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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Roland Fletcher

IAS Fellow and Winifred Jean Stubbs Fellow at Grey College, Durham University (October - December 2007)

Associate Professor Roland Fletcher is a theoretical archaeologist who completed his PhD at Cambridge University in the 1970s and joined the University of Sydney in 1976. He has been an Academic Guest in Harvard, a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall in Cambridge and a Research Collaborator at the Smithsonian Institution. Recently he was elected as a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Roland Fletcher has developed a global, multi-scalar explanatory approach to Archaeology. His approach defines the complementary role of different scales of explanation and specifies the fundamental role of the non-correspondence between materiality and social life in the outcomes of change. His field of expertise combines the theory and philosophy of archaeology with the analysis of large-scale cultural phenomena over time. Currently he is working on the study of settlement growth and decline, in particular on low-density pre-industrial urbanism at Angkor in Cambodia. At Angkor he has instigated a major, international, collaborative research program and is a Director of the Greater Angkor Project and the Living With Heritage Project.

In 1995 he published a worldwide analysis of settlement growth and decline over the past 15,000 years in The Limits of Settlement Growth. A theoretical outline with Cambridge University Press. In Barbed wire was an invention to control American cows (Cambridge Archaeological Journal 2003) he reappraised Darwinian theory in Archaeology. The non-correspondence approach to explaining outcomes is presented in Materiality, space, time and outcome (Bintliff (ed.) 2004. The Blackwell Companion to Archaeology).

The Australian Research Council and UNESCO provided over $2 million for five years to fund both the research of the Greater Angkor Project on the limits of settlement growth at Angkor; and the applied research of the Living with Heritage Project to create an information management system for Angkor. The Angkor program involves collaboration with internationally renowned research agencies such as the EFEO, the Finnish Environmental Institute and NASA/JPL.

Roland Fletcher was an invited participant and speaker as Australian UNESCO delegate at the Second Intergovernmental Conference on Angkor in Paris in 2003. He has given invited lectures to the Council of Ministers of the Royal Cambodian government, and for the Royal Cambodian embassy in Washington DC, and the Australian embassies in New Delhi and Phnom Penh. In 2002 the Greater Angkor Project was the topic of a National Geographic International TV documentary, entitled Lost City. In 2006 he organised the Angkor, Landscape City and Temple international conference at the University of Sydney under UNESCO patronage. He also established the Australian diplomatic participation at the UNESCO meetings for the Angkor World Heritage Site.

At the IAS he will work with Professor Wilkinson's landscape group on modelling and with Professor Coningham on comparisons between Angkor and urban patterns in medieval Sri Lanka. The multi-scalar analysis has some implications for the trajectories of contemporary industrial-based low-density urbanism. The study will be published following the Amerind Foundation conference in March 2008 on Landscape, economy, and power in deep history: towards a new comparative synthesis.

IAS Fellow's Public Lecture - Angkor - New Perspectives from the Greater Angkor Project

The Greater Angkor Project studies the extent, duration and demise of Angkor in order to study how it ceased to function; to produce a new chronology of the demise of Angkor and to identify its environmental context. What has been revealed by remote sensing, ground survey and excavation is a vast low-density, dispersed urban complex covering about 1000 sq km. Angkor’s famous temples cluster in the central 200 sq km. of the complex. So far the project has mapped the extent of the water management system, has located key water management structures and has identified the dispersed pattern of occupation along canals and roads and on house-mounds. The demise of the urban complex now has to be reappraised because its was apparently functioning into the 16th century, later than the generally assumed sack in the early 15th century CE. There is also evidence of damage to the canals of the water management system by alterations in water flow, including substantial deposition of sand in the channels suggesting that environmental factors need to be considered as part of the demise of Angkor.

Professor Roland Fletcher Publications

Fletcher, R (2011) 'Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: Scale, Power and Ecology' in Smith, M (ed) The Comparative Archaeology of Complex Societies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 285 - 320

IAS Insights Paper


Low-density urbanism in the industrial world is a topic of some dispute and has even been viewed as a unique and transient, modern settlement pattern. But low-density settlements are actually a normal feature of human habitation and are and have been used by every major socio-economic system. In particular, they have been a distinct feature of urbanism in tropical forest environments for many centuries. The analysis offers a long-term perspective on contemporary industrial-based, low-density urbanism. 

The great low-density agrarian cities that dominated lowland Mesoamerica, Sri Lanka and mainland South-East Asia between the late first millennium BCE and the mid second millennium CE represent a distinctive path to urban life in tropical forest environments. Their economies and histories may be of some relevance to the modern world because the Maya, Singhalese and Khmer cities all experienced a long process of collapse by the early to mid second millennium CE, apparently associated with substantial reductions in regional populations. Agrarian low-density urbanism appears to have been vulnerable to some combination of social and ecological factors that removed this mode of urban organisation in the five hundred years prior to the European expansion. This paper will place agrarian low-density urbanism in the larger context of low-density settlement patterns worldwide.

Insights Paper