CITIES, ANCIENT, AND DAILY LIFE Pt 1

Friday, October 12, 2012



Charles Gates, Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey

Glossary
atrium In a Roman house, an unroofed room with a basin below.
ostrakon A fragment of pottery or stone on which something has been written or drawn.
peristyle court In Greek and Roman architecture, a courtyard surrounded by a colonnaded portico.
stele (pl. stelai, stelae) A stone slab, usually thin in section, placed vertically; often decorated with inscriptions, relief sculptures, and/or paintings.
tell An artificial mound consisting of the remains of settlements, especially the air-dried mud brick favored as a building material. Arabic tell ¼ Persian tepe, Turkish ho" yu" k.

Ancient Cities Defined
Cities arose fairly recently in the long history of humankind. Changes in climate c. 12 000 years ago led to the end of the Ice Ages, to a warmer, moister climate that in certain parts of the world favored the development of controlled agriculture and animal husbandry. No longer were people dependent on the collecting or hunting of wild food sources. Thanks to agriculture, in particular, permanent, year-round settlements developed. As farmers settled together in small villages, as food surpluses were registered, certain people were freed for other tasks - crafts, religious activities, etc. Increase in population eventually resulted in cities, with such features as monumental public architecture, figural art, writing, and social stratification.

These changes, and the rise of cities, occurred at different times in different parts of the world, with many regions never having cities at all. The earliest cities appeared in the Near East. Here, the changes described above began to take place in the eleventh to tenth millennia BC. By the fourth millennium BC, developed cities had appeared. This article focuses on cities in this region - the Near East, Egypt, and the Mediterranean basin - with a concluding section on Teotihuacan (Mexico), as a New World comparison.

Daily Life Defined
`Daily life' in ancient cities comprises many elements. The polarity between private and public is one basic way to structure any study. Private life centers on the house. The architecture and objects (furniture, decorations, utensils, and tools) suggest family relationships and activities happening in the house. Gender and age relationships are important: male and female, and children, mature adults, and the elderly. The life cycle with its rites of passage can serve as a focus: birth, marriage, old age, death. Household functions include food preparation and eating (or dining), hygiene, sleeping, socializing, etc.

The public arena centers on social relationships, political organization, and the maintenance of order, economic matters (making a living, commerce and trade), and religion. Within a social hierarchy, different ranks in society, from rulers to slaves, have their various occupations. Other functions of city life were also public: religious practices, for one, and certain entertainments, such as the Roman bath. But like private life, public life takes place in a physical setting: buildings, monuments, streets, open spaces, perhaps in connection with certain natural features (rivers, hills, mountains, the sea, harbors).What these elements look like, individually and in relation with others, is an essential part of recreating daily life in ancient cities.

The Archaeology of Daily Life in Cities
Archaeology as a Source of Information
The possibility of stepping into vanished worlds has a great appeal. Archaeology, by exposing ruined cities, their buildings and their artifacts, is an important vehicle for making this possible. For many, a visit to an archaeological site is more exciting if one gets the sense of what living there in a past time period was like. But for historic periods, ancient texts have also been a prime source of information about ancient life. The Hebrew Bible and Greek and Latin literature contain infinite details, combined with the names of people and places. Ancient Near Eastern, Egyptian, and Mayan texts, now readable thanks to decipherments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, also offer much. For some, the written word is supreme; the reality of place and object, the discipline of archaeology, are supplementary to the texts. These preferences can be reflected in the structures of academic study in universities, museums, and research centers. 



We who wish to enter ancient worlds should not feel forced to choose, for each source of information makes a valuable contribution. We might well ask, though, what do archaeological excavations contribute that literary sources cannot? Archaeology, the study of material culture, makes clear the visual and the tactile. Ancient sounds (music), ancient smells (perfumes, cooked foods, fuels), ancient tastes (foods, wines, other drinks) are lost to us. Actions of all sorts and communications between people are recorded in texts, and we can perhaps visualize them taking place. But archaeology gives us the physical environment in which we can place the people and events we read about: the natural setting, the built environment (the city, its plan, its architecture), and the objects that ancient peoples created.

The Preservations of Material Remains
The material remains from ancient times are never preserved in their entirety. Climatic, geological, and cultural conditions all play a part in preserving and destroying. A dry climate, such as that of Egypt, preserves organic materials well. In contrast, in a wet, damp climate, the human body and products from animals' bodies (leather, hair), wood and other plant products, and even metal objects rot, rust, corrode, disintegrate. The state of preservation affects our understanding of particular cultures. Textiles, for example, were an important product of daily life and commercial exchange, but they never survive with the completeness of a stone sculpture.

Geological factors also have impact. Earthquakes, fires, volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, erosion, and the repeated flooding of silt-bearing rivers (such as the Nile) all have the potential to change the urban landscape. Human agency also has contributed to the alterations in the material record. In cities occupied for centuries, the building materials of structures collapsed or destroyed might be recycled into new constructions. At the very least, foundations of buildings typically remain. Another standard remnant of ancient city life is broken pottery, for ceramics, products of a technology first developed in the mid-Neolithic period (eighth millennium BC), do not disintegrate. Other cultural habits that have preserved artifacts include the placing of objects in tombs and the depositing of offerings in religious centers.

Variations of Research Design: Effects on Understanding Ancient Daily Life
The questions that archaeologists seek to answer are hugely varied. They can be shaped by the state of research in a particular region or time period, its pasttraditions and current problems, and by the academic training of the individual researcher. In the Mediterranean, Egypt, and the Near East, approaches have included antiquarianism, the historical-descriptive, and the anthropological. These should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but overlap and complement each other, depending on the interests of the particular researcher.

Antiquarianism refers to an interest in an object by itself, a thing of beauty or curiosity. Compiling collections was often its goal. Today this term is negative, for it suggests that the interest in the object is shallow, divorced from any scientific study of the object's value in understanding the past.

A historical-descriptive approach has dominated the archaeology of our region in the past two centuries. Archaeologists seek to understand the material record by creating a framework for its study: by describing buildings and artifacts carefully, then by arranging them in chronological (or historical) order, and by seeing developments through time (diachronical): `what', `when', `where'. With such classifications in hand, scholars can then compare and contrast developments between sites, between regions, between time periods. In our region, such comparisons are generally made within a particular civilization (Egyptian, Greek, Roman). For the study of the material evidence of daily life, this approach has been essential.

Anthropological approaches, applied especially to prehistoric cities, seek to understand the material record as a reflection of human behavior. While historical-descriptive analyses are not ignored but valued as helpful tools, the archaeologist focuses on larger questions, such as `how' and `why'. In addition, the anthropologist is interested in comparing situations between different civilizations, to extract larger lessons about the nature of human societies.

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