The History of Plazas, Patios and Open Spaces

How Long Have People Been Hanging Out in the City Square?

Llamas serenely graze in the plaza at Sacsaywaman. Ed Nellis

Most prehistoric and even modern day communities have plazas, shared gathering places where markets are held, where ritual and political events are held, where rulers speak to their subjects, where festivals are shared by everyone. Games, dances, worship, social interaction, funerals: all of these and probably hundreds of other public functions were and are held in plazas all over the world.

It is interesting that Çatalhöyük in Turkey, arguably the world's first city occupied between 7400-6000 BC (PrePottery Neolithic period B (PPNB)), did not have an open space within its tightly cramped apartment block: researchers have suggested that its rooftops acted as a plaza.

Other, slightly later PPNB communities such as Çayönü contained the first evidence of deliberately constructed open spaces.

Plazas versus Patios

Open spaces range in size from tiny to enormous, and archaeologists have discovered that at least in this case, size does matter: although plazas serve similar functions, they range in the percentage of people in the community that could attend those functions, and so different sizes have slightly different meanings to the community.

  • Patios (also called courtyards) are areas set aside for household activities, for the use of a private residence or a family compound. They are marked by buildings and features associated with domestic uses. Patios are intimate settings for small groups that provide marked space for craft production or family meals.
  • Plazas (called forums, market places, zocalos, or even quadrangles on college campuses) are typically the focus of community-wide religious and political rituals, and they tend to be larger and more socially inclusive than patios. Plazas are often used for a wide spectrum of both secular and sacred activities, some of which were and are critical to the organization and operation of the larger community.

    Architecture of Public Spaces

    Open spaces are created by the arrangement of buildings or earthworks; sometimes a series of stones placed in a line defines a space, sometimes low walls serves that purpose. Some plazas are built next to temples, which Inomata argues allows the assembly of an audience for staged ceremonial performances at the temple.

    Most plazas appear to be devoid of structures, although some do include posts, pit features and buildings. These types of features would also have served as part of the shared activities of the community, e.g., public shops rather than private homes.

    The problem is, sometimes spaces identified by size as civic-ceremonial plazas were actually large residential patios for elites. Sometimes open spaces in settlements are subject to multiple uses over time as power balances among ruling families shifted between generations. In most cases, plazas were kept swept clean of debris, to keep them open and safely available to large amounts of people. So how do archaeologists know what went on in a place that was kept clean or changed purposes over time?

    Identifying Public Spaces

    Since the late 20th century, archaeologists have used soil chemistry to identify activities within plazas. High concentrations of soil phosphorous (indicating the presence of organic material) have been used to identify middens; plazas typically have comparatively low-phosphorous levels. However, higher levels have been identified in patches within plaza spaces, and these may represent areas where food preparation and consumption at feasts occurred.

    For example, Fulton et al. used soil properties (the presence of organic matter, pH levels and chemical concentrations) in combination with artifact assemblages in an attempt to identify domestic versus public spaces. They found that both large and small plazas at the Maya center of Palmarejo in Honduras appeared to have multiple uses, including feasting and incense burning; but the largest plazas had discrete activity areas where those things took place.

    Recent Research on Plazas

    As you might image, there have been many, many investigations into plazas all over the world. Here's a sample of some recent studies.

    A study of plaza acoustics (Helmer and Chicoine 2013) was conducted at the main plaza in Caylán, an Early Horizon center in Peru (9th-5th centuries BC). Artifacts from the community included several dozen fragments of panpipes, a musical instrument common to Andean societies for thousands of years.

    Helmer and Chichoine found that the plaza and the adjacent architecture together formed an amphitheatre-like environment, with specific features minimizing ambient noise and amplifying sound within the plaza area.

    Inomata (2006) investigated plazas at several Maya sites in Mesoamerica, concluding that the largest of the Maya plazas were large enough to hold the majority of the members in the community on ceremonial occasions. He argues that theatrical events held in these places kept the community together, while at the same time, smaller, private plazas were kept for exclusive performances, reserved for elites.

    Kidder (2004) looked at the changes in the plaza at the Raffman site, a mound center in the Lower Mississippi Valley of Louisiana in the United States, occupied between ~500 BC-AD 500. He identified multiple configuration changes of the plaza and adjacent buildings over time, and suggests that reflects changes in the role of the plaza over time.

    Kidder argues that as elite households became established and more private, the plazas became more important to the greater society.


    This article is a part of the guide to the Archaeological Features, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

    Fulton KA, Wells EC, and Storer DA. 2013. Ritual or residential? An integrated approach to geochemical prospection for understanding the use of plaza spaces at Palmarejo, Honduras.

    Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (December 2013):1-18.

    Helmer M, and Chicoine D. 2013. Soundscapes and community organisation in ancient Peru: plaza architecture at the Early Horizon centre of Caylán. Antiquity 87(335):92-107.

    Hodder I. 2007. Çatalhöyük in the Context of the Middle Eastern Neolithic. Annual Review of Anthropology 36(1):105-120. doi: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.36.081406.094308

    Inomata T. 2006. Plazas, Performers, and Spectators Political Theaters of the Classic Maya. Current Anthropology 47(5):805-842.

    Kidder TR. 2004. Plazas as architecture: An example from the Raffman site, Northeast Louisiana. American Antiquity 69(3):514-532. doi: 10.2307/4128404

    Moore JD. 1996. The archaeology of plazas and the proxemics of ritual. American Anthropologist 98(4):789-802. doi: 10.1525/aa.1996.98.4.02a00090

    Roos CI, and Nolan KC. 2012. Phosphates, plowzones, and plazas: a minimally invasive approach to settlement structure of plowed village sites. Journal of Archaeological Science 39(1):23-32. doi: 10.1016/j.jas.2011.06.033

    Wells EC, Novotny C, and Hawken JR. 2007. Quantitative Modeling of Soil Chemical Data from Inductively Coupled Plasma? Optical Emission Spectroscopy Reveals Evidence for Cooking and Eating in Ancient Mesoamerican Plazas.

    Archaeological Chemistry: American Chemical Society. p 210-230. doi: 10.1021/bk-2007-0968.ch011