College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences

Cities from Ur to Edinburgh: Archaeology and Comparative Urbanism

Professor Dr Michael E. Smith


Lecture abstract

Humans have been living in cities for more than five thousand years.

In what ways were the earliest cities—as excavated by archaeologists—similar to the cities we live in today?

Were cities and urban life not all that different in Ur and Edinburgh?

Or were ancient and contemporary cities fundamentally different kinds of places, making comparisons trivial?

I will try to answer these questions through three kinds of comparison: comparisons through time (for instance, past and present cities), comparisons within a single period (for instance, Aztec or Sumerian cities), and comparisons that expand our notion of cities and urbanism to a wider range of human settlement (for instance, Roman forts, refugee camps, or Egyptian workers villages).

If we view cities as fundamentally economic in nature, then cities today are indeed quite different from those of the distant past. But if cities are seen instead as places of social interaction with processes of 'energized crowding' not found in smaller settlements, then there has only been one kind of city throughout history.




Michael E. Smith is an archaeologist with two research themes: the Aztecs and other societies in ancient central Mexico, and comparative urbanism.

He has directed fieldwork projects at sites in the provinces of the Aztec empire in central Mexico. His fieldwork focuses on the excavation of houses and the study of daily life.

He has published six books and numerous scholarly articles on the Aztecs; his books include

The Aztecs (3rd edition, 2012)

Aztec City-State Capitals (2008)

Aztec Imperial Strategies (F. Berdan et al, 1996)

He has recently become Director of the Teotihuacan Archaeological Laboratory at Arizona State University, and is moving his fieldwork focus to the ancient city of Teotihuacan.

Dr Smith's second research theme—comparative urbanism—has developed in the past ten years. By analyzing ancient cities using concepts and methods from contemporary urban studies, Smith is exploring the similarities and differences among cities throughout history and around the world.

Neighbourhoods and urban services are two of the very few urban universals, and Smith is part of a transdisciplinary research group addressing these topics, with support from the National Science Foundation.

He also participates in a working group at the Santa Fe Institute to investigate whether the regularities of urban scaling (as established for contemporary cities) also apply to ancient cities. Smith also publishes on comparative empires, economies, and systems of social inequality.

Oct 01 2015 -

Cities from Ur to Edinburgh: Archaeology and Comparative Urbanism

Delivered by Professor Dr Michael E. Smith. Event is free to attend and non-ticketed.

Teviot Lecture Theatre
Doorway 5
Medical School (Old Medical School)
Teviot Place