Report from session #233 of the 27th EAA Annual Meeting, 10 September 2021
Paul Belford (Chair of the EAA’s Urban Archaeology Community, Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust, United Kingdom) and Jeroen Bouwmeester (Secretary of the EAA’s Urban Archaeology Community, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, the Netherlands)
The EAA’s 2021 AM saw the fifth session of the EAA Urban Archaeology Community. This very active community was launched at a session in Maastricht (2017), and formally inaugurated in Barcelona (2018). We also held an interim meeting in Rome in March 2019, and a roundtable session at the Bern meeting later that year. In 2020 we published a book (Belford and Bouwmeester 2020) featuring some of the papers from 2017 and 2018, and also delivered another conference session at the 2020 EAA AM virtual.
The urban archaeology community is a diverse and dynamic group of people with a wide range of interests relating to the archaeology of towns from all chronological periods. We are keen to share and promote good practice in research, excavation and heritage management in urban places across (and beyond) Europe. The 2021 session featured 14 papers. These were spatially diverse – from Iceland to Greece, and from Ireland to China – and also extended from the first millennium BCE through to the twentieth century. In keeping with the conference, the theme of the session was about exploring the connections between towns and their environments.
We opened discussion in Denmark, where Mads Runge (Odense City Museums, Denmark) described early medieval coastal settlement in two very different fjord settings – Aalborg in north Jutland, and Odense on Funen. Though both towns had a close relationship with the sea, the different topographies of their hinterlands meant that Aalborg developed an outward-looking character focused on international trade, whereas Odense became a regional centre. These different characters were reflected in the layout of the two towns.
Next, we moved to Ireland, where Rebecca Boyd (University College Cork, Ireland) reconsidered the role of the ‘Viking’ towns of Dublin, Waterford and Cork. Conventional scholarship has focussed very much on their links with the wider Viking world, and tended to overlook their important roles as central places in the economy and society of their rural hinterlands. Wexford and Limerick were also important centres, although their archaeology is less well understood. Boyd also considered the impact of these 9th and 10th century places on the development of later Anglo-Norman settlements.
The two subsequent papers considered some of the political and cultural factors in the planning and development of towns in the middle ages, and in particular the influence of earlier Roman settlement patterns. In Arles Nicholas Balbi (Dirección de Cultura y Educacion, Buenos Aires, Argentina) and colleagues considered the long history of this French city as a place of touristic spectacle. Each successive generation augmented and enhanced what was left behind – with the medieval and later city strongly influenced by Roman monumental architecture.
Following this, Ágnes Kolláth (Institute of Archaeology, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungary) considered urbanisation in Transdanubian Hungary in the 11th-16th centuries. The privileges given to towns by the Árpádian kings and their successors were necessarily mediated by topographic and political factors. Some towns, such as Győr, consciously adopted earlier Roman sites; others – like Székesfehérvár – developed on an important pilgrimage route.
The interplay between political, religious, military and environmental factors in the location and development of towns was considered further by Kasper Jan Hanus (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland) in the context of the 'oasis cities' of the Tarim basin in China. Using a nuanced application of Wittfogel's 'hydraulic civilisations' model (Wittfogel 1969), together with LiDAR and geophysical survey, Hanus found that although the supply of water was key, its application – and so the success of urban centres – depended on the alignment of political and military priorities.
From remote sensing the session them moved to consider close-up encounters with raw biology, with two presentations looking at so-called ‘empty spaces’ in urban (or proto-urban) centres. Beginning in the Iron Age and the well-known 140 ha oppidum at Bibracte/Mont Beuvray (Burgundy, France), Petra Golánová (Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic) explored the use of an interdisciplinary ‘multi-proxy’ approach to the bioarchaeology of the settlement. Identifying empty spaces was one thing, but understanding their function was quite another. The uses of some areas, such as for markets, refuges, cattle storage, etc. were often temporary, and therefore left only ephemeral traces. Trees and shrubs were also evident inside the walls.
