Author Archives: Hannah Brookhart

Bonus: The athority in a state

I believe the most important characteristic of a state is the state authority. Not only is this one of the best predictors of a complex state, it is also absolutely an essential characteristic to the success of a complex state.
A community can have agriculture and even intensive agriculture. Without out state authority though, there would be no way to distribute the goods, oversee the labor if necessary, or provide the authority for projects like irrigation. Even if there is specialization in a society, some labor in the fields while others make leather goods, for example, this does not make a state. If housemates agree that one will mow the grass and clean the pool and the other will keep track of bills and maintain the inside lighting and plumbing fixtures according to their skills, it is not a state. If there is someone to govern how and when these chores are done is starts to sound more like a state. A complex economy can’t possibly reach a level of complexity without someone to pull strings. Even the freest of markets have to be made free by laws, which the state creates and enforces. State authority goes hand in hand with elites. While a state creates specialized labor (in agriculture, in religion, in public works, etc.), it is at the same time creating an elite that prospers of the work done by others. Stratification is important to state authority as it often keeps the state’s power from being challenged. Stratification alone will not lead to a state. Just because one person has more wealth or power than another does not give them the ability to govern; that is the job of authority. A society must have a need to be governed for it to be a complex state. Otherwise there is no mandate for state authority (because it would lack legitimacy and result in tyranny).
State authority is what makes a state a state, otherwise it is simply a group of people maybe with agriculture, maybe with some trade networks or a social hierarchy. Even with these state characteristics, this society really is not a state until it is governed.
It goes without saying that secondary state characteristics are very secondary to primary ones like state authority. In fact, most of these secondary characteristics (state religion, monumental public works, state art, tribute, development of a written language, and mass production) would be possible without state authority.

the sustainability of Incan shared inheritance

I was really surprised to learn about the Incan tradition of split inheritance. Not only did the deceased king continue living among the Incans (being included in ceremonies, for example), he also continued to collect tributes and taxes. The new ruler doesn’t has no claim to anything the old king collected or anything he will collect in the future. This seems really problematic, perhaps absurdly so. It is not really my goal to criticize Incan culture and political structure; I just really do not understand how it would have at all been sustainable for a long period of time.

If the king’s successor was usually his son, as Professor Watrall mentioned, would his son truly not have any part in his estate. Would the king live a life entirely separately from his family so they would not share in his wealth? It couldn’t have been the case that the father shared things with the son because then there would be no need for new taxes and the emphasis on expansion.

Because the king retained his wealth after death, the new king brought only what he already had (which I think is ambiguous considering the above paragraph). This meant there was a need to generate new revenues. His options, as we learned in class, were limited. One, he could raise mit’a. This is problematic because it’s not a simply tax, it is a labor tax. There is a finite amount of labor available to a ruler. One cannot make people work for more hours than there are in the day. The second option then became expanding the regime in order to have more people from which to collect mit’a from. Again, one cannot conquer lands that do not exist. A ruler will eventually run out of options for expansion. This does beg the question as to whether the Incan political order was engineered to require expansion or whether expansion became necessary to uphold order. It is sort of a teleological argument.

Professor Watrall said that the Spanish were the primary cause of collapse for the Incas. It seems, based on their model that the Incan empire would have not lasted for long even if the Spanish never brought their diseases or “conquered” them. All complex states are unsustainable, but the Incan empire seems especially fragile. Before they could ever run out of resources (what is a very common internal problem for societies), the Incas had to rely on sheer population growth just to maintain political order. Does it not also become a problem when several kings are dead? Is only the most recently deceased the one who remains in society and collects mit’a. Does the position lose any power with the death of subsequent rulers?

Do you think the Incan model could have been sustainable?

Sophisticated Sanitation

In class we learned about the intense city planning discovered at Mohenjo-Daro (modern day Pakistan) in 1922 as part of the Indian Archeological Survey led by Sir Mortimer Wheeler. In his article, the “Sewers of Mohenjo-Daro”, published by the Water Environment Federation, Cedric Webster discusses the complex and impressive sanitation system the Harrapans at Mohenjo-Daro developed. He argues it was unrivaled until the sanitary sewers of Hamburg, Germany in 1842, at least some 1,800 years later. It took 5,000 years for sanitation systems to match those of Mohenjo-Daro.

