INFRASTRUCTURE AS DIALOGUE
I’m an archaeologist. The first thing that I want to say about archaeology is that it’s not just about old things. Archaeology is the study of the way we as humans have gotten to be the species that has so much stuff and space all around us. In order to understand where we are today, what we want to do is roll the clock way back to about a million and a half years ago, to our first Paleolithic ancestors.
Humans are not the only species that use tools; for example, chimpanzees will use a stick to fish out termites, and bowerbirds will collect things to make a nest. We do know, however, that humans were the ones to make the first durable tools and to have an engagement with their landscape that is constantly manifested in material culture.
Let’s take the first artifacts that we know are of any degree of sophistication: the hand axe. A hand axe is a stone tool about the size of your two palms put together, and it’s sharp all the way around the edges. People started making these about a million and a half years ago. The production process of these is fairly difficult because it's bifacial, which means that you have to continually modify it as you’re making it. We’d have a hard time making one today.
That type of form is something that we see not only in Africa—the original ancestral homeland of our species—but also in Europe, over to the Arabian Peninsula, and into the Indian subcontinent. Wherever you find these things, they look remarkably similar. I knew this as a researcher, but it didn’t dawn on me how striking that similarity was until I saw some examples from the Indian subcontinent, which look exactly like the ones in Africa and Europe. Obviously, a million and a half years ago, people were not walking around and distributing things from one continent to the next. This tool was being manifested and manufactured by many thousands of people.
A hand axe looks like it could be a practical tool, but we don’t know exactly how it was used. It seems to have a lot of sharp edges all around it in a way that’s a little counterintuitive for a useful object. Recently, people have wondered if these could be social expressions and not just physical or economic expressions.
People like Steven Mithen, for example, have talked about the social encoding of hand axes as tools that were used for performance and display. One of the reasons we think that might be the case is, not only do we find these identical objects in different parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa but we also find them in abundance beyond their utility. We have an abundance of hand axes in places like Boxgrove in England and Olorgesailie in Kenya, and they’re not very used. People were making these for the sake of making them and then discarding them in large quantities.
What if a hand axe was a kind of social calling card? What if it was something used to signify that a person was a fully-functioning member of a particular society, or maybe even a babe magnet—the equivalent of a Ferrari in ancient times. If a person could craft a good hand axe, it might be an indication that they could carry a project through from start to finish, and therefore, they might make a good mate. Even those basic artifacts of the past lead us to think about the ways in which people’s social investments and economic activities are all wrapped up in the same cognitive package.
Let’s fast-forward now to about a hundred thousand years ago and think about what kinds of artifact diversity people were engaged with. One of the next things to come along in the human repertoire is ornamentation. We know from about one hundred twenty thousand or one hundred fifty thousand years ago that people were using ochre as a form of body decoration. We find little pieces of it in caves in South Africa or in other parts where such things are preserved.
By about ninety thousand years ago, we start to get beads. Beads, unlike hand axes, have no practical economic purpose; they are always about communicating something to somebody. The archaeologist Mary Stiner has done a very nice study of the distribution of early beads in places like the Anatolian Plateau and in North Africa, and she’s come up with a great concept to explain why you see the same thing in so many different places—the same kinds of beads and the same kinds of shells chosen to make those beads. She’s talked about the concept of bandwidth as a way of communication.
Think about how we use ornamentation today as a mode of communication. You can see many different kinds of earrings on people—of course, nowadays, you see nose rings and other things, too. You see many different kinds of earrings, but all of those earrings are communicating something. They’re all in the same bandwidth of understanding. A diamond stud communicates one thing, while a big gauge and a tattoo communicates something else. All of those are within the same range of communication. If somebody were to wear a cup over their ear, nobody would know what’s being communicated because it’s not within that same range of bandwidth. Another way of thinking about it is grammar, as a way of structuring individual utterances or individual performative acts with material culture.
