For me, specialization seems like the most important characteristic of civilizations. It allows for many of the other aspects of the state to take form. Intensive agriculture can allow for specialization but it doesn’t require it. Once people make the important decision for some to take part in other kinds of work, they have opportunities to expand as a civilization. This could happen in the form of trade. If a group of people has specialists creating and managing special things, other groups may want those goods and services, leading to a system of complex trade. Specialization can also lead to stratification if some jobs in the community are valued over others. For example, someone serving ideological or religious functions may be highly valued over masses of farmers because of the perceived importance of his work.
Specialization has been present in all the civilizations we have examined this semester. Some people have held religious or political roles above the other citizens. Some have been craftsmen or worked for the state bureaucracy. Some civilizations had scribes to deal with their specific writing system. Specialization acknowledges that the civilization has expanded to a level where the people are interdependent. Not everyone has the same training to survive with or without the group. Once specialization occurs, people must rely on one another to fulfill all the needs of the people.
In Egypt, we saw specialization on a grand scale. We saw an entire village built for craftsmen working for the bureaucracy. From the Lost City of the Pyramids in the Old Kingdom to Deir el-Medina in the New Kingdom, people who were performing special functions were kept separate. By the New Kingdom, these were highly specialized artisans kept in a location where state secrets about royal tombs would be safe. In a civilization with the grandeur of Egypt, the Pharaoh was able to have an entire settlement of specialists just to help ensure his success in the afterlife.
In many of the civilizations, a priestly class was crucial to society. In Mesopotamia, priests helped to manage a tribute system that was central to the economy. In Mesoamerica, Mayan priests were needed to keep balance in the cosmos. Sometimes this involved bloodletting ceremonies, showing the great sacrifice they made to fulfill their duties. In these civilizations, priests were revered not because they performed a duty necessary for survival but because they performed a duty that was necessary for the society’s survival. This group thinking was what made early civilizations different and more complex than their precursors, in my opinion.
When we were learning about the Maya in this last section of the class, I found myself really intrigued by the ball courts. I think it’s interesting how the game can connect distinct areas together with tradition, and it also reminded me of our own obsession with sports in American culture. Also, I definitely had a visual from watching The Road to El Dorado a few too many times as a kid.
I think that ball courts seem to symbolize and bring together many aspects of Mayan life. It was probably a form of entertainment much as our sports are today, but there were other purposes and significance. When competing Mayan areas were heading down a road to violence, a ball game could provide a release valve for all that pressure before a full scale, violent war came to fruition. The fact that this was even a possible solution seems to point to strong connections and relations between neighboring areas.
Beyond bringing separate Mayan regions together, the ball court also seems to follow Mesoamerican peoples throughout time as different groups rose and fell in prominence. Evidence of the ball game exists before and after the height of the Maya and seems to have passed from group to group. This common denominator also points to its greater significance for the Maya and other people such as the Olmec and the Aztec.
I also think it’s interesting that the ball court was a prevalent part of the “state” ideology that bound smaller groups together. It appeared in art and architecture and was possibly involved in ideas of cosmic balance, which we discussed in relation to human sacrifice. There was some aspect of the living fighting the dead and renewing a religious cycle. Among the Maya, this took a more extreme turn by including a human sacrifice cult. This could be connected to how the ball court was kind of a lesser war. In war, foreign captives were an important gain from success in conquest because they served as sacrificial victims. Maybe sacrificing ball players after the game was accomplishing the same goals.
Overall, it seems that the ball game was both practical and ritual in nature. I imagine people have investigated aspects of ritual in modern sports, and I wonder if our system fills any of the same functions. Regardless, I’m certainly glad that MSU’s football games don’t end with human sacrifice.
Here’s a link to an article I read about the ball game if anyone is also interested:
I found it especially interesting that in Ancient China, elite culture was so antagonistic and competitive. To a certain degree, I think elites must always compete for a limited amount of influence and power, but it seems especially evident in this culture. The need for showing off and being better than other elites seems remarkably like our own American elite culture. This is a loose comparison because I’m just thinking about this one aspect, but there seem to be some strong parallels.
Society is not all about the elites, but they do have the power to affect everyone else with their actions. If Chinese elites were trying to outdo one another by owning the right luxury goods, their demand would have supported skilled artisans. Today, there are still businesses that specialize in luxury items that few people can afford. These luxury items are recognizable and we know to associate them with wealth and success.
Even more interesting to me is the competitive aspect among the elites. It wasn’t enough to be in the upper crust of society. Elites wanted to be fancier than all the rest. Competition is a large part of our elite culture as well. Politicians, for example, are divided into two major parties that fight for votes to gain political power. Elites also compete when it comes to other symbols of power. It isn’t enough to have a large house full of unnecessary luxuries; they have to come up with new things to add to outdo one another. Celebrities compete for attention in the media. They do outrageous things to end up on the front page.
