Saturday, January 14, 2023

Nailing my theses to the internet, part 2 of 2


This is the second of two posts on my fundamental “theses”: the basic principles of my approach to premodern cities and urbanism.  See the first post here:


(4) Cities and urban life are structured by the interplay between two sets of processes: centralized, or top-down, processes originate with kings, elites, and central institutions, whereas generative, or bottom-up, processes arise from the grass-roots actions of individuals not under the control or direction of institutions or authorities.


Urban life and organization is made up of a constant interplay of these two kinds of processes of change. My usage is based on common approaches in the social sciences outside archaeology.[1] I distinguish two types of generative process: Grassroots activity refers to the intentional efforts of people to organize and coordinate their activities in pursuit of a goal (Chapter 7). Spontaneous organization describes actions of daily life, including social interactions, that create some kind of order or outcome that was neither planned nor created by authorities (Chapters 3, 7). My prime example of this is energized crowding.

Figure 7.1, from Besim Hakim

While both top-down and bottom-up factors are typically in play, some realms are closer to the institutional or upper domain of society, while others lie closer to the generative realm. For example, most premodern urbanites paid taxes, and taxation is primarily an activity of the state, a top-down institution. While the generative actions of individuals and groups may affect tax collection, these are typically of less importance than the top-down demands at play. Political protest, on the other hand, is primarily a generative process; nevertheless, top-down forces may affect the nature and outcomes of protests. My discussion of urban life proper is divided along these lines: Chapter 6 focuses on institutions or top-down processes, and Chapter 7 is about generative processes. This division flows from my basic definition of cities as settlement where population and activities are concentrated.


(5) Social interactions within cities and other settlements create “energized crowding,” which is one of the fundamental causal mechanisms in urban life.


As in the case of Thesis #4, this principle also flows from my basic definition of cities. The importance of face-to-face social interaction, in the form of energized crowding, in generating social outcomes is a fundamental component of many theoretical approaches in the social sciences (Brower 2011; Glaeser 2011; Ostrom 1990; Storper and Venables 2004). This perspective has been developed into a set of formal theories with quantitative predictions, known as settlement scaling theory (Bettencourt et al. 2007; Pumain et al. 2006; West 2017). I have participated in one branch of this approach, which views cities as “social reactors” (Bettencourt 2013). We have extended research from contemporary cities into the deep past, revealing broad continuities in the role of settlement size between ancient and modern settlement systems. In this book I explore the nature and implications of social interactions for premodern cities.[2]


           An additional consideration that colors how some archaeologists write about ancient cities is what I call the “urban prestige effect.” As a legacy of rigid and universalist schemes of cultural evolution popular form the 1950s through the 1970s

(Service 1975; White 1959), many archaeologists assign a high value, with a high level of prestige, to the categories of cities and urbanism. This signals an unfortunate emotional association with the objects of their study (settlements). Urban sites are seen as “better” than non-urban settlements, resulting in attempts to categorize non-urban settlements as cities. Non-urban villages are not infrequently declared urban by one scholar or another, whether ancient sites like Çatalhöyük (see Case study 2, below) or modern Amazonian villages (Heckenberger et al. 2008). It is almost guaranteed that complex early settlements—such as the Tripalyan “mega-sites”—will be viewed as urban (Chapman and Gaydarska 2016; Diachenko and Menotti 2017), regardless of the nature of the evidence; see Chapter 2. This urban prestige effect only muddies the waters of premodern settlement analysis, contributing little to our understanding of the settlements in question, or to comparative urban studies.




Bettencourt, Luís M. A.

2013    The Origins of Scaling in Cities. Science 340: 1438-1441.

Bettencourt, Luís M. A., José Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kühnert, and Geoffrey B. West

2007    Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104: 7301-7306.

Brower, Sidney N.

2011    Neighbors and Neighborhoods: Elements of Successful Community Design. APA Planners Press, Chicago.

Chapman, John and Bisserka Gaydarska

2016    From Domestic Households to Mega-Structures: Proto-Urbanism? In Trypillia Mega-Sites and European Prehistory,  4100-3400 BCE, edited by Johannes Müller, Knut Rassmann, and Mykhailo Videiko, pp. 289-299. Routledge, New York.

Diachenko, Aleksandr and Francesco Menotti

2017    Proto-Cities or Non-Proto-Cities? On the Nature of Cucuteni–Trypillia Mega-Sites. Journal of World Prehistory 30 (3): 207-219.

Glaeser, Edward L.

2011    The Triumph of the City: How our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier. Penguin, New York.

Heckenberger, Michael J., J. Christian Russell, Carlos Fausto, Joshua R. Toney, Morgan J. Schmidt, Edithe Pereira, Bruna Franchetto, and Afukaka Kuikuro

2008    Pre-Columbian Urbanism, Anthropogenic Landscapes, and the Future of the Amazon. Science 321: 1214-1217.

Ostrom, Elinor

1990    Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Pumain, Denise, Fabien Paulus, Céline Vacchiana-Marcuzzo, and José Lobo

2006    An Evolutionary Theory for Inerpreting Urban Scaling Laws. Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography  (article 343).

