Book Review

PAUL J.J. SINCLAIR, GULLÖG NORDQUIST, FRANDS HERSCHEND & CHRISTIAN ISENDAHL (ed.). The Urban Mind: cultural and environmental dynamics (Uppsala Universitet Studies in Global Archaeology 15). 618 pages, numerous colour & b&w illustrations & tables. 2010. Uppsala: African and Comparative Archaeology, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Uppsala; 978-91-506-2175-4 hardback.

Review by David N. Edwards
School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester, UK

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The 'Urban Mind' project presented here brings together an array of approaches to urban phenomena, ranging across the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East, with a cluster of specific studies concerned with Constantinople/Istanbul, as well as others reaching out to the Americas, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia. In the age of the Anthropocene where mega-cities are increasingly the 'normalcy', this project aspires to find clues in the urban past to enlighten a potentially bleak urban future.

Environmental dynamics are explored at a number of scales. Finné and Holmgren introduce general patterns of 'Climate variability in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East during the Holocene', providing one point of departure. By contrast, Hesse adopts a more social approach to the formative stages of village and urban societies in the Near East. Cognitive changes in human relationships with landscapes and animals, and expanding social networks from the Natufian, present a different point of departure for those with an interest in the 'mind' behind the Urban Mind. A rather looser approach to the 'urban mind' is extended by Mattes in a wide-ranging survey of the Neolithic of Northern Europe.

One ambitious study, framed in terms of 'socio-environmental interactions' is Pedersén, Sinclair, Hein and Andersson's 'Cities and urban landscapes in the ancient Near East and Egypt'; it presents an impressive dataset relating to some 2500 sites (see, and then focuses on a more detailed discussion of southern Mesopotamian settlement landscapes, and then on city (Babylon). Attempting a more explicit engagement with issues of societal 'collapse' and 'decline' (and the narratives we construct around them), Weiberg, Lindblom, Leppänen, Sjöberg and Nordquist present four studies looking at the Early Bronze Age of the Aegean, the rise and fall of the Myceneans, and the rise of the Greek city-states and their colonies. Looking beyond some of the more familiar tropes of landscape degradation and natural catastrophes, they assess critically some of our more familiar narratives. Can we reframe perceptions of 'collapse' in terms of credible strategies for survival (and resilience)? In a slightly different take, Fischer and Herschend also raise questions about our predispositions to normalise urban modes of being. Our predisposition to interpret ruins in terms of disaster is also examined, and questioned: that they may equally be "the result of a change to the better" is worth reflecting on. Another interesting direction is the challenge to the notion of the 'normalcy' of the Urban Mind, whether in modern counter-urban movements, or amongst early Christian ascetics. This is how Eskhult's contribution on urbanism in Late Antiquity sees the tensions between an early Christian life rooted in "refined Hellenistic urban culture" and anti-urban ascetic and monastic traditions.

Issues of resilience are explored in a number of case-studies. Carlsson sets out the background to that particularly influential manifestation of the Urban Mind encountered in the Greek polis, while Höghammar examines just one of these, Kos: she introduces a project with an explicit interest in its resilience in the face of three potentially catastrophic earthquakes, under different political regimes. One failure of urban forms in the face of apparent environmental stresses is discussed by Delforooz in relation to the Bronze Age site of Shahr-i Sokht on the south-east Iranian Plateau, abandoned c.1800 BC. The lack of resilience of a rather better-studied urban centre, Rome, is made explicit in the contribution of Fischer, Lejdegård and Victor, in relation to its changing position in relation to the fifth-century Imperial residences and their mints. Some of the perplexing ruins which offend the Urban Mind alluded to by Fischer and Herschend are discussed by Witakowski in a survey of the ruin landscapes of Syria entitled 'Why are the so-called dead cities of northern Syria dead?'

Four contributions explore aspects of the fascinating urban world of Constantinople/Istanbul, usefully introduced by Balicka-Witakowska writing on its transition from Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. More ambitious takes on the varied resource strategies which sustained the city, to its mega-city status of today, are presented by Ljungkvist, Barthel, Finnveden and Sörlin ('The urban Anthropocene'), not least in its capacity for self-provisioning from urban and suburban green spaces. Barthel, Sörlin and Ljungkvist further consider its survival strategies, presented in terms of social-ecological memory. An especially interesting study of the extraordinarily diverse linguistic landscapes of Ottoman Istanbul by Csató, Brendemoen, Johanson, Römer and Stein discusses the transforming effects of its many immigrant groups, as well as the city's ability to accommodate such linguistic variability. Issues of language and communication are also explored in two further contributions, one a fascinating study by Schaefer on oasis-city-states along the Silk Road during the first millennium AD in Central Asia. In a more literary vein, Jahani, considers how the urban mind is reflected in Balochi literature.

A final section moves the focus further afield. A single North American study by Neil Price draws out interesting contrasts between the first, near-disastrous English experiment at Jamestown, with the very different approaches adopted by the French on the St Lawrence. A similarly refreshing look at the well-trodden ground of early Scandinavian urbanism is presented by Hillerdal. She makes a strong case for uncoupling the first phase of eighth-century town foundations from a single narrative of urban development connected to emerging royal power at the turn of the first millennium: it may be that the early manifestations of comparatively autonomous trade-based towns were ultimately incompatible with the claims of emergent kings, and therein lies the reason for their disappearance. Isendahl (on the agro-urban landscapes of the pre-Hispanic Maya) considers the Mesoamerican 'low-density city' while Karlström introduces the potentially very different urban mind of Southeast Asia, and specifically Vientiane. Further very different manifestations of southern African urban traditions are explored by Manyanga, Pikirayi and Chirikure (on Mapungubwe and Great Zimbabwe) and Sinclair (on energy regimes and long-term settlement dynamics on the Zimbabwe Plateau).

Perhaps understandably, the ambitions and quality of these papers is quite variable. Thought-provoking insights are plentiful, if some narratives are sometimes less satisfying, not least in the seemingly stubborn refusal of climate proxy data to deliver meaningful insights beyond the most generalised. As part of the IHOPE (Integrated History and Future of People on Earth) initiative, it sets its sights high. As a collection of papers, its impact may be more modest than some of the aspirational rhetoric would lead us to expect, but there is much to find worth reading, and probably re-reading; that is made possible through a most welcome open-access policy (see