What is a civilization? There are many definitions of the term, and many of them are very refined and sophisticated. But to most of us, at least to most of the reading public, civilization is a style, a quality, that is most characteristically represented by such objects of material culture in the archaeological record as monumental architecture and religious art. To put it bluntly, these are objects that are remote from daily use or from subsistence needs, or objects that are wasteful from a utilitarian point of view. When we see an ancient society willing and able to devote considerable wealth for seemingly useless tasks, we could admire its people and call them civilized. The more wasteful they are, the greater their civilization looms in our eyes.
Looked at this way, it is obvious that civilization is possible only with an abundant surplus of wealth within the society that produced it. It must be noted, however, that no surplus can come about naturally with advanced technology, because the subsistence threshold is always arbitrarily defined. A surplus is a man-made portion of wealth, arbitrarily imposed upon the society as a result of the reshuffling of its resources and its wealth. Such a reshuffling concentrates society’s wealth in the hands of a small segment of society, giving them both the capability and the necessity to create the wasteful hallmarks of the so-called civilizations. Such resources reshuffling is enabled by at least three sets of societal dichotomies or societal opposites. I would refer to civilization, as archaeologically recognized, as the cultural manifestation of these contrastive societal opposites: class-class, urban-nonurban, and state-state. In other words, economical stratification, urbanization, and interstate relations are three of civilization’s necessary societal determinants.


  1. Summarize Kwang-chih Chang’s definition of “civilization.” Do you agree with his analysis? What additions to his account can you think of?
  2. What is the role of art in the development and functioning of civilizations?
  3. What are some of the possible reasons for the construction of Monumental architecture?
  4. What is the relationship between urbanism and civilization? What challenges do cities pose to maintaining order in early civilizations, and how does art and architecture help?

Sample Solution