Monica L. Smith

A photo of Monica L. Smith
E-mail: Phone: 310-794-9179 Office: Haines Hall 329B

Professor, Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair in Indian Studies

Fields of Interest: South Asia, Mediterranean, Southwestern U.S., Urbanism, Economic Networks, Consumption and Material Culture, Anthropology of Food, Comparative Historical Archaeology


  • PhD, University of Michigan, 1997


Research on Cities Past and Present

Cities have become the predominant global mode of life, but their development over the past six thousand years has encompassed amazingly rapid social, economic, and even biological adjustments. My current fieldwork is focused on the Indian subcontinent, where excavations and survey have revealed the complexities of newly-emergent urban environments.  I describe myself as an ancient economic historian who utilizes archaeological data to analyze the collective effects of routine activities through the study of food, ordinary goods, and architecture.

The story of human “civilization” encompasses the actions of many thousands of ordinary individuals.  In the past as in the present, routine and repeated actions produced both monumental architecture and the signature of daily life recorded in humble objects such as pottery, textiles, and other portable goods.  Archaeologists evaluate material objects to understand social and economic configurations.  Even small fragments can reveal aspects such as manufacturing techniques (could the object have been made by anyone, or was a specialist involved who would have been paid?), usages (was the object very worn before discard, or was it relatively new indicating an expectation that it was easily replaceable?), and value (was the object reverently placed in a ritual context, or was it thrown out with the rest of the household garbage?).

But archaeology isn’t just about “old” things, and an archaeological perspective can help us understand our own modern configurations of material goods and spatial organization.  We can only hold a couple of objects at a time—so what do we do with the rest of our stuff?  In the choice of objects, it is not only money but, increasingly, time that is scarce such that we require a time budget for dealing with the physical world.  What do we choose to display and what is kept hidden?  What is the replacement rate of objects, and from where do we acquire the things that we use?  How and why do we select the foods that we eat, and how they are eaten? What are the relative meanings of a gift, a found object, an inheritance, or an item that we select ourselves?

Cities are places where human interactions with objects and spaces become particularly intense.  In cities, people have smaller and smaller private spaces as conditions become more crowded, but they also have access to a greater diversity of goods produced by specialists and available from markets, bazaars, and street vendors.  Factors such as style also accelerate consumption and production processes, such that cycles of discard are speeded up.  Archaeological excavations at ancient cities worldwide illustrate massive amounts of garbage, indicating that the development of a “disposable” culture isn’t simply a modern one but a phenomenon closely linked to the development of urbanism.