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Planet Earth

Bronze Age Condos

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The 4,000-year-old city of Titris Höyük in southeastern Turkey is rather ordinary, as ancient cities go. It did not have a long, rich history (just 300 years of occupation), nor was it the home of kings or prophets, nor have exotic treasures ever been uncovered within its walls. But the city’s founders took ordinariness to an extreme--creating one of the world’s first examples of urban planning, with adjoining houses on standardized plots of land.

Because no settlement was ever built on top of the city, archeologists have had a relatively easy time determining its large-scale plan. In 1983, Guillermo Algaze, an archeologist at the University of California at San Diego, made an extensive survey of the entire city before anyone did any digging. He used a proton magnetometer, an instrument that maps fluctuations in Earth’s magnetic field caused by iron-rich soils and iron-poor limestone buildings beneath the surface. After this survey, archeologists dug through less than three feet of topsoil to reach the city. So far, some 24,000 square feet--not even 1 percent of the settlement, which once housed 10,000 people--have been excavated.

The researchers uncovered a community of startling uniformity. The streets seem to have been laid down before the houses were built around them, and the plans of the houses themselves are fairly regular, says Timothy Matney, an archeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, who has been working at Titris, with the walls actually aligned between houses--even across the streets. (The residents did make some modifications; many constructed crypts underneath the floors, which were reopened as family members died.)

The archeologists have identified just two lot sizes: rectangular plots, 7 meters by 12 meters, and square plots, 11 meters by 11 meters. Matney isn’t sure why Titris was so meticulously organized, or who planned it. We don’t know if this is something the city leaders decided that they wanted, or if there was sort of a middleman--a real estate developer--doing it, he says. The city was located in the Euphrates River basin, near the present-day Syrian border. Four thousand years ago, it lay along an important trade route between Mesopotamia and Turkey, and trade goods have been found in many of the houses, which may indicate that Titris was a transient merchant colony that quickly sprang up and then collapsed when the trade routes dried up.

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