Author Archives: fortonma

The Importance of Staple Crops in State Societies

State level societies are not simple institutions and are the culmination of many traits and forces. It is difficult to pinpoint a specific source for complex societies, since many of the aspects of these societies are interrelated and hard to separate. However one feature that seems to be universally required for growth in complexity is the adoption of large scale agriculture. While agriculture in itself is not a guarantee for social complexity, it does provide the required resources needed for larger populations, urban centers, and specialists who are no longer needed to aid in food production.

It is difficult though to say whether agriculture was the precipitate of large urban populations, or if agriculture was developed out of necessity to feed the larger population. Whatever the case may be, large-scale agriculture was necessary in sustaining the livelihood of the ancient states. This meant going beyond a simple family vegetable garden, and planting a large scale staple crop to feed the masses. This crop took on different forms for each civilization. For the Mayans, Mississippians, and Ancestral Puebloans, this crop was maize. For the ancient Chinese states it was rice. For the cities that began springing up along the Nile it was barley and wheat.Each crop may have been adapted for different climatic circumstances, but each fulfilled the purpose of providing the mass crops needed to sustain large populations and free people to engage in other specialties.

It should be noted as well what happened to ancient states when a staple crop failed to produce. The onset of a drought or flooding could have catastrophic consequences, even potentially causing the state to collapse. Even smaller climate fluctuations could have deadly consequences. The people of ancient Egypt were at the mercy of the Nile. Too much floodwater and the crops would be drowned, while a drought would wither their chances of a good harvest. The scenes depicted at the causeway of the Pyramid of Unas show emaciated victims of famine.

Take away a state society’s staple crops and social order will begin to deteriorate. The Ancestral Puebloan culture of the American Southwest was sent spinning into turmoil by a decades long drought in the late thirteenth century. Trade systems collapsed and regional urban centers were abandoned as groups splintered into highly defensive communities. Across the globe the Akkadian Empire faced a similar situation with the onset of climate induced drought period of three centuries. The southern plains were unable to produce enough food surpluses to support a large urban population, forcing the people to leave and central power to collapse.

Thus we can see that a state society’s existence is highly entwined with the production of staple crop. Intensive agriculture allows for the growth of population, the rise of urban centers, and the subsequent features of a complex culture. However a society that looses the ability to feed its people will begin to crumble as central authorities are unable to maintain social order among the masses. When we boil a complex society down to its raw components, we are left with a few basic necessities. Chief among these is food and the ability to ensure a continued supply of crops to promote a large population and a diversification of advanced cultural traits.

Trade Between the Southwest and Mesoamerica

Earlier this year it was announced that trace amounts of chocolate had been found in ceramic bowls excavated from an Ancestral Puebloan site near Canyonlands National Park. This came as a surprise to the archaeological community who had thought that chocolate was never traded so far north or so early. The nearest region capable of growing cacao would have been located thousands of kilometers to the south in Mesoamerica. It is only the most recent find in a growing field of evidence that the Ancestral Puebloan peoples of the Colorado Plateau had some type of contact with the northern extent of the Mesoamerican cultural sphere.

Archaeologists have been hypothesizing about the extent of relations between the Southwest and Mesoamerica for nearly a century. The scientists who analyzed the Canyonlands bowls used water to collect residue, that was analyzed for compounds indicative of chocolate. To the researchers surprise trace amounts of theobromine and caffeine were found in the bowls. These would suggest  the presence of chocolate. The site the bowls were excavated from dates to the late 8th century AD. This predates the previous find of cocoa at Chaco Canyon by nearly three hundred years.

This would indicate that contacts were being made with Mesoamerica well before the rise of the Pueblo centers of the Chaco culture. During the time of the Canyonlands bowls, the Pueblo people had barely begun to construct masonry structures and were often still using subterranean pit houses. The finding of the new chocolate bowls though helps broaden our view of the relationship between the cultural spheres of the American Southwest and the Mesoamerican cultures to the south.

