Thursday, January 23, 2014

How ancient cities can help us understand modern cities

Tropical sprawl at Angkor (Evans et al. 2013)
A growing number of archaeologists, including me, believe that the results of our excavations at
ancient cities can help us understand cities today. The problem is that the road from, say, a  map of an ancient Mesopotamian city or the trash heap next to one of the Aztec urban houses I've excavated, to information relevant to modern cities, can be long and difficult. The popular press and university public relations offices are quick to draw facile modern connections for research on ancient cities. Mapping the huge city of Angkor revealed low-density settlement, so this helps us understand urban sprawl. Tell Brak, a much earlier city in Mesopotamia, also had low-density settlement, and the Environmental News Network reports that "Researchers [at Tell Brak] rewrite the origins of ancient urban sprawl" (for these and other examples, see Smith 2010, p. 229).

The implication of these press reports seems to be that urban planners in southern California might read about Angkor or Brak, and this will help them deal with with urban sprawl and its consequences around Los Angeles. I don't think so. The actual situation is much more complex. I will discuss this with respect to four questions:
The earliest sprawl? Tell Brak (Ur et al. 2007)

1. How, exactly, are ancient cities be relevant to contemporary urbanization?

I gave my take on this question in an earlier post,"Why are premodern cities important today?" (2011). To summarize here, there are two main arguments, that I call the urban trajectory argument and the sample size argument.

The urban trajectory argument. This has two components, the long and the short perspective. The long perspective argument suggests that having a broad historical perspective, looking a cities from deep history to the present, helps us understanding cities and how they change through time. One statement of this argument is the quote from Winston Churchill at the top of this blog: "The farther back we look, the farther ahead we can see."

The short perspective argument says  that to understand cities today, we need to know how they developed historically. Richard Harris and Robert Lewis (1998) make this point for the value of (recent) urban history in understanding North American cities today. But if we go back earlier in time, then archaeological studies of, say, Aztec cities, can help reveal the forms and functions of early Spanish cities that were created as replacements for, or transformations of their Aztec antecedents. Setha Low (1995) discusses this issue. The fact that archaeology covers long periods of change through time is what gives it special insights into trajectories of urban change.

Coatetelco, an Aztec city (Smith 2008)
The sample size argument.  Again, there are two parts to this argument. First, adding ancient cities to the body of knowledge of contemporary and historical cities provides a broader base for generalization and explanation. By widening the comparative framework of cities, archaeological findings help scholars distinguish the unique from the universal, they provide additional insights on specific cities, and they help in uncovering the dynamics of change and causality. What forces shape urban development and how do they operate? The bigger and more diverse the sample, the better we can answer this and other questions.

The second part of the sample size argument is that by providing more and more diverse examples of cities, knowledge of ancient cities give modern planners and managers more case studies to draw on.

2. Do archaeologists have the data to illuminate urban trajectories and increase the sample of known cities?

The answer here is both yes and no. Archaeologists have excavated and mapped and analyzed many ancient cities from all over the world, and we have lots of data that bear on a wide variety of urban issues, from neighborhoods to sprawl to economic growth. The problem is that we haven't analyzed our data in ways that allow direct examination of these issues, or ways that allow comparison with modern cities. I published a paper in 2010 on precisely this issue: "Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues." For me, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of trying to compare ancient and modern cities. Archaeological data can be messy and difficult to work with. The way we analyze and publish our data are rarely of direct relevance to contemporary social issues. We need to reanalyze our findings, using the concepts, methods, and data formats that relate to research on contemporary cities and society, and that takes time and effort. Will archaeologists do this?

