Sunday, December 21, 2014

Medieval walls in modern Paris

Notre Dame de Paris
I just returned from 10 days in Paris and Bonn. One of the things I find amazing about cities in Europe is the way that ancient walls and buildings--whether Roman, Iron Age, or Medieval--have become part of the modern urban fabric. There are three ways that ancient architecture is manifest in modern cities. First, whole buildings have survived, and they continue to be used. Notre Dame cathedral, first built in the 12th century, is still an active church today, in addition to being a tourist destination. My wife and I visited many of these in Paris five years ago: St. Michel, St. Severin, the Cluny Abbey, and others.

Crypte Archeologique
A second way ancient buildings remain today is in the form of preserved ruins. This is what I am used to in Mexico. You can see the Aztec Templo Mayor in the middle of Mexico City, nicely preserved and set off from the modern city. In Paris, the whole open area in front of the cathedral has a preserved excavation underneath, the Crypte Archeologique du Parvis Nortre Dame is an amazing site (and sight), one of the highlights of our prior visit to Paris. Remains from Roman and Medieval Paris have been excavated and restored, and they are well labeled and explained. You walk right through the ruins, an impressive experience.

City wall of King Philip II
But the third way ancient buildings are preserved in modern cities is, for me, the most fascinating. This is when walls and parts of buildings have become incorporated into the historical and modern fabric of the city. I spent some time in Paris exploring this phenomenon. I began with an internet document, "Medieval Paris: A walking tour of the Marais," by Eric Jager. This is based on the north bank (rive droite), just across from Ile Saint-Louis. The tour takes you past the longest extent of the early medieval city wall, built in the 12th century by Philip II. Today, it separates some apartment buildings from a park, where kids were playing soccer.

Medieval street, recent buildings
The tour follows some winding streets that have preserved the old Medieval plan, although the buildings are much more recent. This view of Paris is radically different from the expansive boulevards created by Hausmann in the 19th century (see my prior post on this). The Champs Elysees is great, but I really enjoy walking through the old winding Paris streets.

Medieval arch, National Archives
The tour passes the National Archives building, which just happens to have a medieval archway with towers built into one side of it. There are a number of these cases on the walking tour. You look up an apartment building, perhaps 100 years old, and notice that one wall is more than 500 years old. Amazing.

I highly recommend this walking tour. The only problem is that it does not come with a map! The directions are good, and it was not hard to follow. I just printed out a Google map of the area before I left for Paris.

Roman amphitheater
I also ran into these medieval vestiges while walking around the city. I went to see the Roman Amphitheater, which has been restored in the middle of a block, with apartment buildings all around. Very interesting. Evidently Victor Hugo was instrumental in getting this excavated and restored in the 19th century. The Roman town was called Lutetia. On the way, I noticed a plaque on a building and learned that Rene Descartes had lived there for a few years.
Section of the medieval city wall

But I also ran into another portion of the old medieval city wall, where just a small segment was preserved at the edge of the street. And then after visiting the Shakespeare and Company book store, I spotted an old wall segment in a small park next to a medieval church.

The official component of my Paris trip was successful (Marion Forest passed her dissertation defense with highest honors, and I interacted with a bunch of friends and colleagues from the Universite de Paris-1, Pantheon-Sorbonne). But I was just amazed at all these vestiges of Medieval Paris that have become part of the modern urban landscape. Oh, by the way, the food was great too!
An old wall, probably medieval, near the Shakespeare bookstore

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Living the good life in Teotihuacan

I have written two articles that contain new information about life in ancient Teotihuacan. These are scheduled to be published in November, but in the meantime I want to talk about some of the new findings and their implications. Teotihuacan had a unique form of urban life and society. I don't mean this in the sense that one can claim that every city is unique. What I mean is that Teotihuacan had several features that are VERY unusual for premodern cities. Here I will mention several of these features:

(1) Most residents lived in a form of housing that is unique among early cities of the world: the apartment compound. 
Apartment compounds.

