BA Ancient History and History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
The First Cities: The Archaeology of Urbanism in the Near East

Course unit fact file
Unit code CAHE30912
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The appearance of cities has often been seen as one of the most profound historical social changes, especially to our modern world in which the majority of people now live in urban areas. However, the nature of early cities is poorly understood. This course explores the archaeology of the first cities in the world, in southern Mesopotamia in what is now modern Iraq. While mainly focused on the period from 4000 BCE to 2000 BCE, the course also considers the late Neolithic society from which these urban states emerged as well as claims that earlier large sites, such as Çatalhöyük, might be ascribed urban status. Through a series of case studies, this course explores the major theoretical perspectives, the archaeological data, and aspects of economic and social change. Furthermore, it considers the first cities as creative spaces, locations where “a certain energized crowding of people takes place” (Kostof 1991). The course examines the distinctive local social trajectories and the interaction between different regions as well as how these changes impacted on religion, the development of writing, identity, exclusion, memory and social roles. The different theoretical perspectives of archaeological and textual sources are also explored to understand how the study of the topic has changed. . These first Mesopotamia cities occupy a key place in the history of human society – the setting in which a series of ‘firsts’ appear; the first writing, the first kings, the first cities, the first legal systems, the first literature.

These developments had a fundamental influence on subsequent civilizations, including the classical world and even society today.


To examine and interpret long-term patterns of social change.

To understand ways of thinking about urbanism and engage with theory around urban space in an archaeological context.

To become familiar with the geography of Mesopotamia, the chronologies and key sites through a series of case studies.

To understand social organisation within an early urban society, as well develop approaches to understanding early urban states as dynamic, unstable entities.

To develop a greater appreciation of the changing ways in which material culture is used in the creation of social identities, including detailed knowledge of key examples.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Demonstrate an understanding of the detailed interpretation of specific key sites and their implications for society.
  • Express an in-depth knowledge of material culture in the Near East from later prehistory to the mid-2nd millennium BC.
  • Articulate an awareness of the impact of social, geographic and climatic factors of the development of human settlement in the Near East.
  • Understand how textually- and archaeologically-informed approaches to the past can draw on different theoretical perspectives.

Intellectual skills

  • Show an understanding of the complex interactions between different aspects of past societies.
  • Demonstrate and understanding of how technological and organisational change occurs, and the ways in which it articulates with society and social change.
  • Become accustomed to using primary archaeological data, and its biases and limitations.
  • Understand the potential of modern media to explore research questions.
  • Critically examine published works.
  • Contribute to and critically edit other students’ contributions to the course Wiki.

Practical skills

  • Experience of oral presentation;
  • Use of PowerPoint or Prezi to support presentations;
  • Use of standard Wiki software to create an online resource.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Make use of enhanced team-working and individual research skills, in other learning environments;
  • Independent research skills;
  • Creation of co-operative online resources.

Assessment methods

Exam 40%
Oral presentation 30%
Wiki entry 30%


Feedback methods

  • Written feedback on course wiki and oral presentation delivered via the School feedback template.
  • Additional one-to-one feedback (during the consultation hour or by making an appointment)
  • Peer feedback on Wiki contribution, both through the comments facility and particularly through the collaborative editing process.
  • Exam feedback available after completion of the relevant examination period, delivered via the School feedback template.

Recommended reading

Algaze, G. 2008. Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Altaweel, M., & Squitieri, A. 2018. Revolutionizing a World: From Small States to Universalism in the Pre-Islamic Near East. London: UCL Press.

Matthews, R. 2003. The Archaeology of Mesopotamia. Theories and Approaches. London: Routledge.

Melman, B. 2020. Empires of Antiquities: Modernity and the Rediscovery of the Ancient Near East, 1914-1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mieroop, M. van de. 1999. The Ancient Mesopotamian city. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollock, S. 1999. Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Potts, D.T. 1997. Mesopotamian Civilization: The Material Foundations. London: Athlone Press.

Radner, K., & Robson, E. (2011). The Oxford handbook of cuneiform culture. Oxford University Press.

Storey, G.R. 2020. The Archaeology of Ancient Cities. New York: Eliot Werner.

Yoffee, N. (2005). Myths of the archaic state: Evolution of the earliest cities, states, and civilizations. Cambridge University Press.

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Tutorials 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Stuart Campbell Unit coordinator

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