BMCR 2024.02.16

Making cities: economies of production and urbanization in Mediterranean Europe, 1000-500 BC

, , , Making cities: economies of production and urbanization in Mediterranean Europe, 1000-500 BC. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2022. Pp. xvii, 454. ISBN 9781913344061.

Open Access

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review]


If volumes were judged by their volume alone, this collection of papers on Iron Age economies and urbanization in the Mediterranean would be an absolute champion. It weighs in at over 2 kg, with 461 28×22 cm total pages comprising 29 chapters and 233 figures reproduced in glorious full color. Most readers may never have the chance to appreciate the book’s physical heft, since it is available for free as an open access e-book on the publisher’s website, but they will doubtlessly notice its equally scaled intellectual scope and ambition. The chapters cover 500 years of archaeological developments in a wide array of regions from Iberia to the Aegean. By any measure, the volume’s publication represents a weighty achievement. A great deal of credit is due to the editors for having pulled together all this material so quickly for publication, only four (rather chaotic) years since the eponymous 2017 conference where the papers were first presented took place.

The papers in the volume concern relationships between urbanization and economic systems. Except for the introductory and concluding chapters, the book is divided into three parts according to region. Part I is titled “The Eastern Mediterranean”, though its seven chapters all treat sites or regions in the Aegean. Parts II and III on the Central and Western Mediterranean are slightly longer, at ten and nine chapters, respectively. This distribution is sensible because urbanization in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean has been treated more thoroughly than related developments in the Central and Western Mediterranean in extant scholarship, though a few chapters on sites or regions in Anatolia or other parts of the ‘eastern’ Eastern Mediterranean would have been welcome.

As Dimova, Gleba, and Marín-Aguilera state in the introduction, the chronological period of 1000–500 BCE was chosen for analysis because it witnessed the rise of large, complex settlements in many regions of the Mediterranean, and because the emergence of these concentrated settlements impacted economic systems for the production and supply of goods. It is plausible that new cities grew in part through engagement with and connections to one another, such that, with Gambacurta (p. 107), we should consider the beginnings of urbanism “as a plurality of ‘first cities’ rather than just a single ‘first city’”. Therefore, the field has an intellectual remit to understand how urbanism, cities, and productive economies interacted in Mediterranean perspective, a goal towards which the papers in this volume aim to make progress.

The volume’s editors have made important contributions to research on the archaeology of textiles. It is therefore not surprising to observe that textile production is especially emphasized as a fruitful vector for analysis in the introductory chapter. Textile production has generally been neglected in research on urbanization in the first-millennium BCE Mediterranean, for reasons that the authors review with an expert hand: it is often associated with unpaid female labor that is not counted as properly ‘economic’ due to modern biases, textiles survive for analysis less frequently than ceramic or metal artifacts, and textile production is not often treated in available textual sources. There are, nonetheless, compelling reasons to believe that textile production was central to many Mediterranean urban economies.

This point comes through strongly in the introductory chapter, but the contribution of textiles to urban economies is discussed unevenly throughout the volume. Only two chapters focus specifically on textile production (Reber, Fernández-Götz & Grömer), most mention textile production only briefly, while others do not mention textiles at all. This variable treatment is understandable, given the uneven nature of evidence for textile production and consumption in the wide-ranging contexts under discussion. It is encouraging to glimpse authors in several chapters wrangling at least briefly with difficult questions about how to reconstruct the contribution of textile production to Iron Age Mediterranean economies, perhaps often for the first time, and no doubt under encouragement from the volume editors. It seems likely that one of this volume’s important contributions will be to bring textile production newly to the front of mind for researchers dealing with relevant questions about economy and urbanism.