3. Will archaeologists do the work to translate our data into usable formats?

I am optimistic that some archaeologists will make the effort to translate the results of our fieldwork into findings that can be used and understood by other urban scholars, by policy makers, and by the public. Indeed, an important new paper by a group of prominent archaeologists came out this week in the journal American Antiquity, with a summary in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Kintigh et al. 2014). These authors identify 25 "grand challenges" for archaeology in the near future. (See my take on the list of challenges here). These are big questions, amenable to archaeological research, that relate to major intellectual and scientific issues today. One of these challenges concerns cities and urbanism, Challenge A6: "How can systematic investigations of prehistoric and historic urban landscapes shed new light on the social and demographic processes that drive urbanism and its consequences?" And several others overlap considerably with urbanism, including a challenge on social inequality (# A2) and two on the nature of human communities (# A4 and A5).

I am excited by this new list of grand challenges for archaeology, and the inclusion of cities and urbanism in several of them will help stimulate further archaeological research on ancient urbanism and its contemporary relevance. The authors cite my 2010 paper in their discussion of the urbanism challenge. More and more archaeologists are starting to realize the value of reanalyzing our data to address new and important research questions. Indeed, this is one of the explicit reasons for identifying research challenges: where should we concentrate our effort beyond our regular fieldwork?

I know this difficulty of translating archaeological findings first-hand. I am trying to get some of my own archaeological data into usable formats, and it is taking far too long. I can get grants for fieldwork and artifact analysis, but rarely for this kind of data analysis, so I have to work on this in my spare time (I have two grant-funded projects that take up most of my research time). Since I don't have funding to hire student Research Assistants for this kind of work, I have to go with the help of undergraduate interns and volunteers. I am fortunate in having a great group of undergraduates (and graduate students) in my university lab to help with these tasks, and we are moving ahead, slowly but surely.

4. Who needs to look at archaeological findings?

When you read the press releases about how Teotihuacan is valuable for understanding urban planning, or how Angkor illuminates sprawl, you sometimes get the impression that planners and politicians are going to read archaeological reports and this will help them with their jobs. Well, think again. The mayor of Phoenix is not going to give me a ring and ask my advice on how to improve the marginal neighborhoods in South Phoenix, on the basis of my archaeological research on ancient neighborhoods. But Phoenix planners are far more likely to consult the broader social science research on neighborhoods to help with ideas and plans. They may look at Robert Sampson's 2012 book, Great American City, or Sidney Brower's 2011 book, Neighbors and Neighborhoods. And I'd hope they wold also look at other neighborhood research, such as Emily Talen's (2010) paper on diverse neighborhoods.

Given this situation, my strategy has been to try to get ancient cities onto the radar of scholars and others interested in cities and urbanism from a broad perspective. I've been publishing in urban journals outside of archaeology, giving papers at conferences, and generally trying to make other urban scholars aware of the potential value of archaeological data on ancient cities (see Smith 2012). This is one of the reasons for writing this blog. I like to ask questions such as,"Why are Aztec cities interesting?" (2012); that is, why are they interesting in comparison to other known ancient and modern cities? These efforts are starting to pay off; Sampson has cited my work in several publications as supporting the notion that neighborhoods are enduring and long-lasting.

But the first step is to recognize that ancient and modern cities are both part of a single category--cities. Knowledge from one urban realm can be applied to another realm, for the improvement of our general understanding of urbanism. All cities, from ancient Uruk to contemporary Mumbai, are part of this wide urban world.

Dharavi slum in Mumbai

Brower, Sidney N.  (2011)  Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.

Evans, Damian H., Roland J. Fletcher, Christophe Pottier, Jean-Baptiste Chevance, Dominique Soutif, Boun Suy Tan, Sokrithy Im, Darith Ea, Tina Tin, Samnang Kim, Christopher Cromarty, Stéphane De Greef, Kasper Hanus, Pierre Bâty, Robert Kuszinger, Ichita Shimoda and Glenn Boornazian  (2013)  Uncovering archaeological landscapes at Angkor using lidar. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 110:12595-12600.

Harris, Richard and Robert Lewis  (1998)  How the Past Matters: North American Cities in the Twentieth Century. Journal of Urban Affairs 20:159-174.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey Altschul, Mary Beaudry, Robert Drennan, Ann Kinzig, Timothy Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert Maschner, William Michener, Timothy Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy Sabloff, Tony Wilkinson, Henry Wright and Melinda Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79(1):5-24.

