You are here

Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies

Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies

Edited by Andrew T. Creekmore III and Kevin D. Fisher. Pp. xxii + 419, figs. 86, tables 4. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $99. ISBN 978-1-107-04652-8 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In Making Ancient Cities, the editors, Creekmore and Fisher, bring together 10 case studies examining early urban development in traditional regions of early urbanism such as the Mediterranean, Near East, and Mesoamerica with lesser-known examples from Africa and North America. However, it is more than simply the collection of assorted examples that holds one’s interest in this volume. These studies move beyond urban characterizations tied to ever-shifting thresholds of population density and size, specialization, economy, monumental constructions, and so forth that have bedeviled all too many past studies. Instead, the volume focuses on the recursive relationships of inhabitants within the context of an urbanized space and place, very much in line with papers in an earlier edited volume, The Social Construction of Ancient Cities (M.L. Smith, ed. [Washington, D.C. 2003]). The consideration of urbanism as a sociopolitical threshold rather than one of economy or population size is one I applaud. The focus on cities also serves to bypass the wearisome neoevolutionary debate about the place of cities in the chiefdom-state-empire continuum.

Fisher and Creekmore (ch. 1) situate the studies through a brief but inclusive review of recent theoretical discussions stressing the advent of agency, practice, and the roles of space and the built environment in structuring urban living. At the conclusion of the volume, Yoffee, a long-time scholar of the “city,” presents an all-too-short (seven and a half pages [ch. 12]) snapshot of the volume’s contributions; a fuller reprise of Yoffee’s thoughts on the study of ancient cities can be found in his earlier review (N. Yoffee, “Making Ancient Cities Plausible,” Reviews in Anthropology 38[4] [2009] 264–89).

Creekmore’s (ch. 2) initial case study examines the built environment of upper Mesopotamian cities, noting that, while highly nucleated, they contain multiple separate administrative complexes within their walls that are visibly linked by armatures (transportation connections: e.g., streets, alleys, courtyards). Urban development, while constrained by the compact defensive posture, develops within those limiting parameters through the linked actions of the residents, leading Creekmore to postulate that these urban structures are the result of power sharing between central authorities and resident corporate groups. In what can be seen as a companion study, Nishimura (ch. 3) examines the extensive residential evidence from the upper Mesopotamian site of Titiriş Höyük to examine conflicting models linking urban neighborhood variation in wealth, status, ethnicity, and employment to different forms of political authority. She finds that, contrary to such expectations, neighborhoods and houses were homogeneous (but not planned), and material remains suggest that no disparities in wealth or variations in ethnicity were present.

The personification of built environment as cosmic reifications has a long tradition in settlement studies, yet it plays a limited role in this volume. Wynne-Jones and Fleisher (ch. 4), looking at Swahili towns in east Africa, and Kelly and Brown (ch. 9), examining Cahokia in midcontinental North America, reflect on the cosmological model and come to very different conclusions as to its applicability. The Swahili analysis is, in fact, a reaction against the traditional tendency to interpret Swahili town design as representing an Islamic worldview. Wynne-Jones and Fleisher directly confront the classic dilemma of identifying the structure/plan of chronologically multilayered cities—classic structural palimpsests. They remind us that cities have histories and emerge as the result of the interaction of ideology and the everyday actions of residents. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the interpretation by Kelly and Brown, who portray Cahokia as a literal cosmogram. Unfortunately, given the lack of chronological control, they treat the site structure/plan as essentially “flat”—as synchronic and lacking in processes, people, and history. There is no question in the Cahokia chapter that the city is a top-down creation in which the city’s residents have little role. The Swahili and Cahokia studies provide strikingly contrastive approaches to interpreting the structure of cities.

The volume’s other contributors treat the subtexts of the volume—space and place—in a variety of ways. Magnoni et al. (ch. 5) describe an unusual Classic Maya commercial center at Chunchucmil, lacking in central royal pyramids but organized around a series of monumental quadrangles possibly representing heterarchically structured, powerful corporate groups. Three chapters deal with urban developments in the Mediterranean islands of Crete and Cyprus. Fisher (ch. 6), in analyzing the dramatic urban transition characterized by the Late Bronze Age on Cyprus, suggests that there is a deliberate restructuring of the landscape by elites to create a new social and political milieu—one, however, that was to some extent resisted or at least transformed at the household level, resulting in a new unique urban context. Fitzsimons (ch. 7) and Buell (ch. 8) explore urbanism on Crete. Fitzsimons espouses a dynamic agentic role for structure in which he argues from his research at Azoria, Crete, that the built environment (which he categorizes as functionally domestic, civic, and urban) was a crucial feature in the creation of the Greek city-state. Buell describes the Cretan palace site of Galatas as a direct imposition of Knossos state power transforming the surrounding rural landscape. Razeto (ch. 10), depending primarily on written documents, surveys the role of the Han and Roman empires in configuring urban space. She finds that the Chinese polity, with its top-down, government- and elite-driven mode of rule, directly organized the locations and form of manufacturing in its capital city of Chang’an, while the less-centralized Roman rule saw manufacturing in Rome take on a more organic form tied to consumers, transportation, and supplies. Stark (ch. 11) provides a final case study focusing on what one might characterize as the absence of a “built” environment—the open urban spaces of gardens, parks, fields, elite hunting grounds, and so forth. Her review of Mesoamerican examples, as well as her survey of urban open spaces across the world, is a striking reminder of the importance of such places in the urban setting.

Most contributors to Making Ancient Cities lean heavily on an understanding of built environments furthered by Amos Rapoport and urban studies of early cities promoted by Michael E. Smith. All, to some extent, still struggle with traditional questions of top-down rulers or bottom-up populism and whether cities are planned or organic creations. However, these new approaches take our understanding of urbanism in stimulating directions, emphasizing the recursive relationship between humans and the built environment—a point made by earlier European scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Anthony Giddens. Furthermore, this volume is a testament to the editors’ contention that only through the examination of a city’s historical development—its life history—can the urban experience be fully understood. That point alone makes it a welcome addition to the literature on early urbanism.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois

Book Review of Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies, edited by Andrew T. Creekmore III and Kevin D. Fisher

Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Emerson

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.