Service, Elman Rogers

1975    Origins of the State and Civilization: The Process of Cultural Evolution. Norton, New York.

Storper, Michael and Anthony J. Venables

2004    Buzz: Face-to-Face Contact and the Urban Economy. Journal of Economic Geography 4 (4): 351-370.

West, Geoffrey B.

2017    Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Lifein Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. Penguin, New York.

White, Leslie A.

1959    The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. McGraw-Hill, New York.

[1] I wish to distinguish my usage of top-down and bottom-up from a particular archaeological usage in which “top-down” refers to studies of kings and elites, while “bottom-up” denotes studies of households. My usage, in contrast, is based on drivers of change and causal mechanisms (Chapters 3, 6, 7).

[2] The research and publications of the Social reactors project are presented at:

Nailing my theses to the internet, part 1 of 2

Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church to mark the public expression of his ideas. I believe that scholars should similarly make their fundamental principles public. My book, Urban Life in the Distant Past, is built on a foundation of five “theses,” or fundamental principles. These describe the major outlines of my theoretical and comparative approach to premodern cities. In this post, taken from chapter 1, I describe the first three of my theses; the other two will be in my next post. This is the modern version of nailing one’s thesis to the wall (a custom that survives in Swedish universities, where they still must nail completed thesis to the wall!).


(1) Definitions are tools; one’s definition of city or urban depends on one’s goals and questions.


Scholars of cities today spend little time agonizing over how one defines the terms city and urban. In fact, they typically use the term “definition” to refer to operationalization: the measures that capture the phenomena scholars want to study. Premodern cities exhibit far more variability than modern cities in the size, form, functions, and activities; in addition, their political and economic contexts are more varied. For example, virtually all cities today exist within nation-states. But premodern cities could be part of a chiefdom, a city-state, an empire, or a weak state (Chapter 4). Cities today are embedded in a globalized, capitalist world system, whereas premodern cities could be part of a command economy, a small-scale commercial economy, or a far-flung globalized early commercial economy (Chapter 5). Because of this variability, the ways premodern cities may be defined also vary greatly. There is no “best” definition of city or urban (Smith 2020). This principle is often neglected by scholars of ancient cities, who may agonize over the “correct” definition of urban, or how to document and study the essence of cities and urbanism, which leads to my next principle.


            (2)  Do not reify the concepts of city or urban.


Cities and urbanism—particularly in the premodern domain—are not real things. Settlements, on the other hand, are real. They exist in this world. Archaeologists excavate their remains, and it is usually obvious whether a given site was a place where people resided. “City” and “urban,” on the other hand, are categories or concepts that we apply to some settlements, when it suits our goals. If we have different goals, we may use different definitions. In the language of philosopher John Searle (1995)

John Searle
settlements are brute facts, while cities are institutional facts. One of Searle’s examples is money. The fact that a piece of paper in my wallet has value and can be exchanged for goods and services is an institutional fact. It depends on the existence of institutions and beliefs that allow particular kinds of pieces of paper to be used to purchase things. But the physical properties of this same dollar bill—its ability to be folded or rolled up, or burned, or marked with a pen—are brute facts. They do not depend on an institutional framework or common beliefs within a community of people. There is no “brute fact” of “citiness” or “urbanity” as intrinsic attributes of a settlement, something waiting to be discovered; these are institutional facts that only make sense from a given perspective, with a given definition. The consequence of this principle is the following:


(3) The settlement should be the primary unit of analysis, not the city. We should acknowledge that some “urban” attributes and practices apply to non-urban settlements.


If settlements are “brute facts,” then it makes sense to use them as a basic unit of analysis. When our research shows that a given settlement was large and complex, or served as a hub in a regional economy, then we may want to classify it as an urban settlement; in Searle’s framework, this is an institutional judgment. The fact that some key features of cities also characterize smaller, non-urban, settlements is a further warning about the dangers of reifying the concept urban. Settlement scaling research shows that key quantitative outcomes of social interactions in settlements characterize both urban and non-urban settlement systems (Ortman and Coffey 2017); see Chapter 3. Similarly, comparative work on neighborhoods shows that this urban social-spatial unit is also found in non-urban settlements (Smith et al. 2015; Tuzin 2001); see Chapter 7. These findings suggest that we can proceed with analyzing settlements without agonizing over definitions or worries about whether or not they are urban.[1]

            See the next post, Part 2, for the rest of my theses.