If we think about something like communication, one thing that’s important about small stuff like beads is, as Stiner points out, the idea of amplitude, or loudness. If you’re wearing one bead, it communicates something to your group: you've made it, you traded for it, you bartered for it, or somebody gave it to you. But if you’re wearing a whole string of beads, you’re able to communicate more loudly. That sense of amplitude in communication is also something that underwrites our own understanding and use of material culture today.
If you're looking in your closet and wondering why you have six pairs of jeans and twenty pairs of shoes, you can thank your Paleolithic ancestors for engaging with the beginnings of diversity in material culture that leads us to being the species with so much stuff!
All of that brings me to the study of urbanism. What we have in the modern day is the result of a long trajectory of human interactions with stuff and space in increasingly complicated ways, with increasing amplitude or loudness of communication that has led to the urban form, not only as we know it now but as it was originally invented.
If we continue our chronology, from the hand axe at a million and a half years ago, to ornamentation about ninety years ago, to the development of agriculture about twelve thousand or ten thousand years ago at the beginning of the Holocene, to the beginnings of cities, what we see is this accelerated pattern of social and economic integrations with material culture that, in the urban form, crystallized into this intense network of interactions.
As an archaeologist, that’s what I’m interested in. What was that tipping point between a perfectly reasonable small-scale village life to increased interactions in cities that are a counterintuitive social creation? This is an important question, because what are the benefits of living in a city, given the disadvantages? You certainly give up control over a lot of things. For example, you give up control over who your neighbors are. All of us who live in cities have this experience. You give up control over your food resources. In a village, you know where your next meal is coming from: the field is there, the cow is there, the chickens are running around back. In a city, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Cities are too crowded and spaces are too small for you to have a year’s worth of grain sitting in your house. You don’t have the space to keep a cow. Your neighbors are not going to like you keeping chickens. So what you do instead is make that leap of faith to getting food from others, and often from strangers.
When you move into the city, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, but you trust that it’s going to be there. You trust that there’s going to be more than one place to get a meal—this shop or that shop, this itinerate vendor or that itinerate vendor, this marketplace or that marketplace. Where they get their stuff is of no concern to you whatsoever. Where that vendor gets her bananas, you don’t know and you don’t care. Where that sandwich was made, where the bread baker lived, you don’t care; it doesn’t matter to you. That is the leap of faith that is all about urbanism. Not only is that leap of faith something we saw once in a dusty plain in Mesopotamia, where the first city started six thousand years ago, but we see the same patterns over and over again.
No matter where you see cities—ancient, modern, in-between—they are remarkably similar in their outlines. This makes me wonder whether cities, like many other things in our coverage of repertoire, are hardwired into our ability to deal with other people. Cities are very young in the human historical repertoire. The first cities that we know of archaeologically are about six thousand years old, and that’s in Mesopotamia. We have an independent development of cities in other parts of the world as well: in Mesoamerica, by about two and a half thousand years ago, and in South America. These were all independent inventions, which suggests that the city form is something that was the only potential solution for questions of how to get large numbers of people coordinated.
The sense of potential hardwiring for urbanism does two things for us. First of all, it makes us a little nervous that maybe humans are not as creative as we thought. Secondly, it fits in with a long-term trajectory of how people deal with material culture. The making of objects is something that enabled people to communicate in circumstances of developing linguistic capacity. When you had larger groups of people moving around the landscape, the idea of ornamentation came up independently in so many areas as ways of enabling people to assess each other even at a distance at a time when populations were growing.
Populations also were becoming more concentrated, probably as a result of other changes happening in the Holocene starting ten to twelve thousand years ago. You have areas that are becoming drier, so populations are getting funneled into areas that are shrinking in size. The Nile Valley is a classic example. The Sahara used to be green and lush, which it certainly is no longer. People were getting narrowed into the Nile Valley, where they came up with the same solution to either fight over everything all the time, or stay put and grow food.
