Down Among the Dead Men

Review: 'Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death' by Brenna Hassett


Back in 1864, a French historian named Fustel de Coulanges published a book called The Ancient City, in which he argued that urban life began with graveyards. Nomadic peoples found themselves needing ways to care for and memorialize their dead. The social unity of the tribe, the sense of their families, and the force of their religious cults depended at least in part on an enduring feeling for heroic figures from the past and an objective symbol of a people who extend through time. Graveyards gradually grew into temples, and temples gradually flowered into cities.

In other words, for Coulanges, someone like Hobbes was right to insist that death drove the creation of cities. He was wrong, however, to believe that fear of death was the cause. Grief seemed the truer origin of city dwelling. Hobbes thought humanity turned away from nomadic life primarily for military protection, and the archetypal piece of urban architecture would be a defensive wall. Coulanges thought that humanity turned away from nomadic life primarily for religion, and the archetypal piece of urban architecture would be a tomb.

On the whole, modern archaeology has tended to provide support for Coulanges. Something religious always appears when we dig up the ruins of ancient cities, and memorializing the dead always proves to have occupied a major place in the early stages of urban life. Cities are founded on the fact that we die, and it’s bones, all the way down.

Those bones are a treasure trove for archaeologists—as evidenced by Brenna Hassett's new book, Built on Bones: 15,000 Years of Urban Life and Death. A specialist in dental and osteopathic forensics based at the Natural History Museum in London, Hassett lays out the available bio-archaeological evidence about the dwellers in early cities. She sneers at the false sentimentality of those who praise the nomadic life and urge on us a paleo-diet that hunters and gatherers might have eaten. At the same time, she shows that early urban life was not always beneficial. Cities produced enormous gains in economics and civilizational arts, but those cities also weakened us. City dwellers tended to be shorter and less robust than their nomadic cousins. They were also much more disease ridden and even more often killed violently by other human beings. As a race, humanity advanced enormously by means of the city. As individuals, however, we often suffered from urban life.

Hassett strives—more than a little too hard—for a light tone in Built on Bones. She’s just not as funny as she thinks she is, and the book’s many references to Monty Python and pop culture fail to make the author seem the hipster she clearly wants to be. While it may be true that archaeologists engage in rampant fornication during their excursions to remote dig sites, readers don't really need to be told this dozens of times. Hassett's material on the sex lives of modern archaeologists is less interesting than her material on the lives of ancient city dwellers.

Still, she has an argument in Built on Bones about why cities triumphed over nomadism. Urban life, she suggests, created the conditions for the new agrarianism of regular plantings and domesticated animals. This, in turn, allowed the possibility of more regular calories—which both helped increase fertility and established the chance for the economic specialization that propelled civilization forward.

At the same time, urban crowding and the domestication of animals introduced new pathogens and made diseases far more deadly. The new riches created by economic specialization made possible inequalities of a kind never known before—and thereby led to new types of starvation and war. But even as the existence of cities created problems, the fact of city population compelled rulers to deal with those problems. Riots are deadlier when thousands of people live near one another, and, as Hassett writes, "So many eyes on so many problems will, however grudgingly, slowly force action."

That's a thesis out of political theory, kind of. It's just not much of an account of politics—a word we get from polis, the Greek term for city, after all. Brenna Hassett's greatest problem in Built on Bones is her lack of any deep sense of the human psyche and how it might have responded to the creation of cities. Why did we want cities? What did we gain from them? The sufferings caused by cities are offset, in Hassett's account, mostly by civilizational gains and a vaguely Hobbesian idea that cities improved military defense. But no individual would have endured the problems of urban life solely for the sake of some bland assurance of eventual cultural improvement, and Hassett herself argues that cities made possible not new kinds of peace but rather new kinds of war—and far more deadly war, at that.

Hassett's Built on Bones is filled with wonderful tidbits about what the bones of the dead tell us about disease and social conditions. At the same time, the book is mired in contradiction and confusion, unable to advance toward any conclusions—even the conclusions that Hassett wants. Coulanges at least pointed us toward the need for something more profound, more written deep in human nature, involved in the myth and religion at the root of human history.

Think of it this way, for instance: The first city was founded by the first murderer. Or so, at least, Genesis 4:17 teaches. In the Bible's telling, the first of us to die is Abel, killed by a brother. Humanity's original and most archetypal death is by murder—and by a murderer who thinks it good to go on and teach us how to build cities.

Until around the sixth century, the Bible generally continues this negative view of urban life. Cities are cesspools of sickness, populated by thieves and murderers. The word of God is drowned by the city's noise, while shepherds and desert-dwellers hear more clearly. The Ark of the Covenant sits aloof, off in the country camp of Shiloh.

When David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, however, the Bible starts to explore a different paradigm. In the Psalms and the second part of Isaiah, praise for urban life begins to flower—praise for a new possible model of the city. The Holy City emerges as a hope, founded on righteousness rather than blood. Jerusalem becomes an image for humanity's escape from the cycle of endless murder and revenge.

And these seem our only options for picturing urban life: the City of Man or the City of God. The New Babylon or the New Jerusalem. Warfare or peace. The city of bones or the city of life. All urban symbolism tends in one of these two directions, and all experience of the deep stuff of politics builds on one of these two foundations.

What Brenna Hassett wants in Built on Bones is an account of the city of death somehow magically turning into the city of life. But her own research shows it isn't true. If we see further than our ancestors, it is because we stand on their shoulder bones. We sit atop a mound of tibias and femurs. We reside on hills of calcified remains. In the city of bones, it's death, all the way down.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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