and walked the same sorts of concentric walls that I knew well from Dos Pilas, but here concentrated on the monumental plaza with plain stelae; the area with stalls lay a few meters away. Market stalls seem also be present at nearby Ixtutz, Guatemala (Chase and Chase 1983; Chase et al. 2015; Jacobo 1993). The pattern of relatively late, c. 8th-9th century walls occurs at a number of sites, a few with the concentric walls that baffled me at Dos Pilas (Figure 5). As at Dos Pilas, Xuenkal, Yucatan, excludes a major construction; a wall at Cuca, also in Yucatan, climbs over a substantial platform; and there have been suggestions that the walls at Ek Balam, Yucatan—their thickness is greater than elsewhere—tend to be more symbolic than defensive (Lundy 2016:100, citing William Ringle and George Bey, the original mappers and excavators of the ruin).

Figure 5. Walls, some concentric, at Ek Balam (Houck 2004:fig. 2, map provided to Houck by William Ringle), Cuca (Webster 1978:fig. 5), and Xuenkal (Manahan et al. 2012:fig. 2).

A lidar survey confirms that these concentric systems are found far beyond settlements in Yucatan, appearing also in southwestern Campeche (Figure 6; Ruhl et al. 2019). The discoverers believe that these settlements, which they identify as markets, are distinct from the “hastily erected defensive walls…or more carefully constructed fortifications” of sites such as Cuca or Dos Pilas (Ruhl et al. 2018:88). But perhaps the concentric arrangements are closer than first apparent: all have a post-hoc quality, look (at least superficially) to be Late Classic or Terminal Classic in date, abut or pass over preceding construction, and selectively exclude monumental architecture. At times, the estrangement from past dynastic rituals could be acute. At Dos Pilas, as I saw from mapping in 1984 and 1986, the rupture was blunt and brutal. Walls elsewhere were more seamlessly integrated with preexisting buildings.

Figure 6. Concentricity and probable markets, G-LiHT transects, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (Ruhl et al. 2018:fig. 3, excerpt).

“Symbolic” is an expansive yet loose term. But, to come full circle (so to speak), these finds could reflect a particular moment in Classic and Terminal Classic history. Spaces and planar shapes deemed canonical—appropriate to this or that function—arose from pragmatic choices. If these were markets, a matter to be confirmed by close study on the ground, then they closed off access, protected stored goods (what vendor leaves a stall unsecured?), afforded a sense of security for economic transactions, and assisted regulation, monitoring, and even taxation. Goods moving in and out could be monitored. Nor is there reason to exclude defense, for marketing and warfare were known companions in Postclassic Mexico. But there was also a strong sense of signaling. As hinted by the TIĀNQUIZ sign, markets should, by broad understanding, be notionally circular: they are, as much as any square or rectangular plaza, a canonical space. Accordingly, a later emblem of centrality and orderly trade may have arisen from a Maya precedent in the final years of the Classic period, or at least from eastern Mesoamerica in general.[4] Links with the Aztec or speakers of Nahuatl are documented by several Maya gods that tie into central Mexican ones; reciprocally, the Dresden Codex, a Maya book, records several Mexican deities (Taube and Bade 1991; Whittaker 1986).

Possibly, the walls also kept people in. This is the most speculative and disquieting part of the argument: some of these facilities may have been pens, the corrals of people. The degree to which the Classic Maya slaved is unclear. The non-locals (11–16%) found by chemical studies of bone at Tikal—the samples are not large, however—could reflect this practice (Wright 2012). Aztec neck-sticks are almost copies of those on the much-afflicted, Late Classic captives at Tonina (see above). Pietro Martire d’Anghiera mentions that a native canoe encountered by Columbus was “drawn by naked slaves with ropes around their necks,” and Diego de Landa leaves no doubts about the abundance of slaving, often to trade for cacao, and attributed “this evil” to a particular group, the Cocom, i.e., he historicized it, fixed it as a development in time (Tozzer 1941:36, 36fn175, 94). For the Classic Maya, Mary Miller notes many ceramic figurines, including finely dressed women, with what appear to be slave-ropes around their necks (personal communication, 2019).

Was this, as Andrew Scherer suggests to me, the darker side of the Terminal Classic? Dynasties might raid, but they could also shield. Their unraveling, the evident movements of people, and the new ethnic presences documented by Simon Martin (2020:290–294, 296–297, fig. 73) led potentially to vigorous profit and a frayed social contract. This might have been especially the case for the “internationalization” of slaving, a trade highlighted by early Colonial sources. In Africa, according to a chilling appraisal by two economic historians, the “marginal value of people as captives [rose] above their marginal value as producers to be taxed…[with an] incentive to produce ‘outsiders’ who can be raided” (Whatley and Gillizeau 2010:573). For the Yoruba in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, war yielded slaves, slaving drove war, with no small capital outlay required to mount campaigns and to house slaves in enclosures known as ita (Ojo 2008:80–81). Brokers, chiefs, warriors—all profited from human misery. For a time, and perhaps among the Terminal Classic Maya, fluid trade could coexist with fragmenting societies.

[1] The term for “slave” in Nahuatl (TLĀCOH-TLI) is a near-homophone for “staff, pole” (TLACŌ-TL, David Stuart, personal communication, 2020; see Karttunen 1983:256). This may have been a metonym, an object standing for (and even depersonalizing) its referent or perhaps, because of the divergent vowels, the association was fortuitous.

[2] Durán refers to another altar that has yet to be discovered by urban excavation (Stuart 2018:23). The distant analogy of Maya altars suggests a logical dyad, the moon. Altars or ballcourt markers with moon deities include Caracol Altar 25, Tenam Rosario Altar 1, and Quirigua Altar Q.

[3] The broader mesh of trade in the region has since been emphasized to the south, in and around the upper and middle reaches of the Pasión River, Guatemala (Kovacevich 2006; Demarest et al. 2014).

[4] The operative concept is probably the pan-Mayan word pet, “circular” or “round” (Kaufman and Norman 1984:128). To my knowledge, the glyphic version of this, a circle within a circle, was first deciphered by Nikolai Grube. The graphic origin is doubtless that of a hard stone ear spool, an object of great value and patient manufacture. The sign is employed as a verb to indicate the creation of some rounded thing and, less literally, as the completion of a carving. See K1180, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (#1988.1182), in which a monkey-scribe holds up a rounded object near a verb PET-ta-ja, pehtaj, “it is rounded” (photograph courtesy of Justin Kerr). The insertion of the hand and rounded object into the vertical, glyphic passage is probably a self-conscious integration of text with image.


My thanks go to Charles Golden, Takeshi Inomata, Simon Martin, Mary Miller, Joel Palka, Andrew Scherer, David Stuart, and Karl Taube for useful discussion, and to Oswaldo Chinchilla and Nicholas Dunning for help with figures. Sarah Newman defrayed the costs of our productive visit to Pueblito and was, as ever, full of insight and energy. For Nahuatl words, including those spelling in hieroglyphs, I use the spellings with vowel length in the authoritative dictionary by Karttunen (1983). The online dictionary edited by Stephanie Wood is also a wide-ranging tool for scholars (


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