At the other end of the time scale, Yannick Devos (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium) presented the cumulative evidence of geoarchaeological work undertaken in development-driven projects in Brussels. Over 20 sites had been subject to detailed analysis, focussing specifically on the phenomenon of ‘dark earth’. Using a ‘site biography’ approach, this work had produced some new ideas about the organisation of space in the medieval and later city – locating houses, gardens, quarries, crop fields and grasslands which were previously invisible in the archaeological and historical records.
The next three papers looked at towns which had been established for very specific reasons, and as a result had developed distinct morphologies and characters. In Switzerland, Andrea Schaer (Bern University) explored the development of the Swiss spa town of Baden (Canton Aargau). Here the location was determined by geology, and the original Roman town was located on the mineral spring; later medieval development took place in a separate location, perhaps the result of legal rights or restrictions reflecting the mixed role of spa towns as places of both recreation and administration. Geology also determined the location of metal mines, and Pawel Cembrzynski (Christian Albrechts University Kiel, Germany) explored the sometimes bizarre urban landscapes of medieval mining towns in Central Europe. Some mining settlements were very short-lived, but all of these towns were very close to the mines themselves – in some cases the mineshafts determined the street layout, and furnaces and ore preparation facilities were also part of the urban fabric. Even when pollution, erosion and subsidence created unhealthy environmental conditions, people preferred to live in these towns which were sources of great wealth, sometimes reflected in elaborate monumental architecture. Exploitation of a different resource was the theme of the paper by Camille Westmont (University of the South, Tennessee, United States), who looked at the industrial rise and decline of Siglufjörður (Iceland) during the 20th century, with reference to the relationship between the environment and the structure and development of the town. The exploitation of herring provided great wealth, but was ultimately unsustainable and economic collapse followed – but the town survived.
The changing relationship between the environment and building materials was explored by Jeroen Bouwmeester (Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands) using examples from the Netherlands. Early towns had timber-framed structures that were designed to rest on top of the fragile peat and clay soils. However, a desire for larger buildings meant that techniques changed and much more intrusive types of foundations were developed to support the heavier buildings people desired. Later still, the adoption of brick construction took place at different rates in different places, reflecting the availability of materials.
The session concluded with two papers exploring prehistoric cities in Greece. Silke Müth-Frederiksen (National Museum of Denmark) described the layout and fortifications of the city of Messene (4th century BCE) in the south-western Peloponnese. Here the carefully-laid grid-plan of the street layout was contrasted with the extensive but irregular three-tier system of fortifications which extended well into the wider landscape, and also embraced outlying settlements. However, one of the problems in understanding the relationship between these features was the lack of reliable dating evidence.
The last paper was from Fragoula Georma (Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, Greece), describing the very impressive 4190m2 excavations undertaken in advance of road-building on another city of the 4th century BC, Makyneia in western Greece. This was an un-walled town, though a nearby citadel provided refuge for citizens. Excavation revealed a complex sequence of building and rebuilding, which showed that the layout of the town respected the natural topography – streets were laid out along contours, and houses were oriented southwards to make best use of light; the settlement also included sophisticated water supply and drainage arrangements.
The session was punctuated by several periods of lively discussion. Topics included the influence of earlier remains on later settlement planning and design, the ability of archaeology to identify periods of continuity and discontinuity, and the need for more ‘joined up’ thinking in developing interdisciplinary approaches to understanding urban archaeology.
There was considerable enthusiasm for publishing the papers in the session, and the organisers will explore this with the contributors in the coming months. The Urban Archaeology Community holds monthly Zoom meetings by open invitation in order to discuss the latest findings and methodological developments. We are very much looking forward to meeting in person in Budapest next year. Anyone interested in making a contribution – either to the publication, or to a future conference session – is very welcome to get in touch. Indeed, anyone with even a slight interest in urban archaeology is urged to join the Community!
- Belford, P. and Bouwmeester, J. 2020 (eds). Managing Archaeology in Dynamic Urban Centres. Leiden: Sidestone.
- Wittfogel, K.A. 1969. The Hydraulic Civilisations. In Kasperson, R.E. and Minghi, J.V. (eds) The Structure of Political Geography. New York: Routledge. pp.442-449.
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