Author Archives: Manesha

State Art: Luxury of the Successful

After revision of the primary and secondary characteristics I have come to the conclusion that State Art is the most vital characteristic.  It is not only offers material culture for archeologists and anthropologists to study/showcase in museums, but it is also an indication of wealth within a state.  This is true in ancient and modern terms.  To expound, investing in State Art proves moderate success concerning primary needs (food, security, resources, stable environment).  Moreover, art is a reflection of society.  It responds, as well as challenges the community.  I am not saying art catalysts agriculture or religion or state authority, but it is the best signal that these are factors have been strongly established.

Usually, the first artifacts archeologists find are creative in nature—ceramics, figurines, wall paintings.  Why are they so easily discovered? Because they are prized possessions for individuals (oft interred with them in a mortuary context), meant for communication and aesthetic appeals to the senses/psyche.  This outlook continues to modern day society; ancient artwork is why museums are so attractive to a populous.  Whether it is cavemen paintings, delicately carved woodworks, or adorned headdresses, ornamental and stylistic accent can be ascertained.  Furthermore, personal interest in artwork only comes after a certain point of comfort or well-being.

Wealth: artistic endeavors by the state mean an abundance of valuable possessions because it is usually an afterthought.  Following the accumulation of scarce resource such as food, water, weapons to establish a stable state consisting of a sizable population, defined territory, sovereignty, and governing elite COULD the state indulge in creative expressions that offer zero marginal utility.  Also, little to no labor allocation by the state (citizens can choose an occupation).  When a state is powerful enough to no longer depend upon its population for labor (an excess of workers), citizen specialization begins.  Thus, the rise of artisans is attributed to an unregulated labor economy.  Another byproduct of specialization is payment for labor.  This bring me to the influence of religion on artwork.  The manifestation of deities lining walls of pyramids, statues in palaces, figurines shrined in households, is worth a price with specialization. The capitalization of religion, a product of skilled craftsmanship, also influences society.  It makes religion available for the plebeians.

The development of state art, while not a primary characteristic of an ancient state, is the most important in my opinion because of it only originate AFTER other vital facets of the state.  Therefore, whenever art is found, there is likely other evidence present indicating agriculture, infrastructure, economy, and religion.

Colonization in Relation to Collapse

When Cortés landed on the Yucatan Peninsula in the Mayan territory, he strategically aligned himself with certain tribal chiefs and against others, and taking the spoils when intrastate warfare ensued.  One of the most memorable battles (“The Massacre in the Main Temple”) during the raids attacked and killed Aztec elite during a religious ceremony in Tenochtitlan. But it was not just homicide that day, it was deicide: the killing of gods.  In lecture we discussed how the Spanish conquest of the New World was the one of the main reason for collapse of the Aztec State.  But, I consider it the starting point for global cultural homogenization through colonization.

Religious and ceremonial process are usually the focal point of most ancient states.  And these are swiftly eroded with subjugation and colonization because they pose the most threat.  A higher consciousness is always alarming and eerie those foreigners.  It is also, in my opinion, the most personal identity one carries other than linguistic.  The Spaniards & Portuguese converted their new nationals to Christianity and mandated their Romance language be exclusively employed.  The Indus Valley civilization provides a perfect example of conquest.  When the Aryans (a lingo-ethnic group originating from Indo-Europa) displaced the Dravidian cultures, an early form of Hinduism was adopted and Sanskrit became the ruling language.  Material culture, elites, political/social organization comes and goes but language and religion are completely culturally absorbed because one is raised with it from infancy.

Cross-cultural trade, while usually a means to create wealth, sometimes works against the party that does not hold the comparative or absolute advantage.  Why?  Because trade creates peaks and troughs—winners and losers of capital (economic, resource, human, or infrastructure).  Fiscal merits amass with the conquistador.  Moreover, currency establishment is a rite of power for the conquers.  Establishing The Universal Monetary System ascertains the elite (and therefore bureaucratic) organization.  A modified social stratification (capitalistic in nature) emerges because dependence is created.  Economic dependence on a state with relatively larger fiscal merits is crippling, both in antiquity and modern day.  For example, the city of Teotihuacan, forced to reconstruct economic relations, led elites to seek fortunes elsewhere and collapsed trade routes between lowland Mesoamerica states.  A modern day example is the theocratic state of Iran, which has multiple trade sanctions and embargoes with the United States and European Union.  Now Iranian officials are left to barter natural resources (e.g. oil) for rice to feed a growing population.

It is a mixture of religious, linguistic, and economic reliance that creates divides between states.  Sadly, many begrudgingly accept this cavity can only be bridged though complete cultural submission.