There are over 2,000 apartment compounds at Teotihuacan. Although each one has a unique layout, most of them share features of their construction and layout. There is usually a single doorway in the stone outer wall. Entrances lead to a central open courtyard, which typically has some kind of temple or shrine or altar. Passages lead out from this to the individual apartments, which usually consist of a small open courtyard surrounded by rooms with porches.The courtyards are built at a lower level than the other rooms, and they are drained to the outside by pipes and channels under the floors. Floors and walls are covered with white lime plaster (technically, a form of concrete). The walls were usually painted with bright colors, with scenes of people, animals, and gods (see the image of Zacuala).

My first article (Smith 2014) reviews the forms of urban housing used around the world before the Industrial Revolution. The various forms of housing are shown in the following typology:

Urban housing typology (Smith 2014)
Among all of the premodern cities of the world, the apartment building is the least common form of housing. Ancient Rome had apartment buildings (called insulae), as did some of the cities in the Ottoman Empire such as Cairo. But in those cases, apartments were small, cramped arrangements built to hold an overabundance of new urban immigrants. The Ottoman apartments often started out as large, spacious single-family houses that were subvided into many small apartments.

(2) Apartment compounds were luxurious and well-built.

The Teotihuacan apartment buildings are unusual (compared to Roman and Ottoman apartments) in
Aztec commoner houses
two ways. First, they are single-story structures. And second, each household had quite a bit of space, including a courtyard and several rooms with porches facing the courtyard. So these do not look like hasty buildings or conversions to accommodate an influx of new urbanites. They are spacious and open dwellings. When Laurette Sejourne excavated one of the first apartment compounds at Teotihuacan, she thought at first she had excavated a palace, and her name "Zacuala palace" is still used sometimes. In comparison with other ancient Mesoamerican patterns of housing, these structures do look like elite houses. Commoners, at other Mesoamerican cities, tended to live in small single-family houses.

In Aztec times, for example, there were a number of forms of commoner house (see the graphic, from the Florentine Codex by Sahagun), and I have excavated many of these structures. If I uncovered a Teotaihuacan-style apartment compound in an Aztec site I was excavating (and if it was indeed an Aztec structure, not an older pre-Aztec structure), I would call it an elite residence. The only Aztec houses this large, with this many rooms, and rooms this large, are elite residences. So while the overall form of a Teotihuacan apartment compound is not unique, it is very strange for a commoner house. Or was it an elite house? But you can't have most of the population as the elite? Or perhaps commoner and elite are not the best labels to use for the residents of Teotihuacan. This, again, is just plain bizarre for a Mesoamerican society. At just about all Mesoamerican urban sites, there are elite and commoner houses (typically at a ratio of ca. 50 commoner houses for every elite house), and it is rarely difficult to distinguish them.

(3) The apartment compounds appear to have been built in a single episode of urban renewal around A.D. 200.

Although we still have relatively few securely dated, excavated apartment compounds at Teotihuacan, it looks like most of them were constructed in a burst of activity around A.D. 200. In some of the excavated examples, there are irrigation canals below the floors, showing that the city expanded to cover former irrigated agricultural fields. We think that the houses before this episode were less regular, perhaps not conforming to the plans of apartment compounds. But in truth we know next to nothing about housing before this time. But why did the people or rulers of the city feel the need to obliterate older housing and agricultural fields to construct two thousand new apartment compounds?

(4) The level of social inequality was very low at Teotihuacan.

The second article that is now in press (Smith et al. 2014) is mainly about social inequality at Aztec sites. We illustrate the use of the Gini index to measure ancient social inequality, based on the sizes of houses. But while we were at it, we decided to try the method out on Teotihuacan. This required figuring out how the apartment compounds were divided into individual household dwellings. Student Rebecca Harkness took on this task, the the graphic shows her results for the Tetitla compound. We had to make some assumptions (e.g., that the excavated apartment compounds are representative of the unexcavated ones), and our result was very surprising.

