How can archaeologists identify early cities? Definitions, types, and attributes

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

41 Scopus citations


REVIEWING ESTABLISHED FRAMEWORKS Was the Early Iron Age truly a time of urbanization across Eurasia? Can we realistically consider sites such as Heuneburg or Bourges the earliest cities north of the Alps, as suggested by Fernández-Götz and Krausse (2012, 2013)? Or would such a classification stretch the concept of urbanism in an unnatural way? How should archaeologists define cities, and how can we distinguish cities and towns from nonurban settlements? In this chapter I explore these questions in terms of three different approaches – definitions, typologies, and attributes – used by archaeologists to define and identify early cities. Although definitions help illuminate the nature of urbanism in the past and present, each of the dominant definitions (demographic and functional) has serious limitations for use with ancient cities. Typologies help narrow the scope of empirical investigations, but they too are limited in their usefulness. I advocate a third approach that uses a polythetic set of archaeological urban attributes to study the nature and intensity of ancient urbanism in a comparative framework. I illustrate this approach with two case studies: Aztec cities in Postclassic Mesoamerica and Iron Age cities in Europe. Urbanism is a difficult topic to analyze for past societies because of its variation and complexity. In an urban society, most of the social, economic, and political phenomena in the broader society find expression in its cities and towns, and this makes it difficult to delineate the scope of urbanism from the broader realm of society and the state. Urbanism also exhibits much variation in its scale and properties. The size, form, and function of cities vary within individual past urban traditions, as well as among different traditions. I argue that a methodological and conceptual approach based on urban attributes is a productive avenue for analyzing early cities. Approach 1: City Definitions G. Cowgill (2004: 526) has written, “It is notoriously difficult to agree on a cross-culturally applicable definition of ‘the’ city, but we cannot do without definitions altogether…. No single criterion, such as sheer size or use of writing, is adequate”. The urban literature in many fields reveals two dominant approaches to city definition: the demographic/sociological approach and the functional approach.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEurasia at the Dawn of History
Subtitle of host publicationUrbanization and Social Change
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781316550328
ISBN (Print)9781107147409
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Arts and Humanities


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