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Anomalocivitas conference: Towards a more complex theory of urbanism

Conference summary by PhD student Rhiannon Garth Jones.

The archaeology of urbanism has developed with a focus on particular examples: cities of the Bronze-age Near East, the Mediterranean of the classical period, Mesoamerican highland cities, and the Northern Europe high-medieval cities. This has led to urbanism being regarded as nearly synonymous with social complexity and with civilisation.

UrbNet’s Anomalocivitas conference, on 28 and 29 June, organised by Professors Rubina Raja and Søren Sindbæk, aimed to reconsider this presumption in light of more globally oriented historical and archaeological research that has exposed urbanity as a phenomenon that varies widely across time and space, sometimes in surprising ways. The famous Cambrian arthropod Anomalocaris, which defies evolutionary hindsight and was therefore misunderstood for decades, was used as inspiration to recognise that the past is full of extraordinary and surprising urban societies: anomalocivitas.

The conference commemorated the 20-year anniversary of the Copenhagen Polis Centre’s seminal publication “A Comparative Study of Thirty City-State Cultures” and asked for contributions that explored the making of urban societies as a non-linear and underdetermined process, accepting that urbanity can be characterised as a recognisable pattern. The virtual conference was hosted by Centre for Urban Network Evolutions and Aarhus University.

Day One

Professors Raja and Sindbæk opened the conference with an explanation of UrbNet’s work, the conference theme, and the encouragement to escape the straitjackets of urban history as a teleological narrative to the present, both with the papers and the subsequent discussions. This exhortation was picked up by Roland Fletcher (University of Sydney), who opened with a paper that explored the diversity of understanding of ‘urban’ by reminding us that we originally understood Anomalocaris as two different species. Urbanism is defined locally and understood globally and that, to allow meaningful comparison, we need an approach that recognises different trajectories within an overall context rather than a restrictive category. Identifying simple underlying structural features makes theoretical comparison possible, which he demonstrated by showing the relative resilience of low- and high-density settlements.

Philip Parton (Australian National University) then introduced his PhD work on the Ancient Tongan Polity, using LIDAR data from the main Tongan island of Tongatapu combined with primary sources and vernacular literature to develop a more sophisticated understanding of the urban system. His work suggested, among other things, a larger population than previously calculated and greater settlement density and networks. His work applied method and theory derived from the analysis of modern urban analysis as a starting point but the possibilities of different methods were discussed.

Manuel Fernández-Götz (University of Edinburgh) and Tom Moore (Durham University) then presented a paper on Iron Age settlements in Europe that tied in with some of Professor Fletcher’s observations on low-density settlements. The authors observed that one of the main features of these sites is low-density occupation and large open spaces within enclosed areas, and speculated that the spaces, rather than being ‘unfinished’, were actually a defining characteristic. They discussed how agricultural lands might not be in opposition to ‘urban’ spaces but integral and suggested we need more understanding of the centre’s relationship with the hinterland. The following discussion fruitfully considered the role of major earthworks as an expression of prestige and labour strength, rather than a functional necessity.

In the final session before lunch, Kirstine Haase (Odense City Museums) used the urban theories of Jane Jacobs to throw new light on tenth- and eleventh-century Odense. She discussed the role of imported products and local labour, and how diversification of work and increased complexity gave us a different understanding of the development of a site. The shift from husbandry to a professional butchery, for instance, might also allow for industries like tanning, road construction, and comb-making to emerge. She stressed the importance of asking different questions to gain a better understanding of anomalocivitas to provoke an interesting discussion that also considered the interaction of top-down and bottom-up dynamics, a theme that would recur throughout the papers.

John Hanson (University of Reading) demonstrated an experiment in scaling, applying the Guttman Scale to Roman imperial cities to show a correlation between both the amount and diversity of monumental buildings with the population size of a city. This correlation, he suggested, might show how and why the built environments of these cities changed as they grew in size and the order structures emerged in (forum and walls first, with structures such as baths, temples, and theatres next, and arches, basilicas, and circuses last). Social mixing and defence would seem to be the most important functions of a city, in this interpretation, which also hints at supply and demand dynamics, quality of life, public goods, etc. His approach might also have a predictive function, he suggested, providing a framework to assess differences. Interestingly, the approach was also able to plot deviations from expectations and indicated Rome was quite standard. However, it was noted that, for example, regional variation in size of cities might account for the prevalence of some monuments in some places, as well as regional cultural differences.

Monday’s papers concluded with a presentation by Gary Feinman (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago) of a paper by himself, Richard E. Blanton (Purdue University), Linda M. Nicholas (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago), and Stephen A. Kowalewski (University of Georgia). This reframed the foundation of Monté Alban in the Oaxaca Valley from the traditional top-down understanding of a city where elites forced the local populations to move to a more bottom-up approach. Their work highlighted the lack of evidence for ruling palaces early on, evidence for a lower level of inequality than elsewhere in Mesoamerica, and suggested rapid growth of both population and monumental buildings early on. The paper and following discussion explored the relationship between agricultural practice and urban understandings, as well as the use of locally adapted agricultures, again tying into the first paper of the day.

A final discussion drew together some of the key themes from the conference so far, specifically highlighting mis-identification of low-density sites, unexpected monuments and architecture, the role of food storage and elite ideologies, and the need to develop new assessment criteria – or reconsider assessment criteria entirely.

