Bonus Blog

Primary Characteristics vs. Secondary Characterisitcs

By Charles Wilson

Whenever we are examining an ancient state, there are two sets of characteristics that we are looking at: primary and secondary characteristics.  Primary characteristics tend to be the very basics that are found in all ancient states in some shape or form. These include urban settlement, intensive agriculture, a set of specialized occupations within the state, a complex economy, and a system of social classes. Secondary characteristics are specific qualities that are unique to that particular state, such as writing, state religion, art, monumental public works and a system of taxation. Both are important both to the ancient states and to those studying them, so it is very difficult for me to answer to pick one over the other. Ultimately, it depends on our answer “more important to whom?”

If we are asking which is more important to those who actually lived in the ancient state, the primary characteristics were more important. Human beings are very social beings and found, like many other animals, that living with others increased their chances of not only surviving but thriving. Much like with a pack of wolves, leaders eventually rose from the group, eventually creating a social hierarchy. As time passes and the population grew, alternative food sources were sought out to feed everyone, which eventually (not over night) became a complex form of agriculture. With a new food source that requires more time and energy than hunting, permanent (or at least seasonal) settlement which eventually leads to urban cities. From these settlements, there are ideas that are being exchanged (particularly of beauty or practicality) which eventually leads to artifacts not associated solely with agriculture (such as jewelry, ritual objects, clothing, etc); as the greater community not only accepts these artifacts but desires them, specialized jobs emerged. Trade systems are created in order to gain raw materials that are not found in that particular environment.

While secondary characteristics were still important to the people who lived in these ancient states (especially state religion and a system of taxation), they were not as important as the primary ones. While it would still be a heavy blow to the state if one of the secondary characteristics failed, it would not necessarily lead to collapse as much as if one or more of the primary ones did. As important as a system of taxation would be for the state, it would not necessarily be as disastrous as if their system of agriculture failed (as we have seen happen towards the end of multiple states in the past such as the Egyptians and the Mississippians). A disruption in wealth is a lot easier to solve than famine is. So why did I not pick the Primary characteristics over the Secondary ones? For one simple reason: while they may not have been as important to the past citizens of the ancient states we are studying, they are very important for those who are studying them in the present.  Without the Secondary Characteristics, it would be very difficult to study multiple states in great detail because all states would essentially be the same (in other words, Archaeology would become a fairly boring gig). While the similarities between different states are indeed important, it is the differences in things like art or ideology that make each of these states unique and interesting to study in the first place. It also makes it easy to see how the state become more…complex (proper term?) by observing artwork and architecture  from earlier periods of the state’s history to those found in later periods (heck, at times it is HOW we can come up with a time line for that state).

So, to summarize everything up, both characteristics are very important not only to those who lived in the ancient states themselves but for those who study them as well; which one is more important depends entirely on the individual’s perspective on the issue.