BMCR 2020.05.12

Urban network evolutions: towards a high-definition archaeology

, , Urban network evolutions: towards a high-definition archaeology. . Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2018. 309 p.. ISBN9788771846232 £30.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This work, with contributing authors from the Center for Urban Networks Evolutions (UrbNet) and funded by a research grant from the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF), seeks to advance an argument for using multiple combined methods in the pursuit of archaeological investigation, which the editors and contributors refer to as “high-definition” archaeology. The work addresses a wide range of sites and time periods from the Classical Mediterranean, to the medieval period in the Middle East and Scandinavia, to the Viking Age, and East Africa. It consists of an introduction and thirty-nine short chapters in 309 pages, with 108 color and black and white photographs and figures plus one table. In accordance with the title, the work’s focus is on urban societies and the application of a “high-definition” methodology for “urban network” analysis. Neither of these terms are directly defined in the introduction (pp. 13-7) or elsewhere, but are employed by the various authors rather loosely. In the case of “high-definition”, this typically includes a combination of multiple (but not all) of the following: historical source analysis, stratigraphic, and material culture analysis, database cataloging and related analysis, and methods from the natural sciences (e.g. chemical composition analysis). The chapters on funerary portraiture in Palmyra (pp. 75-80, 81-6, and 87-92) and coinage (pp. 117-24) and river archaeology (pp. 125-30) in Jerash are good examples. “Urban networks” is generally defined (p. 14) as relating to the manner in which cities facilitate communication “within and between societies” as “drivers of both contact and development” for “triggering societal and environmental change”. The definition of specific urban networks is left to the context of the individual chapters; for example, the chapter on public spaces and urban networks in Messene in the Peloponnese (pp. 65-71), networks as evidenced via pottery distribution in Jerash (pp. 131-8), and archaeobotanical analysis supporting trade networks in medieval Denmark (pp. 229-34).

Of likely greatest interest to readers of the Bryn Mawr Classical Review will be the eight chapters on ‘Rome and its Cities’, the four chapters on ‘Palmyra: The Urban Desert’, and the five chapters related to the classical era (out of eight) on ‘Jerash: From Roman to Islamic City’. For reason of space in this review, one chapter has been selected from each of the sections on Rome, Palmyra, and Jerash for a detailed review, along with a summary of the other chapters in these sections.

The chapter titled ‘The Archaic period on the Forum of Caesar: the urbanization of early Rome’ by Nikoline Sauer Peterson is a representative example of the chapters in the Roman section, which feature short summaries of prior scholarship on the subject addressed in the chapter, and often include a brief plan for an upcoming research project. This chapter begins with a quick orientation to the archaic period of Rome during the reign of king Tullus Hostilius in the first half of the 7th century BCE and a mention of the scholarly debate surrounding the validity of historical sources such as Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Reference is made to extant remains from the period, such as the foundations of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline hill, the temples near Sant’Omobono, and various locations in the Roman Forum itself to make the argument that Rome was “already at a relatively high level of urbanization” by the 7thcentury BCE (p. 41). Turning to the Forum of Caesar specifically, Peterson briefly reviews the findings of earlier excavations, which have revealed occupation in the southeastern area of the Forum during the archaic period, including a road and the remains of two houses.[1] The author then discusses planned excavations in the Forum to enable a greater understanding of the archaic settlement in the area, with the intent to move beyond a focus on “graves, sanctuaries, and grave goods” from the prior excavations to “careful examinations of the smaller archaic remains…such as pottery, tiles, slag, metal, bones, and loom weights” in order to “trace the development of the houses…spatial organization, demographic patterns, and social stratification” (p. 42). Connecting back to the theme of “high-definition”, Peterson discusses how future excavations will seek to investigate undisturbed archaeological stratigraphy with typological pottery analysis employed for dating the stratigraphic levels and structures along with chemical composition analysis of remaining residues and clay to identify origins, cultural contacts and possible urban networks during the archaic period (pp. 42-3). Peterson indicates this will be accompanied by radiocarbon analysis to calibrate chronological sequences in the area as well. While none of these methods are innovative on their own, their combined use should provide greater clarity to our understanding of prior settlement under the Forum of Caesar, specifically, and trade networks in Archaic Rome, generally. At a length of just over five pages, including the space for three color photos, this chapter is only able to provide a brief overview of the topic of Archaic Rome. The bibliography (p. 44) provides references to works that explore the topic in far greater depth (Cornell 1995, Smith 1996). The research proposal covered in the chapter will be of keen interest to those interested in archaic Rome and the Imperial Fora.