The Gini index for Teotihuacan is 0.12, a very very low level for an urban settlement. This means that the level of inequality was quite low. All of the Aztec cities have higher values; the only site with a comparable value is a peasant village (Capilco). There are several reasons for such a low Gini index for Teotihuacan: (1) most houses were of a similar size; (2) there are a few smaller structures (probably adobe huts), and a few larger structures, but no huge royal palace. Yes, I know, some colleagues don't agree, and they have tried to identify a royal palace at Teotihuacan. But they can't agree with one another, and if you can't agree about the royal palace, then there probably wasn't one. No one has to scrounge around to find the royal palace at Maya or Aztec cities; they are quite obvious, huge structures that are many times larger than the typical house.

So, what does all this imply about life in ancient Teotihuacan? I think it is still too early to come to firm conclusions here. We need more excavations (several projects are ongoing at Teotihuacan right now, including work by by ASU colleague Saburo Sugiyama, and a project direct directed by David Carballo of Boston University). We need more studies of the already-excavated examples; ASU student Melissa Marklin is working on this now. I am not the first one to suggest that life and society at Teotihuacan were very different from other Mesoamerican societies, and from other cities around the world. Rene Millon and George Cowgill have talked about this, and Esther Pasztory has called Teotihuacan "an experiment in living."

Nevertheless, it seems clear that most people at Teotihuacan had large, spacious dwelling to live in. They had access to a wide range of household goods, for cooking, ritual, crafts, and other activities. There doesn't seem to have been a strong autocratic king ruling things, yet someone has enough clout to carry out a major urban renewal project. We can't find much evidence for a definite elite class. And people lived in a type of housing that was unique in the premodern world. What was going on at Teotihuacan? These facts remain disconnected and tantalizing, and we desperately need more research to figure things out. But I think we can conclude that people there were living the good life as part of the wide urban world.

Some links (ADDED Oct 24):

Prior post:  Teotihuacan: Ancient Mesoamerican Metropolis
Prior post:  Teotihuacan and the Origins of Market Economies

Project: Urbanism, Neighborhood Organization and Domestic Economy at the Tlajinga District, Teotihuacan. (current project by David Carballo, Luis Barba, and Kenneth Hirth)
The Teotihuacan Research Laboratory, Arizona State University


Carballo, David M.
2013    The Social Organization of Craft Production and Interregional Exchange at Teotihuacan. In Merchants, Markets, and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian World, edited by Kenneth G. Hirth and Joanne Pillsbury, pp. 113-140. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

Cowgill, George L.
1997    State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26: 129-161.

Cowgill, George L.
2008    An Update on Teotihuacan. Antiquity 82: 962-975.

Millon, René
1976    Social Relations in Ancient Teotihuacan. In The Valley of Mexico: Studies of Pre-Hispanic Ecology and Society, edited by Eric R. Wolf, pp. 205-248. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Pasztory, Esther
1997    Teotihuacan: An Experiment in Living. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Smith, Michael E.
2014    Housing in Premodern Cities: Patterns of Social and Spatial Variation. International Journal of Architectural Research 8 (3): in press.

Smith, Michael E., Timothy Dennehy, April Kamp-Whittaker, Emily Colon, and Rebecca Harkness
2014    Quantitative Measures of Wealth Inequality in Ancient Central Mexican Communities. Advances in Archaeological Practice 2 (4): ___.

Sugiyama, Nawa, Saburo Sugiyama, and Alejandro Sarabia G.
2013    Inside the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, Mexico: 2008-2011 Excavations and Preliminary Results. Latin American Antiquity 24 (4): 403-432.

Open Access week

This is open access week (Oct 20-24, 2014). For an interview I did on open access in publishing, CLICK HERE.

I will get back to posting on urban topics very shortly (sorry about the lapse).........

Monday, July 7, 2014

Jane Jacobs was wrong !!

Jane Jacobs in her community organizing mode
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was perhaps the most influential urban thinker of the 20th century. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) shook up the planning profession and urban studies, and her other books and papers have been highly influential for many decades. Numerous biographies, books, and articles have been written about Jacobs, her ideas, her life, and her influence on scholarship and policy.

