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How similar or different were early cities compared to cities today? We are carrying out a comparative project to answer some key parts of this question. Our detailed information on 23 past cities allows us to investigate whether the residents of various neighborhoods in premodern cities had equivalent access to the facilities that provided urban services. Did elites live closer to temples or shops than commoners? How accessible were plazas and other formal open spaces to urban residents? Our research will help us understand whether urban residents in deep history were better served by service facilities than their contemporary descendants, or whether there were greater inequities and barriers to services in the past. Premodern cities have many similarities to those of today, and we seek to bring current social science methods to bear on spatial and contextual data of well-mapped ancient cities, both historical and archaeological.
Our research questions are: (1) to what extent does the spatial distribution of public facilities indicate inequality in access to services in premodern urban neighborhoods? and (2) what contextual variables dynamically shape the level of inequality in service access? These questions have not been addressed for cities before the modern era, yet they hold the key to understanding many features of premodern cities, from neighborhood organization, to social stratification, to patterns of governance. Our analysis of these interrelations not only illuminates the historical antecedents of contemporary urbanization, but also explores the causal dynamics of urban life from a broad temporal and regional perspective.
We have faced major hurdles in the study. Each case included in the study requires a city map with enough associated information to locate the three kinds of facilities we focus on: religious, public assembly and market. These are the kinds of facilities for which we could most reliably obtain information across cities in our sample. Our definition of urban service derives from a succinct economic definition by Hill (1977:318): “one economic unit performs some activity for the benefit of another." An urban service may then be defined as an activity performed or provided by a government, organization or individual for the benefit of urban residents. In many cases, urban services are studied through the location of their facilities. A facility is any component of the urban built environment whose primary use pertains to more than one household; a service facility is a facility that serves for the distribution of services. No all services are fundamentally facilities based, however, such as street sweeping or garbage collection. Urban services may be facility based or mobile. We consider facility-based services.
We systematically compiled historical and archaeological information about the social and cultural contexts of 23 cities, drawn from 13 early urban traditions located on five continents, ranging in age from the ancient Maya to 19th century Africa.. We digitized city plans and service facility locations (temples/shrines, assembly spaces and markets/shops), and constructed a set of measures of spatial access to facilities. We also coded each city for a total of 89 contextual variables (in ten domains) and devised indexes (combinations of variables), ultimately comparing 20 such measures with local access to services. Currently we are exploring Quantitative Comparative Analysis (QCA). When our analyses are complete, our data — maps and contextual information — will be archived on the tDAR archaeological repository, so that other scholars and students can access the data and conduct independent research.
President’s Strategic Fund at Arizona State University
Part of the umbrella project “Late Lessons from Early History” for the project “Urban Organization through the Ages: Neighborhoods, Open Spaces, and Urban Life” in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change (ASU).
National Science Foundation
“Service Access in Premodern Cities,” co-funded by Archaeology, Geography, Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Science, grant 1260344