Structuring Cities in the Past and Present

– written by Drew Cabaniss, BA Classical Archaeology, Class of ’15


Drew on site in Crete

Cities vary greatly in their organization and social dynamics. As more people live in larger settlements, we would like to understand the constraints on cities as well as the effect of alternate forms of social, political, and economic organization. Defining these frontiers of possibility requires an understanding of urban diversity, an issue best targeted by studying present day cities alongside the anthropological and archaeological record of urbanization and urbanism.
I first became interested in this sort of work during a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Santa Fe Institute, where I had the opportunity to work with Luis Bettencourt and Scott Ortman on urban scaling in archaeological contexts. Urban scaling is observing how a city changes over time – factors such as economic productivity, population, and resource consumption contribute to these changes. Our work focused on the Basin of Mexico, where we found evidence for scaling patterns similar to modern cities in smaller communities occupied between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE. These sorts of commonalities between the past and present form were interesting; they helped us set a baseline for urban settlements as a whole.

Once back at UNC, I started working with Prof. Donald Haggis in the Classics Department on Greek urbanism in Crete, where clan groups were exceedingly important in the social and political life of settlements.  That summer I joined the Azoria Project, an archaeological excavation of a city in east Crete occupied from the 12th through 5th centuries BCE.  The site had been burned and abandoned in the 5th century, and the topography was monumentally transformed in the 7th century, making it very useful in observing the process of urbanization and city structure.


The site of Azoira, seen from Kavousi Kastro in eastern Crete

I spent my first season working as a trench supervisor, overseeing the excavation of a small portion of the site, and then returned the following season as a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Specialist. I now manage the equipment and software infrastructure for recording most spatial aspects of the excavation, such as the depth of stratigraphy and the location of artifacts. Combined with the increasingly digitized records from the first six years of excavation, I’m slowly building a geodatabase that contextualizes the recovered materials in their space on the site and within buildings. We’re already getting a clearer image of how a clan-based urban society works, with important consequences for the types of processes that maintain the social and economic structure of cities over long periods of time. As we build up our knowledge of Cretan urbanism, we’re understanding the limits and trends of human settlement, providing powerful tests and predictions for the present.

The discussions and contacts I have had over the course of my research has prepared me for graduate study and a future career in the field.  I have met numerous people interested in working with me and have gotten a few invitations to join graduate programs. Between the range of skills developed and the useful discussions, I have a range of possibilities open in archaeology as a direct result of this undergraduate research experience.


  1. shirley gibson
    Posted February 6, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I am so proud of you,Drew…but mainly it is such an amazing fact that you have found such a love for your future vocation so early on… wonderful your life will be having found a passion and love for your future work. Fantastic….miss you!!! And love you!!!!!

  2. florence gaignerot-driessen
    Posted February 7, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Excellent job, Drew! Congrats!