The volume may prove more immediately useful for researchers as a synthesis of information. Most of its contents constitute a hugely informative treasure chest of concise, well-edited, clearly written English-language summaries of evidence from recent fieldwork. As an Aegeanist, I was particularly stimulated by the papers that treat sites and regions that were previously little-known to me, and by reflecting on the innovative approaches taken by authors operating outside of my immediate disciplinary context. The granular and quantitatively impressive data from workshop remains in the urban landscape of Padova is queried to impressive effect by Vidale and Michelini. They come to the intriguing and well-grounded conclusion that workshop locations (and perhaps hereditary systems for passing on occupations) became more durable as formal urban economies grow, a conclusion that would be interesting to test in other contexts. Riva’s thoughtful approach connecting agricultural surplus, gifting economies, and the symbolic use of storage and transport vessels in south Etrurian mortuary contexts likewise seems ripe for application to mortuary assemblages elsewhere, while Perkins’ extraordinarily thorough treatment of Etruscan pithoi serves up food for much fresh thought on the varied roles of large storage jars in economy and society. I found the four papers on relationships between political power and craft manufacturing in Iron Age Iberia (Sanmartí, Asensio, & Jornet; Álvarez et al., Ruiz-Gálvez; Vivez-Ferrándiz Sánchez) helpful in outlining interpretative pathways that are quite distinct from those usually relied upon to make sense of evidence for production and craftspeople at Aegean sites. One of the volume’s many merits is that it makes available a great deal of new knowledge and ideas from a lot of different academic corners. In this regard, it is a wonderful resource for anyone seeking to identify fresh approaches that might be usefully translated across regional contexts or to get up to speed on Mediterranean developments outside of a spatially circumscribed sphere of interest.

That researchers might feel compelled to do so seems natural in the current intellectual environment, wherein the existence of a legitimate field of inquiry called Mediterranean Archaeology and the desirability of bringing together scholars working in different regions to discuss broader trends—as the volume under review does—is more-or-less settled. To some extent, this book makes clear both the benefits and drawbacks of taking a pan-Mediterranean perspective. While it is certainly stimulating to absorb the large quantity of information assembled, the number and variety of case studies also presents obstacles for drawing coherent observations about urbanism or economies based on reading them all together.

Christopher Smith’s concluding chapter brings together several compelling general observations about relationships between craft production, especially textiles, and urbanization. Astute as these observations are, I did not find that they arose naturally from the material presented in the volume. Rather, my impression is that there were such different things going on in the regions and centuries covered that common threads do not in fact run strongly through the net cast around the case studies. The human brain (or at least this human brain) can only hold so much knowledge together in a way that is conducive to reconstructing the forest from the trees. The richness of the data in Making Cities cannot be contested, but it is not entirely clear how the case studies were chosen, or why specific sites and regions were included and others not. Perhaps a slimmer volume with fewer sites or regions chosen as case studies because they raise particular points of comparison or contrast would have been easier to digest from a reader’s point of view.

On the other hand, my sense of synthetic aporia may grow less from the inherent incomparability of material and more from the distinct disciplinary standards and tendencies that adhere to work occurring in different Mediterranean regions. Some of these are apparent in the current volume. For example, while only one of the eight papers in the Aegean section has more than one author (Perrault & Bonias), almost half (9/19) of the papers on the Central Mediterranean and Western Mediterranean are authored by pairs or larger teams of scholars. The papers in Part I on the Aegean present thoughtful and thorough discussions of evidence, but generally eschew grounding these discussions in a theoretical or methodological framework and assume shared understanding of terms, such as urbanism, rather than setting them out explicitly. Papers in the Central and Western Mediterranean sections are likewise data-rich, but more often set out explicit definitions, analytical methods, and theoretical frameworks. Gambacurta’s paper begins with a critical examination of how we define the city, rather than assuming a shared definition of urban and urbanization (pp. 107-109). In describing evidence for craft production from Padova, Vidale and Michelini seek to assess whether the relevant patterns accord with formal models of attached or independent craft production using systematic and quantitative data of workshop locations and their durability through time (pp. 126-142). Bagnasco Gianni, Marzullo, and Piazzi integrate GIS analysis to understand the relationship between Tarquinia and surrounding sites (pp. 178-181). Ruiz-Gálvez considers how thinking about House Societies might aid in making sense of the organization of craft production in Iron Age Iberia, framing her discussion through engagement with a well-established set of ideas in anthropological literature (pp. 400-404). I do not mean to suggest that one of these approaches to presenting evidence is necessarily better or more conducive to generating insights into Mediterranean-wide phenomena, only to point out that the mixing of such approaches made it more challenging for me to find connections across and between regional contexts, or even from site to site.

An optimistic interpretation might be that such residual disciplinary fissures represent mere growing pains on the route to a unified, coherent archaeology of Mediterranean urbanism and economy. Given time, it is possible to imagine that dialogues encouraged by unifying volumes such as this one will ultimately pave a path towards greater integration of methods as well as data. A more pessimistic view might be that the Mediterranean-wide scale is simply not the right one through which to interrogate certain topics, and that individual regions simply experienced economic and demographic developments so differently that treating them all together is inevitably bound to leave us in a muddle. It will be interesting to see whether future research favors the optimistic or the pessimistic view.