As the process of concentration mixed with a sense of opportunity, people capitalized on the emergence of those denser communities in order to experiment more with the kinds of objects they were making: to grow that bandwidth a little more; to engage in entrepreneurship; to engage in new forms of communication; to have opportunities that occur when you have the synergy of large groups of people coming together. That happened over and over again. The sense of there being no other way than cities to get people integrated, communicating, achieving consensus in a small space, tells us that we have nowhere else to go as a species. We cannot imagine inventing another kind of settlement configuration. Cities are it. They’ve been a million years in the making. However subtly, we are the product of that long period of cognitive, social, economic building blocks that results in the urban form today.
As an archaeologist, I’ve had the good fortune of working in a variety of different urban centers in North Africa, in the Roman Mediterranean World, and, principally, in the Indian subcontinent, where I do most of my research today. Like all archaeological research—excavation, survey, remote sensing—it’s a team effort, so I want to acknowledge and celebrate my colleagues and collaborators in India, in particular, Professor R.K. Mohanty of India’s Deccan College, with whom I’ve been working for more than ten years and with a great team of Indian scholars and students to investigate what happens at ancient urban centers. On the basis of that investigation, and looking at other urban centers in other parts of the world, you see these commonalities.
Urban centers, both past and present, have monumental architecture that's symbolic of something that’s often not very practical—the Eiffel Tower comes to mind—but which encodes something that is ritual or political as a symbol of urban life. They have big open plazas, places where large numbers of people can congregate. Sometimes those congregations are positive and generative, like celebrations or marketplaces, and sometimes they're places where you have riots or various forms of political oppression.
You have that area of monumentality; you have places of elite residences, whether it’s palaces or high-end houses; you have shantytowns, which are often some of the most difficult things to find archaeologically. You can find a palace, a temple, or a pyramid quite easily, but if you want to find the shantytowns of ephemeral architecture, where there were wooden structures and maybe places made of reused scavenged materials, you’re going to have to look in the dirt very carefully for traces of those things. Archaeologists, more recently, have been looking for those traces of ephemeral occupation, recognizing that cities are much larger and more complex than what the pyramid, the temple, or the palace alone would potentially lead you to expect.
One of the great things about contemporary archaeology is that we’re looking at whole urban centers. Sometimes this is made possible by long-term excavation projects. Urban centers are so large that no one can expect to excavate a city, even a fraction of one, in a whole career lifetime. This is why we rely on long-term research studies, which are often done by our predecessors. The site of Sisupalgarh, where I’ve been working in India, is a site that was first excavated in the 1940s. Excavators everywhere make use of the notes and the perceptions of their predecessors to try to piece together these massive urban sites that we're trying to understand; in our case, the beginnings of the project were due to the excavations of Prof. B.B. Lal in 1948, and it was not only his documentation but his ongoing support that facilitated our new research.
Another thing that has revolutionized archaeology in general is a variety of remote sensing, the most exciting of which is something called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). It’s a kind of mapping that involves an airplane and a radar-mounted apparatus that can then take large-scale aerial views, but the great thing is that it can see through vegetation. It has completely revolutionized studies of urban centers in places like Mesoamerica. You can imagine the jungles of the Yucatan had many structures beyond those pyramids and temples that we can see because they stick up out of the jungle.
Now we can really get a sense of how all the cities were integrated. People like Arlen Chase and Diane Chase are even talking about things like suburbs in ancient cities, which make them even closer to our own experience of urban life in the present day.
Now we understand that cities are not just what the leader is proposing in the making of a monument. We understand that ancient cities are about large numbers of people. The synergy of an ancient city, just like the synergy of a modern city, is about the meeting, the interaction, the conflicts, and ultimately the consensus of large numbers of unrelated people focusing in on a physical space—accompanied by a lot of stuff—in order to result in a living situation that is much more exciting, more dynamic, and more integrated than the rural life that came before it.
Archaeology is the best discipline there is because it’s a little bit of everything. We have ancient texts that come in from the humanities side that describe what it’s like to live in an ancient city. We have Roman writers, for example, who complain—in ways that sound very familiar—about the traffic in the streets being too loud to sleep at night and about filth in the alleyways. From the social science side, we have these broad, generalizing paradigms that enable us to think about commonalities and contrasts from one place to the next. Of course, the thing that people often hear about in archaeology and new discoveries is the science side of it, in which we are inveterate borrowers.