I have no problem with most of the writings and ideas of Jane Jacobs. Her books are informative and enjoyable, and I have gotten lots of good insights from her work. But in one small part of one book (The Economy of Cities, 1969), Jacobs made an erroneous claim about the origins of cities in the distant past. Whereas archaeologists had shown clearly that agriculture developed long before the first cities--in all well-documented regions, from Mesopotamia to China to Mesoamerica--Jacobs made the outrageous claim that the archaeologists were wrong. Cities had in fact arisen first, she said, and then the innovations that led to agriculture and farming (the domestication of plants and animals) happened in those earliest cities. She called this the "cities first" argument. Nonsense!

I first read The Economy of Cities as an undergraduate, writing my senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan. I almost put the book down in disgust when I read this baloney. With just my training as an anthropology major, I recognized the silliness of Jacobs's idea. I'm glad I kept reading, however, because the rest of the book provided lots of good ideas about how Teotihuacan might have grown as a result of its craft industry in the production of obsidian tools.

For many decades I didn't worry much about the cities first error of Jane Jacobs. But a few years ago I started to run into Jacobs's erroneous argument about cities before agriculture in both scholarly and popular writing. The Wikipedia article on cities stated that cities preceded agriculture, citing Jacobs. This is simply not true. I guess if there are people believing that the earth is flat, or that evolution has not happened, there might be people believing that cities came before agriculture. But from the point of evidence and science, Jacobs was wrong. I went through a period when I was contributing to Wikipedia, so I corrected the Cities article. Within a couple of days, my corrections had been reversed, and replaced with the erroneous information. I changed it again, and a second time my corrections were undone. I complained to a Wikipedia editor, that was the end of my editing and contributing to Wikipedia. (I see that the error has now been corrected).

Wikipedia is one thing, but urban textbooks are another. It turns out that a number of textbooks on urban studies and urban geography promote the erroneous views of Jacobs. These books do not cite the relevant archaeological works, but they do cite Jacobs. She is such an influential thinker and there seems to be something of a cult devoted to her ideas and their preservation. It really steamed me that students were being given false information in textbooks. So I did some Google searches, and found that a number of geographers had promoted the erroneous views in scholarly journal articles and books, including Edward Soja and Peter Taylor. I worked out my frustration in a blog post, and let it go. But then in 2012 a major journal published an article by Peter Taylor that, again, promoted the faulty views of Jacobs that cities preceded agriculture (Taylor 2012).

Enough was enough! I rounded up a couple of colleagues--Jason Ur and Gary Feinman--and we wrote a response to Taylor's paper, and it's just been published (Smith et al. 2014). We show the historical context of Jacobs's ideas about early urbanism and how she was unable to support her argument about cities before agriculture. We show the subsequent adoption of her ideas by scholars, mostly urban geographers. And we outline the archaeological evidence (which is indisputable) for agriculture preceding the earliest cities. Her argument was wrong when it was first formulated, and the archaeological evidence against it was clear. By now that evidence has piled up to the point where her claim is the logical equivalent to flat-earth or creationist stories. We were hoping for a reply from Taylor, but that hasn't happened yet.

This one error says nothing about the accuracy or importance of the other ideas of Jane Jacobs. I remain a big fan of her work, except for this one point. But its perpetuation by scholars does speak eloquently about the decline in scholarly rigor today, and about the lack of respect for archaeology by some writers. People who ought to know better have been willing to accept interpretations about archaeology without consulting archaeologists or works, but solely on the authority of Jane Jacobs, who had no archaeological training or knowledge. If such an urban icon said cities preceded agriculture, then it must be so. Well, I'm afraid Jane Jacobs was just plain wrong about this one fact.

Smith, Michael E., Jason Ur, and Gary M. Feinman
2014    Jane Jacobs’s 'Cities-First' Model and Archaeological Reality. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (4): 1525-1535.

Taylor, Peter J.
2012    Extraordinary Cities: Early "City-ness" and the Origins of Agriculture and States. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36 (3): 415-447.

Monday, May 26, 2014

"Neighborhood has always mattered"

This is the title of a column in today's Boston Globe by Carlo Rotella. The column talks about how and why neighborhoods are important in today's cities, based partly on the author's experience and partly on Robert Sampson's book, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect. He also makes the point that neighborhoods are an urban universal, citing my work.

