This succinct volume introduces a materialist methodology for the energetic analysis of residential architecture. Although the author clearly intends “architectural energetics” to have broad cross-cultural utility, this exploratory application is confined to the pre-Hispanic Maya center of Copán, Honduras, where a comparatively large sample of 46 residences has been excavated. Through a liberal use of ethnographic analogy (supplemented with experimental exercises), this diversity of ancient residential constructions is “translated” into the composite cost of procuring and transporting the materials, manufacturing the necessary components, and assembling the finished structure. In the process, a common unit of comparison—energy in the form of labor-time expenditure—is derived.
An initial distinction is drawn between two classes of residences, basic and improved. The former, built on low platforms, are made of earth and cane, while the latter have masonry or dressed stone superstructures. The author argues that the improved structures are generally desirable because they are associated with a series of “biopsychological” advantages, including greater resistance to insects, better thermal regulation, and reduced susceptibility to fire. Predictably, the improved, masonry structures also are found to be costlier to construct. Yet health and comfort concerns seem to have little significance in accounting for the roughly twelvefold energetic differential between the most elaborate residence measured at Copán and other more modest masonry structures.
Once each residence is reduced to its energetic equivalent, a series of analytical exercises is undertaken. A spatial examination reveals that the costliest residence is positioned at the heart of the Copán polity, while most basic domiciles are located in non-urban zones. Yet residences in the other (intermediate) energetic classes are not homogeneously clustered. The spatial association of high- and low-cost residences across the site is interpreted to support a segmentary model of the Late Classic Period Copán state.
Also informative are analytical efforts to unravel the organization of construction labor and the role of architectural specialists. For the more elaborate structures, Abrams concludes that only about 15 percent of the builders were specialists (plaster makers, architects, sculptors, painters), while more generalized labor completed other construction tasks. The author also reasons that the costliest structures (in terms of energetics) required some kind of organized labor draft to build, while basic residences easily could have been constructed through cooperative-familial labor arrangements.
Less convincing are the author’s summary forays into broader theoretical issues. On the basis of this volume’s residential assessments, household labor commitments to elite projects are minimized in comparison with previous discussions that advanced the role of social upheaval in the Classic Period Maya collapse. Yet the assessments here seem premature, as more public and funerary construction (as well as other possible economic obligations) were not considered.
Abrams’ energetic analyses of domestic architecture appear well suited to Classic Maya society, because power was so closely tied to individuals as well as their possessions and personal accomplishments. Despite its much larger scale, however, the magnitude of this kind of energetic distinction may not be as great for residential structures in the contemporaneous central Mexican city of Teotihuacan (where much of the Classic Period population lived in apartment compounds). Consequently, until the differential association of personal wealth and status with political power is better understood, efforts to broaden energetic comparisons into a simple, unilinear measure of the concentration of power or the scale of ancient polities should be met with a degree of caution. In spite of these interpretive reservations, this work has outlined a useful avenue for materialist research. This reviewer concurs with the author in calling for the theoretical expansion and comparative application of similar endeavors.