The primary theme of the inaugural Shanghai Archaeology Forum is the comparative archaeology of ancient civilizations. As late Professor Bruce Trigger pointed out, “the most important issue confronting the social sciences is the extent to which human behavior is shaped by factors that operate cross-culturally as opposed to factors that are unique to particular cultures” (Understanding Early Civilizations, 2003). By using comparative methods, archaeologists can understand the material record of past cultures and to explore variation over time and space. Comparative analysis is the best way, if not the only way, to determine commonalities and regularities in human behavior, and to identify unique features as well as variations of human societies and cultures.
Many fundamental institutions of modern society are deeply rooted in ancient civilizations that emerged many millennia ago. The study of ancient civilization has significant implications for the understanding and solution of many contemporary problems or even crises such as globalization, economic and social inequality, and long-term sustainability and resilience of human societies. The investigation and comparison of ancient civilizations have been always of primary interest in modern archaeology, and understanding the causes and consequences of the rise and fall of ancient civilizations has been of great interest to archaeologists for a long time. However, the advancement of our knowledge on the emergence of ancient civilizations and the social, economic, political, and population dynamics of early cities, states, and empires has been hampered by the relative lack of rigorous comparative studies.
In the past decades, fieldwork has expanded tremendously throughout the world. Archaeological investigation of households, communities, settlements, and landscape has led to an explosion of well-documented diachronic and synchronic data that allow much more productive comparison of ancient civilizations. The time is ripe for a revived commitment to the comparative archaeology of ancient civilizations that provided the cultural and historical foundation for the modern world we live in today.
Archaeologists are uniquely positioned with comprehensive and comparative data to contribute to dialogues and debates surrounding contemporary issues and the numerous challenges of our era. The comparative study of ancient civilizations will promise to shed new light on and insights into the nature of the complexity of past human life and society, and the processes of complex cultural and social developments; and it will enhance the scientific understanding of the past, the present, and the future of our human society.