Neighborhoods clearly do matter, for many reasons. Whether you live in an idyllic tree-lined middle-class neighborhood in a U.S. city, or in a dirty and crowded shantytown slum in an African city, your neighborhood helps shape your experiences. It also contributes greatly to the nature and quality of your city.

Check out our current article,

Smith, Michael E., Ashley Engquist, Cinthia Carvajal, Katrina Johnston, Amanda Young, Monica Algara, Yui Kuznetsov and Bridgette Gilliland  (2014)  Neighborhood Formation in Semi-Urban Settlements. Journal of Urbanism 7 (published online).

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Monumental archaeology and social archaeology in ancient cities

House excavations at Izapa, University at Albany (from Wade 2014)
The journal Science just published a nice "Newsfocus" article about how archaeologists working on cities in Mesoamerica are focusing more on households these days and less on the big monuments. The article is:

House at Mayapan
Wade, Lizzie  (2014)  Beyond the Temples: Turning Their Backs on Spectacular Monuments, Archaeologists are Studying Ordinary Households to Uncover the Daily Rhythms of Long-Lost Cities. Science 344:684-686.

Wade talks about the ancient cities of Teotihuacan, Mayapan, and Izapa, quoting the leading archaeologists working at these sites about their research. I am quoted a couple of times, in reference to definitions and concepts of urbanism.

It is good to see non-monumental archaeology featured in such a prominent place. In some of my publications (e.g., Smith 2012) I've used the terms social archaeology and monumental archaeology for the  two major kinds of research on ancient cities and complex societies. Archaeologists following the monumental approach excavate pyramids, temples, palaces, and other elite-related contexts. Those of us who pursue social archaeology excavate houses, workshops, and agricultural fields, or we  map sites and make surface collections, all in order to reconstruct society from the bottom up. We want to learn about ancient households, their activities, their social conditions, and how these things changed through time.

Apartment compound at Teotihuacan
To really understand any ancient city, we need information from both the monumental and social archaeology approaches. But since the monumental approach has a history of several centuries, and social archaeology only goes back a few decades, the monumental side is far ahead of the social side. For this reason it is important for archaeologists to focus on households, neighborhoods, and social processes so that we can catch up with the results on temples, palaces, and tombs.

(( TECHNICAL INTERLUDE:  Although I like the phrase "social archaeology" to describe research on households and social processes (especially non-elite contexts), I tend to avoid using the term when talking to fellow archaeologists. Why? Because the phrase was hijacked by postmodern archaeologists who take a non-scientific approach to the past. They emphasize interpretation over explanation of the past; they focus on detailed studies of individual contexts with little comparison or generalization; and they would rather speculate about "meanings" in the past than test hypotheses about economic phenomena. This group founded a journal called "The Journal of Social Archaeology," and the term is now associated with an approach that I dislike greatly! ))

Here is one the many contrasts between monumental and social archaeology: the timing of the moment of archaeological discovery (this paragraph is taken from my new book, At Home with the Aztecs, currently in search of a publisher). In the monumental approach, the major finds come during fieldwork: things like the opening of a tomb or the discovery of a new hieroglyphic inscription. But when excavating the trash-heaps of ancient peasant farmers--as in the social approach--excitement rarely reveals itself in the field. The houses are similar and the middens all look pretty much the same. The important discoveries come later, in the laboratory stage of research, once we have washed, classified, analyzed, and quantified the artifacts.

