PROJECT OVERVIEW

Constructing a Multidisciplinary Landscape and Settlement System
Simulation Framework for Bronze Age Mesopotamia

Introduction and Background
 
Until recently, debates concerning humans and their environment tended to favor either cultural or environmental mechanisms as the driving force behind change, but the most persuasive studies now focus on the interface between human/cultural systems as well as interactions between them. We have proposed that early urban settlements in the Near East provide an ideal laboratory for the study of human-environmental interactions because they offer an enormous array of data drawn from archaeological and textual studies that can be incorporated into an overall social, economic, and environmental analytical framework stretching over several millennia. We are engaged in modeling and attempt to explain trajectories of development and demise of Bronze Age settlement systems for both the rain-fed and irrigated zones of Syria and Iraq. Climate, hydrological, agricultural, demographic, and active agent social models are being combined using Argonne's Dynamic Information Architecture System (DIAS) simulation framework to provide a new holistic dynamic object model. The goal is to determine under what conditions urbanization or its opposite, ruralization or even collapse, might have taken place.
 
We are applying concepts of complex adaptive systems to demonstrate that systems of early Near Eastern cities co-evolved in an intimate relationship with their environment, primarily by means of the aggregation through time of smaller fundamental units (e.g., households). In other words, the local rules that determine the subsistence practices of the peasant householder were able to develop into much more complex land use strategies and social mechanisms, which could, in turn, culminate in the emergence of complex settlement hierarchies, the patterns of which show little resemblance to the patterning of the original households or small-scale communities. As larger systems of settlements developed within capricious semiarid environments, they and their agricultural systems became less sustainable through time. Both the emergent settlement patterns and the sustainability of settlement systems can then be validated against the archaeological record derived from excavation and survey in the Near East.
 
Recent developments in computer modeling and complex systems research provide the potential to capture the dynamic trajectories of such cities and their support systems. Agent-based modeling provides the key to this initiative by allowing for a wide range of choices and trajectories—both rational and irrational—to contribute to the outcome of the modeling exercise. Furthermore, because so much archaeological and textual information has been obtained from urban-scale settlements, there is a massive corpus of information concerning agricultural and pastoral systems that is pertinent to the growth and decline of settlements, their institutions, and their support systems. The outcome of the modeling will be tested and validated by a broad framework of data established by combining the results from archaeological excavations, regional archaeological surveys, satellite remote sensing, and regional-scale environmental studies.
 
Fundamental to this modeling approach is the assumption that land use practices mediate between social groups and the environment so that crop productivity is not simply a function of environmental factors but also depends on human decisions, such as the frequency of cropping and the availability of crop amendments derived from pastoral flocks and settlement wastes. Although climatic fluctuations must clearly have impacted the human communities by inflicting crop failures and sometimes famines, the massive scale of cities contributed significantly to degrading the environment and depleting nutrient supplies with the result that the edaphic resources must have been stressed to the point of diminishing returns. The two-way interaction between human communities and the environment must therefore have resulted in a complex array of non-linear responses.
 
Expected Outcomes of the Project
 
Research Insights

The principal expected result of this work - an improved understanding of how humans interact with dynamic ecological and climatic mechanisms -- is fundamental to ecological management and is very broadly applicable. In addition, studies of the interplay of coupled human and natural systems as a cause of collapse of past societies are also of fundamental importance.

There are few more obviously complex coupled natural and human systems than cities and their hinterlands and the future of the planet will be increasingly dependent on the impact of urban systems. This project therefore is likely to have significant influence in the study of urbanization past and present.

 
Educational and Community Outreach
The modeling framework can potentially have an important impact as an educational tool: it will allow both academic and general users to interact with complex environmental, cultural and socio-economic data in order to simulate the growth of settlements and cities. The modeling framework will also be made available to all visitors to the Oriental Institute Museum by means of a display station in the museum's new visitor orientation center.
 
The MASS Group
 
The Modeling Ancient Settlement Systems (MASS) Group comprises archaeologists and anthropologists at the University of Chicago (UC) and the University of Edinburgh, and computer scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) Decision and Information Sciences Division (DIS).

The MASS collaboration in computational archaeology began in 1998 through an interdisciplinary pilot project funded by the UC/ANL Collaborative Seed Grant Program.

In Summer 2002, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a five-year “Biocomplexity in the Environment” Grand Challenge Grant (NSF Grant # 0216548) to MASS Group investigators, to support a research project entitled “Settlement Systems within a Dynamic Environment and Economy: Contrasting Northern and Southern Mesopotamian City Regions.”
The NSF project has enabled the MASS Group to continue, expand, and quicken the pace of its investigation of the interactions between natural and social processes in ancient Near Eastern settlement systems.
 
A full list of the personnel involved in the MASS Project can be found here.
 

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