Ancient Cities

I recently co-edited a book with Kevin Fisher, Making Ancient Cities: Space and Place in Early Urban Societies (Cambridge, 2014). This book includes global case studies about the structure of ancient cities.  For more information click here.  

I am interested in the life history, socio-political and material structure of ancient cities.  As of 2009 over half the world’s population lives in urban areas and this concentration is expected to increase over the next fifty years (UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs 2012).  As urbanism and the culture of cities increasingly shape our own civilization it is little surprise that interest in ancient cities is growing as well.  In the past many researchers focused attention on the glories of these polities by excavating their monuments, palaces, and royal burials, but today we also investigate the social context of these riches and achievements.  In ancient cities we aim to understand how the urban plan developed, and how people interacted on this stage.  Were ancient cities exclusive places dominated by monumental royal architecture, or were everyday members of society able to reside within the city walls and participate in urban culture?  Did residents cluster into neighborhoods on the basis of social class, ethnicity, profession, or other affiliations?  Was political power tightly concentrated within ruling families or was their power mitigated by other powerful social groups?  These questions and more can be addressed by investigating the physical structure of the city to determine the degree of city planning and the size and location of architecture and features associated with different strata and factions in society.

Due to the prohibitive cost of large-scale excavations and artifact curation, combined with the need for site preservation, investigating the urban form of ancient cities requires methods that can map buried architecture, streets, and other features at a large scale without breaking the ground.  These methods include satellite imagery, aerial photography, geophysics, and other forms of remote sensing to interpret the location, size, and internal structure of archaeological sites.  In my research I use geophysics methods including magnetometry, resistivity, ground-penetrating radar, and conductivity to study the internal structure of Mesopotamian cities. 


Research at Kurd Qaburstan is a collaboration between Johns Hopkins University (Dr.Glenn Schwartz, overall project director, director of excavations), the University of Northern Colorado (Dr. Andrew Creekmore, director of archaeological geophysics research), and the Erbil Civilizations Museum (Nader Babakr, Director).  Research at Kurd Qaburstan is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Northern Colorado.

This project is examining the social, political, and spatial organization of a Middle Bronze Age (2000 – 1600 B.C.) city as a case study of Mesopotamian urbanism.  We are employing geophysics methods, including electrical resistanceground-penetrating radar,conductivity, and magnetometry, to map buried buildings, streets, and features at the project site, Kurd Qaburstan, located outside Erbil, Northern Iraq.  These methods can cover large areas in a short period of time, making it possible to examine urban planning and spatial structure at a large scale.  Geophysics data interpretations are verified and dated with targeted test trenches. 

At this site we are testing the hypothesis that Middle Bronze Age cities were significantly smaller than their Early Bronze Age predecessors. The transition between the Early and Middle Bronze Ages was marked by the contraction or abandonment of many cities.  Although the renewed cities of the Middle Bronze Age often have large walled areas, limited excavations and interpretations of CORONA spy satellite imagery suggest that these walled cities contained large empty areas alongside limited built-up areas.  If this hypothesis is supported, it would indicate that Middle Bronze Age cities were very different than the cities of the Early Bronze Age, in terms of population, necessary land for agriculture, and socio-political organization.  In addition to testing this hypothesis about urban scale in the Middle Bronze Age, we are testing interpretations of CORONA satellite images.  By applying geophysics methods to Kurd Qaburstan, we will determine the accuracy of image interpretation techniques used to identify archaeological features across Mesopotamia.  

For additional information about this project and related research in the region, consult the following:

UNC news brief about 2013 season

ASOR blog about research in the Erbil Plain


Andy Creekmore conducting magnetometer survey at Kurd Qaburstan in 2013


My dissertation research tracked the development of urbanized states in Upper Mesopotamia, defined as the area in and around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southeast Turkey and north Syria. Through a combination of remote sensing, geophysics, surface survey and excavation, I completed a case study of urbanization in the Harran Plain and at the site of Kazane Höyük, Turkey. (Kazane Hoyuk in Google Earth) This site, located outside the modern Turkish city of Urfa, grew into a 100 hectare city in the middle of the third millennium BC. Dr. Patricia Wattenmaker of the University of Virgina has directed research at Kazane since 1992. Building on Dr. Wattenmaker's work, between 2002 - 2005 I conducted magnetometry survey, test trenches, and artifact and ecofact analysis at Kazane to study its urban form and the relative location of households, institutions, and aspects of urban infrastructure within the city. This work revealed storage facilities, ritual structures, and elite housing in the outer town, far from the pre-urban mound that served as the city's citadel. The dispersal of institutional structures and houses for elites shows that city and state institutions were not confined to the fortified citadel, but instead were spread throughout the city. This indicates that the city grew around multiple administrative and social nuclei rather than around an oft-presumed single, central nucleus.

As my study of Kazane shows, the development of urbanism involves complex social processes that are expressed in the dynamic built environment of cities. In comparing the structure of Kazane to other cities, I argue after Setha Low (2000) that the social production and construction of space in complex settlements - the activities that produce the material setting and the daily activities that give it meaning - are best understood through the lens of a life-history approach that incorporates the activities of multiple stakeholders in forming and modifying space. To locate the origin and reworking of settlement plans we must pay close attention to the articulation between aspects of settlement space, such as buildings and streets, public buildings and residences, and infrastructure. Changes in these aspects of the settlement fabric reveal how this space affected and was affected by residents and institutions.

Kazane Höyük , Turkey

Works Cited

Low, Setha M.
2000 On the Plaza. Austin: University of Texas Press.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division 2012.
World Urbanization Prospects, the 2011 Revision. Final Report with Annex Tables, New York. Electronic document;; accessed March 3, 2013.