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Comparing Urban Heterogeneity

Organised by Rubina Raja and Søren M. Sindbæk
(UrbNet, Aarhus University)

Date: 27-28 June 2022

Time:  9:00-18:00

Venue: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, H.C. Andersens Boulevard 35, DK-1553 Copenhagen


Recent years have seen a profound transformation in the way archaeology approaches early urbanism. Famously defined by large, dense and heterogeneous settlements, the evolution of urban societies has been compared as a basic parameter of social complexity globally, and a vector of the power of societies to generate and allocate resources for non-agricultural specialisations. In this optics, the key dimensions for the evolution of early urban sites have been size and density.

New developments, however, increasingly put the onus on the third aspect: heterogeneity. Empirical studies and theoretical critique challenge the models that link urban settlements to a particular stage of social evolution. They also suggest that there may be no consistent link between the size of urban societies and their potential to facilitate a diversity of identities and activities. New methods greatly expand archaeology’s power to register just such diversity, in terms of the origin and movement of inhabitants or the flows and processing of materials.

This conference asks how we may reframe comparative archaeological studies of early urban societies to focus on the evolution of heterogeneity. We seek to explore what are the data and methodologies that can allow robust comparisons in this respect between places and societies; and what are the models that can frame an understanding of patterns, trajectories and causation.

We propose to frame the study of urban complexity or heterogeneity as an aspect of social technology in the sense of economist W. Bryan Arthur: as a domain evolving by combining and re-combining previous technologies for new ends. In this perspective, an essential urban process is the coming-together of skills and knowledge, and evidence for experimentation, play and tinkering with ways-of-doing.

We want to explore if such processes were generally concentrated in large urban centres, or whether they are associated with different parameters of society. In doing so, we are also questioning historical assumptions that underlie the trend for nucleation and megalopolis in the contemporary world. Are big cities really essential for big developments? Or has urban complexity been achieved historically along different paths.

The conference is focused on facilitating comparative frames of reference, based on the questions:

  • How can urban societies in your field be characterized in terms of heterogeneity of social roles and fabric, activities, economy and culture?
  • Is heterogeneity a factor that specifically marks out urban societies in this case, or is the heterogeneity of cities simply a constituent part of the wider social fabric?
  • To what extent is heterogeneity in urban societies in question associated with continuous processes of development in material or social technologies? (not necessarily salient breakthroughs associated with the establishment of cities, but how urban societies act over time in terms of processes of tinkering, adaptations, recombination, etc.)
  • To what extent can the pattern of heterogeneity be seen as a factor that affects the development of urban societies over time?

Confirmed participants

  • Bavuso, Irene (Aarhus University)
  • Bekker-Nielsen, Tønnes (University of Southern Denmark) - discussant/chair
  • Bemmann, Jan (Universität Bonn)  - speaker
  • Chirikure, Shadreck (University of Oxford) - speaker
  • Dumitru, Ioana (Aarhus University)
  • Flohr, Miko (Leiden University) - speaker
  • Furlan, Guido (Aarhus University)
  • Hanson, Jack (University of Reading) - speaker
  • Kenoyer, Jonathan M. (University of Wisconsin-Madison) - speaker
  • Laursen, Steffen T. (Moesgaard Museum) - speaker
  • Lehner, Mark (University of Chicago) - speaker
  • Makowski, Krzysztof (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru) - speaker
  • McMahon, Augusta (University of Cambridge) - speaker
  • Min, Li (UCLA) - speaker
  • Raja, Rubina (Aarhus University) - organiser
  • Richter, Tobias (University of Copenhagen) - speaker
  • Sindbæk, Søren M. (Aarhus University) - organiser
  • Steding, Julia (Aarhus University)
  • Thuesen, Ingolf (University of Copenhagen) - discussant/chair
  • Vidale, Massimo (Università di Padova) - speaker
  • Wynne-Jones, Stephanie (University of York) - discussant/chair

Practical information for speakers


Please book your own travel to Aarhus, and we will reimburse you after your stay. Please note that we can only reimburse economy-class tickets booked directly through an airline and not via a search engine.

As soon as you have organised your travel, please forward your itinerary to Christina Levisen (levisen@cas.au.dk), so that the hotel booking can be confirmed.

After the event, you will receive a link to AU’s online travel reimbursement form. It is important that you keep your receipts, as you will need to provide documentation for expenses.


Hotel Scandic Webers
Vesterbrogade 11B
1620 Copenhagen

Phone: +45 33 31 14 32

Dinner and diet

A speakers’ dinner will be held on both evenings, and we will of course cater for you during the conference. 

If you have any dietary restrictions (incl. allergies), please let Christina Levisen (levisen@cas.au.dk) know no later than 15 May, so that the restaurant/caterers can be notified. For sustainability reasons, we strive to serve mostly vegetarian meals.