From: University of Cambridge
Published September 7, 2007 01:57 PM

Researchers Rewrite Origins Of Ancient Urban Sprawl

University of Cambridge - A team of archaeologists, including scholars from the University of Cambridge, have unveiled new research that could rewrite the history of the world's earliest cities.

Surveys at the ancient settlement of Tell Brak, in north-east Syria, have produced fresh evidence that indicates the first urban settlements were the result of natural migration, and not the artificial creations of those in power.

Academics have traditionally believed that the growth of ancient cities resulted from the policies and demands of a centralized authority, such as a ruling monarch or religious institution.

But the new report, which appears in the August 31 edition of Science, suggests that in fact they came to exist of their own accord, as small groups of strangers clustered around a central point.

“The results cast doubt on the idea that early urbanism was a result of the actions of a single ruler or political body,” Dr Augusta McMahon, field director at Tell Brak, said. “In fact, it now seems that urbanism was the outcome of a series of choices made by relatively powerless individuals and small unrelated groups.”


The research team was led by the Harvard-based assistant professor of anthropology Jason Ur, and also comprised Dr Joan Oates from the University of Cambridge and Dr Philip Karsgaard, from the University of Edinburgh.

Working at Tell Brak, which was one of the royal centres of northern Mesopotamia during the fourth and third millennia BC, they surveyed the spatial distribution of artefacts such as pieces of broken pottery and ancient garbage. This allowed them to surmise where the inhabitants of the city lived, and how the city developed, over an 800-year period.

Excavations at Tell Brak were initiated by Sir Max Mallowan (husband of Agatha Christie) in the 1930s; University of Cambridge researchers have been excavating there since 1976. While archaeologists had been aware of the large scale of the site, they had previously concentrated on excavating and observing a more densely-populated “central mound”.

The new survey revealed that the city was much larger than had at first been presumed, with settlement clusters gathered around that central feature. Furthermore, the artefact distribution suggest that around 4,200 BCE the “central mound” was suddenly surrounded by these settlement clusters, which would suggest that there was a period of immigration around this time.

The clusters were separated from one another, indicating social distance among the groups, perhaps because they were strangers to one another. The way in which the settlements were structured also indicates that instead of being controlled from the centre, these smaller settlements were self-governing.

One of the main pieces of evidence behind historians' traditional presumption that cities were created by a powerful ruler or institution was the story of Gilgamesh, who “built” the Sumerian city of Uruk. Now part of southern Iraq, Uruk had been considered the world's oldest city. The new field survey, together with the ongoing excavations, suggests that the urban development of Tell Brak was concurrent, or perhaps even earlier than Uruk, however.

“These results show that existing models for the origins of ancient cities may in fact be flawed,” Professor Ur added. “Ours is a largely urban society, and the nascent urbanization of Tell Brak tells us about the formation of the very first cities in the world.”

The research was funded by the British Academy, the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, the Society of Antiquaries of London, the Charlotte Bonham-Carter Charitable Trust, the University of Michigan and Harvard University.

For further information, please contact the University of Cambridge Office of Communications on 01223 332300

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