Swedish theses nailed to the wall


Ortman, Scott G. and Grant D. Coffey

2017    Settlement Scaling in Middle-Range Societies. American Antiquity 82 (4): 662-682.

Searle, John R.

1995    The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press, New York.

Smith, Michael E.

2020    Definitions and Comparisons in Urban Archaeology. Journal of Urban Archaeology 1: 15-30.

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov, and Bridgette Gilliland

2015    Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 8 (2): 173-198.

Tuzin, Donald

2001    Social Complexity in the Making: A Case Study Among the Arapesh of New Guinea. Routledge, New York.

[1] Perhaps ironically, this caveat has not stopped archaeologists—including me—from arguing about definitions of city and urban; see discussion below.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

If Urban Population is so Important, Why Don't More Archaeologists Measure it?

This post consists mostly of a passage from chapter 3 of my book, Urban Life in the Distant Past. The book will be released in February or March, 2023. This passage is my answer to the question posed in the title.  Just for fun, I include here a table from that chapter. For the sample of early cities that I use as case studies, the table compares examples in the New World and Old World. Now, this is not a great sample for analysis (see the book on this), but it does show something rarely discussed in a systematic form. Early cities were denser in the Old World. But, it turns out that the median population size is very similar! This surprised me, and it is possible that it derives from the small sample size of my case study group. 

From chapter 3:

If population is so important, why have archaeologists been so resistant to measure or estimate past populations? When I tout the importance of population estimates to my colleagues, I typically get replies like this: “Archaeological population estimates often rest on so many uncontrolled variables and assumptions, that they cannot be meaningfully sustained.” But just about EVERY social interpretation of past society by archaeologists rests on similar chains (or cables) of what can be called poorly-controlled variables and assumptions (Chapman and Wylie 2016). If we were to extend this evidentiary standard to other realms, archaeologists would have to pack up and go home; we would not be able to say anything at all interesting about past societies. I cannot accept this commonly-offered reason for the resistance to demographic estimates by the very same archaeologists who readily employ parallel assumptions to make inferences about other past phenomena, whether social structure, religion, or economics. The reticence of my colleagues to population estimates has deeper roots.

 Most directly, the anti-quantitative and anti-science turn in archaeology (Chapter 1)—excluded demography and population as topics worthy of study. The broad spread of such ideas throughout the discipline (at least for the archaeology of complex societies) resulted in the omission of demography from many graduate training programs in archaeology. Beyond this, much of the hesitation to engage in population estimates from fragmentary remains probably derives from the general skepticism about the simplification required for comparative analysis (Chaper 1). Demographic reconstruction requires a complex empirical reality to be reduced to a small number of measures, and some archaeologists object to such simplification on principle. Also, an operation like population estimation requires that many uncertain parameters (e.g., household size or occupancy rate,)—and the methods of their derivation and analysis—be made explicit before estimates can be generated. Again, this level of detail is avoided by some archaeologists, in favor of grand, abstract accounts of the past (Chapter 1). 

 Nevertheless, some archaeologists have forged on, developing methods and concepts for reconstructing past populations from survey and excavation data. It is unfortunate that it has taken several decades for early work in archaeological population estimation (Hassan 1981) to be followed up and extended (Berrey et al. 2021; Drennan et al. 2015; Ortman 2016; Whitelaw 2004). Thankfully, there are signs of a renewal of interest in rigorous population estimation (Bernardini and Schachner 2018; Chirikure et al. 2017; Hanson and Ortman 2017; Smith et al. 2019). As part of an effort to promote demographic research in the study of premodern cities, I have assembled data on the population, area, and density of each of my case studies (see below). 


 Bernardini, Wesley and Gregson Schachner 2018 Comparing Near Eastern Neolithic Megasites and Southwester Pueblos: Population Size, Exceptionalism and Historical Trajectories. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 8 (4): 647-663.

 Berrey, C. Adam, Robert D. Drennan, and Christian E. Peterson 2021 Local Economies and Household Spacing in Early Chiefdom Communities. PLOS ONE 16 (5): e0252532.

 Chapman, Robert and Alison Wylie 2016 Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology. Bloomsbury Press, New York.

 Chirikure, Shadreck, Thomas Moultrie, Foreman Bandama, Collett Dandara, and Munyaradzi Manyanga 2017 What Was the Population of Great Zimbabwe (CE 1000 – 1800)? PLOS-One 12 (6): e0178335. 

 Drennan, Robert D., C. Adam Berrey, and Christian E. Peterson 2015 Regional Settlement Demography in Archaeology. Eliot Werner Publications, Bristol, CT. 

 Hanson, John W. and Scott G. Ortman 2017 A Systematic Method for Estimating the Populations of Greek and Roman Settlements. Journal of Roman Archaeology 30: 301-324. 

 Hassan, Fekri A. 1981 Demographic Archaeology. Academic Press, New York. 

