Ancient Urban Societies


Cities and the states and empires they are part of have been important components of human society for millennia. Archaeologists hold the keys to many exciting questions of the urban past, starting with the rise of the earliest cities and continuing through long trajectories of urban change in various parts of the world. The institutions of kingship, empires and political domination went along with the rise of urbanism, and archaeologists are making major contributions to understanding the origins of such patterns in the deep human past.

Current and Future Directions

After a long history of excavating temples, tombs and pyramids, archaeologists have now turned their attention to the people who built and lived in ancient cities. This new approach focuses on residential zones, workshops, the actions and lives of individuals, households and neighborhoods. Innovative methods – from radar to GIS to the latest dating techniques – address these issues. Archaeologists document significant variation in the forms and organization of ancient cities and state societies; there was no single original form of these institutions. Cities ranged from dense highly planned imperial capitals to sprawling jungle towns; polities ranged from chiefdoms to city-states and empires; and ancient governments included both despotic kingdoms and more participatory societies. 

School Strengths

ASU archaeologists are at the forefront of fieldwork on this topic, with excavations, mapping and innovative surface fieldwork at large and small sites. ASU has numerous strengths:

  • Our faculty are engaged in fieldwork and analysis in many parts of the world, from the Andes to the Near East.
  • Our research is in the vanguard of the new methods and approaches. We have particular strength in questions of urban planning and form, the lives of urban commoners, indigenous forms of polities and bioarchaeological analyses of health in relation to urbanism and imperialism.
  • ASU has a major stake in fieldwork at Teotihuacan through our role as administrators of the Teotihuacan Research Laboratory in Mexico and through a long history of faculty and student fieldwork at urban and rural sites in Mexico and other areas.

Key ASU Fieldwork Regions: Mesoamerica; Near East/Mediterranean; Andes; Europe


Archaeological research on ancient urbanism and its political context has direct ties to work in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, the School of Sustainability and the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. The transdisciplinary research project “Service Access in Premodern Cities” is linked to these and other academic units on campus, and the Center for Bioarchaeological Research in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change promotes research on these topics.

Key school archaeology faculty:
Brenda Baker | Jane Buikstra| George Cowgill (emeritus) | Kelly Knudson | Ben A. NelsonCharles Redman | Michael E. Smith | Barbara L. Stark | Christopher Stojanowski | Sander van der Leeuw

Other key school faculty:
Christopher BooneJohn Chance | Anne Stone

Other key ASU faculty:
Patricia Fall (Geography) | Thomas Morton (Architecture) | Emilly Talen (Geography) | Aribidesi Usman (African and African American Studies)