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Faces of the Past, Reflections of the Present at Archaeology Conference

Olmec features in this lowland Maya statuette provide evidence of cultural influence between groups once thought distinct. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware of the universality of this kind of wide-ranging contact. (Photo by Takeshi Inomata) Top archaeologists from around the world have gathered at one of the great crossroads of cultures to explore the latest...

Olmec features in this lowland Maya statuette provide evidence of cultural influence between groups once thought distinct. Archaeologists are becoming increasingly aware of the universality of this kind of wide-ranging contact. (Photo by Takeshi Inomata)

Top archaeologists from around the world have gathered at one of the great crossroads of cultures to explore the latest discoveries concerning the five “founding civilizations” of the world, and to discover what lessons they still hold for us today.

The 2014 Dialogue of Civilizations is being hosted by National Geographic and the Civilization Studies Center at Bahçeşehir University in Istanbul. Experts in the cultures of the ancient Maya, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Indus Valley, and China will give public presentations each day this week and will visit some of the most spectacular archaeological sites throughout Turkey.

At the opening ceremony, National Geographic Vice President of Mission Programs, Terry Garcia, pointed out that one of the Society’s first presidents and editors-in-chief of the Magazine, Gilbert H. Grosvenor, was born in the city of Constantine in 1875 and had a lifelong appreciation for the region’s role in the history of civilization.

Professor Bekir Karlığa, Founder of the Civilization Studies Center, drew an analogy with the famous rivers of southeastern Turkey which flow to form the mighty Tigris and Euphrates. Different civilizations flow like rivers, he said, to eventually form one big river, the civilization of the world.

As Prof. Metin Hülagü of the Turkish Historical Society gave it a moral and ethical dimension.”Our wish,” he said on behalf of the Historical Society, “is to see a world which is redolent of peace and understanding.”

The presentations for the day were grouped into three sessions: Why Study Ancient Civilizations? What Were Their Origins? What Is the Role of Cities in a Civilization?

Why Study Ancient Civilizations?

Richard Hansen, a leading archaeologist of the Maya, and the person who first conceived of the Dialogue of Civilizations, said that the main reason for such study and reflection is to find the writing, laws, art, architecture, political society, and economic systems worthy of emulation. They can provide us not only with warnings of what to avoid, but with “paths to a positive future of the world.”

Salah Jarrar, from the University of Jordan, identified two key aspects of a successful civilization. The first was that “no civilization can thrive on its own. Influence and interaction from other civilizations is key … The more interactive, the more successful.” His second point was that “there’s an inseparable link between civilization and science and learning.”

Philosopher and Turkish Ambassador to the Vatican Kenan Gursöy said that every civilization must have clear notions of mankind as individuals and as a whole, and about other civilizations. Each must include “an invitation, a promise, to the other–an altruistic component.”

Turkey and Russia have a great opportunity, Gursöy added, because during various parts of history they have looked west without being westerners. That duality can bring about an existential crisis, but it can also lead to a clear and well-developed sense of identity and place in the world relative to other cultures. It will be interesting to consider how some of the ancient civilizations to be studied this week may have been in similar positions.

Origins of the Ancient Civilizations

During the second session, archaeologists presented brief summaries of the origins of the five civilizations.

Elizabeth Carter pointed to the the domestication of plants and animals, and specifically the use of secondary manufactured products like textiles as the key to Mesopotamia’s style of civilization.

Mark Kenoyer, unable to attend in person, had his presentation on the origins of the Indus Valley presented by National Geographic’s Christopher Thornton. Indus urbanism was advanced, developing sewers, flush toilets, and good roads, but perhaps the most intriguing and distinct thing is that there are not a lot of examples of warfare or elite status. There appears to be a concerted effort for everyone to look the same. Who was in charge? Were they peaceful? Democratic? If their form of writing is ever deciphered perhaps we will know more.

Willeke Wendrich of UCLA focuses on Egypt. Because their classical period is so well known, people have had a tendency to see hints of that culture in even the earliest periods. The continuity of certain iconography for example “is emphasized as proof of continuity, but archaeology tells us there are enormous changes over time.” Lasting for as long as it did, Egyptian civilization was actually characterized by being “always in flux, always in development,” she said. Harking back to Gursöy’s comments, she said it was certainly not monolithic or isolated. Its responsiveness to change is perhaps what allowed so much of it to be continued for so long.

Anne Underhill took a similar approach for discovering the origins of Chinese civilization. Looking beyond the traditional origins around 1250 BC, she is searching for signs of shared beliefs and values even earlier, focusing on how civilization shouldn’t be seen as a sudden imposition of an elaborate system of rituals and beliefs by an elite group, but as the gradual and often peaceful process of cultural inspiration, influence, and adoption.

The Role of Cities in Civilizations

The final session of the day was moderated by another expert in the Maya, Fabio Amador, who opened by saying “Every city has a particular identity, and it’s good to look back in time and see how it provides us a certain flavor.”

Prof. Sadettin Ökten spoke first and said that while cities consist of many material things like roads and bridges and buildings, that is not the complete story. “We as human beings are obliged to live with material things, but when we live with them, they become dynamic,” he said. “Because cities are part of our daily lives, and lives are dynamic, cities are intrinsically dynamic constructs.”

He went on to say that the design and life of “a city should take into account the moral principles of the society which will inhabit it.”

That idea took on interesting resonance when taken out of the context of modern moral movements and into the ancient world the archaeologists presented on.

Takeshi Inomata discussed digging to the very earliest levels of Maya ceremonial plazas, and realizing that from times before people of the region had even settled into villages, they were already constructing plazas for ritual that shared the basic characteristics of even the most elaborate Maya city centers thousands of years in the future.

He then connected that to the site of Gobekli Tepe which the conference will visit on Tuesday. At both sites, it was the desire to have a space for ritual that drove construction, more elaborate than any construction these early cultures made for their habitation.

In Mesopotamia, civilization eventually focused more on the facilitation of economic development. For the Maya, ritual continued to be the driving force, leading to the enormous headdresses and stone pyramids for dramatic rituals at the heart of their cities.

Whether in the Maya or the modern worlds, it begs the question of whether civilizations make these design decisions consciously, and shape their society and cities consciously, or whether decisions about one drives the other, or whether it is all simply the uncontrolled expression of the ways our relationships have developed.

It is still early in the week and there is so much to consider. Join the conversation in the comments below and on Twitter with #5civilizations.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Andrew Howley
Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley. Learn more at