Author Archives: Kari Edington

Agriculture (bonus blog)

Because each of these characteristics are interdependent, it is difficult to simply choose one as the most important.  As I explored the interrelationships between the primary characteristics of the state, I have narrowed down what I think are the most important to agriculture and state authority.  Of these, I am unsure which is more important since, in order for the state authorities to enforce class stratification, urban planning, specialization for elite consumption, and complex trading systems, they need excess agricultural production for their own consumption.  Otherwise they would be spending their days working land or hunting for enough food for themselves and their families.  However, in order for agricultural practices to grow enough to have a surplus, there must be some initiative or reason for a people to engage in these practices past their own needs.  In this way, the idea of an elite or authoritative class would encourage the agricultural production they then seem dependent on. After exploring these through our course texts for a bit, I have decided that agriculture appears to be the most central, not just in terms of what makes a state, but also what makes a state collapse, making this the key characteristic of statehood, for me.

Most, if not all, of the ancient states we have talked about in class have centered around a river or some other body of water (the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, monsoons and Indus/Ganga rivers, Yellow River, etc.).  In each case, hunter-gatherer societies started to become semi-sedentary to sedentary societies with the cultivation of land around these rivers or bodies of water.  In some places, like Andean South America, Lower Egypt, or Lowland Mesoamerica, the ocean itself became a body of water around which agriculture and trade could evolve.  Once these semi-sedentary communities were established around the annual floods of the Nile or Tigris and Euphrates, or around the seasonal lake beds and storms in the Indus Valley and China, people started to become more sedentary, staying year-round instead of moving for half the year to go hunt and gather in other parts of the region.  Instead, they developed ways to glean the most they could from the land that was already extremely fertile part of the year.  For some areas, this meant canals (Mesopotamia), raised fields (Andes), or other types of irrigation to bring water to bigger areas of land.

However each emerging society decided to further their ability to use and harvest crops, they each had to plan for the times of the year in which crops were not available, leading to surpluses that had to be stored for later.  In egalitarian societies, the excesses could be stored together from each individual/family, and then dispersed as needed through the rest of the year.  As populations grew, however, there came to be a necessity for organizing people and enforcing the ‘rules’ of the society.  With this necessity came a position of power for those in charge of distribution and enforcement.  As societies grew bigger and ideologies became more present, this minor elite came to have more and more power, eventually able to place themselves at the ‘top’ of a social hierarchy, with varying levels of specialization and class standings.  In this way, I think agriculture allows for each of the other primary characteristics to exist, even if the actual existence of agriculture is not what causes the other characteristics to exist.

While I understand that this is a fairly speculative assessment of what actually happened in these ancient states, I also understand that in each ancient state, we talked about the geography, climate, and agricultural possibilities as a first step toward learning about ancient peoples.  Because of its importance to our discussions, I also think that its importance to the rise of states cannot be undervalued.  There is a reason that ancient states arose where and when they did, and also a reason they fell when they did.  In many cases, agricultural decreases played large roles in the collapse of these states.  Therefore, it appears to be at least a very major contender for the most important characteristic of a ‘state’.

 

Unification of the little guys

As we discussed the Andean state(s), I thought about how in a lot of the ancient states we talked about, we talked about the geography as being split into two or more spaces, as well as the fact that there were lots of little states before some group of people unified everybody into one state.  In Ancient Egypt, the northern and southern portions each had their own fairly distinct culture.  Each  was also viewed as its own state society.  But, then Upper Egyptian culture (shown through ceramics) started to influence, and eventually overtake, Lower Egyptian culture.  Once this takeover was complete, Egypt was considered a unified state.  In a similar way, Mesopotamia started as a bunch of little ethnic and cultural groups, eventually unified by the Sumerians and, later, the Akkadians.  Again, some of these smaller settlements and cultural groups could be considered states before they were joined with others by the Sumerians.  In the Indus Valley, the Harappan state emerged from a bunch of smaller communities that may or may not have been smaller states themselves.  In China, we never even really covered unification – there were so many little states cropping up and collapsing that we only gestured toward the much later unification of China into one state.  In Mesoamerica, the Maya similarly united various groups of people either at or working toward the complexity indicating statehood.  And, now, in the Andes, we see the Inca unite the Northern and Southern poles.

