Author Archives: Abbi Lynch

Bonus blog: agriculture

It is difficult to say which of the six primary and numerous secondary characteristics of a state are most important: they are all so interrelated that trying to determine the most important is like trying to determine if the chicken or the egg came first. However, in my opinion, the most important is agriculture. Taken by itself it is not the be-all, end-all, but its occurrence is generally what sparks the emergence of the other characteristics. And, it is that it is fairly easy for archaeologists to find tangible evidence of intensive agriculture (for example, changed plant/animal distribution, changes in the features of plants/animals as seen in fossils, sickle sheen on blades). This is in contrast to some other state characteristics, such as state authority and state religion, because the information we have on these latter characteristics is often gathered through ethnohistory, which is generally nonconcrete information that requires extrapolation.

Arguably, nearly all of the primary characteristics are reliant on the preestablishment of intensive agriculture. Intensive agriculture occurs only in nonnomadic groups, and as the agriculture becomes more productive, it necessitates the establishment of storage buildings and some sort of administrators to distribute the harvest (so, more buildings and more people; thus, urbanism). When such large surpluses occur and there is a large enough amount of people devoted to maintaining the agricultural side of things, we also see the emergence of skilled workers who can dedicate their time to specialized crafts without fear of starving. These large surpluses also allow the state to start forming a complex economy–an excess of harvest goods allows it to exchange food and specialized crafts in exchange for items not readily available in its locality, thus developing   often-long-distance trade networks.

With the aforementioned establishment of distribution administrators also comes state authority (although not necessarily right away). Those with the power to control the distribution of food eventually find that they have all the power and therefore can make (and enforce) decisions. Here is where we typically also start to see the development of social stratification, with the state authority forming the upper class, then skilled laborers, then farmers. And of course, agriculture and the primary characteristics that emerge because of it influence secondary state characteristics such as epidemic disease (due to the high concentration of people around the productive agriculture zones) and state art, writing, and metallurgy (at a certain point, not everyone has to dedicate all of their time to agriculture; this is an aspect of specialization).

In sum, while all primary characteristics are extremely coinfluencial, agriculture often has to be the first to occur. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, a highly urbanized city that emerged before intensive agriculture was established or a complex economy that came into being before a community had a relatively easy, steady, reliable source of food.

Human sacrifice and cannibalism in the Aztec people

Dr. Watrall talked in class on Wednesday about human sacrifice in the Aztec people. We know that their religious ideology dictated human sacrifice in order to placate their sun god and prevent the rise of darkness and the end of the world. As Dr. Watrall said, the choice method of sacrificial murder was the removal of the heart; after this was done, some say, the bodies of the victims were often kicked or otherwise thrown down the steps of the temple/pyramid where the de-hearting had taken place. However, in addition to “merely” sacrificing humans, it is generally accepted by anthropologists that the Aztecs also cannibalized these sacrificial offerings. There are two main theories on why the Aztecs did so; one theory, from Michael Harner is based on the ecological and dietary situation of the Aztecs, and the other, Bernard Ortiz de Montellano’s theory, is based on the ideology of the Aztecs.

Harner’s theory predates Montellano’s by a year (Montellano’s theory is actually a rebuttal to Harner’s). In summary, Harner said that the “typical anthropological explanation is that the religion of the Aztecs required human sacrifices,” but that “this explanation fails to suggest why that particular form of religion should have evolved when and where it did” (Harner). Instead, he said that the Aztec’s environment–specifically, their increasing population and decreasing amount of wild game and lack of domesticable herbivores (for protein). While there were fish and water fowl, Harner believed the poor did not have access to these, and instead had to rely on scant insects and rodents. He also said the while maize and beans can provide all eight of the essential amino acids, they must be eaten in great quantity and at the same time to gain the reward, which was not always possible. The human body, then, which craves what it lacked, turned toward human meat.