We are always looking to see how geologists look under the ground. We are always looking to see how geneticists take material from dog teeth, rat bones, or human skeletons to understand patterns of migration. We are always looking to chemists to see how we can take a potsherd and find out what was stuck to the inside of it.
Archaeologists are always borrowing from all of these different disciplines. And as a result, archaeologists are ideally positioned to write the human story because we have these interconnected threads. We get broad-scale patterns from big science and social science, but from texts we have that moment of individuality, that moment of communication, that sense of agency, which is how urbanism is experienced by everybody. One of the things we learned from social science is that people, even uneducated people, even migrants with relatively few economic choices, are very philosophical about what the city means to them.
There have been wonderful examinations of migrants in Cambodia, in Minnesota—wherever you have cities—where people sit back and think about their rural life and they say, "In the countryside, it was more peaceful, but we would rather be here."
When we start to peel back the layers of ancient texts, we also see that same kind of sentiment. The story of the country mouse and the city mouse, for example, is an Aesop’s Fable, but it probably goes back to India as a trope of thinking about the meaning of urban life.
The tale of the city mouse and the country mouse is well known. The city mouse goes to the country mouse’s house and has a hearty dinner, but it seems rather dull, so he says, "Come back to the city. I’ll show you what real life is like." So the country mouse goes to the city and is very impressed by all of the things that the city mouse has, all that extra stuff that is incorporated into urban life. But then the cat comes along and the country mouse senses a trap and goes scurrying back out to the country.
Most of those fables extolling the virtues of country life are written by city people on their brief holidays, because once they get back out to the rural setting, they miss the excitement of urban life. We can see that in ancient texts over and over and over again. In art and poetry we see the celebration of that dynamism of urban life. In political treatises the rulers are not off living in the countryside, they are living right in the palace in the center of town.
Our phrase, "bright lights, big city," is not something that is uniquely confined to the modern day; it's something that we can see in urban settlements, past and present, wherever we find them.
Cities are places where individuals can experience a transformation. Now, that transformation is not always objectively good. After all, cities are bad for your health; they are crowded, dirty, and polluted. Cities are prime places for the rapid spread of disease, and that’s true not only in the modern world, as we have contemporary fears about Zika and other types of diseases that tend to be urban-focused because of large numbers of people, it's also true of the past. Diseases like cholera spread very rapidly in urban environments.
But once cities get going, you cannot keep people out of them. People have a sense that their life is going to be better in the city. They have that sense of optimism, even if, objectively speaking, that’s not true. We can actually trace that in the archaeological record.
There’s a town called Koumbi Saleh, an archaeologically excavated site in Africa, where we can see the rooms within the structures got smaller and smaller over time. As is the case with our own experience of urbanism in which real estate in the center of town becomes more expensive and places become smaller, we also see the same kinds of things archaeologically.
In ancient Rome people had three- or four-story tenement buildings. We had people who were living in crowded, cramped quarters at the ancient city of Sisupalgarh, where I’ve been working. We see again these same patterns of adjustment that carry through from one place to the next, that are essentially solving a problem of how you get more and more people crowded into that desirable center of town.
One of the things that has been of particular interest to me recently is how you get the connectivity amongst all of these different constituents in a city. We know that we have high-ranking elites, leaders who promote and organize the development of monumental architecture. We also know that we have vast numbers of ordinary immigrants who are coming in to take advantage of all the employment, education, and marketing and entrepreneurial opportunities of urban life.
Then you have that physical space that becomes the city. What is it that links all of these physical places together? It’s infrastructure. Infrastructure is one of the hottest topics in anthropology right now, in addition to being a hot topic with urban planners. We realize that infrastructure is not just a physical thing; it’s a social thing. You didn’t have infrastructure before cities because you don’t need a superhighway in a village. You don’t need a giant water pipe in a village because everybody just uses a bucket to get their own water. You don’t need to make a road because everyone just walks on whatever pathway they make for themselves. You don’t need a sewer system because everyone just throws their garbage out the door.
