Exhibition explores ancient Ukrainian egalitarian city

A diagram depicting an archaeological site with a perimeter of walls.
A diagram depicting an archaeological site with a perimeter of walls.

An exhibition at the Venice Architecture Biennale exploring the concept of cities and urbanism through the lens of a 6,000-year-old Ukrainian archaeological site was developed by a UCL researcher with the Forensic Architecture group at Goldsmiths University.

The exhibition, a multi-media video entitled The Nebelivka Hypothesis, uses 3D modelling, ground truth, photogrammetry, remote sensing and simulations to challenge our understanding of urban origins.

Buried deep below the rich black soils of central Ukraine, archaeologists charted human settlements as large and ancient as the first Mesopotamian cities, yet conceived on radically different principles. One such place is Nebelivka. Its 6,000-year-old remains offer a lens through which to interrogate core assumptions about urban space, power, and ecology.

The Nebelivka Hypothesis will premiere at the 18th International Architecture Exhibition of the Biennale di Venezia, The Laboratory of the Future. The biennale is curated by Lesley Lokko, a UCL alumna and Visiting Professor at The Bartlett School of Architecture.

This project is a collaboration between Professor David Wengrow (UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Forensic Architecture - a group of architectural researchers otherwise dedicated to the investigation of human rights violations and war crimes, including bomb sites from Gaza to Ukraine - and practitioners of pre-historical archaeology.

Professor Wengrow’s best-selling book with David Graeber, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (2021), broke new ground in the understanding of ancient cities and provides a conceptual basis for this further line of inquiry. The book contests received wisdom that the first cities were incubators for a new form of political life-namely, the State, with its faceless bureaucracy, ruling elites, and techniques of surveillance and control. Instead, it charts the recovery of lost urban traditions from various parts of the world, which reveal a kaleidoscope of possible trajectories, including early experiments in social housing and egalitarian cities.

Combining archaeological science with the tools of Forensic Architecture, the multi-media video presents evidence that unsettles the position of the State as the inevitable way of life for human society. It charts the recovery of a lost tradition of urban life below the soils of the Ukrainian steppe.

Professor Wengrow said: "The genesis of this project lies in a conversation with Eyal Weizman, where he suggested to me that - despite their radically different scales of analysis - there was a kind of affinity between the methods David Graeber and I employed in The Dawn of Everything, and the procedures undertaken by Forensic Architecture. In seeking to challenge the authority of state narratives by extracting counter-archives of information from physical crime scenes, Weizman’s approach is aligned with our project of finding evidence in the archaeological record to confront established theories, which position the modern State as a telos of human social development."

The ancient city of Nebelivka lies within the chornozem of Ukraine, considered some of the most fertile earth on the planet. Could this famously rich, dark soil be considered an archaeological artefact in its own right?

Remnants of a 6,000-year-old settlement-the size of its contemporary Uruk in modern Iraq, usually regarded as the world’s first city-are rendered visible as patterns in the soil. But unlike Uruk, Nebelivka presents no trace of monumental architecture or central administration. Evidence rather suggests that its ancient inhabitants experimented with an egalitarian form of urban life, which left a surprisingly light footprint on its surrounding environment, and may even have enriched the land it occupied.

If Nebelivka is a city, the project proposes, then the genealogy of the city-rooted in extraction, predation, and hierarchy-must change. This is The Nebelivka Hypothesis.

Eyal Weizman, director of Forensic Architecture, said: "When reading The Dawn of Everything I was struck by how the authors mobilised architectural evidence - buildings, town squares, cities, environments - to unsettle the received history of human inhabitation, cities, and the way they inevitably lead to state and empire. I felt this was the most ambitious project of architectural ’counter-forensics’ I had seen. The collaboration led to a journey that took us through the evidence, Soviet era archaeology - using aerial detection and magnetometry - and contemporary practices deeply attuned to the soil... to its surprising final speculation."

This project has been undertaken in collaboration with The Nebelivka Project and the Center for Spatial Technologies.

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