I wonder if any of these behaviors would be applicable in some way in an ancient context. This might be too much of a stretch. The system of elite behaviors in China sounded more familiar than the temple system in Mesopotamia at least. I can’t really imagine how to translate that into a modern example. If anyone has a good idea, I would love to hear it. The only thing I can think of is televangelism in the United States. It’s not universal, but people that follow one of the churches send in large amounts of money to help with their projects.
The political structure and nature of power in the early civilizations we have talked about certainly stand alone and are separate from our own systems, but sometimes making these kinds of connections helps me imagine something from so long ago. Did anyone else make these kinds of connections this semester?
We talked in class today about the “Lost City of the Pyramids,” and this reminded me of a somewhat similar arrangement from later in Egyptian history. Last semester, in the Egyptian Archaeology class that Dr. Watrall also teaches, I wrote a paper about the site Deir el-Medina. I thought I could share some parallels between theses sites which people might find interesting. Deir el-Medina was a town where artisans working in the Valley of the Kings lived. A lot is known about the site not only from its actual remains, but also because ostraca survive with writings from the people who lived there. Very careful administrative records were used to keep track of things such as who was absent from work when.
The community has some similarities with the town at Giza, but it is also quite different. Deir el-Medina was dependent on state rations of grains, and it kept the artisans near their work so they could be properly focused on the immense task at hand. On a different level, these artisans were much more separated from the rest of Egypt than the workers at Giza may have been. This is because of the change in the nature of royal tombs. As we learned in class, nothing could compare to the pyramids in scope in later Egyptian history. The work the artisans of Deir el-Medina did was very secretive. They reported directly to the pharaoh’s vizier, and without a giant pyramid to point out the location of the tomb, they were to keep the location of their work within the valley a secret to protect it from vandalism and robbers.
Another interesting aspect of Deir el-Medina is the fact that some very elaborate tombs for the residents have been uncovered. This makes sense because the people who lived there would have had the necessary skills to make beautiful tombs for themselves and for their loved ones. They mimicked elite designs with small pyramid superstructures, showing the lasting impact of pyramid imagery even into the New Kingdom. A prominent workman by the name of Sennedjem left a beautiful tomb behind that once held twenty mummies, all relatives of his. I have included a picture I found last semester that shows the beautiful artwork.
These comparisons seem to really emphasize the continuities throughout Egyptian history regardless of collapse during intermediate periods. Ideology lasted, and certain systems were used across different periods such as creating towns for artisans who worked on important projects for the pharaohs, especially elaborate tombs.
I was really intrigued in our lectures this semester by the plaster skulls found in Jericho and throughout the Levant. They seem so mysterious, and I was curious what their significance was. I did a little bit of digging to see what is known about the skulls. I found a paper that addressed theories about these interesting artifacts.
It turns out that the plaster skulls have been found in different sites around the Middle East besides Jericho. There are some general characteristics that skulls at the different sites share, but there are also area-specific differences. The authors of the paper determined that information about how to make the skulls and their ritual importance was spread by word of mouth. This seems to emphasize the interconnectedness of the Levant and close cultural ties.
However, artisans made the skulls locally and had their own traditions. This is supported by the fact that skulls from different sites were made with a variety of techniques and with special materials. It is interesting to think that different artists were expressing themselves based on what materials were at hand and what local beliefs and traditions were incorporated.
Analyses of the skulls show that pigments were used to decorate them, and the colors and composition of minerals used to makes these colors varied by site. Materials used to decorate the skulls, including the pigments, could be found locally for the most part. One skull, however, was decorated with red pigment containing cinnabar. Cinnabar is not found in the Levant but in Anatolia (Western Turkey). This links the plaster skulls of the Levant to Neolithic skulls in Anatolia that were decorated with cinnabar, as well. Even at this time, connections were already being made between different groups of people.
Some skulls had a lot of aesthetic appeal but were very fragile, whereas others were made of tougher materials and are much better preserved today. Some of the skulls even had mixed ash in with the plaster to give it more durability. This ingenuity is impressive to me, and I like learning about how people long ago were coming up with new ways to make their work better or just experimenting with different techniques. It is possible that this was an early example of specialization in the Levant communities. It would have taken time and care to learn these methods.
The authors offer a possible explanation for the skulls as well. They suggest that they are embellishments on the older practice of removing the skull from the body postmortem. Population booms were coupled with more intricate and symbolic ritual practices. These skulls were a part of that transformation. Some of the features depicted in the plaster may have been accurate representations of the deceased and some were stylized features.
Here’s the link to the paper in case anyone is interested. There are some cool photos and comparisons. I found it using MSU library’s eResources.