In that dispersed landscape there is no need to integrate spatial connections with any kind of formal arrangement. In a city, of course, that doesn’t work. From the very beginning of cities, we know that there are pathways that are meant to be cleared. We know that there are open spaces that are meant to be unbuilt. We know that there are lines of sight between ritual buildings and politically important places. We know that there are areas of town where lower-income people are meant to go.
Even prior to the modern day, the thing that connects all of this—the water, the sewage, the pathways—is infrastructure. Today, of course, we have many other types of infrastructure that we worry about. We think about electric lines, we think about sewers, we think about water pipes, we think about pathways as connectivity within urban areas. Those concerns for infrastructure open up a whole way of thinking about urban life from the ordinary person’s perspective.
Nobody builds their own infrastructure. You don’t build your own highway, train line, water pipe, your own sewer. Those are things that connect you and your household to everybody else sequentially in your neighborhood, in your region, from the city out into the broader hinterlands. Infrastructure as that physical connective tissue is what I’ve called a materialized dialogue between people in authority who organize the development of infrastructure and people who are the end users of infrastructure.
It’s not just a matter of somebody building the infrastructure and people using it. You definitely need a leader in the development and implementation of infrastructure. You need some kind of expertise, some kind of entrepreneurial thought process that organizes the layout and the connectivity. You also depend on other people for things like maintenance—an equally fascinating aspect of infrastructure—because it’s not just the placement of infrastructure; it’s that long-term maintenance. Maintenance is a critical aspect of infrastructure development, and it’s done by other people working in the direction of an administration. You might be annoyed at that pothole that you see in the road as you drive, but you are never going to take a wheelbarrow full of asphalt and fix it because that is meant to be somebody else’s job.
So the sense of infrastructure as a form of dialogue and as a form of communication is one in which there is a constant directionality of communication that works in both ways. You have leaders who are implementing infrastructure, and you have ordinary people who are modifying it, using it, ignoring it, or even destroying it.
As we think about infrastructure as a connective tissue, we can think about how that materialized dialogue involves talking back. There is some great work that’s being done by Nikhil Anand, who talks about water infrastructure in Mumbai and other parts of India. Their cities are growing astronomically.
Infrastructure in these places has a hard time keeping up. Anand talks about what he calls leaky states, as a statement about the relationship between the government’s obligation to provide infrastructure and the recipients of that infrastructure, and how they manipulate water connections or electricity connections in order to be able to get what they need out of it. The process of achieving consensus is something that is ongoing in the urban form.
Let’s think about how people talk back. Infrastructure is everywhere, and it comes with a lot of instructions. You can experience this yourself as you walk down the street. If you start to look at all the places where the city has branded itself—the manhole covers, the light posts, the bus stops, the subway entrances, the parking places, the parking meters—all of a sudden, you start to see lots of instructions everywhere.
We’re a very text-based society, so these instructions are written out for us: Don’t park here from eleven to two for street cleaning on Thursdays, Don’t sit here, Loading zone only—there're a lot of instructions that are involved in infrastructure. How do people talk back? They put graffiti on public property, dump their household trash into park areas where they shouldn’t, they use open spaces for illicit activities at night when the authorities are not looking. The development of infrastructure is not just something that’s implanted and envisioned by authorities. Infrastructure is also utilized in creative and unforeseen ways by residents.
How do we see this in the archaeological record? How do we see that sense of dialogue, of contention, of making consensus through the dialogue between expert knowledge and end users? How do we see this dialogue in the infrastructure through those three aspects of the humanities, the social sciences, and science?
Let's think about how we approach this from the science of archaeology. How do we understand the ways that people move around a city, how they communicate and interact? Things like song and dance, debate, and dialogue are rarely captured in textual form, so we need to get creative. One of the most creative and interesting things that I’ve seen about this use of infrastructure was done by an archaeologist named Scott Branting, at the site of Kerkenes in Turkey, and it’s from the first millennium B.C. At Kerkenes, we have a great idea of the whole layout of the city because it was occupied for only a relatively short amount of time, and we can see all the different sizes of pathways and roads.
