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The Ancient Levant


Social Networks, Empires, Revolutions and Clashes of Civilisations

At the crossroads of western Asia, the Mediterranean and northeast Africa, the Levant (modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Sinai, Cyprus) has one of the richest archaeological records in the world. Ancient civilizations indigenous to the Levant include those of the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Aram, Ammon, Moab, Edom, and the Israelites. How did these civilizations emerge and evolve? What were their distinctive characteristics compared to neighbouring cultures?

The development of ancient Levantine cultures has often been discussed at two very different scales of observation. Some treatments have had quite a narrow focus – syntheses limited to a particular modern country, a particular sub-region (e.g. northern versus southern Levant), or particular periods, cultures or issues. Other syntheses have been very broad, placing the Levant in the widest possible eastern Mediterranean context, viewing the Levant as part of one world system or another, or as part of a vast interaction sphere, or through an external lens (e.g. ‘Egypto-Canaanite’).

These perspectives are valid, but we lack a synthesis of Levantine archaeology that concentrates on the entire Levant -- north and south, coast and interior -- as a unit of analysis. Is there a unity and validity to the concept of ‘the Levant’ as a unit of observation? To be sure, in antiquity, there was often little lasting social or political unity in the region. We confront a diverse terrain, cosmopolitan populations, and a mosaic of small social-political units (towns, city-states, small states), sometimes organized into loose but fragile larger units (confederations and networks). These small polities and networks were frequently vulnerable to domination by larger, more cohesive adjacent states and empires (e.g. the New Kingdom, the Hittite empire, Assyria), and were also vulnerable to other decentralized networks (eg, ‘peoples of the sea’). Given this tendency to small units, and oscillating waves of cohesion and fragmentation, understanding Levantine history in the long term demands that we consider the Levant as a whole and the ways in which Levantine cultures interacted with each other.

The goal of this research is to explore, via both specific research topics and general overviews, the archaeology of the Levant, in light of certain overall aims:

  • To present a holistic portrait of the diversity of, and interaction between, Levantine cultures, in terms of technology, material culture, exchange, and social organization.
  • To explore which elements were held in common by ancient Levantine cultures, and which elements varied from one sub-region to another.
  • To investigate whether ‘the Levant’ is a coherent unit of observation, and to explore the ways in which its cultures were distinctive from neighbouring cultures, despite the obvious evidence for interaction with adjacent cultures.
  • To investigate the nature of the emergence and long-term histories of small social-political units (eg villages, towns, cities, city-states); how they interacted with each other; the degree to which they formed larger units (interaction spheres, networks, confederations, tribal states); and how they interacted with larger, more powerful polities external to the Levant (as vassal states or in other relationships). Some trends in archaeology have been concerned in recent years with the anthropology of major early states and empires. It is also relevant to confront issues about the anthropology of small units – eg, individual sites, villages, towns, cities, city-states, small valleys -- and wider networks composed of these.

Related outputs

Selected publications

Details of outputs published prior to 2007 are available on Karen Wright's staff profile page.

  • Wright, K. I. (ed.) (in preparation) The Ancient Levant: Social Networks, Empires, Revolutions and the Clash of Civilizations. London: Council for British Research in the Levant.
  • Wright, K. I. (in prep.) Households, networks, technologies: Levantine social and political structures Neolithic to Early Bronze Age. In Wright, K. I. (ed.) (in preparation) The Ancient Levant: Social Networks, Empires, Revolutions and the Clash of Civilizations. London: Council for British Research in the Levant.
Public Conferences and Lectures (since 2007)
  • Wright, K. I. 2008. Conference: The Ancient Levant. Liverpool: Conference on The Ancient Levant (organized by Katherine I. Wright), Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London, 16-17 May 2008.
  • Wright, K. I. 2008. Lecture: Households, networks, technologies: Levantine social and political structures Neolithic to Early Bronze Age. Paper presented at The Ancient Levant Conference, London, 16-17 May 2008.
Public Engagement and Impact
  • The conference held in 2008 was attended by persons from the public as well as by academic staff and students. Members of the Anglo-Israel Archaeology Society and Palestine Exploration Fund were in attendance. An interactive website is planned to allow for public dissemination of this research to a wider audience.
  • Karen's work on this topic resulted in successful supervision of 3 PhD students, one of whom has been appointed as Curator of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (2011).

Funding

  • UCL

Project Leader:


Project Partners:

  • 25 scholars from universities across the UK

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Further information:


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