These general comments reflect considerations arising from, rather than a critique aimed at, Making Cities, a rich and expansive volume that is recommended reading for anyone with an interest in the Iron Age Mediterranean broadly construed and essential reading for scholars working on issues related to first-millennium urbanism and economy. It was surely not an easy task to bring together and produce a lavishly illustrated open-access volume of this scale. The book represents an impressive and commendable achievement, a real gift to the field that will be appreciated by many.


Authors and Titles

  1. Making cities: economies of production and urbanization in Mediterranean Europe, 1000–500 BC (Bela Dimova, Margarita Gleba, & Beatriz Marín-Aguilera)

Part I: Eastern Mediterranean

  1. Argilos: the booming economy of a silent city (Jacques Perrault and Zisis Bonias)
  2. Regional economies and productions in the area of the Thermaic Gulf (Despoina Tsiafaki)
  3. Production activities and consumption of textiles in Early Iron Age Eretria (Karl Reber)
  4. Productive economy and society at Zagora (Lesley A. Beaumont)
  5. Making Cretan cities: urbanization, demography and economies of production in the Early Iron Age and the Archaic period (Antonis Kotsonas)
  6. Production, urbanization, and the rise of Athens in the Archaic period (Robin Osborne)
  7. Making Corinth, 800–500 BC: production and consumption in Archaic Corinth (Ioulia Tzonou)

Part II: Central Mediterranean

  1. Making cities in Veneto between the tenth and the sixth century BC (Giovanna Gambacurta)
  2. Attached versus independent craft production in the formation of the early city-state of Padova (northeastern Italy, first millennium BC)
  3. Resource and ritual: manufacturing and production at Poggio Civitate (Anthony Tuck)
  4. Perugia: the frontier city (Letizia Ceccarelli & Simon Stoddart)
  5. Tarquinia: themes of urbanization on the Civita and the Monterozzi Plateaus (Giovanna Bagnasco Gianni, Matilde Marzullo, & Claudia Piazzi)
  6. Prolegomena to the material culture of Vulci during the Orientalizing period in the light of new discoveries (Simona Carosi & Carlo Regoli)
  7. Defining space, making the city: urbanism in Archaic Rome (Jeffrey A. Becker)
  8. Commodities, the instability of the gift, and the codification of cultural encounters in Archaic southern Etruria (Corinna Riva)
  9. The Etruscan pithos revolution (Phil Perkins)
  10. Birth and transformation of a Messapian settlement from the Iron Age to the Classical period: Muro Leccese
  11. Indigenous urbanism in Iron Age western Sicily (Michael J. Kolb & William M. Balco)

Part III: Western Mediterranean

  1. Colonial production and urbanization in Iron Age to early Punic Sardinia (eighth-fifth century BC) (Andrea Roppa & Emanuele Madrigali)
  2. Entanglements, elite prerogatives, migratory swallows, and the elusive transfer of technological know-how into the western Mediterranean, 1000–700 BC (Albert J. Nijboer)
  3. Making cities, producing textiles: the Late Hallstatt Fürstensitze (Manuel Fernández-Götz & Katerina Grömer)
  4. From household to cities: habitats and societies during the Early Iron Age (Éric Gailledrat)
  5. Urbanization and early state formation: elite control over manufacture in Iberia (seventh to third century BC) (Joan Sanmartí, David Asensio, & Rafel Jornet)
  6. Productive power during the Early Iron Age (c. 650–575 BC) at the Sant Jaume Complex (Alcanar, Catalonia, Spain) (Laura Álvarez, Mariona Arnó, Jorge A. Botero, Laia Font, David Garcia I Rubert, Marta Mateu, Margarita Rodés, Maria Tortras, Carme Saorin, & Ana Serrano)
  7. Not all that glitters is gold: urbanism and craftspeople in non-class or non-state run societies (Marisa Ruiz-Gálvez)
  8. Urbanization and social change in southeast Iberia during the Early Iron Age (Jaime Vives-Ferrándiz Sánchez)
  9. ‘Building palaces in Spain’: rural economy and cities in post-Orientalizing Extremadura (Javier Jiménez Ávila)

Part IV: Conclusion

  1. Craft and urban community: industriousness and socio-economic development (Christopher Smith)