In the course of excavation, Scott Branting went and looked at the layers of the streets. As we know, streets accumulate little layers and lenses of dirt and dust. He took a thin section of that, mounted it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope. His question was, how do we know which pathways were more frequently used than others?
He looked at the particles of dust to see which pathways had more rounded particles from the effect of so many feet walking over them in the course of urban life. That is the record of many thousands of individual activities that we would never get written down but that tell us about how people are moving through an ancient city.
Let’s now think about the social science side. In the ancient city of Sisupalgarh, we sited one of our first excavations in an area that was adjacent to the excavations of the 1940s and where we anticipated a long street that was going out to the major monumental gateway of the site. We put in our excavation trench, and every day as you’re excavating, you’re walking around and looking. You have an idea in mind, where you think, "This is here, so we’re expecting that we should have a structure." The structure was there, and we had to be on the inside of it because it was right next to where the street was, so this was a little structure. And yet, as we kept excavating, we found things that didn’t quite make sense. We found a little pile of materials from some ancient construction project that had never materialized. We found a little outdoor-looking oven, which seemed a little strange to have in the house. We found some little bits of debris that suggested it would be rather difficult to walk around on this floor. That was our operating premise, our hypothesis, that we had this structure and that we didn’t quite understand what people were doing inside of it.
Then one day it became obvious that we were completely wrong. We were not on the inside of a structure; we were on the outside. That meant that the house was actually in the middle of where the road should have been. This signaled to us that at the last phases of the site’s occupation, somebody had built their house in what should have been the pathway. There is no quicker way to thumb your nose at the authorities than to build something in a place where you shouldn’t.
That sense of individuals talking back to the prescriptions of infrastructure suggests that that dynamic of cities always has that undercurrent of contention that, of course, also comes up in ethnic conflicts, in migrant resident conflicts, in conflicts about how resources should be expended, conflicts about the placement of infrastructure.
Today when we have implantations of new infrastructure, there is always a dialogue about where it should go and who it should serve. Should a disused rail line be turned into a pathway to service a particular class of urban inhabitant? Or should it be repurposed as a busway to service people who are coming into the city as service workers?
If we think about that kind of dialogue as something that would have existed in the past, it enlivens our sense of urban centers as a purposeful, agentive, deliberate selection of activities on the part of those mass quantities of ordinary inhabitants.
Archaeologists always knew why leaders were found in cities. But now we’re asking what the other million people in the city of Rome were doing. What are the other half-million people doing at the ancient city of Teotihuacan?
Sometimes we get a little glimpse from the humanities. Writing was something that was invented in cities, just like infrastructure. You didn’t need to write things down in a rural village because everyone had the same memories of who owned what as you did. But in cities, you need more administrative mechanisms. You’ve got more people to communicate with, you’ve got more directives that need to be shared amongst an administrative hierarchy, you have more things that you want to remember, you have more things that you want to record. Sometimes those recordings are economic texts, as we get in Mesopotamia, and sometimes they’re legal texts. You can see the minutiae of people arguing about dividing their household with their brother and who got what, or somebody who was supposed to bring you three sheep and only brought two and one of them was diseased, so then you have to go through a whole legal process. We get these beautiful glimpses of day-to-day urban life through texts.
There is one Mesopotamian site where we have a text that talks about the gate of the unclean women. That’s all we know. It’s just a suggestion of something happening within the urban parameter that is not the thing that leaders might be telling you about, and it’s certainly not the kind of thing you could excavate, because how would you ever know what happened there?
These are all threads—everything from the little microscopic particles of dust being trampled by thousands of people; the stark implantation of structures in open spaces; the discard or disuse of places in contrast to prescribed expectations; the little fragments of texts, whether it’s in a cuneiform tablet or some graffiti. All of those things indicate the liveliness, the functionality, the inevitability, and the resiliency of urban life. That’s why cities are here to stay.