1:30 pm - 2:15 pm

Trajectories of Settlement Growth: Paths to Low-density, Dispersed Environments

photo of ancient city Angkor

How does the layout of an ancient settlement change after a shift in its size? Find out at the lecture by internationally renowned archaeologist Roland Fletcher, hosted by the Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity, an affiliate center of the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

Please note: Seating is limited and available on a first come, first served basis.


Over the past 15,000 years, there have been three well-recognized transitions in settlement magnitude. These are conventionally known as the development of sedentary agrarian communities, sometime after about 10,000 years ago; the formation of agrarian-based urbanism after about 5000 years ago; and the formation of industrial-based urbanism in the past two hundred years. They are actually abrupt transitions in the magnitude of compact settlements and the rate at which they increased in size.

For compact, higher density residence, each transition allows an increase of an order of magnitude in the extent of the largest settlements. After an initial transition in the size of compact settlements, two major trajectories of settlement growth occur — a general one towards lower density residence and a rarer, more energy-demanding trajectory back up towards large, high-density settlements. Transitions, therefore, lead to great diversity in settlement forms and patterns of growth. The trajectories towards large compact settlements are well-known and are famously represented by the great agrarian, imperial capital cities of regions such as China, the Islamic world and Japan.

There have also been three great trajectories towards extensive, low-density settlements world-wide. Of these, one is well known – the trend over the past 200 years towards the great, dispersed, industrial megalopoli and "desakota" which is conventionaly regarded as unique. However, a second and earlier trend to extensive low-density settlements is epitomized by 9th-13th century A.D. Angkor in Southeast Asia and by the Classic Maya cities of Central America from the 4th to the late 9th century A.D. And the third trajectory is represented by a remarkable group of settlements of which the Triploye megasites in Ukraine; the giant Longshan enclosures of China; the Iron Age oppida of Europe, Cahokia and Chaco Canyon in North America; and Great Zimbabwe in Africa are classic examples ranging from the 4th millennium B.C. to at least the 16th century A.D.

Roland Fletcher is professor of theoretical and world archaeology at the University of Sydney, where he has implemented a global, mulI-scalar, interdisciplinary approach to archaeology since 1976. His 1995 book "The Limits of Settlement Growth" explores the constraints on settlement growth over the past 15,000 years. In 2000, he collaborated with international agencies to form the Greater Angkor Project, which has led to new insights into the form, size, history and enviornmental context of large, low-density settlements and a redefinition of urbanism. He is the director of the University of Sydney’s Angkor Research Program; he has been a distinguished fellow of Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study; an invited speaker at the Falling Walls Conference in Berlin; and a keynote speaker at UrbNet in Aarhus, the Chinese Institute of Urban Planners symposium in Nanjing and at the Shanghai World Archaeological Forum. In June this year, he will attend the Global Solutions Summit on G20 issues in Berlin as an invited discussant.