Here is just one example, from my excavations of Aztec commoner houses. We identified a couple of whistles during excavation. One or two were whole, and the excavators cleaned out the dirt and started blowing the whistles. (Hear what one sounds like, on my Calixtlahuaca blog). But it wasn't until we had gone through thousands of big bags of potsherds that it became clear that just about every commoner household had one or more musical instruments: whistles, flutes, rattles, and small bells were the most common, with a few drums and trumpets here and there. It turns out that music was important in these homes, perhaps for domestic rituals, or perhaps for monthly public ceremonies. But if we hadn't screened all the dirt, and looked carefully at every single bag of sherds, we would have missed these musical instruments, mainly because most were broken fragments.
Flute pieces from commoner houses at an Aztec city (Yautepec)

The discovery of the prevalence of these objects in commoner houses was a real breakthrough that changed ideas about Aztec music, and about Aztec households. Music had been assumed to be an activity of priests and elites, and experts had initially scoffed at the idea that I had excavated lots of these things from commoner trash heaps. This discovery came not in the field, but in the lab, and only after several seasons of painstaking study of tiny fragmentary artifacts.

As someone who has dedicated my career to social archaeology (the scientific kind, not the postmodern kind!), it is great to see a nice write-up in the journal Science.

Aztec rock band (from Sahagun, Florentine Codex)
Note the two kinds of drum and two kinds of rattle in this Aztec band. The flute and trumpet players have evidently stepped out for a smoke.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

See the Teotihuacan exhibit at ASU!

There is only about a week left before the Teotihuacan exhibit at the Museum of Anthropology at Arizona State University closes! If you can't make it in, then check out this video. It was made for an online world history class at ASU, taught by Rebecca Andersen, and it shows most of the museum exhibit:

Monday, April 21, 2014

The one percent and the ninety-nine percent in ancient cities

What was the level of social inequality in ancient cities? Were these places of luxury and misery, where wealthy elite neighborhoods were separated from squalid slums? Or did the economic activity of cities help everyone achieve a reasonable quality of life? For a number of reasons, it is difficult to answer these questions clearly and simply. Ancient cities varied greatly in their extent and nature of social inequality. Furthermore, there have been very few rigorous analyses of inequality in individual ancient cities, and even fewer comparisons among cities in different regions and in different time periods.

I've been working on this topic lately, and here are some thoughts on ways we can look at ancient inequality. I'll outline two perspectives on wealth inequality in ancient cities. One focuses on elite-commoner differences, and the other on quantifying the level or extent of inequality (irrespective of social class).

View 1: Elite-Commoner Differences

Bruce Trigger's (2003) massive volume, Understanding Ancient Civilizations, is probably the best book about ancient urban societies. In chapter 8, he points out features of inequality shared by many or most ancient states. First, the most important social division was between a small elite class and the mass of commoners:

“Usually this involved distinguishing an upper class, free commoners, and slaves. Since slaves, if any, tended to be few, the bulk of the population was divided into two groups: upper class and commoners.” (p.145)

“Inequality was regarded as a normal condition and injustice as a personal misfortune or even as an individual’s just deserts rather than as a social evil ... The general pervasiveness of inequality ensured that its legitimacy went unquestioned.” (p. 142)

Some archaeologists have suggested that in a few ancient cities there was a "middle class" of people better-off than most commoners, but not at the level of the elite. My answer to this idea is both yes and no. First, the negative reply. Given the limitations of archaeological data, it is rarely possible to show the clear presence of a middle group between the elite and the commoners. We need quantitative data to discuss this issue, and I haven't seen anyone who claims to have found an ancient "middle class" show the quantitative data to substantiate their claim.

Second, my positive reply is not precisely an agreement for the existence of a middle class. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that in any given case, inequality was much more complex and multi-stranded than a simple two-class model allows. Frannie Berdan and I explore this in a paper now under review (Smith & Berdan n.d.), where we apply Charles Tilly's (1998) model of "durable inequality" to the Aztecs. We use ethnohistoric data than archaeological data, and we find a variety of separate, yet linked, systems of inequality operating at various levels of Aztec society. There isn't a clear "middle class," but there are many more wealth and power categories than just the nobility and the commoners.

Commoner house and noble house at Cuexcomate

While that paper reveals a complex system of social inequality, my own archaeological data point pretty clearly to two very distinct social classes, elite and commoner. At Cuexcomate and other Aztec sites in the state of Morelos, commoner houses averaged around 25 square meters in size. Noble's houses were in the range of 400-500 square meters (with no "middle class" houses in the middle!), and royal palaces were over 6,000 square meters (Smith 2008:117). The houses of commoners and nobles were radically different, and there is no "middle" category of house size between the small commoner houses and the large noble residences. I presented these data many years ago (Smith 1992), but I am now writing a paper with my former student, Jan Olson, that shows how the people who lived in these two categories of residence used different kind of artifacts (Olson & Smith n.d.).