 Ortman, Scott G. 2016 Why All Archaeologists Should Care about and Do Population Estimates. In Exploring Cause and Explanation: Historical Ecology, Demograhy, and Movement in the American Southweset, edited by Cynthia L. Herhahn and Ann F. Ramenofsky, pp. 103-120. University Press of Colorado, Boulder. 

 Smith, Michael E., Abhishek Chatterjee, Sierra Stewart, Angela Huster, and Marion Forest 2019 Apartment Compounds, Households, and Population at Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 30 (3): 399-418.

 Whitelaw, Todd 2004 Estimating the Population of Neopalatial Knossos. In Knossos: Palace, City, State, edited by Gerald Cadogan, Eleni Hatzaki, and Adonis Asasilakis, pp. 147-158. British School at Athens, London.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

My book, Urban Life in the Distant Past: The Prehistory of Energized Crowding, will be published in February/March, 2023, by Cambridge University Press. This provides one reason to re-start this blog. Another reason is to explore some of the issues in early and comparative urbanism that I have been working on for the past few years. The Covid-19 pandemic coincided with a general decline in blogs and an increase in the use of twitter, and I followed along with these trends. But twitter threads are a pain to put together and they have little or no staying power. I had been intending to get this blog going again for a few years now, so here we are.

I am going to start off here with some of my publications from the past few years. I last posted here in early 2019, so I'll start with that year. Once I've gone over a bunch of my papers, I'll start blogging on the themes and content of my new book.

Publications, 2019

Smith, ME  (2019)  Energized Crowding and the Generative Role of Settlement Aggregation and Urbanization. In Coming Together: Comparative Approaches to Population Aggregation and Early Urbanization, edited by Attila Gyucha, pp. 37-58. State University of New York Press, Albany.  Available Here

Members of the Social Reactors Project
at Teotihuacan, 2019
This paper is a kind of rehearsal for my book. I wrote this as my attempt to explore the theoretical and comparative foundation of the work we were doing on settlement scaling. See this past post on energized crowding. The project website has lots of information, including all of our papers: Here we are on top of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in 2019. Great place for a workshop on urban science!!

Teotihuacan map.
Smith, ME, A Chatterjee, S Stewart, A Huster and M Forest  (2019)  Apartment Compounds, Households, and Population at Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 30(3):399-418.  Available Here

This paper makes several major advances in our understanding of urbanism at ancient Teotihuacan.

First, we create a new population estimate for Teotihuacan at its height. This is the most rigorous population figure ever calculated for the city. Past estimates, even those by Millon and Cowgill, were quite subjective and impressionistic. Our best estimate:  100,000 inhabitants.

Second, we confirm, extend, and built on the residential classification of the Teotihuacan Mapping Project. Millon's categories of low-status, intermediate-status, and high-status residences have withstood the test of time.

Third, and perhaps most exciting, we present a new method for determining how many households likely lived in each of the excavated apartment compounds. We use network methods, often called "space syntax" by archaeologists. While others have analyzed Teotihuacan residences using space syntax methods, we offer the most systematic and rigorous analysis. This was worked out primarily by Abishek Chatterjee, an electrical engineer at Intel and an online anthropology major at ASU. When I first explained what we needed to Abishek, and showed him the plans, he said "This is a network problem, and I can solve it." Well, he did! An important component was a set of new systematic plan maps of the excavated residences, made by Sierra Stewart.

Network analysis of Zacuala
In the example here, the compound known as Zacuala, there were four dwellings (that is, four housing areas, each with one household), plus a common area around the large central patio and platform.

This paper not only contributed to advances in understanding demography, housing and social organization, but it also forms the basis for continuing analysis of spatial patterns at Teotihuacan. We are hot on the trail of a new analysis of urban density, using concepts and methods from urban economics. If you compare 20th century cities studied by economists, do you think Teotihuacan was more like U.S. cities, or Soviet-block socialist cities? We will tell you.

Smith, ME and J Lobo  (2019)  Cities through the Ages: One Thing or Many? Frontiers in Digital Humanities, 6 (Special issue: Where to Cities Come From and Where are They Going to? Modelling Past and Present Agglomerations to Understand Urban Ways of Life):Article 12.  Click here.

This is another paper oriented toward providing a context for the work in settlement scaling. Whether one considers cities--across history and around the world--as one thing or as many things depends on what kinds of questions one asks, or what kinds of attributes one is examining. If you focus on political context, technology, energy use, or transport, then ancient cities were radically different from cities today. But, on the other hand, if you focus on the ways that people interact socially within the built environment--how that relates to population size and density, and on the positive outcomes from social interactions--then there seems to be only one type of city. These social interactions are fundamental for the dynamics and operation of cities and settlements through history, today and in the past.

I love this image! It is from the Social Reactors Project website:

Stay tuned for information on my urban publications since 2019.