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From Prehistoric Villages to Cities: Settlement Aggregation and Community Transformation

From Prehistoric Villages to Cities: Settlement Aggregation and Community Transformation

Edited by Jennifer Birch (Routledge Studies in Archaeology). Pp. xiv + 225, figs. 32, tables 2. Routledge, New York 2013. $125. ISBN 978-0-415-83661-6 (cloth).

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Cultural evolution is awash in social classifications ranging, for example, from bands to states, exclusionary to corporate, group-oriented to individualizing, or apical to constituent societies. Promoted as ways to describe societies, they have become reified into types more likely to obfuscate than illuminate our understanding of social forms. While most decry the sterility of social typologies, they continue to persist. Birch suggests we can break through these limiting taxonomies. To do so, she produced a volume centered on exploring a diverse array of societies through a conceptual framework centered on the strategy of coalescence. The recognition of coalescent societies stems from observations that disintegrated, fragmented, or collapsing societies often aggregate into new, innovative societal forms. These new forms include the presence of large population centers, often multilingual and multiethnic; employ strategies to promote community integration through architecture, myth, and rituals; see the intensification of production; and a number of other activities that facilitate the continuance of a diverse society. The volume’s contributors are tasked with examining strategies that allowed aggregations to be successful.

Birch leads off the volume with a comprehensive review of social types and their shortcomings and introduces the concept of coalescence, the cultural correlates of aggregation, and the value of examining cross-cultural variation within a historical context. Making up the core of the volume are eight case studies ranging from seventh-millennium Neolithic Çatalhöyük in Turkey to 18th-century Cherokee townhouses in southern Appalachia in the United States. As is typical in many edited volumes, the selection of studies is eclectic and of varying pertinence. Topically they range from broad spatial studies of large regions, such as the Great Hungarian Plain (e.g., Duffy et al.), to villages and houses (most of the examples in the volume), and to monumental architecture (e.g., Beck, Rodning).

The chapters that examine households and sites are the most instructive, with their grounding in contextually detailed data sets. The case studies lead off with Düring’s rethinking of Çatalhöyük, which he contends is most productively thought of as “an agglomeration of neighborhood communities without any institutions that serve the community as a whole” (38). This surprising conclusion is the result of his bottom-up analysis of sets of nested social structures that begins at the household level and recognizes that these households were clustered in numerous segregated, walled—yet abutting—neighborhoods. The lack of communal integrative structures at Çatalhöyük challenges a main bulwark of aggregation modeling. Haggis’ study of Azoria, an Archaic-period Greek site in Crete, takes the same ground-up approach and recognizes that the first aggregations at Azoria resembled those of Çatalhöyük in being discrete household clusters likely representing kin residential groups. In this case, however, later significant architectural remodeling of Azoria reflected an image of collective integration while creating a core of elite households that actually restricted commoners’ access to monumental buildings, cult activities, and feasting, while promoting an image of social order.

Two studies from the southwestern United States bring new insights into a region where coalescent societies are epitomized in the highly structured pueblos of historic times, with their clustered dwellings, multiethnic composition, and communal plazas and kivas. Rautman examines community development in the post-1100 C.E. period in the Salinas Basin of New Mexico. Both communal architecture and stress factors appear to be missing—yet Rautman documents a process of slow aggregation. She contends that widely separated villages created and reinforced a sense of shared community through standardized and repetitious built environments. As local populations clustered into larger aggregations around classic communal kivas and plazas, they did so as village units (similar to Çatalhöyük). As pueblos aggregated, they became increasingly uniform and fostered an environment in which social conformity could be monitored and enforced (à la Foucault). In the Tucson Basin, Wallace and Lindeman attribute aggregation around communal ritual areas to regional violence that brought together previously cooperating villages. As in Çatalhöyük and the Salinas Basin, aggregations are attributed to a clustering of independent villages that remain cohesive even in the face of aggregation.

Beck pushes the discussion of community further than most authors in his reconstruction of the rise to prominence of Chiripa in the fifth century B.C.E. Based on temple excavations, he hypothesizes that Bolivian elites manipulated the prominence of social houses, religious ideology, and imagined community to gain power during a period of environmental stress on Lake Titicaca. Birch and Williamson’s chapter on historic-era Wendat villages in southern Ontario reinforce the view that aggregations generate increasing complexity and innovation in production, consumption, and distribution and in new political and social forms of leadership. In analyzing Cherokee townhouses, Rodning traces the transition and expansion of such communal structures from a prehistoric village to a multivillage communal role in the historic period. At the other end of the scale, Duffy and his coauthors analyze spatially extensive, multiscalar settlement data from Neolithic to Bronze Age sites across the Great Hungarian Plain to conclude there is little evidence for aggregation being economic, ecological, or conflict driven. They suggest the pull of “social gravity” (57) is the most likely cause of aggregation. The final summary contribution is by Kowalewski, reprising his earlier promotion of coalescence and aggregation with a special emphasis here on the labor process and purposeful action in bringing about the innovation required to create new societies.

While the genesis of coalescent societies was derived from the premise that such societies were constructed from previously fragmented peoples, the contributors have broadened its scope to the strategies of aggregation per se. An important observation is that such aggregations almost always represent clusters of smaller social units rather than formless masses of people. Birch has brought together a provocative set of papers exploring the complex and challenging changes that accrue from human aggregation. This is not the first time that topic has been addressed, and it will not be the last, but From Villages to Cities will be an important part of that literature for those who study the emergence of early villages, cities, and states.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois

Book Review of From Prehistoric Villages to Cities: Settlement Aggregation and Community Transformation, edited by Jennifer Birch

Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Emerson

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