The culture that most likely traded with the Ancestral Puebloans was the Toltecs of the Mexico Valley. Chocolate is only one of many Mesoamerican goods that found their way to the Southwest. Copper bells have been found at Chaco and other sites in the Four Corners region, along with parrot and macaw feathers and bones. It is likely that parrots were bred in Mexico and then transported north to the cultures of the Southwest. Parrots also feature in the rock art of the Ancestral Puebloans with notable images found at Petroglyph National Monument and at the Square Tower Group of Hovenweep National Monument. It is not exactly known what may have been traded for these luxury goods, but Southwestern turquoise has been found as far south as the Yucatan Peninsula.

Some archaeologists have even proposed that Chaco Canyon was a frontier center of Mesoamerican ideologies. Similarities between modern Pueblo beliefs and language and Mesoamerica are evident, but most archaeologists believe that Chaco and the Ancestral Puebloan culture developed locally and the influence of Toltec traders or priests was limited in its extent. The findings at Canyonlands though continues to expand our vision of the people of the Colorado Plateau and the powerful and far reaching society that they constructed.

eBay-The Robber’s Den

I have always been interested in the trade of illicit antiquities and did a research paper last semester on the nature of looting and theft of artifacts within the United States. However the artifacts stolen from American public lands constitute only a backwater in an international black market that ranks only behind drugs and weapons. My interest was piqued when Dr. Watrall mentioned the availability of ancient Chinese artifacts on eBay.  Curious to see if this was true, I went on a search to see what artifacts may have found their way on to the market.

To my dismay there was an entire company specializing in ancient Chinese jade artifacts. Jadekylin was offering its customers a wide assortment of statuettes, hairpins, amulets, coins, and cups. The pricing ranged anywhere from over two-hundred dollars to less than ten. The company provided no documentation of authenticity or context of their artifacts, stating only that they came from either the countryside or private collections. Recognizing that these could very well be fakes, I decided to see if I could find any artifacts pertaining to some of the culture phases we had been studying.

To my dismay the search bar completed my search for Liangzhu antiques. Among the over one-hundred Liagnzhu artifacts for sale were clear examples of the Cong and Bi jade objects we had seen in class. My search for the Longshan brought up a similar array of artifacts for sale. I hoped that these were all forgeries being passed off as authentic pieces, but I knew that such a lucrative market could not be so easily contained.

Not having a clear idea of what the looting and smuggling situation was in China, I decided to see if I could find out some data on China’s role in the world market of stolen cultural heritage. China as it turns out is one of the counties being most severely targeted by the black market. Many of the looters are poor citizens who are looking for a way to supplement their family’s minimal income. The artifacts from one tomb can fetch a price equal to one year’s pay for a poor farmer. Others are professionals who make looting their business.

Both are part of increasing global demand for exotic artifacts, especially from Western counties like the United States. In the past decade over 200 auction houses, specializing in antiquities have sprung up in China. In 2003 it was estimated that over 220,000 Chinese archaeological sites had been stripped of their artifacts. Some of these will fetch prices well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One top archaeologist estimated that 80-90% of the artifacts on the market were illegally obtained. That meant that most of the jade objects I could have easily bought on eBay had been unlawfully taken from their home nation.

While efforts to curb the trade are being set in place, the pandemic of looting will not be halted unless their is a more aggressive attempt to arrest the high end clienteles that are feeding the growing market. Until these private collectors are stopped, the demand for stolen cultural heritage will only continue to intensify.

Here is a link to a Time Magazine article that I used to get some of my data.,9171,517790-1,00.html

Solar Boats of Ancient Egypt

In June of 2011, archaeologists unearthed the stones concealing another solar boat in close proximity to the Great Pyramids of Giza. A similar boat was found nearby in 1954 and is believed to be the world’s oldest intact ship. It is currently housed in its own museum at the base of Khufu’s pyramid. Both boats were found disassembled and it will be several years before the new boat will be fully restored and ready for exhibition. The ships were able to survive 4,500 years of decay because of the air tight shafts they were laid to rest in. To keep the second boat preserved from intruding insects and other decomposers, the pit was completely sealed in a climate controlled tent. Robotic cameras were sent in first to examine the boat, and it will take several months of excavation to extract all the pieces of the new boat.