For Aztec society, both the archaeology and the ethnohistory describe the presence and importance of two major social classes, nobles and commoners. But the greater detail of the ethnohistory shows that this class distinction is only one part of a more complex and widespread system of durable social inequality.

View 2: Quantifying Inequality

How do ancient levels of inequality compare to the modern world? The elite-commoner perspective on ancient inequality isn't much help here. We don't have a hereditary nobility in the U.S. today, but we certainly have a significant level of (increasing) social inequality. One of the main techniques for comparing inequality levels is the Gini index. This measures the concentration of wealth (or income) among the members of a population. If everyone had an equal share of the wealth, the Gini index would be zero. If one person owned ALL of the wealth, the index would be 1.0. The Gini index in the U.S. today is between 0.4 and 0.5, depending on how it is calculated. The blue map shows the Gini indices for U.S. states.
Gini index for U.S. states today

The Gini index is very easy to calculate. The problem is getting a complete coverage of the population. If you can measure all of the houses in a settlement, and then assume that house size is a measure of wealth, it is possible to calculate the Gini index for that settlement. I just submitted paper to a journal, with several students, that calculates Gini indices for a number of Precolumbian communities in central Mexico (Smith et al. n.d.). I had published one set of these data years ago (Smith 1992), but for this paper we recalculated the house areas and also calculated the volume of the architecture for each structure. Nor surprisingly, the sites I mention above, with lots of small commoner houses and one or two large noble residences, have moderately high levels of inequality (Gini indices around 0.45). And a small village without any large houses has a very low Gini index (surprise, surprise), close to 0.10.
Inequality at an Aztec town (Cuexcomate) and village settlement

The Lorenz curve is a graphical presentation of the Gini index. If the distribution is equal (Gini=0), then the graph will lie along the diagonal. The greater the inequality, the more the graph of wealth will drop below the diagonal. In addition to getting a number of measures from Aztec sites in Morelos, we also calculate a Gini index for Teotihuacan, the huge Classic period urban center. We were quite surprised by the result, but I'm going to leave you guessing here.....
Teotihuacan: How much inequality?

The study of wealth inequality in ancient cities is only just beginning. We need far more studies of the sizes of houses, the value of possessions, the types of grave goods, and other archaeological measure of wealth. And we need to devise and adapt more methods, like the Gini index, to explore such data. Ancient cities were not all the same. Some were more egalitarian in their distribution of wealth, while others were sharply divided with extremely wealthy nobles sharing the city with indigent paupers. Inequality was clearly a significant part of the Wide Urban World.


Milanovic, Branko  (2011)  The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality. Basic Books, New York.

Olson, Jan Marie and Michael E. Smith  (n.d.)  Material Expressions of Wealth and Social Class at Aztec-Period Sites in Morelos, Mexico ( ms. in preparation).

Smith, Michael E.  (1992)  Archaeological Research at Aztec-Period Rural Sites in Morelos, Mexico. Volume 1, Excavations and Architecture / Investigaciones arqueológicas en sitios rurales de la época Azteca en Morelos, Tomo 1, excavaciones y arquitectura. Memoirs in Latin American Archaeology vol. 4. University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh.

Smith, Michael E.  (2008)  Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Smith, Michael E. and Frances F. Berdan  (n.d.)  Durable Inequality in Aztec Society. Paper under review at a journal.

Smith, Michael E., Timothy Dennehy, April Kamp-Whittaker, Emily Colon and Rachel Harkness  (n.d.)  Quantitative Measures of Wealth Inequality in Ancient Central Mexican Communities.Paper under review at a journal.

Tilly, Charles  (1998)  Durable Inequality. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Trigger, Bruce G.  (2003)  Understanding Early Civilizations: A Comparative Study. Cambridge University Press, New York.