I guess part of what I am attempting to figure out/articulate, is why these states appear to have been made up of two or more smaller, earlier states.  In some cases, the smaller state appears to simply have collapsed, leaving the floor open for whomever (like Teotihuacan did).  However, at other places, such as with the Inca or with Upper Egypt, it appears a dominant culture emerged.  Sometimes this emergence happened through militaristic power, but other times it seems to have happened without that power.  In the smaller, more primitive states (some of which might be questioned as states), we see a significant split between those in different geographical areas (such as norther China and southern China).  But, somehow, a group was able to supersede these differences and unite all of these smaller cultures and identities.  I am wondering what made this particular group (the Inca in this case) able to overcome not only the ethnic and cultural differences between themselves and the people they subsumed/absorbed, but also the geographic differences accompanying these different cultures.  I feel like, looking back at each state, it is unclear what the common element is to this rise/unification.  But I also feel like this is a key bit of information/inference to have in order to understand what makes a state a state.

Unification

I thought it was interesting how Ancient China did not unify for a really long time, even though other states we have seen started out very separately too.  In Ancient Mesopotamia, there were many cultures that overlapped and exerted a lot of influence, and in the Ancient Indus Valley there were a lot of cultures that co-existed during the creation of the (possibly?) unified state.  Even though we do not know a lot about the Ancient Indus Valley, we think it was unified, though in a different way from Ancient Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt.  Ancient Egypt, on the other spectrum, did not seem to have multiple cultures.  The Lower Egypt culture became replaced by Upper Egyptian culture, so during unification, there was not really more than one type of culture the way there was in Sumerian, Akkadian, or Harappan culture.

There are multiple facets to why this interests me, the first being that the diversity of cultures and the difficulty of unification seems to increase as we move east across the globe.  Each of these cultures or sets of cultures we have talked about occur around river systems, and, aside from the Nile, we haven’t talked all that much about how the river worked, except that it was important for irrigation/agriculture.  It would be interesting to me to see if perhaps the changes in the river systems across these places could perhaps account for some of the differences in cultures and unification processes.  I am not really sure how these would work, but it does seem intriguing that the Nile was the only river we talked about in great depth and that was the one state we talked about with a pretty unified culture as well.

Another part of this that makes me wonder is the trade aspect of the state.  In each of the other states, especially the Indus Valley, we spent a good amount of time talking about how long distance trade affected the unification process and the fall of the state.  However, in Ancient China, we did not really mention trade as an important part of the growth of states.  We talked about how different cultures that grew into states were interconnected with other cultures through the idea of elite competition.  However, we did not talk about whether trade was another aspect to this interconnectedness.  It appeared in the Ancient Indus Valley that the inter-dependency on their trade network outside their state, which was a key factor in their collapse.  However, because Ancient China did not have this inter-dependency within trade networks, is it possible they did not become unified quickly because they did not need the extremely large-scale workings such trade would require of a state?  I guess what I am asking is what factors played into how China was able to stay so separate for such a long time when everyone around them was becoming unified.

Waters

In class today, I started thinking about the differences in they ways people in Mesopotamia and people in the Nile Valley use and interact with water, and I’m wondering if their choices were entirely environmental.  Obviously, the Ubaid couldn’t just wait on the rain to fall, or they’d be screwed, but what made them use irrigation instead of just following the rivers, moving northward, or some other solution?  As we mentioned, the huge infrastructure required for successful irrigation methods takes quite a bit of organization, power/authority, time, materials, and people to put into place.  With all of this effort, what made them choose to use this method?