He writes that almost all of the houses had bathrooms that were attached to sewers in the street. In addition, it was required that the bathroom would be in a room with a wall facing the street so it would be easy to access the sewer system. Some bathrooms were even on the second floor of houses.In this case, there were pipes (made of bricks) running down the side of the house to the sewers in the streets. These pipes were even “steeped” so sewage would flow gently from the plumbing into the sewer and not “splash a passerby”. The details of this system are really impressive. What were people doing for so many centuries when such a well-thought out system had once existed?

"large brick-covered sewer in center of street)

“large brick-covered sewer in center of street”

Once the sewage was in the street, it flowed through sewers in the middle of the way (as pictured below). The planners sought to be able to clean and perform maintenance on the sewer system and so they covered the sewer (anywhere form 12 to 24 inches deep) with loosely laid bricks. There were also “sumps” (basically man-holes), but these would likely have filled up completely with sewage so it would actually have been impossible to use them. Webster suggests they may have served as clarifiers, very early water treatment centers. Given that the city was rebuilt at least 9 times, according to Webster, the sewers had to be accessible so they could be raised with the new developments. Indeed, it seems that the mud-bricks, favored for all projects in Mohenjo-Daro were recycled and reused for subsequent sewer development.

Archeologists have also found what they call “a Great Bath Building”. They believe it was used in religious ceremonies. It may have included a mechanism that allowed for fresh water to be poured into the bath-vessel. Archeologists have uncovered many pottery and models in the sewers at Mohenjo-Daro.Some have decided this is evidence of children playing with toys in the bath.

Webster, Cedric. “The Sewers of Mohenjo-Daro.” Journal (Water Pollution Control Federation) 34 (1962): 116-123.


“No one man should have all that power”

Sneferu was a boss. At least, he seems fairly admirable from a power and authority standpoint. I have no idea whether he was a benevolent ruler or not (although the Times article, “The Secrets of Snefru”, indicates that he was thought of as the “Good King” compared to his son and successor, Khufu/the “Bad King”), but that doesn’t seem to matter because he managed to compel his people to build at least three pyramids for him. Pharaoh Sneferu, first king of the 4th Dynasty, is best known (respective to pyramids) for ordering the construction of the Red Pyramid, the Bent Pyramid, and Maidum Pyramid in Dahshur. While these monuments are impressive feats of human labor and engineering what I think is more impressive is the great deal of authority the pharaohs had to compel their people of the importance of these public works.

In class we’ve discussed the importance of legitimate authority. Without it, there is no way Sneferu or any other Pharaoh could have gained so much power (the ability to get other people to do stuff for you).  I think the magnitude of their power is so great not only because they have legitimate authority, that is, the ability to get people to do stuff for you because they want to (or think they want to) or see it as a rational choice. What helps tremendously is the different angles from which pharaohs draw legitimacy.  According to Max Weber, there are three types of legitimate authority. (Weber, Economy and Society Vol 1)

The first is legal authority.  This is the authority behind the institutions and bureaucracies that make complex states possible. The king’s ability to govern by endorsing viziers and nomarches below him is part of the administrative hierarchy that provides legal authority. Citizens of Upper and Lower Egypt do not follow laws simply because the Pharaoh commanded they do something (at least not all of the time), but because it is a law and is therefore something they should follow because they are a citizen of that state. There are even rules which the Pharaoh must follow. Legal authority places power in impersonal institutions and laws rather than in the personal qualities of the Pharaoh himself. When one Pharaoh succeeds another, there is at least some continuity. The pharaoh in a sense draws his power from the legal authority of the state which he governs. Usually with legal authority, there is some sort of selection process that considers qualifications (like candidates running for an election, or an employee seeking a CEO position). So I will admit it does not align perfectly, but there are aspects that are consistent with government in Ancient Egypt.

But, we know that laws and bureaucracy, tradition and royal blood hardly cover the range of the pharaoh’s legitimacy. The Egyptians didn’t simply take cues from the pharaoh because he was in the position of power, they revered him because he had a great deal of charismatic authority. For the Ancient Egyptians, the pharaohs were Gods or at least as close as to being Gods as is possible for humans. Sneferu claimed he was the living sun god, Ra. This type of legitimacy is in some sense diametrically opposed to the institutionally permanent legal authority. Even so, pharaohs are holders of “specific gifts of the body and spirit; and these gifts have been believed to be supernatural, not accessible to everybody.” (Weber) It is precisely because pharaohs are not chosen by the people, but by a higher power that gives them their charismatic authority. For this, their personalities are revered, not simply their office. Hence, great monuments and temples and sacrifices are made in their name. Consider the tomb of Hor-Aha alongside the tombs of many royal retainers. Lavish offerings are brought to the tombs to ensure their ka are well taken care of. Does part of this reverence come from fear? It undoubtedly does, which makes a pharaoh’s authority a little less legitimate, but his coercive power is still power and speaks to the multitude of mechanisms by which pharaoh exerts power.

