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Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization

July 2020 (124.3)

Book Review

Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization

Edited by Attila Gyucha (Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology Proceedings 8). Albany: State University of New York Press 2019. Pp. xii + 390. $100. ISBN 978-1-4384-7277-5 (cloth). 

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Coming Together joins recent volumes exploring complexity and urbanism through archaeological evidence and historical documentation. Like those works, it seeks to reveal commonalities and diversities inherent in the processes of population aggregation and persistence. However, its specific concentration on population nucleation per se, gained by expanding coverage to earlier preurban village forms, makes this collection unique. As might be expected from an Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology session, 10 of the case studies investigate societies from those regions, though three others analyze village-level societies in the continental United States. Strangely absent are case studies from the nucleated societies of Mesoamerica, the Andean region, Africa, and the Far East.

Introductory remarks (ch. 1) by organizer and editor Gyucha provide a discerning and well-referenced evaluation of the challenges inherent in the archaeological study of nucleated settlements. Gyucha summarizes what many of the case studies demonstrate, that the social, environmental, cultural, political, economic, and symbolic variables in population aggregates are intricately interwoven and historically contingent. The case studies relate multiple instances of diverse sociopolitical attributes linked to specific historical (cultural) contexts, whereas they document commonalities as manifested as broadly shared, innate human behaviors and beliefs. This places commonalities as timeless urban principles and characteristics, and, in this context, proponents assert the relevance of early urbanization investigations to modern society. It is in this vein, for example, that Michael Smith’s (ch. 2) theoretical contribution identifies “energized crowding” (i.e., the intensification of social interactions in all population aggregations) as a crucial factor in generating social change in the past (and present).

Diverse causes, not shared commonalities, dominate these detailed histories. The authors generally embrace nonlinear evolutionary pathways, often identifying cyclical oscillations of aggregation and dispersal, as well as supporting complex multicausal, historically contingent variables in understanding population aggregation. An exemplary case of this multicausal approach is Jennifer Birch’s (ch. 15) utilization of the extensive archaeological, ethnographic, and historical data on the protohistoric and historic Wendat (Huron) of southern Ontario. She weaves a detailed depiction of the intricate network of internal and external negotiations and interactions that come into play among aggregating populations though space and time. Birch’s chapter, more than any other, brings to the forefront both the potential and the challenges in studying population aggregation.

The studies incorporate a wide range of variables, approaches, and scales, although most examine historically specific factors rather than being grounded in human behavioral universals. At one end of this scale is a viewshed analysis of “visibility” in the placement of buildings in Pompeii (Alan Kaiser, ch. 11). Given detailed knowledge of Roman social norms and spectacular building preservation, Kaiser uses building visibility to speculate on levels of local Roman social status. More commonly, the volume’s contributors examine the built environment at the settlement level looking for internal relationships between construction and sociopolitical changes. Laura Harrison and A. Nejat Bilgen’s analysis of the Bronze Age Anatolian site of Seyitömer Höyük employs environmental space syntax to study power dynamics (ch. 9). Based on the premise that the built environment reinforces power relations, shifting building patterns are interpreted as integrating residents while creating new centralizing power relations. The local built environment comes into play in the diachronic examination of a single building form in the American Southwest (Susan Ryan, ch. 14). Ryan found that the “evolution” of the kiva from a small pit house to a large, formalized, architecturally homogenized, public structure correlated with large-scale population aggregations, suggesting that its integrative purpose moved from the local kin group to the community. John Kelly (ch. 5), drawing on settlement changes encountered at the pre-Mississippian Range site, envisions a linear evolutionary trajectory from earlier agricultural villages to 11th-century urban Cahokia. The deliberate creation of the port town of Kalamianos by Mycenae allows Daniel Pullen (ch. 10) to trace the interrelationship of the two cities and postulate the port’s role in an intricate economic network based on the Saronic Gulf. Athens’ rise to dominance is examined via Attica’s local settlement patterns, especially shifts in sacred site locations (Robin Osborne, ch. 6), and is hypothesized to have involved patterns of cooperation, the centripetal draw of aggregations, and a focal shift of regional centers toward Athens.

At the upper extremes of scale, the perspective moves to broad vistas across temperate Europe. Such an approach is utilized by Pal Raczky (ch. 12) to discern settlement pattern changes across space and time during the Neolithic of the Great Hungarian Plain. A similar spatial scope allows Bisserka Gaydarska (ch. 8) to explore the enigmatic Ukrainian Trypillia megasites. Her thoughtful contribution brings to the forefront questions that touch on virtually every attribute of the urbanization process.

Examining multiple levels of diachronic change to reveal sociopolitical, religious, and economic variation is a key analytical practice in a number of the studies. Central European Iron Age population aggregations are traced through a series of oscillating cycles of centralization and decentralization, from early chiefly centers, Fürstensitze, to later oppida (Manuel Fernández-Götz, ch. 4). The emergence of Greek city-states is said to owe little to earlier Mycenean palace centers but instead to be the outcome of new multicausal stimuli, including demography, warfare, iron technology, economic forces, and centralizing ritual (Bradley Ault, ch. 7). Conversely, the emergence of the Roman-influenced Iberian civitas capitals lacking monumental organizational structure are interpreted as continuing long-term dominant regional patterns that marked the earlier rural chiefly castros (i.e., small, independent, fortified villages) (Inés Sastre and Brais Currás, ch. 13).

Coming Together provides a fruitful collection of studies exploring historically contingent factors that illustrate the complexity and nonlinear processes of population aggregation. Thematically unified by a focus on settlement nucleation, the variety of methodologies employed and diverse interpretations proposed should serve as an inspiration and as a challenge for others. Although geographically uneven, there is certainly much to recommend this work for Europeanist scholars and others interested in urbanization.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois

Book Review of Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha
Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 3 (July 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1243.Emerson

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