History

Ancient Cities in the News

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Like war-hungry neocons, archeologists shift their attention from Iraq to Iran:

Numerous sites in modern-day Iran and the surrounding region suggest that a vast network of societies together constituted the first cities, whose residents traded goods across hundreds of miles and forged parallel but strikingly independent cultures.

Archaeologists have thought that modern civilization began in Mesopotamia, where the large Tigris and Euphrates rivers bounded a fertile valley that nurtured an increasingly complex society….The findings at the new sites may have shaken conventional ancient history to its very foundations, reporter Andrew Lawler told LiveScience.

"People didn't think you could have large settlements this early without large rivers emptying into an ocean. No one knew of these sites," said Lawler, who reported in the Aug. 3 issue of Science magazine on the key findings, which were discussed at a recent archaeological conference in Ravenna, Italy.

Full story (including some skepticism about the new discoveries) here. If you have a subscription to Science, you can see Lawler's articles here.

Reading about ancient trading cities brings to mind one of my favorite revisionist ideas: Jane Jacobs' counterintuitive yet entirely plausible theory, outlined in The Economy of Cities, that urban life predated agriculture. It's unproven, of course, but there is a current of scholars who believe it; and it's an attractive story for those of us who value cosmopolitanism and trade. Here's an excerpt:

The traders of New Obsidian, when they go off on their trips, take along New Obsidian food to sustain themselves. Sometimes they bring along a strange animal, or a bit of promising foreign seed. And the traders of other little cities who come to New Obsidian sometimes take back food with them and tell what they have seen in the metropolis. Thus, the first spread of the new grains and animals is from city to city. The rural world is still a world in which wild food and other wild things are hunted and gathered. The cultivation of plants and animals is, as yet, only city work. It is duplicated, as yet, only by other city people, not by the hunters of ordinary settlements.

More on The Economy of Cities here. Reason's interview with Jacobs is here.