Another aspect of pharaoh’s legitimate power is traditional authority. This is the type of authority that scholars might likely attribute to Ancient Egypt, but I really think all three of Weber’s types of legitimate authority bear some presence. In the case of traditional authority, “obedience is not owed to enacted rulers, but to the person who occupies a position of authority by tradition or who has been chosen for such a position on a traditional basis.” (Weber) At the level of kingship, Ancient Egypt was a patriarchy. So the decision of who would be the next pharaoh was not dictated by laws or even some sort of prophet discovery, but instead through family lineage. In this way, Ancient Egyptians owed their lives, belongings, labor, etc. to the pharaohs because they were of the royal line.

Global Collapse?

As Professor Watrall has mentioned several times, the study of the rise of ancient states is incomplete without equal attention paid to the collapse of those states. As a class we agreed with social theorists who say collapse is inevitable. We also agreed that studying ancient states is important to us primarily because we are a “state”. What, I wonder, constitutes a state in the 21st century?

If archeologists of the future were to examine the remains of 21st century societies, what would they classify as complex societies? Nation states like the United States, India, or Japan? Or would the increasing interconnectedness of global governance, economies, and culture complicate matters? This phenomenon of globalization is sometimes debated, but I think its quite clearly a legitimate trend. Economist Thomas Friedman describes globalization as relations between people and states that are “farther, faster, cheaper, and deeper”.

Just watch the first minute for his definition:

Granted we have no concrete international body of governance and one of the factors anthropologists use to classify complex societies, or ancient states, is a high degree of centralized political power. “States are assumed to have centralized governments composed of political and religious elites who exercise economic and political control. . . . The state codifies and enforces laws, drafts soldiers, levies taxes, and exacts tribute.” (Wenke and Olszewski 289)

It is true, though, that most European nation-states are highly connected through the European Union; they share a currency and are quite dependent on one another’s stability – Greece, for example has received multiple bailouts from Germany. Germany’s willingness to help Greece shows their commitment to the system of European central governance. What suprastate governments might the future hold elsewhere in the world?

Even if all states aren’t all one giant complex society, if one falls, what is the likely hood that many others will fall too, at least other industrialized nations? Consider the impact the Great Depression had on international economies during a time when the world was much less interconnected than it is today.

If “states” ever merge to the extent that there is one government above all state governments and that all people become cosmopolitans and shed their nationalism, what will the collapse look like? (For those of you who are familiar with his work, this is the type of society that Immanuel Kant imagines could lead to perpetual peace. Such a society would begin with trade, lots of trade. Eventually people’s differences will appear less important in the setting of the marketplace and finally they will disappear altogether (not people’s differences, but their perception that those differences matter). Thomas Friedman would say that it is technology driving this process.)

Back to the question of collapse: Professor Watrall told us that collapse is not entirely apocalyptic. It’s maybe more like really crazy anarchy. It does not “involve collapse and mass extinction of people and adaptation, sometimes in the form of a process . . . of decentralization and localization, in which the political authorities lose their ability to control people and economies” (291.) Should states continue to become less differentiated, what impact might that have on their collapse? First of all, might we expect it speed up? That seems very likely even as far as carrying capacity goes. The amount of resources that the large society has as a whole though will increase and innovative solutions might therefore last longer. Again, though, the larger population that these resources must support may not offset the gains. Additionally, the collapse of a suprastate might simply result in a lot of little states (aka the nation-states of today). That means that all of the progress we pride ourselves on today will one day be characteristic of a collapsed state.

If globalization should result in global governess and total interconnectedness, and subsequently collapse, can it rebuild? Will we be stuck in a cycle of suprastate to nation-state to suprastate transformation? Or is there a chance that such a society will not recover after collapse, having used resources on a global level? Will there be anything left for them to rebuild?