While findings on the newly unearthed boat have yet to be published, we know a great deal about the first Khufu ship. The boat is 143 feet long and is constructed of over 1200 individual pieces. Since Egypt does not have any naturally growing good timber trees, the wood had to have been imported. The boat has no mast, but may have been used as funerary barge during Khufu’s funeral procession.

The boat’s association with the Great Pyramid of Khufu is a reflection of the Ancient Egyptian’s obsession with the afterlife. It is likely that the boats were laid to rest to assist Khufu in his journey through the afterlife. This was a common burial practice amongst ancient Egyptian’s who would fill their tombs with a wide variety of grave goods. Likely to have never even touched the water, the boats were instead directly interned next to the pharaoh’s  tomb for his use.The boats are also an embodiment of the sun god Ra’s daily journey across the sky in his solar boat, only to descend below the horizon to do battle with his foes. The soul of the pharaoh was said to accompany Ra as he made this journey.

Just last year an even older boat was discovered by a team from the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology. This smaller boat is estimated to be 5,000 years old and date from the time of the Pharaoh Den. It is currently being restored at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. The boat is expected to go on display sometime this year. Solar boats were not an uncommon phenomenon and a total of seven have been identified in association with the Pyramids of Giza.


Review of Research of Nag el-Hamdulab Rock Art Panels

Reading “The earliest representations of royal power in Egypt: the rock drawings of Nag el-Hamdulab (Aswan)” was very interesting for me, since I have a particular interest in how cultures express themselves through petroglyphs and pictographs. Most of my research and experience has been with panels from the western United States, so it was intriguing to see the work of an entirely different culture. Southern Egypt would see the rise of a state-society, and it is fascinating to see that rise of power potentially portrayed in the rock art panels at Nag el-Hamdulab.

National Geographic published an article on the rediscovery of the panels in November of last year, providing some very nice color photos of the rock art.

There were several features of the research that caught my attention. The “stylistic and technical peculiarities” would be something I would have wished to now about in more detail. These features are used to make the assumption that only one or two artists were involved in the making of the artwork. This may very well be true, but it is very difficult to detect the subtle details of a particular artists style. What may be seen as a unique feature of a particular artist may instead be a trait of a localized style of rock art. It would be interesting to compare this panel to any others that may exist in the area, in order to note similarities or differences.

I also found it interesting to note that all of the figures were pecked in profile. None of the figures are depicted directly facing the viewer like a portrait. Native American rock art contains both types of images, but the portrait portrayal is often reserved for depictions of shaman or warrior figures. Perhaps the Egyptian style of adhering to just profile figures is a result of them already having a written language.

The fact that the Egyptians already had a system of writing and how that may have affected the layout of their rock art panels was a new concept to me. The imagery is usually grouped together at the right side of the rock face, correlating with Egyptian writing. This suggests that the artists were literate and of some standing in their culture. Rock art of the Americas is usually placed at the center of a rock face, or is seemingly placed randomly, with no organized tableau. The fact that the petroglyphs are pecked onto a flat surface was something that I found to be rather redundant. Rock art is almost always depicted on a flat surface making it easier to peck or paint, as well as making it more clearly visible to its intended audience.

The hieroglyphic text inscribed next the depicted scenes helps explain their purpose. While the rock art of pre-linguistic cultures may depict historical events and figures, they are more likely the product of a “vision quests” by shaman or some other form of spiritual worship. The panels of Nag el-Hamdulab though are meant to glorify and memorialize the power of the first Egyptian pharaohs. The hieroglyphs explain that the boats are part of the pharaoh’s grand tour of Egypt. This pattern of honoring the deeds of the pharaohs through artwork would eventually reach monumental scales.

Highlighted in the National Geographic article is the tragic fact that much of the original rock art has been destroyed and defaced by graffiti. This practice is not unique to Egypt, as the destruction and theft of rock art panels is a global phenomenon.