In seeming contrast, Harner said that cannibalism was, for the most part, reserved for the elite classes, which also generally had the most access to other forms of protein. However, he stated that “even nobles could suffer from famines and sometimes had to sell their children into slavery in order to survive.” In further support, because the humans sacrificed normally were prisoners of war and war is how one could rise to elite status (by brave fighting and obtaining many POWs), the poor were easily rallied to fight–should the obtain POWs, they would not only be able to attain protein for themselves, but they would also find themselves in a new social class.

Montellano refuted Harner’s hypothesis and offers one of his own. Because human sacrifices (and thus, occurrences of cannibalism) were highest at times of harvest and not during times of scarcity and also because the rate of cannibalism was highest in Tenochtitlan, which not only practiced intense, productive agriculture but also received food tributes, cannibalism among the Aztecs cannot be explained by ecological/dietary circumstances. He stated that because protein deficiencies have the most impact on children and adolescents, and because those fighting in wars were adults who would not gain so many benefits from an extra protein ration, “75 percent of the population was supposed to be motivated to fight and die in the expectation of a possible future reward that could only be of real dietary value to their children.”

Much more likely, Montellano believed, was that the ideology of the Aztecs prompted them to cannibalize their victims. “The acquiescence of the sacrificed victims to their fate [of sacrifice] … is also explainable in terms of their religious ideology” (Montellano). Just as Aztec ideology said that whether a man received rewards in the afterlife depended on his being either sacrificed to the gods or killed in battle, it said that sacrificial victims were sacred. Thus, “eating their flesh was the act of eating the god itself” (Montellano). That they desired to achieve this union with god through consumption is also promulgated in their consumption of psychotropic plants.

Again, though, it is important to remember that much of the information we have about Aztecs comes from Spaniards and natives who fought against the Aztecs. This lack of firsthand evidence yet firm acceptance by most that cannibalism was practiced by the Aztecs is acknowledged by James Q. Jacobs as what he called the “cannibalism paradigm.”


Harner’s research:                           Montellano’s research:                           James Q. Jacobs:                                                    Other:


Chapter 8 of Patterns in Prehistory discusses the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Just after reading this section, I traveled to SUNY Buffalo to visit their anthropology department, and while there, I had a chance to meet with the department chair, archaeologist Dr. Peter Biehl, who coincidentally is involved in Ian Hodder’s research project at Çatalhöyük. Specifically, he is part of the team that is excavating “West Mound, Trench 5.” He offered some information about Çatalhöyük that you can’t find in Patterns in Prehistory–for instance, the site was relatively recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with that designation has come increased tourism, which raises questions about balancing site preservation with public access and ensuring that those native to and living in the area are not disrupted. In reading through Dr. Biehl’s field notes from 2007 (available on the above website), I learned that he was, at the time, working to prove the hypothesis that the two main mounds at Çatalhöyük, the East and West mounds, were not representative of two different time periods; rather, they were contemporaneous (as his field notes available on the website abruptly end, I do not know what became of this hypothesis).

Especially interesting to me is the 2010 find of imported shells and jewelry of value. According to the 2010 Çatal Newsletter, these objects were not found in graves, which indicates that  “this society was not ready to discard of their valued ornaments and figurines inside graves” and instead preferred to keep them circulating “above ground.” Because Çatalhöyük is thought to have been occupied from 6250 BC to 5400 BC  (Patterns in Prehistory p. 330), and the extraordinarily rich burials of Tell as-Sawwan were found to be from about 5500 BC (p. 337), this leaves a time span of anywhere from 750 years difference to 100 years of overlap between the two groups–a relatively short amount of time to experience such a huge change in burial tendencies. Whether this indicates that the groups at Çatalhöyük and Tell as-Sawwan were very dissimilar in ideology, I am not sure, but I think it begs a close examination of why these two geographically and temporally related groups had such different burial customs.

In a 2011 find (as described in the 2011 Çatal Season Review newsletter), archaeologists discovered a 9000-year-old wall that had layers of plaster, each with its own painting. This in itself is not unusual to the site: what is fascinating about this discovery is that  each layer of plaster had the same geometric shape, meaning that “the artist had ‘remembered’ the earlier painting” each time it was plastered over and started anew. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Egyptian Nag el-Hamdulab tablet scenes in which it was found that the artists began on the right-hand side (rather than in the center), indicative of their having a “broader vision” of the scene they were designing. That the artist(s) at Çatalhöyük showed some similar sort of grand plan or scheme in their painting to the artist at Nag el-Hamdulab nearly 6000 years later is remarkable.


All information about Çatalhöyük comes from Patterns in Prehistory or the above website for the research project at Çatalhöyük, as indicated in text.

Foreign Mission Rights

In several readings and class lectures, the nationalities of archaeologists excavating the sites of ancient civilizations have been mentioned. In his February 4 lecture, Dr. Watrall (an American who has excavated in Egypt) mentioned the current involvement of the Germans in the excavations at Ma’adi, and we know that Flinders Petrie, who did a significant amount of work in Egypt, was British. While in the latter case of Petries’s work in Egypt, the involvement of the British has rather obvious reasons (Egypt was not yet fully independent from Britain), how did Dr. Watrall, the Germans, and other non-Egyptian teams come to work in Egypt? Further, who takes “ownership” of the items found during these excavations?

In earlier times, archaeology in Egypt—and many other countries—was mostly a “free for all.” Indiana Jones–esque explorers, merchants, and anthropologists associated with the military took advantage of the lack of regulation and law enforcement and dug where they pleased, often taking priceless artifacts with them. For instance, after the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte, archaeologists associated with his military “took home hundreds of tons of Egyptian artifacts: columns, coffins, stone tablets, monumental statues” (emphasis mine), which today still remain in France, taking up “entire floors of the Louvre Museum” (National Geographic, 2013, p. 2).

Today, especially in light of the stealing and black market trade of antiquities, Egypt has a government agency dealing with all requests for archaeological missions. This agency, the Supreme Council of Antiquities, is the ultimate power in deciding all things related to Egyptian cultural heritage ( The homepage of its website states that it “formulates and implements all policies concerned with antiquities; issues guidelines and permits for the excavation, restoration, conservation, documentation, and study of sites and monuments; and manages a country-wide system of antiquities museums,” along with doing research, excavation, and conservation of its own (Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2013). The ministry’s website provides all of the forms and rules/regulations related to applying and obtaining permission for foreign missions.

In order to complete the application for a mission in Egypt, there are many conditions that must be met, some obvious (e.g., photocopy of passport, mission director and affiliated institution information), some less so (e.g. five photographs of each mission member, payment / room and board for the Egyptian inspectors that Egypt requires accompany each foreign mission, agreement not to excavate on Fridays). Additionally, mission areas are under stringent regulations: prior to receiving permission to dig, foreign missions must get detailed maps of their site of interest approved and may not stray from these areas—even renewing permissions is an extremely regulated process. Any discovered artifacts are the property of Egypt and no amount (even samples for analysis) may be removed from the country without express permission.

As of fall 2011, some of the countries performing excavation, conservation, or documentation work in Egypt were Japan, Germany, the United States, Spain, France, and Poland. Currently, the only areas open to new missions are the Delta, Western Desert, and Eastern Desert—all places extremely and immediately threatened by population growth and other factors. All of Upper Egypt is closed to new excavations, although some restoration, preservation, and documentation missions will be allowed.

Interestingly, Google returned hits for foreign archaeology in Sudan, Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece (countries I randomly chose), but I could not find any information on foreign mission in England or the United States. This leads me to believe—if there really are no foreign missions in the United States or England—that foreign archaeology is significantly intertwined with power relations. I would welcome any information from Dr. Watrall about this.