In the Nile Valley, the river flooded every year, which, it seems, the Tigris and Euphrates did not.  In some ways, this may have been more helpful for the people in  Mesopotamia.  Today we talked about how there were drought conditions throughout the entire region, lending significantly to the collapse of the Old Kingdom.  Partly, it seems this stressor for Egypt was more difficult to deal with because of their complete dependence on the Nile floods for their agricultural practices.  We have talked about different practices, such as letting a field lay fallow for a year, or irrigation, that the Ancient Egyptians never needed to practice in significant breadth since the Nile flooded each year, offering them a new field with nutrients and water.  However, in Mesopotamia, since the rivers didn’t flood, at least with the same regularity or in the same way as, the Nile, the people there had to find other ways of using these rivers and their waters.  I haven’t read ahead in the class, so I’m not sure how exactly the Mesopotamian culture and state collapse, but I’m wondering if perhaps their processes of agricultural irrigation could perhaps have helped them during the time of the drought in that whole region.  If this was the case, I would be curious to see whether other factors (such as intensive, large-scale building projects) were similar between the two, perhaps helping us make some decisions about what sorts of interactions with existing geographical bodies (such as rivers) does while dealing with stressors within a state context.

Once the Ubaid people (and others) decided to stay where they were, it makes sense that irrigation practices developed.  In our reading, we see “the scarcity of natural resources … play a fundamental role in structuring Mesopotamian economies” and “the basis of the economy remained fundamentally agrarian.”  Since there was such a vast trade network, I’m wondering why agriculture had to remain the basis of economy, especially given that it required a lot of work to get land available to be productive agriculturally.  Obviously, trade and the working of raw materials brought in by trade were important, but I’m wondering whether this ever became a significant part of the economic system the way agriculture was for Egypt? If not, why not?

Edington, Blog Post 1

The article “The Earliest Representations of Royal Power in Egypt” was hard to follow, mostly because I felt I couldn’t understand how the authors (and archaeologists) were coming to the conclusions they were.  For example, “stylistic and technical peculiarities suggest that all the main tableaux with human figures are the work of only one or two hands” means which peculiarities?  The article states that the figures were etched with a pointed implement, which makes sense, since it’s in stone, though they could, I guess, have just drawn the figures.  Given that stone wears down any tool, wouldn’t the artists have had to change tools in the process of drawing the figures?  If this was the case, then wouldn’t the changing of tools, given the lack of uniform manufacturing, have caused differences in the style of the figures?  If there were slightly different styles in the figures, then how can archaeologists tell that it wasn’t an artist change, and not a tool or simply style change?  If there weren’t slightly different styles in the figures, what does that say about the types of tools that were used?  Even artists I know who start using a new box of pencils, pastels, or even paper say it changes the way they draw or paint, and it looks different to the trained eye.  How do archaeologists separate these types of changes from the hand of the artist?

It’s also interesting to me that the authors focus on site seven as a scene similar to the Scorpion and Narmer mace heads, but don’t mention how the other sites fit in with the scene until a few sections later, talking about the inter-relatedness fits a “grand scheme” instead of slow accumulation of iconographs. I don’t know that much about the Scorpion or Narmer mace heads, but if they also included other scenes or sections, what is the relevance to the chronology if these accompanying scenes have changed?  What does it mean if they haven’t?  The focus of the article on the fan-bearers, the crown position, and the boats is intriguing though.  By first talking about Dynastic conventions of artistry, the article sets up the reader to see the Nag el-Hamdulab scenes as transitory, developing images of a future Egypt portrayed by the Narmer scenes.  It is also confusing to me how, just because we can date the Scorpion scene before the Narmer scenes, and the fan-bearers and standard-bearers have increased in the Narmer, that the smaller number of fan-bearers in the Nag el-Hamdulab scene “confirms” that this scene is chronologically earlier than the other two.  Why couldn’t the society have decreased the number of fan-bearers, then increased them again?  In a similar way, the authors talk about the crown angle tilting gradually, and the boat prows becoming less ‘clubbed’.  Again, why does the gradual changing of these when put in this order confirm that these are placed in chronological order?  Nowhere did the authors talk about dating the Nag el-Hamdulab scenes, merely comparing them.  I guess I don’t understand why we can make these assumptions.

The most interesting point to me was that the artists started on the right-hand side of the rocks when drawing, not the traditional middle section.  Since there was writing at the time, the archaeologists assume that this structure means the artists were professionals, and used to writing. I find this interesting to explore in other contexts, such as switching between left and right starting languages (written) and how artists or poets approach different kinds of art through history.  I am wondering if this type of finding is common through the rest of the history of ancient states?