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Part of the old city of Cairo, a surviving remnant of the preindustrial city.

Defining the City before the Preindustrial City

A landmark study, which put the term ‘preindustrial city’ into general circulation, is the 1960 book with this title by Gideon Sjoberg. Although without illustrations, it provides a succinct description of the characteristics of a general city drawn from numerous individual instances, as described by western visitors in recent centuries and as they still existed in the mid-20th century. The author, an American sociologist, was keen to demonstrate that the modern American city with which his colleagues were so preoccupied did not typify cities as they had existed in the past or continued to exist in some other parts of the world. In this he was highly successful. Although now nearly fifty years old, his book is still cited as a classic. For example, excerpts form part of the anthology edited by Efren Padilla, Perspectives on urban society; preindustrial to postindustrial (Pearson 2005).

Sjoberg was not an archaeologist, however, and his preindustrial city might not have been a static type in existence from the earliest periods of urbanism and waiting to be superseded by industrialism and modernity. If we take the economic base of the city, the essential pattern that he describes is of small-scale craftsmanship, often organized into guilds, and occupying separate areas. The elite disparage manual work and its distribution, so leaving scope for a merchant class to develop. Other historians of the city continue to hold the same picture in their minds. ‘Merchants have been an essential component of all towns and cities, without whom they could not exist’ (A. Southall, The city in time and space, Cambridge, CUP 1998, 21).

Not only does this not fit the general picture of society in New Kingdom Egypt, it does not fit the archaeological record at Amarna, as it is gradually emerging. It has long been clear that the plan of the city in the housing areas is one of interplay between overall homogeneity and local and limited variability. It displays a pattern that is constantly similar but never quite repeats itself. Within a sketchily imposed framework, self-organization has dictated the detail. As excavation slowly proceeds and the artefact record becomes more thoroughly studied, an analogous pattern is appearing amongst the things found. This is particularly so in the evidence for manufacture. It has prompted the observation that ‘the Amarna suburbs appear as a vast but loosely structured factory serving the state’ (Stevens, in Stevens and Eccleston, forthcoming). The kind of society that gave rise to this was almost certainly one based on patron-client communities, where the patrons were ‘officials’ who combined within themselves a range of roles including those of economic co-ordinators. They and their communities of dependants and clients, who included those engaged in crafts, were parts of a nested system that ultimately formed the totality of Egypt with the king as the ultimate patron. It was self-organized from below, and ordered from above. Amarna represents the best archaeological interface for this that we are likely to have into the foreseeable future. It is, for ancient Egypt, the type site for the pre-preindustrial city. Part of its value is its artefact record which enables analysis to proceed beyond the usually inhibiting limits set when the main source of study is the ground plans of buildings and neighbourhoods.

The kind of society in question is the subject of J. D. Schloen’ substantial study, The house of the father as fact and symbol; patrimonialism in Ugarit and the ancient Near East (Harvard Semitic Museum Publications; Studies in the Archaeology and History of the Levant 2; Winona Lake, Ind., Eisenbrauns 2001). This book represents a significant advance in its theoretical underpinning (he is much influenced by Weber’s work), in the comparative material drawn from extensive literature searches, and in the detailed Near Eastern textual evidence deployed. Egypt is on the edge of his area of interest, although the significance of his work for Egypt has already been highlighted by M. Lehner, ‘The fractal house of Pharaoh: ancient Egypt as a complex adaptive system, a trial formulation’, in T.A. Kohler and G.J. Gumerman, Dynamics in human and primate societies; agent-based modelling of social and spatial processes (New York, OUP 2000), 275–53, who has attempted to map out a general picture of ancient Egyptian history and society built around Schloen’s concepts. For Amarna these studies provide a powerful guiding path even if one does not accept all of the arguments put forward.

The aim of the project, then, is a better definition of Amarna and the processes that it represents. It is important to situate it in the broader context of the history of the city, not least because historians of the city tend to be unaware of the contribution that archaeology can make, and the richness and diversity of the sources. Moreover, the contemporary outsider view of self-organized communities (in its most vivid form the so-called ‘shanty town’) is often that it is a failing of a better system or a pathological aberration from normality. The insider view can be that this is a functioning and reasonably well adjusted normality (as well as one that a growing proportion of the earth’s population will face). The increasing recognition that this is so is evident in the recent Open University textbook Unruly cities? (edited by S. Pile, C. Brook and G. Mooney; Open University and Routledge 1999). Archaeology supplies a depth of time that reinforces the insider view.

As a way of expanding the context of study, the project is developing a dialogue with Dr Bill Erickson of the Department of Planning and Urban Design, University of Westminster. One aim is a joint paper for one of the standard journals in the field of urban design and the built environment, intended to establish, for a non-archaeological audience, the credentials of Amarna as a type site for a particular kind of urban society. The solid foundation of the credentials will be the Amarna Digital Atlas click here

Stevens, A. (forthcoming). ‘Craft production and technology’, in The Egyptian World, ed. T. Wilkinson, London: Routledge (with M. Eccleston).


Website first posted September 2000; last updated October 2017 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk