Author Archives: Abagail Gray

Characteristics of a State

On the second day of class we learned there are six important/primary characteristics that make a state: urban, agriculture, specialization, complex economy, stratification, and state authority.  Secondary characteristics are usually evident in some combination of the following: monumental public works, writing, metallurgy, tribute/taxation, mass production of goods, state religion, state art, and epidemic disease and malnutrition.  While both primary and secondary characteristics are important for the classification and study of states, I believe that the primary characteristics are most important.
Allow me to elaborate.  The secondary characteristics are important as well, but I feel that those characteristics cannot be reached, or achieved, by the community until the primary characteristics are met.  In the following paragraphs, I will indicate how each one of the primary characteristics leads to some of the secondary characteristics being achieved.
For the urban characteristic to be applied, it must be a densely populated, permanent settlement; non nomadic living.  Without this dense population, other secondary characteristics could not be met.  For instance, there would be a greatly reduced risk of epidemic diseases.  The monumental public works would not be completed because the work force would be so spread out that it would be difficult to get enough people in one location.
The agriculture required is intense agriculture, providing for many people, not just a family.  This large production of crops can be used in taxation/tribute, depending on how the state organizes the system.  Mass production can also involve crops and food stuffs.
A group is considered to implement specialization when the population is split up for occupations; only part of the population is involved in food production, health care, security, clothing production, etc.  This specialization could be implemented in metallurgy, the creation of decorative or warfare metal objects.  The mass production of goods can also include specialization, in determining who is producing what objects and making sure the necessary variety is produced.
A complex economy involves long trade routes and large-scale trading of goods.  Mass production of goods can be required if a state has a high demand from the areas/states it trades with.  Epidemic diseases could also be introduced into a state through the interaction with other areas that a complex economy encourages.  Tribute and/or taxation are also involved in a complex economy, by helping ensure it has enough resources to function.
I believe stratification and state authority are linked closely to one another; stratification is essentially the presence of a hierarchy or social classes in a state, and state authority is the implementation of decision-making processes decided upon by the state (and a ruling body to carry out those decisions).  Usually the ruling body that carries out the state authority is part of the elite class present in stratification.  The state can then implement a state religion or state art (or similar fields like astrology).  The state authority can dictate the rules and amount of tribute/taxation for the citizens, and could even have a hand in the distribution of jobs and food.  Monumental public works are perhaps one of the most visible indicators of the presence of state authority; all of the workers required to build something so impressive must be coordinated by someone.
Taking all of this into consideration, I believe that the primary characteristics of state are more important.  Without the primary ones, a state cannot achieve the secondary characteristics.

Mayan Ball Game

As we were talking about the rise and fall of the Mayans in Mesoamerica, one thing that first jumped to my mind was the ball game.  Many of the pictures then shown of the Mayan cities included these ballcourts.  Perhaps one of the first exposures any of us had to this ancient game was while watching “The Road to El Dorado” (the animated movie that was released in 2000).  So I wanted to research this game further, to see just how much is known about this ancient game.

A few sculptures of ballcourts have been discovered, providing invaluable information about the structure of the game and the spectators.  The court has high walls on the sides, which have spectators on the top.  Those citizens watching the game are depicted as male and female, adults and children.  Figures have their arms around one another, and you can actually see family groups sitting together watching the game.  The spectators all seem to be enjoying the game.  On each side of the court there is one figure on the end of the spectators who appears to be playing a drum.  As for the players and the field, the sculpture shows three players on the field for each of the two teams.  There is a single figure in the middle of the court that is not a player and could be a referee of sorts.  Also, there is no ball in this model, but there are round markers on the court (most likely divided it into sections).  There is no evidence from this model that human sacrifice was involved, but other areas played slightly different versions of the game that did involve that grisly end.

The Mayans used rubber to make the balls for the game.  They mixed liquid rubber (latex) from the rubber tree with juice from the Morning Glory vine; this added extra bounce and made it less sticky.  Some of the balls had a human skull at the center, which made it hollow and lighter, while others were solid rubber and weighed up to eight or ten pounds.  Different areas made different sized balls; they were anywhere from the size of a softball to the size of a beach ball.  Only a few ancient balls still exist today.  Players wore several key uniform items while they played.  Like the ball and the rules, these items varied slightly from place to place.  The key was to wear protective clothing that would not hinder the players’ speed and agility.

Not much is known about specific rules, but the general idea was to keep the rubber ball in play, most likely by hitting it with a player’s hip.  It is known that the game was fast paced and dangerous; the heavy ball causing many injuries.  The winners of the game were highly praised, which is probably the result of the game’s key place in the Mayan creation story.   Human sacrifice (of the losing team) was not the result of every game, but carvings and paintings do indicate that it happened.

There is definitely a lot to learn about this first team sport, a lot known and unknown.  It certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “give it your all”.  I guess sometimes winning is everything.

Shang Dynasty and Oracle Bones

Our recent discussion on the Shang Dynasty got me thinking about an East Asian Religion course I took, where we also discussed the Shang Dynasty and its connection to oracle bones.  The Shang Dynasty of China is considered the first civilization to leave written records and solid archaeological evidence.  It is believed that the Shang Dynasty was the second of the Three Dynasties Period, although many dispute the existence of an earlier dynasty.  The proposed earlier dynasty, the Xia Dynasty, is only referenced in legends and later writings.

Previously, Shang history was based on historical accounts that were written long after the Shang Dynasty.  There were bronze inscriptions found, but those were short and did not provide much detail.  This lack of information all changed when the oracle bones were discovered.  The inscriptions on oracle bones matched the information about the Shang Dynasty written hundreds of years after its end.  This information provided an important key to proof for the existence of the Shang Dynasty.  These oracle bones and bronze inscriptions helped legitimize the Shang Dynasty. More evidence was then gathered, examined, and connected to the Shang Dynasty (like archaeological sites and other artifacts).

Oracle bones are usually scapula of large animals or turtle shells, that were used by kings and diviners to answer questions and tell the future.  A diviner would carve the question into one side, then small pits would be carved out of the other side.  They would use the art of pyromancy (using fire) to tell the fortune, or divine the answer from the bone or shell.  A red-hot poker would be pressed into the pits, causing the bone or shell to crack.  It is these resulting cracks that the diviner would interpret, and the answer was then carved into the oracle bone as well.  An interesting point here is that all of the writings for the Shang Dynasty are religious text, since they are all dealing with oracle bones and bronze inscriptions.

In the latter years of the Shang Dynasty, the banks of the Huan river saw a royal ritual center established by the kings.  This center housed a group of diviners who specialized in the dealing and communicating with the complex spirit world.  They were in service to the king, and responsible for conducting the rituals with the oracle bones, asking the questions, and interpreting the answers.  These questions could range anywhere from the outcome of a war, how plentiful a harvest would be, or even the cause of a king’s headache.

It is interesting to note the variety of topics that were dealt with using oracle bones, yet all the writings are religious in nature (since the oracle bone ritual is religious).  This is in drastic comparison to Mesopotamia’s earliest writings/forms of writing, which are commercial or economic in nature.

The Corruption of the Priesthood of Amen

Our talk about the taxation of Egyptian farmers and the lack of taxation of temple lands sparked my interest.  This got me thinking about the growing power, and eventual corruption, of the temples and priests that was mentioned.  I did some research and found that the corruption spanned many rulers, all of which had some part in the increasing power of the temple and priesthood of Amen.

To start, Amen-Re was considered the true father of the pharaoh, which helped legitimize the power the pharaohs held over Egypt.  The priests held a large amount of power with the general public, which they preserved by appearing as defenders and guardians of the oppressed people.  The kings tried to limit the power of the priests of Amen to simply religious affairs.  This was holding order until around 1498 BC, when Hatshepsut took control.

Hatshepsut was the only legitimate heir from the line of Amenhotep (his granddaughter, actually).  To become king, her half-brother Thutmose II became her husband.  When Thutmose II died, Hatshepsut took control; Thutmose III was still young and in the care of the priests of Amen (he was originally supposed to become a priest himself).  As time passed, many chose sides.  There were those who believed a woman could not be king and supported Thutmose III.  Hatshepsut also had her supporters, the priests of Amen.  To legitimize her claim to power, Hatshepsut had them declare her Pharaoh (the first woman to do this) and was from then on depicted with the masculine attributes of pharaohs.  Her supporters reaped the rewards of her power; the First Prophet of Amen became the administrator of the temple’s wealth, head of all the gods’ priests in Upper and Lower Egypt, and prefect of Thebes and vizier.  Hatshepsut also built the stunning temple Deirdre el Bahri, along with other smaller chapels.  This is where we see the priesthood and temples gaining undue power.

While Hatshepsut was ruling Egypt, Thutmose III had become head of the army, and eventually took control back from his mother.  His rule saw many conquests with much accompanying wealth.  This wealth was first distributed to the warriors/soldiers, then the priesthood of Amen took their share, and in the end not much was left for Pharaoh.  As their wealth and power increased, the power of the king decreased.  The priests were now starting to push the king out of power, turn him into a figurehead and maybe try to get rid of the position all together.  But still Thutmose III enlarged the temple’s landholdings and added to the Amen temple at Karnak.

A couple of pharaohs later (Amenhotep III) the worship of the red disc of the sun, Aten, gained popularity and followers.  When Amenhotep III died, his son was brought up devoted to Aten, not Amen.  As Pharaoh, Amenhotep IV’s name was changed to Ahkenaten and the funding to the temples of Amen subsequently stopped.  The wealth, land, and slaves that belonged to the temples were most likely seized by the king.  There was still a large public following of Amen, however, and the temples were eventually rebuilt by Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  The co-regent also returned all of the confiscated wealth to the priesthood.

This corruption of the priesthood of Amen was fostered by many pharaohs, and it certainly did not end with Ahkenaten’s son-in-law.  While it appeared to come to a head in Hatshepsut’s time, the pharaohs before her are just as responsible.  Or perhaps it was an inevitable occurrence, with the state religion being so closely tied with the power of the Pharaoh, and so adamantly followed by the people in many aspects of their daily lives.

Predynastic Egypt Agriculture and Health

Some of the class lectures have talked at length about the development of agriculture in Egypt and the way agriculture fits into classifying predynastic Egypt.  This got me thinking about the effects agriculture would have on the overall health and nutrition of the population.  Could nutrition and health be analyzed through examination of human remains from burials?  With agriculture’s prominence, would the population see an increase in health due to a consistent supply of a variety of food?  Or would there be an increase in disease occurrences because the agriculture is ensuring a sedentary lifestyle?

The low floods and high floods of the Nile during predynastic Egypt are determinable by geological analysis of the soil and sediment layers.  I believe that these same seasons of famine could be mirrored in the remains of individuals, specifically the dentition.  Teeth will show striations, or lines/bands, that result from extreme fluxes in nutrients.  If Petrie’s sequence dating method, which correctly identified the timeline of ceramics in predynastic Egypt, is combined with radiocarbon dating, human remains from burials could be correctly placed in a timeline.  Further analysis of the remains would hopefully determine age at death for individuals.  Working backwards from these years, and using the standards for tooth formation and emergence, any bands on the teeth could provide estimates for years of high or low flooding.  These estimates could then be compared to those obtained geologically.  This method would only work if the famines brought about by the high and low flooding seasons were significant enough to cause malnutrition.

As far as nutrition is concerned, analysis of remains is a method of determining and comparing the health of pre-agriculture and post-agriculture Egyptians.  At first, it would seem that Egyptians received a better diet after agriculture was instated, considering they were producing, storing, and redistributing crops; however, they were at the mercy of the Nile.  An analysis and comparison of human remains from Fayum could shed some light on nutrition.  Fayum A was predynastic, and practiced full-time, settled agriculture.  Fayum B was truly Neolithic.  If remains, specifically dentition, from Fayum A and Fayum B were analyzed, then the prevalence of malnutrition could be compared between the two populations.  This is just one area, but other areas in Egypt could also be studied.

When comparing human remains, we could also look for bone markers that indicate disease.  With the implementation of agriculture, the population is going to become sedentary (instead of nomadic).  This sedentary lifestyle could provide an environment for diseases.  The close proximity of individuals can cause problems involving the disposal of human waste, etc. that lead to thriving diseases.

All of this together provides a plethora of research options (that may or may not have been attempted already).  But it is very interesting to see the cross-over of cultural and physical anthropology, not to mention geology and many more scientific disciplines.