Digital history & historiography

Framing settlement systems as spatial adaptive systems

Theoretical developments are needed to interpret the increasing amount of large-scale spatial data about past settlements. So far, settlement patterns have mostly been considered as passive imprints of past human activities and most theories are limited to ecological processes. Locational and spatial interactions have scarcely been included as long-term driving forces of settlement systems but hold promise to explain large-scale patterns. This paper proposes a conceptual model for long-term spatial adaptive settlement systems based on the complex adaptive systems framework and both spatial and cross-scale interactions. The goal of the model is to find new ways of interpreting archaeological location data and understand settlement systems as emerging from micro-choices of population units interacting in space. The conceptualisation is carried out on a level that it can be used to bridge hunter-gatherer and urban theories. We first describe settlement patterns based on concepts from archaeological locational studies and social-ecological systems. Second, we identify the abstract spatial and aspatial entities of the system and describe the potential relations between them. Using knowledge from previous research, we then map both empirically observable and abstract system entities and predict links between them in order to come up with an overarching conceptual framework. The system is based on residential choice mechanisms and exposes several cross-scale feedback loops between the micro-level choices and the settlement system emerging at the meso-level. We finally argue that the proposed adaptive settlement system framework has the potential to bring new insights into long-term processes, especially through dynamic spatial simulation, and at the same time, provides an interpretational framework for archaeological records and empirical spatial analysis. Examples of its applications in archaeological research are introduced.

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