Category Archives: Archaeology

From polis to kastron, medina and emporium.

It is easy to look at the early urban centres and make broad assumptions based on the surface appearance of the material evidence versus the at times, unreliable written record. However it is only when we, as archaeologists, examine the evidence in the correct context does the picture become clear. Rather than being subject to the commonly held view of decline and decay, it would appear that these early towns were transformed into new and distinct cultural models based on changing modes in the expression of power, ideology and economy. I will examine some of the underlying forces which influenced the early urban development of Anglo-Saxon Hamwic, Byzantine Athens and Umayyad Jarash in Jordon in the early medieval world through the common patterns reflected in these early urban centres while exploring their distinct cultural models of urban living.

Within the discipline, there is a common misconception that if a town did not fit into a certain model of civitates or municipia in a post-Roman world, then it did not have any legitimate place in the historical or archaeological record as an early medieval town (Wickham 2006, 591). It is even suggested that with the fall of the Roman Empire, a socio-political vacuum was created, which saw the collapse of society and the creation on insular, chaotic containers of power which operated on a significantly finite scale when compared to their Roman predecessors (Kennedy 1985, 4). However, through the analysis of twelve elements as described by Martin Biddle: “defenses, street planning, market(s), a mint, legal autonomy, a role as a central place, a relatively large/dense population, economic diversification, ‘urban’ house-types, social differentiation, complex religious organization, and judicial functions” – it is suggested that it is possible to analyze and determine the validity of towns in the medieval world, by identifying at least three to four of the aforementioned elements without placing any significance on a single one (Biddle 1976, 100). However, Wickham suggests that this model of analysis can be applied in a much broader sense, and can be used to characterize towns in any environment so long as one does not become mired in the debate of what defines a town and simply concentrates on the more neutral term of urbanism (Wickham 2006, 591 – 592). Wickham states, his “basic definition of urbanism remains dominated by economic criteria, as they seem in the latest analysis, the most significant, and determines that the following Biddle elements: market(s), a relatively large / dense population and economic diversification – as the minimum characterization of urban activity (Wickham 2006, 593).” While not discounting the importance of political, institutional and sociocultural roles for urban centres, it must be recognised that their importance varied from polis to kastron, medina and emporia (Wickham 2006, 594). With these key factors in mind, it is now possible to address the question in kind.

Anglo-Saxon Hamwic

8th century Hamwic was an Anglo-Saxon port and production centre located on the west bank of the River Itchen (Brisbane 1988, 101). Relatively short-lived in the wider chronology of the early medieval period, Hamwic appears to have existed from the late 7th century,


Fig 1: Saxon Southampton

however by the 11th century most of Hamwic had been returned to pasture and orchards (Brisbane 1988, 101). The peak of activity in Hamwic appears to coincide with what Wickham notes as the major eighth-century North Sea emporia, where by small maritime landings are elevated to substantial exchange centres through royal development (Wickham 2006, 595). This may be supported by the discovery of a coin ascribed to Aldfrith of Northumbria (reigned AD 685 – 705) in a layer of deposition dated to approximately AD 710 (Brisbane citing Metcalf 1988, 103). A significant production centre in itself, Hamwic certainly meets the criteria not only set out by Wickham, but also to a larger extent, the Biddle model which he utilises for his analysis (Figure 1).

Although some of Hamwic’s inhabitants are likely from its Roman predecessor Clausentum, it is unclear why the former Roman town was abandoned and the Saxon King Ine ordered the construction of Hamwic (Morton 1992, 26). However it is believed that Ine wanted Hamwic to serve as a gateway port, as in this way goods could be directed to the royal court as opposed to being supported via a hinterland network of services (Wickham 2006, 684). Morton suggests the Saxons first used the defences of Clausentum, and later copied the Roman town in their development of Hamwic, taking inspiration from the defensive earthworks and laying the town out on a Romanesque grid pattern (Morton 1992, 31). Supporting a variety of produced goods such as glass, pottery, and copper, Hamwic was consistent with other emporia in Western Europe (Wickham 2006, 684). Additionally, Hamwic’s houses would likely have been of a rural type, with a suggested orthogonal plan as well as metalled roads throughout (Wickham 2006, 684). Despite popular theories which suggest otherwise, it is likely Hamwic only had a population of 2000 – 3000 which supported a rich industrial and trade centre with links throughout England and mainland Europe (Morton 1992, 55 – 60). Hamwic’s decline appears to have largely been caused by a change in not only the socio-political landscape of the time, but the increased Viking activity of the early 10th century (Brisban 1988, 104). At this time, Hamwic’s infrastructure appears to have shifted to a higher, more defendable ground approximately 0.5km south-west of Hamwic (Brisbane 1988 103).