The other short chapters in this section relate to projects planned or underway by UrbNET in Rome and other sites, and also include brief introductions to each topic. Again, the unifying theme is typically the use of multiple investigative methods to obtain a broader archeological understanding. These chapters include a brief overview of the site of Caesar’s Forum and its excavation history; a more in-depth review of the inhumation burials discovered there; a brief chapter on the role of Caesar’s Forum as a public space, its connectivity to the Imperial Fora, and how planned excavations intend to clarify spatial usage in the area; the allegorical poems of the Danish theologian and humanist Erasmus Laetus and their allusion to Vergil’s Ecologues, Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Rome; recent excavations in Doliche, including the finding of a 4th century CE Christian basilica with floor mosaics, and the contemporaneous spoliation of a Roman bath complex; and a brief overview of the site of Messene in the Peloponnese, its history during the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial eras, and a proposal for evaluating spatial usage and using geoscience techniques at the site.

The chapter ‘Urbanizing the desert: Investigating the diversity of urban networks through the images of deceased Palmyrenes’ by Rubina Raja (the Director of UrbNet) provides an intriguing analysis of funerary data compiled by the Palmyra Portrait Project, begun in 2012. The aim of this project, according to the author, is to collect “all known funerary portraiture from Palmyra” (p. 75), which today is in many different collections. The author indicates, that, as of the writing of the chapter, more than 3,400 entries have been compiled (p. 76). After a short discussion of the urbanization of the city during the early Roman period in the 1st century BCE, the author shares preliminary insights from the project. For example, after noting that Palmyra was a bilingual city,[2] Raja observes that the funerary monuments almost exclusively use the local dialect of Aramaic, and their style heavily emphasizes local dress and status symbols, such as Palmyrene jewelry and priesthood costumes. Additionally, the author discusses the prominent role of priests, who comprise roughly 25% of all male representations in Palmyrene funerary portraiture, and states this proportion is higher than what is typically found in other parts of the Roman world. The chapter concludes with a brief mention of female funerary depictions and the observation that women are represented in graves attributed to both husbands and fathers. While brief, this chapter provides an interesting introduction to the Palmyra Portrait Project, which is discussed further in the following chapters in this section, and the types of investigative analysis it can support. This chapter, and the project itself, will be of interest to classical scholars who study funerary monuments, religion in the provinces, and kinship relationships.

The second chapter in this section discusses the development of the Palmyra Portrait database, its structure, and use as a tool. Additional early research findings from the project are shared in a third chapter, such as the creation of the majority of the portraits during the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, the introduction of sarcophagi and reliefs of sarcophagi in the 2ndcentury CE, the varying depiction of female figures over time, family groups wearing dress from different traditions (Palmyrene, Roman, and Parthian), and changes observed in the tools used to produce the portraiture. The final chapter in this section briefly reviews the types of tomb monuments found in Palmyra (tower, underground hypogea) with a discussion of a few examples. Collectively, the chapters in this section provide a good introduction and overview of recent scholarship on Roman funerary portraiture analysis in an important city on the eastern periphery of the Empire. They will be of interest to scholars of funerary analysis and Palmyra, specifically.

