Some thoughts about cities in archaeology

Back when I was doing my PhD, and again lately after a conference in Mainz (Germany) about ancient cities, I’ve realized that we – archaeologists – often use the term ‘city’ and attribute it to our sites, but not as often define what it means. For some of us, a city can be identified through size, which means that a big site will receive the attribution ‘city’ and a small site will probably not. For others, specific features are significant for the identification, so sites with a cathedral or a Roman forum or fortifications will be defined as ‘cities’. Archaeologists of earlier periods might identify any settlement site which is linked to other sites in its region through common finds as a central place and thus as a city.  Browsing through the recently published Journal of Urban Archaeology reveals, however, that a few archaeologists do concern themselves with the question of definition question. As can be expected, the topic is not limited to archaeologists and interests geographers, economists, sociologists and historians as well.

Scholars of these various disciplines agree that cities vary in different contexts and under different circumstances. Moreover, understanding spaces as ‘cities’ relates to the perspective of the contemporary observer. To add another complication, observers in the past surely had a different perspective than the one of modern scholars, highlighting the gap we are all aware of between ‘emic’ (or ancient user’s) and ‘etic’ (or scholar’s) sets of categories. So, can we overcome these challenges and get to a single global definition which accommodates today’s Beijing, Venice and Dakar? Can our definition accommodate both ancient and modern Athens?

Archaeologist Michael Smith summarizes two approaches for the identification of cities in the archaeological record. One approach is sociological, according to which cities should be big, dense, homogenous and permanent. After deciding on measured characteristics, this definition can be systematically applied on various sites. This approach, however, ignores different contexts. Smith also points to a second approach, the functional one, according to which a city is a place which has an economic, political and/or religious impact on its hinterland. After defining what we mean by ‘hinterland’, it is still challenging to identify this possible impact in our material evidence and doing so will involve a number of assumptions and interpretations.

In my own research on Palestine during the 7th-11th century CE (on which you can learn a bit more here), I decided to examine writing about settlement entities, on the one hand, and the archaeology of settlements, on the other. I first looked at the words that were used for settlement types in different local languages (such as madīna in Arabic which we often translate as ‘city’), the characteristics that were associated with these terms by medieval authors, and the characteristics which differentiate the terms from each other. I then studied one well-excavated region in central Israel (a triangle of circa 20*40*45 km with about fifty sites) and identified the elements which differentiate the sites from each other. Both research directions led me to suggest (or support) one definition for cities: a city is any settlement that provides all the ‘services’ possible in its own regional context. In my case, this included a bathhouse, a market, artificial water installations, and agriculture, along with specific small artifacts. The medieval Palestinian city did not have to be big or geographically central, it did not have to have a mosque or a church, and instead of crafts and ‘industry’ it mainly had agriculture. In parallel to that ‘city’, a cluster of settlements could also emerge in a territory, resulting in a big, central and industrial settlement, which I identify as ‘metropolis’.  While this definition of ‘cities’ may seem rather broad, it could accommodate various modern settlements as well as ancient.

The main challenge with this suggestive definition of a city is the state of archaeological fieldwork, focusing mainly on big and highly central settlements, and less on other types of sites. Nevertheless, a growing number of modern states enforce rescue excavations for development projects which result in a random coverage of various types of sites. The next step in archaeology of settlements is thus to collect these data and analyze them through regional syntheses. A comparison between various types of settlement sites in single regions would allow us to understand the operation of regional systems in general and our ‘cities’ in particular.

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