Byzantine Athens

Early Medieval Athens (Figure 2) was an urban centre in constant flux, due in part to the influence of its ever-growing political power and its conversion to Christianity, as well as destructive raids by external forces (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 640 – 641). Having retreated to within


Fig 2: Plan of Athens from the Justinianic period to the Frankish Conquest

the confines of the late Roman wall, the outer city had been abandoned in favour of the protection the walls offered (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 640 – 641). Now a fortress in its own right, thanks to the walls of the Acropolis, the city was redeveloped, shedding as Kazanaki-Lappa suggests, “the last of the characteristics that marked it as a city of late antiquity and was transformed into the small and insignificant town of the Middle Ages (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 641).” This is likely evidence of the population concentrating itself into a fortified urban environment to protect themselves from war or barbarian raids (Wickham 2006, 631). The agora had been divided and de-monumentalised by the fifth and sixth century, with shops and industrial buildings and homes transforming the context of the landscape (Wickham 2006, 626 – 627). In the 580s AD, Slav raids into Athens caused an urban recession which peaked in the seventh century, with a sequence of rebuilding with increasingly simple techniques into the ninth century, which saw a rather insignificant revival of the city (Wickham 2006, 630 – 631).

What followed was centuries of building activity, which included a number of churches, the basilica of the Tetraconch, as well as administrative and economic buildings saw a recovery of status and stature in the Byzantine world (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 640 – 642). While Athens was largely an agrarian society, by the early eleventh century, it had developed a diverse commercial and manufacturing centre which produced pottery, dyes, soaps and leather goods (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 645). Throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, expansion of the city moved beyond the walls of the late Roman boundary and into the surrounding land (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 642). As the city expanded, it did so with no plan culminating in narrow networks of roads lined with private houses (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 643). Athens continued to flourish into the latter half of the twelfth century, and in a copy of a praktikon, a priceless document detailing information about the city, rather than naming the city ‘Athens,’ it is simply referred to as ‘the kastron’ (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 643, 645). Kzanaki-Lappa states “that as a result of numerous internal and external forces which covered social, economic and cultural levels, Athens was slowly transformed from a city of late antiquity into a the tripartite city of the middle Byzantine period (Kazanaki-Lappa 2002, 646).”

Umayyad Jarash

A focal point of the Muslim community from its formative years, the mosque served as a socio-political and religious centre providing guidance and leadership to the Islamic state (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 362). Under the Umayyad dynasty, an emphasis was placed on


Fig 3: Plan of the principal urban features of Umayyad Jarash

the construction of congregational mosques throughout their territory, be it urban or the countryside (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 363). The congregational mosque of Jarash in Jordan (Figure 3) was no exception, and as Walmsley & Damgaard state, “it functioned as the capital of the south-easternmost district (kurah) of the Jund al-Urdunn in Early Islamic times (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 363).” It is approximated that the mosque would have been constructed in the second quarter of the eight century AD, during a considered development of Bilad al-Sham under the reign of Hisham b. ‘Abd al-Malik (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 363). It is theorised, in part due to the extensive research carried out, that Jarash would have had a sizable community of Muslims in the Early Islamic period, which would have been a key factor in the construction of the mosque (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 364). Interestingly, Jarash appears to have been developed along the Romanesque road grid pattern, however key buildings, such as the mosque, where not constructed in line with the grid (Walmsley & Damgaard 2005, 366 – 370). Walmsley states that “after looking at an old aerial photograph of the Roman ruins, he noticed the north wall of a building protruding from the ground at an odd angle and thought it odd that it would be done without a specific reason (Peacock citing Walmsley 2006).” Upon discovering the wall aligned with the direction of Mecca, it was clear that the mosque had been discovered (Peacock citing Walmsley 2006).