Kintigh, Keith W., Jeffrey H. Altschul, Mary C. Beaudry, Robert D. Drennan, Ann P. Kinzig, Timothy A. Kohler, W. Frederick Limp, Herbert D. G. Maschner, William K. Michener, Timothy R. Pauketat, Peter Peregrine, Jeremy A. Sabloff, Tony J. Wilkinson, Henry T. Wright and Melinda A. Zeder  (2014)  Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 122:879-880.

Low, Setha M.  (1995)  Indigenous Architecture and the Spanish American Plaza in Mesoamerica and the Caribbean. American Anthropologist 97:748-762.

Sampson, Robert J.  (2012)  Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E.  (2010)  Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

Smith, Michael E.  (2012)  The Role of Ancient Cities in Research on Contemporary Urbanization. UGEC Viewpoints (Urbanization and Global Environmental Change) 8:15-19.

Talen, Emily  (2010)  The Context of  Diversity: A Study of Six Chicago Neighbourhoods`. Urban Studies 47:486-513.

Ur, Jason A., Philip Karsgaard and Joan Oates  (2007)  Early Urban Development in the Near East. Science 317:1188.


  1. Good points, Mike. Something we are trying to do here at BU is to foster better dialogue, or even collaboration, between those of us studying prehistoric/premodern cities and historical archaeologists working with data from early chapters of extant cities, such as Boston or Charleston, SC. I think this could help with the urban trajectory argument in bridging a premodern/modern or prehistoric/historic divide that make claims of contemporary relevance seem tenuous to skeptics.

  2. Michael - Some excellent points made here. As an urban planner with a background in mesoamerican archaeology, I frequently struggle with explaining to colleagues how the archaeology of cities/settlements can help inform our understanding of modern cities. Your work as posted here and elsewhere has proven invaulable in helping me bridge this gap. There's a lot of work to be done; however, the application of technologies such as LIDAR and GIS to ancient cities are producing data sets that are more comparable to data from modern cities.

    Always enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the good work.


  3. @Troy - Thanks for the feedback. Yes, new technologies are revolutionizing the study of ancient cities. But we are still in the exploratory stage, so much of the work is technically advanced but conceptually primitive. That should improve with time, though.

  4. @David - I replied earlier, but evidently my response didn't get posted? Tracing individual cities through time is an excellent way to make comparisons and see connections between cities today and earlier cities. This is of less use for ancient cities, though, since we rarely have good data at multiple points in time. We wanted to track individual cities through time in our urban services project ( ), but we couldn't find examples that would allow this.

  5. Hi Michael,
    What about the opposite? Do you think that modern cities have much to tell us about the past? How do you feel about a traditionally "modern" urban disciple, such as geography, researching aspects of early cities? Or, can methodologies, theories, or conclusions about modern cities be applied at all to the past?


    1. "...traditionally 'modern' urban *discipline*..." - Typographical error - apologies.

  6. Good question. On one level, virtually all of the social interpretations archaeologists make of our data depends on making analogies with modern or historical conditions.But the extent to which contemporary urban patterns apply to ancient cities is still a big unknown. Can we make reasonable analogies between the two categories? I used to think that contemporary and ancient cities were so different that any comparison had to be superficial. But now I see that many aspects of cities are comparable, and thus our knowledge of contemporary cities can furnish clues and analogies and insights for studying ancient cities. Neighborhood dynamics is an obvious example, one I have worked with. But contemporary urban economics, with agglomeration economies, are so radically different from ancient economies, that comparisons for the most part will not be useful.

    The whole topic of sorting out three categories is something we need much more work on: (1) urban universals (e.g., neighborhood organization); (2) traits limited to individual historical/cultural urban traditions (e.g., the role of ballcourts in Mayan cities), and (3) traits that vary among cities and whose presence and significance are important things for comparative research.

    Thanks for this important question. I should probably devote a post to it before long!