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Urban Planning, Circa 2500 BC

Near the Euphrates, Archeologists Are Studying a Bronze Age Version of Irvine and Levittown


Call it Irvine by the Euphrates.

Its actual name is Titris Hoyuk, it is in Turkey, not California, and it is more than 4,000 years old. But this city of 10,000 souls bears more than a passing resemblance to Irvine and Long Island's even more famous Levittown.

Like those two cities, Titris is a planned community whose founders sat down and drew up detailed blueprints before the first shovel of dirt was turned. It may very well have been the world's first planned community, emerging in the Bronze Age as civilization spread throughout the Near East.

But despite its age, Titris would seem familiar to a Long Islander or an Orange County resident. Its streets are regular and evenly spaced, its dwellings could have come from a cookie cutter and its population was homogeneous.

"Evidently, the conception of what was urban in 2500 to 2200 BC was not all that different from what is considered urban today," said archeologist Guillermo Algaze of UC San Diego, who leads a team that has been excavating Titris.


In a lowland valley flanked by barren limestone hills, the team is excavating the 125-acre site of a city that seemingly sprang full-blown from nowhere, flourished for 300 years and then was mysteriously abandoned virtually intact.

Fortunately for the archeologists, the inhospitable landscape did not attract any subsequent settlers, and the remains of Titris are buried under only two to three feet of soil. That thin covering not only is allowing them to dig much faster than is possible at sites that have been continuously occupied, but has also led to greater preservation of the city and its artifacts.

"Even after decades of research, we still know relatively little about the form, structure and function of the earliest cities" because of that continuous occupation, he said. "Their initial foundation levels are deeply buried beneath the surface."

But Titris--occupied only briefly and never rebuilt--presents a unique window into a period when cities, and civilizations, were emerging.

Titris "provides a unique opportunity to see the layout of an entire city," said archeologist Gil Stein of Northwestern University in Illinois. "It lets us look at how people actually lived, their social and economic organization. This kind of urbanization would have required massive commitments of labor and massive expenditures to carry it out."


But unique as Titris is, it almost did not get studied. Because of cultural and political considerations, Turkish authorities long forbade widespread archeological study of sites in that country. Only the construction of several large dams in the region, including the massive Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates, the seventh-largest in the world, prompted Turkish officials to permit explorations in regions that would be flooded, causing their secrets to be lost forever if not studied now.

Although it was predicted that Titris would be flooded, it was not. A finger of water from the new lake is only 200 yards away from it, Algaze said. But the lake is full and the city will not be flooded "unless there is a drastic change in water level."

Algaze and colleague Timothy Matney of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., have surveyed more than half the Titris site with hand-held magnetometers that allow them to discern the outlines of building foundations underground. So far they have excavated only two relatively small areas, but even that has yielded considerable information.

The city was clearly well planned. Roads were carved into virgin soil, then paved with cobbles and shards of broken pottery. Streets were built before houses, Algaze noted, because in many places the foundations of dwellings were cut into the street.

Identical residences were constructed according to standardized plans as part of a massive development project. Each home, built around a central courtyard, contained several cooking areas, indicating that they were occupied by extended families.

The dwellings also served as workplaces, the team concluded. Researchers found several raised oval basins lined with plaster, some of them draining into the streets. High concentrations of tartaric acid in certain basins suggested that they were used in winemaking, but others were probably designed for processing or washing wool or fleece. The researchers also found pounding stones and processing pits for grains that would have been used in baking.

The houses had one feature not found in Irvine, however. Each had a crypt, usually in the courtyard or a room near it. Each crypt typically housed seven to nine bodies and contained pottery, foodstuffs and often weapons. "The quality of artifacts and the number of weapons found in a dead person's tomb were usually signs of that person's affluence and status in the community," Algaze said. "In some tombs, as many as 90 artifacts were found."

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