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Durham University

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MASS Project

A research project of the Department of Archaeology.


Modeling Ancient Settlement Systems in a Complex Environment

The original aim of the MASS Project was to take settlement communities in the northern rain-fed zone of Mesopotamia and compare their long-term trajectories of development with those in the irrigated south. The fundamental ‘agent’ was the household or individuals within such households, and by using these (and the interactions between them) as the basis for the models, we hoped to see how villages would develop into towns and perhaps cities, and how the component communities would interact together.

The original NSF proposal for the project was as follows:

‘Here we propose 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. Based on nearly four years of collaboration between the Oriental Institute [Chicago] and the social modeling group at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), we propose to model and explain trajectories of development and demise of Bronze Age settlement systems for both the rain-fed and irrigated zones of Syria and Iraq. Climatic, hydrological, agricultural, demographic and active agent social models will be combined using ANL's 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.’

This continued with a rather undisguised agenda to follow a bottom up process of simulation:

'We now propose to apply concepts of complex adaptive systems to demonstrate that systems of early cities co-evolved in an intimate relationship with their environment, primarily by means of the aggregation through time of smaller fundamental units (households). In other words the local rules that determined the subsistence practices of the peasant householder were able to develop into much more complex land-use strategies and social mechanisms which in turn culminated 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 and more complex systems of exchange and administration developed within the capricious semi-arid environment of Syria and Iraq, components of the agricultural systems became less sustainable through time.'

In this world, however, not everything goes according to plan, especially proposals which entail concepts such as complexity and 'bottom-up' processes. As a result, the Project publication that emerged in 2013 after some 11 years of research and analysis contained a rather different group of case studies which covered the development of the Mesopotamian landscape, the 'input' to the models, as well as a range of case studies that resulted from the modeling. In addition, some of the results presented derive from the early work of the Oriental Institute's CAMEL Lab (Center for the Archaeology of the Near Eastern Landscape), currently directed by Scott Branting. The volume, published by Archaeopress / BAR as detailed on this web site, was edited by T.J.Wilkinson (Durham), Magnus Widell (Liverpool) and McGuire Gibson (Chicago). In addition John Christiansen Project CoPI from the DIS Division of Argonne National Laboratories, Argonne Illinois, was a major driving force behind the project, and he deserves considerable credited for leading the programme of agent-based modeling.
The research discussed in the MASS volume demonstrates how models can contribute to an understanding of the development of ancient Mesopotamian settlement and landscape. Although initially intended as a very specific investigation of how small-scale processes contribute to the growth of cities using agent-based models, the volume, as published, represents a much broader perspective. Not only does it include a range of 'bottom-up' as well as 'top-down' models it also employs both mathematical and qualitative models. After presenting a perspective on the development of the physical and cultural landscapes of both dry-farmed northern (Upper) Mesopotamia and irrigated southern (Lower) Mesopotamia (Chapter 2), we outline processes of settlement development and land-use (Chapters 3 & 4), the main types of food eaten (Chapter 5) as well as the nature of both household-based village and pastoral communities and their food procurement and storage strategies (Chapters 6,7 and 8). There follow chapters on the role of networks in the development of the Mesopotamian landscape (Chapter 9), as well as the basic system of agent-based modeling (ENKIMDU) employed for the models (Chapter 10). Following a chapter (11) which summarizes the basic results of the MASS agent-based simulations, we present results for the same programme that result from nomad-sedentary interactions (Chapter 12) followed by more mathematical models of salinization (Chapter 13) and urbanization (Chapter 14). The results from the final four chapters are then discussed in Chapter 15. The investigations do not follow any particular theoretical path. Rather the main intention, is to present the results of the modeling, to demonstrate how multi-disciplinary teams can come together to produce fruitful research, and to provide some indicators how future modeling research can be conducted, as well as pitfalls to avoid.


Christiansen, J. H. and Altaweel, M. R. 2006a. Understanding ancient societies: A new approach using agent-based holistic modeling. Structure and Dynamics: eJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences 1(2), article 7.

Christiansen, J.H. and Altaweel, M. 2006b. Simulation of natural and social process interactions: An example from Bronze Age Mesopotamia. Social Science Computer Review 24(2), 1-17.

Wilkinson, T.J. 2005 Approaches to modelling archaeological site territories in the Near East. In C. S. Beekman and W. W. Baden (eds.) Non-Linear Models for Archaeology and Anthropology, pp. 123-138. Aldershot: Ashgate Press.

Wilkinson, T.J., McGuire Gibson, John H. Christiansen, Magnus Widell, David Schloen, Nicholas Kouchoukos, Christopher Woods, John Sanders, Kathy-Lee Simunich, Mark Altaweel, Jason A. Ur, Carrie Hritz, Jacob Lauinger, Tate Paulette, and Jonathan Tenney. 2007. Modeling settlement systems in a dynamic environment: case studies from Mesopotamia. Pages 175-208 in The Model-Based Archaeology of Socio-Natural Systems, edited by Timothy A. Kohler and Sander E. van der Leeuw. Santa Fe New Mexico: School for Advanced Research Press.

Wilkinson, T.J., J. H. Christiansen, J. Ur, M. Widell, and M. Altaweel. 2007. Urbanization within a Dynamic Environment: Modeling Bronze Age Communities in Upper Mesopotamia. American Anthropologist. Vol. 109, No. 1: 52-68.


From the Department of Archaeology