Cities, Large Villages, or Neither? The Conundrum of "Megasites" in Prehistory

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 82nd Annual Meeting, Vancouver, BC (2017)

‘Giant’ settlements, or ‘mega-sites’ were a periodic feature of human settlement history from around 4000 BCE right up to the 19th century CE. Such sites are usually characterized as ‘urban’, ‘pre-urban’ or ‘proto-urban’, but urbanism has become an exceedingly plastic categorization with a rather nebulous definition. Furthermore, these sites appear to share behavior which is quite different to that of classic urban sites, challenging our assumptions about how such settlements should classified. A session at the SAA conference in 2013 explored the characteristics of some prominent examples of these settlements, including the European Iron Age Oppida, Cahokia and Great Zimbabwe. This session is designed to revisit and deepen that discussion by considering new research in those regions and bring together new ideas and data that have emerged in the past four years. A consideration of these settlements in this context has the potential to provide significant new insight into the structure and organization of human settlement behavior in prehistory.

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  • Documents (9)

  • Beyond Iron Age ‘towns’: Examining oppida as examples of mega-sites and low-density urbanism (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Tom Moore.

    The question of whether Late Iron Age oppida in Europe were truly ‘urban’ has dominated debate over these sites since the 19th century. Oppida, however, have been surprisingly absent from comparative urban studies, despite increasingly nuanced perspectives on the nature and diversity of the urban phenomenon. In particular, Roland Fletcher’s suggestion that oppida might be examples of a range of alternative urban-like centres has been largely ignored by scholars of the European Iron Age. The...

  • Can urban agglomerations be seasonal, low-density and egalitarian?: new interpretations of the Ukrainian Trypillia megasites (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only John Chapman. Bisserka Gaydarska.

    Recent geophysical investigations of Trypillia megasites created a second methodological revolution, following the first revolution (1970s) defined by the discovery of the megasites and their dating to the 4th millennium BC. So far, this second revolution comprised primarily a methodological advance based upon detailed geophysical prospection; but its potential gains may be subverted without a fundamental re-interpretation of the very nature of megasites. The prevailing view of the megasites for...

  • Chaco Canyon: Dispersed Settlement, Dialectical Tension, and the Rise of an Ancient Polity in the Southwest U.S. (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ruth Van Dyke.

    Two dozen monumental buildings lie at the heart of Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Southwest United States. However, ancient Chaco Canyon was not a single locality but a focal point for outlier settlements spanning a region of 60,000 square miles. The canyon-outlier relationship is key to understanding the Chacoan polity. Residents of canyon and outlier settlements within a dialectical relationship gathered periodically to share resources, marriage partners, and ritual...

  • The Co Loa Settlement: Biography of an Anomalous Place (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Nam Kim.

    In the archaeological study of ancient large-scale settlements, there is considerable debate regarding definitional criteria for categories of "city" and "urban". New field studies from different world areas have enriched our understanding of the variability of past settlement configurations along dimensions of utility, meaning, space, scale, and demography. In northern Vietnam, the remains of monumental constructions of the prehistoric settlement of Co Loa still stand today. Dating to the first...

  • Great Zimbabwe's Water (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Innocent Pikirayi. Federica Sulas. Tendai Treddah Musindo. Elton Munyaradzi Sagiya.

    In southern Africa, Great Zimbabwe has long been the focus of research, debates and preservation as the remains of what was once the urban centre of a vast state system. As new research findings are reframing the development of the Zimbabwe civilization in the region, local environmental settings and natural resources at Great Zimbabwe remain poorly understood. Using approaches in geoarchaeology, this paper presents Great Zimbabwe as a living landscape. New soil sequences from within and around...

  • Here there be Dragons: Trajectories and the Classification of Settlements (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Roland Fletcher.

    Urban as a label is a problem. This was recognised by Childe and Adams and is re-iterated in the 21st century. Varied definitions apply in different regions, some huge settlements are excluded - apparently arbitrarily, others go in and out of "urban" fashion. Concurrently, the term "urban" has huge cachet, providing social dignity, national respect and access to research funds. The news media rarely refer to "The Lost Village" with awe. The conundrum is that while western European languages...

  • Large, Dispersed, Occupation Aggregates in Prehistory: A Global Comparative Analysis (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kirrily White.

    There is no agreement as to how very large, dispersed, occupation aggregates in prehistory such as the Trypillia megasites (4th M BCE), Chaco Canyon (9th–12th C CE) and the sprawling Neolithic settlements of the Middle Yangzi (3rd M BCE) should be classified in archaeology. Often these sites behaved very differently to the large, higher-density settlements with which they are sometimes compared. The aim of this research is to look at material and spatial patterns in the formation, development...

  • The Organizational Implications of Architecture at Moundville and Cahokia (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Gregory Wilson. Timothy Pauketat.

    What practices generated the largest and most complex Mississippian centers? We examine this issue through an analysis of Mississippian public and ritual architecture from Moundville in west-central Alabama and Cahokia in southwestern Illinois. Politico-religious buildings and associated practices or powers constituted the historical development of both places. Cahokians created a wider variety and more complicated distribution of such buildings than did Moundvillians. We argue that the Cahokian...

  • Stonehenge: a Late Neolithic megasite (2017)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Mike Parker Pearson.

    Stonehenge is part of a larger complex of Late Neolithic (3000–2450 BC) sites and monuments on Salisbury Plain, including a major settlement complex with monumental timber circles at Durrington Walls. Evidence for occupation from this period covers over 8 square miles. In particular, the Durrington Walls settlement covered 42 acres, built in the same period as Stonehenge’s main stage of construction. This settlement was occupied only for decades, or even just a few years, by people with a...