The third chapter reviewed in depth here is from the section on Jerash: ‘Small change in big cities: Characterising the development of everyday coinage in Jerash’ by Thomas Birch and Vana Orfanu. This chapter discusses the analysis of a sample drawn from 800 small copper-based coins, so-called minimi, representing the Roman to the early Islamic period and found during the 2012-2016 excavations of the Danish-German Northwest Quarter Project. Per the authors, chemical analysis shows coins containing 5% or more lead content increased significantly from the 4th to 5th centuries CE. During the Byzantine period that followed, the leaded coin percentage dropped. As Umayyad coinage appeared, leaded coins further dropped and then later rose again sharply. According to the authors, this change in the composition of the coins indicates debasement and/or restricted access to copper, which may also indicate instability and socio-economic changes taking place in the city over time. The authors conjecture this may be related to historical events such as the “stripping of pagan temples or state-spending during the Justinian period”, but that samples from other cities in the region are needed to determine if the pattern is observed more broadly (p. 120). Finally, the authors indicate microscopic analysis shows the coins were very likely cast with smooth obverse and reverse sides (i.e. no figural representations or legends) as they “lack any surface detail” (p. 121). They believe this may indicate a locally manufactured currency that imitates ‘real’ minimi.

The other chapters in this section also relate to the results of recent Danish research projects in the city, specifically the results from the Danish-German Northwest Quarter Project. These chapters discuss findings, such as differential street paving as compared to the city center, the dating of water system features in the area, a slow change in household pottery after the Arab conquest, the remelting and reshaping of glass in the early Islamic Period, the chemical composition of mortars and plasters produced in the city, wall painting techniques and pigments that demonstrate a high degree of continuity in their style from the late Roman to early Umayyad periods, the heavy use of locally-produced pottery across all categories common in daily use from the Roman to the Byzantine to the Early Islamic periods and possible scenarios to explain this phenomenon). An additional chapter in this section proposes socio-economic change as evidenced by a reduction in the maintenance of agricultural terraces along the nearby river. This section and its chapters will be of interest to those scholars studying the Roman eastern provinces, specifically the site of Jerash, and the transition from the Roman to Byzantine to Islamic periods.

In summary, the work is overall unified by its contributions’ association with UrbNet as well as their argument for the use of multiple research methods to obtain a more complete understanding of and answers to archaeological questions. In the sections on Palmyra and Jerash, this argument is generally well met; however, the section on ‘Rome and its Cities’ is more indicative of expectations than results. Finally, despite their brevity, most of the chapters do effectively communicate the premise of the book: namely, that taking a multi-disciplinary “high-definition” approach can yield broader insights about urban environments and their networks.

Table of Contents

“Urban network evolutions: Exploring dynamics and flows through evidence from urban contexts” Rubina Raja and Søren M. Sindbæk, 13

“A high-definition approach to the Forum of Caesar in Rome: Urban archaeology in a living city” Jan Kindberg Jacobsen and Rubina Raja, 21
“Burial and birds in pre-urban Rome” Nora M. Petersen, 27
“Caesar’s Forum: Excavating Italian Iron Age” Sine Grove Saxkjær and Gloria Paola Mittica, 35
“The Archaic period on the Forum of Caesar: The urbanization of early Rome” Nikoline Sauer Petersen, 39
“A space for Caesar: The heart of Rome and urban development” Line Egelund, 45
“Caesars, shepherds and cities” Trine Arlund Hass, 51
“Doliche and the exploration of Graeco-Roman urbanism in ancient Greater Syria” Michael Blömer, 57
“Public spaces and urban networks in the Roman Empire: Messene in the Peloponnese as an example of an approach” Christopher Dickenson, 65

“Urbanizing the desert: Investigating the diversity of urban networks through the images of deceased Palmyrenes” Rubina Raja, 75
“Behind the scenes: Cataloging as a tool for exploring urban networks” Olympia Bobou and Rikke Randeris Thomsen, 81
“Producing funerary portraits: An urban tradition in the Syrian Desert” Julia Steding, 87
“The urbanization of Palmyra: The dynamics of the family cemeteries” Signe Krag, 93