Day Two

The second day of proceedings was opened with a paper on the Trypillia ‘mega-sites’ of the forest steppe north of the Black Sea by René Ohlrau (Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel). The presentation noted the difficulties of calculating population size without burial sites, before discussing the extensive radio-carbon dating project at the sites which, combined with pottery studies, suggested several phases of occupation over a number of centuries. The post-paper discourse explored settlements that make brief bursts towards higher density without sustaining it and what perspective they might offer on urbanism. The idea that they might be more egalitarian societies whose push to a hierarchical structure leads to breakdown was proposed, the possibility that activities might be scaled up but not diversified, and the impact of seasonality were all considered.

The next paper, presented by Pieterjan Deckers (Vrije Universiteit Brussels) argued that we should consider the small Dutch island of Walcheren as having a long tradition of urbanism, rather than three separate phases that exemplify the more typical understanding of the evolution of urbanism in the Low Countries. He connected the seventh- to ninth-century emporium of Walichrum, the three ninth-century ringforts on the island (not previously considered urban settlements), and the tenth- to eleventh-century town of Middelburg, originally one of the ringforts. This presentation picked up on a number of earlier and later themes, including population size, the role of the elites and “urbanisation as a manifestation of political conjecture and strategy”, urbanism without elites (and therefore literary sources), and the role of trade networks. The danger of mistaking parts for the whole because of preconceived expectations was again highlighted.

Eivind Heldaas Seland (University of Bergen) then presented the paper he and Professor Raja had co-authored on the paradox of Palmyra and the relationship between the so-called “bride of the desert” and the surrounding environment. The paper demonstrated the options Palmyra had for local cultivation before tracing Palmyra’s urban biography and palaeoclimatalogical evidence of climate change over this extended period. The climate record of a relatively wet and stable period 300 BCE-200 CE, through less stable periods and droughts until the Islamic Wet period of 470-670 CE and subsequent desiccating conditions thereafter reflected what is currently known of the city’s ‘flourishing’ from epigraphic and archaeological sources, as well as the geopolitical trends and balance between nomads and settlers throughout the same period. The great potential for high-definition research in the area was noted and promising areas highlighted.

The conference’s co-organiser, Søren Sindbæk, spoke next, presenting his theory of ‘weak ties and strange attractors’ as a framework for the archaeology of urban origins. He repeated the dangers of an overly linear approach before using the case study of Ribe. He suggested the maritime emporium, with its intensive craft specialisation and trade networks, high-density occupation, and regular plot structure but small core should be seen as a uniquely adapted site rather than a primitive ancestor, returning to the inspiration for the conference. He argued that urbanism is not a constant but “an emergent historical dynamic, converging upon – but not fully determined by – a set of cultural practices and routines” and that his model would allow for different trajectories. He continued with the suggestion that the strength of so-called weak ties allow cities to thrive as more than function of, for instance, a colony city, and that cities with dispersed connections, such as Constantinople, were incentivised to seek new outposts/colonies/emporia/seedling cities of much greater complexity than their size has previously suggested.

Lunch was followed by a paper re-evaluating the urbanism of Samnium to complement current Samnite studies from Kevin S. Lee (University of Texas at Austin/The American School of Classical Studies in Athens). His work questioned the default assumptions about the measurement of ancient cities, both in terms of monumental buildings and the ancient sources themselves, demonstrating that both Strabo and Livy had a more nuanced view of the diversity of Samnite settlements than is usually presumed. He stressed the significance of the relationship between political community and urbanism in the Graeco-Roman understanding and tied them to functions of territorial admin, markets and trade, sanctuaries, and defence. He then posited that, in Samnium, we might see multiple smaller sites exercising multiple functions as part of larger polyfocal settlements at Rufrium, Roccavechia, and Montauro. He concluded by arguing that both a non-urban and an urban lens were required for a better understanding.

The final paper of the day came from Michael E Smith (Arizona State University), which studied voluntary camps and practical machines as types of anomalocivitas. He considered examples of the former when we can see the phenomenon of ‘communitas’, such as initiation camps, revival camps of nineteenth-century USA, pilgrimage camps, protest camps, nomadic campsites, and Burning Man. He argued that they present an insight into the nature of urbanism, where the population density has social effects to that of the ‘energised crowding’ of more recognised urban settlements. The top down creation and effects of practical machine examples such as company towns, military camps, refugee camps, and mobile capitals of itinerant kings were discussed. Both types of examples, he stressed, saw neighbourhood formation and corresponding social cohesion and group identity dynamics.

The nuances of these examples were debated, leading the discussion into the broader themes and many examples of the conference. The unusual trajectories of the suggested anomalocivitas and their parallels elsewhere were deliberated upon before it was suggested that all the examples are settlements of their own and it doesn’t matter if they ‘became cities’. The difficulties of tracing settlements throughout time and the consequences for our understanding was stressed, the role of social and economic hierarchies, the significance (or lack thereof) of longevity, and great heterogeneity of the examples discussed were all emphasised. The consequences of that heterogeneity for understanding how and indeed if the types of anomalocivitas relate was also debated and the theoretical avenues that might suggest.

Selected contributions will be published in a special edition of the newly founded Journal of Urban Archaeology, which should be an edition of great interest.