In addition to the mosque, baths, shops, markets and administrative complexes were constructed as part of a policy of urban renewal (Walmsley & Damgaard 2000, 377). It is likely that the once wide roads became narrow and built over and perhaps even blocked by the development of new houses and shops, as well as new residential areas with private cul-de-sacs for house access (Kennedy 1985, 12). The most significant change to Jarash at this time was the establishment of a new ruling elite, which not only bestowed basic rights to the existing Christian population, they also allowed them to keep their churches, practice their faith, and live alongside the Muslim population in relative peace (Peacock citing Walmsley 2006). Walmsley surmises that despite the continued expansion of Jarash, it is likely its decline coincides with a significant seismic event in 746 AD, which caused widespread damage to the mosque and the district itself (Peacock citing Walmsley 2006). This concept seems consistent with the theories held by Hugh Kennedy, which state that “despite the radical change in architectural design and urban planning, expansion and development continued, unhindered by the various external and internal forces at play (Kennedy 1985, 4).”


The urban revolution of the early Medieval can be characterised by periods of socio-political change as well as population and economic growth brought about through nucleation and exchange, as well as the influence of an expanding elite class. Ultimately, this can be seen time and again to be brought into decline by forces of conflict and increasing social disorder caused by the growing unrest and change throughout western Europe and the near East towards the end of the early Medieval period. While there has been a clear desire among some members of the archaeological community to interpret extremes of change in the classical world as markers of decline, rather than cultural change, it is apparent this attitude is now changing. As this essay illustrates, they should be looked at as alternative forces of development, which culminated in the creation of unique urban centres with their own cultural identities. So therefore, it can be said that the commonality between the sites discussed in this essay lies more in their adaptability during the transition from the classical to the early medieval rather than either directly or indirectly inheriting elements from their earlier Roman cities. They have, in short, developed along their own cultural models to create new containers of power with a clearly defined centre for urban living, and the extremes in socio-political (and with regards to Jarash, religious) differences from the earlier Roman settlements created a new paradigm for the planning, construction and administration of these urban settlements.



  • Biddle, M. 1976. Towns. In: D. M. Wilson (ed.), The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England. London: Methuen, 99 – 150
  • Brisbane, M. 1988. Hamwic (Saxon Southampton): an 8th Century Port and Production Centre. In: R. Hodges & B. Hobley (eds.), Rebirth of Towns in the West, AD 700 – 1050. London: Council for British Archaeology, 101 – 108
  • Kazanaki-Lappa, A. 2002. Medieval Athens. In A. E. Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 639-646.
  • Kennedy, H. 1985. From polis to medina: Urban Change in Late Antique and Early Islamic Syria. In: Past and Present 106, 3 – 27.
  • Morton, A.D. 1992. Excavations at Hamwic Volume 1: excavations 1946 – 83, excluding Six Dials and Melbourne Street. In: CBA Research Report No 84. London: Council for British Archaeology
  • Peacock, G. 2006. Discovery of Umayyad Mosque Sheds New Light on Jerash History. Big News Network, [internet] Retrieved on 27 March 2015 from World Wide Web:
  • Walmsley, A., Damgaard, K. 2005. The Umayyad Congregational Mosque of Jarash in Jordan and its Relationship to Early Mosques. In: Antiquity 79, 362 – 378
  • Wickham, C. 2005. Framing the Early Middle Ages. Europe and the Mediterranean. Oxford: Oxford University Press


  • Brisbane, M. 1988. Hamwic (Saxon Southampton): an 8th Century Port and Production Centre. In: R. Hodges & B. Hobley (eds.), Rebirth of Towns in the West, AD 700 – 1050. London: Council for British Archaeology, 101 – 108
  • Kazanaki-Lappa, A. 2002. Medieval Athens. In A. E. Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium from the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century. Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks, 639-646.
  • Walmsley, A., Damgaard, K. 2005. The Umayyad Congregational Mosque of Jarash in Jordan and its Relationship to Early Mosques. In: Antiquity 79, 362 – 378




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