“Urban networks and dynamics seen through urban peripheries: The case of Gerasa on the golden river” Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, 101
“Mortar and plaster production in Jerash: Changing perspective from macro to micro” Kristine Damgaard Thomsen, 109
“Small change in big cities: Characterising the development of everyday coinage in Jerash” Thomas Birch and Vana Orfanou, 117
“River archaeology and urban resilience in Jerash” Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, 125
“Urban networks seen through ceramics: Formal modelling approaches to pottery distribution in Jerash” Iza Romanowska, Tom Brughmans, Achim Lichtenberger and Rubina Raja, 131
“Medieval Jerash: Investigating the pottery of a Middle Islamic hamlet in the Northwest Quarter” Alex Peterson, 139
“Travellers and early urban archaeology in the Levant: The case of Jerash” Eva Mortensen, 147
“Archaeoseismology in Jerash: Understanding urban dynamics through catastrophic events” Christian Svejgård Lunde Jørgensen, 153

“Norther Emporium: The archaeology of urban networks in Viking-Age Ribe” Søren M. Sindbæk, 161
“3D scanning as documentation and analytics tool: First field experiences at the Northern Emporium excavation project, Ribe” Sarah Croix, 167
“Geoarchaeology and micromorphology at Ribe: A Northern Emporium in high definition” Barbora Wouters, 175
“Geoarchaeology of the early norther cities: Microscopic and geochemical investigations of urban spaces in Denmark” Pernille Lærke Krantz Trant, 183
“Viking-Age metals and urbanization: The case of Ribe in Denmark” Vana Orfanou & Thomas Birch, 189
“A new calibration curve for improved radiocarbon dating of urban contexts” Bente Philippsen and Mikkel Fristrup Schou, 197
“Missing links: Viking-Age silver rings and urban networks” Mahir Hrnjic, 203

“An urban way of life: How to approach the study of networks and practices in medieval Odense, Denmark” Kirstine Haase, 211
“Towards the making of a town: urbanity as practice and way of life in medieval Copenhagen” Hanna Dahlström, 217
“The chronology of two medieval cemeteries in central Copenhagen: Bayesian modelling and archaeological relative age formation” Jesper Olsen, Bjørn Poulsen and Hanna Dahlström, 223
“Trade, import and urban development: An archaeobotanical approach to economic change in medieval Denmark” Neeke M. Hammers 229
“Urbanisation and commercialisation on the periphery of medieval Europe” Olav Elias Gundersen, 235
“High-definition urban fashion: Proteins reveal preferred resources for medieval leather shoes” Luise Ørsted Brandt, 241
“Interdisciplinary methods in town archaeology” Johan Sandvang Larsen, 249
“Gardening and food security in early southern-Scandinavian urbanism: Existing evidence and the need for a high-definition approach” Søren M. Kristiansen, 255

“Defining space in house contexts: Chemical mapping at Unguja Ukuu, Zanzibar” Federica Sulas and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, 263
“Iron production technologies and trade networks in Swahili East Africa” Ema Baužytė, 271
“Dating Kilwa Kisiwani: A thousand years of East African history in an urban stratigraphy” Stephanie Wynne-Jones, Mark Horton, Jeffrey Fleisher and Jesper Olsen, 277

“Through the looking glass: Glass, high-definition archaeology and urban networks in the 8th century CE from North to South” Rubina Raja and Søren M. Sindbæk, 289


[1] Delfino, A. 2014. Forum Iulium: L’area del Foro di Cesare alla luce delle campgne di scavo 2005-2008. Le fasi arcaica, repubblicana e cesarianoaugustea. Oxford: Archaeopress, 64-92.

[2] Yon, J.-B. 2002. Les Notables de Palmyre. Beyrouth: Institut francais d’achaeologie du Proche-Orient.