The Vertical Integration of Religion

Covering in the past few lectures was the Indus Valley Civilization.  As someone from the region, it is extremely interesting for me to hear how these particular ancient people lived.  The extremely organized city-state (the civilization’s most identifiable quality) we studied made me think of the island I come from in India, Sri Rangam.  The differences in infrastructure and public institutions between India and Western countries are so stark now.  Why is this?  What pivotal event(s) or state policy made it so; was it economic or institutional?  The island itself is extremely agricultural focused, and known internationally for being home to a relatively large, old Hindu temple.  And there apparent social stratification between not only socioeconomic levels, not only between gender but also between sex and gender.  Unlike most Western civilizations, culture in the Indian Subcontinent (ancient & modern) has impressions of religious rhetoric ingrained in it.  And its vertical integration into the Indus Valley Civilization is what led to the eventual collapse.

A perfect example of this, the story that Ethan talked about in the Rig-Veda that led the the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization.  It was often was to me as a bedtime story, and like most traditions, was only passed down orally.  This oral nature of reciting history further reinforces the influence of religion on culture, as exemplified when Hindus call the Rig-Veda the “breath of Bhraman”.  This is one of the main reasons I think anthropologists are so unclear as to the true nature of collapse in the Indus Valley.

The predominately auditory characteristic could be why the civilization died out: no meticulous agricultural records or weather patterns by the state (or other institutional authority).  Assuming the state placed some sort of tariff/tax on agricultural utility, citizens must have realized that the land had gone over usual yield.  If this is the case, then the “State” does not seem that powerful: a perfect explanation for why smaller settlements became a more popular form of community rather than urbanism.

Coming back to Sri Rangam’s infrastructure, architectural design of the community is in direct correlation with that of the temple.  A sanctum sanatorium surrounded by bands that decrease in importance.  Thus, socioeconomic stratums are literally built (along with the caste system which came much later).  But does this drive competition, which is necessary for social innovation and cultural progressivism.  How long is it before this civilization collapses upon itself?

Pyramid Culture

The mortuary practices in antiquity are quite interesting to study.  It amazes me how different the observances are between ancient Egyptian culture and modern Western culture, or even my culture (Eastern).  The variety in social, philosophical, religious, and economic circumstances is as relevant in discussing the deviations as location or era.  But another factor to consider is the psychological.  The grieving process in Ancient Egypt after a leader has passed, I would assume is a shorter time because their entire reign is spend preparing a monumental feat.  A stark reminder of their existence on this earth (and subsequent passing) is showcased to all, even before they have died.  But how much could citizens mourn for a demi-god, especially if he was so aloof and disconnected from plebeian life?  How could they simply accept his many accomplishments that line the walls of his tomb?

In my culture, we cremate the departed and morn for 13 days.  But life is thought as cyclical (birth -> death -> reincarnation) until nirvana is reached.  The soul’s judgement is not based on one life’s judgement, but rather the karma that computes over several lifetimes.  Since one has had so many lifetimes, a single particular existence commonplace.  The rites given to a king are the exact same as the rites given to a scholar or a warrior or merchant, and ashes are indistinguishable.  Furthermore, there is little variance between where the final resting place for the ashes: scattered in a wind, rivers, mountains (a particular corner of the world is not reserved for “the Greats”).  Another part of the lecture (or lack of) that caught my attention was women.  They are rarely mentioned yet they are one of the most noteworthy portions of the population.  Where are the pyramids for women?  Where are the female pharaohs?  When did the concept of a patriarchal society develop.  Even in the mortuary practices of my culture, there is no variance with what happens with women versus men.  The grieving process is another detail that deviates.  It seems to me that the grieving process family of pharaohs and nomarchs experienced is notably shorter than the cathartic 13 days most Hindu family undergo.

Personally, the erection of a monument during your lifetime (planning, allocating human/monetary capital, and presiding over construction) that will one day be your final resting place is the most macabre undertaking.  I want to argue that the ego of the pharaoh’s is proportional to the size of their pyramids, but that prove me to be culturally insensitive.  Yet, I sympathize with their need for posterity to remember their importance.  It was common belief that building monolithic structures was the only mechanism by which one could be recalled.  But there is also a grain of altruism here: pyramid and funerary texts.  It is fantastic how they preserve their religious and historical teachings through mortuary practices.  Pyramids were a useful forum for priests to review/record the past decades, kings, and vague hymns that can be passed down to newer scholars.  But with this much cultural conservation, how could such a powerful  civilization fade?

The Feasting Model

The Feasting Model set forth by Bryan Hayden was, in my opinion, the most fascinating concept in our reading and lectures thus far.  This hypothesis is much different than others present.  It confides more on the evolution of behavior than changes in climate, or population density, or technology.  The notion that agriculture, domestication, and the sedentary lifestyle were perpetuated by man’s desire to show wealth through extravagant displays of food reveals much about not only human nature, but also society.  While competition in social status is known to be a reoccurring theme in history, this theory somehow seems incomplete to me.  A “feel good”, “smug” self-awareness is not economically sufficient, in my opinion, after a cost-benefit analysis.

A relationship must have existed for a random group of hunter/gathers to feel any sort of competition with each other.  Furthermore, social stratification must have been in place before mass accumulation of crop can happen.  Access to the best seeds, land, and water were taken by those in positions of power and/or authority.  I cannot believe that the one who toils the land is the same one to ostentatiously displays its bounty. Especially since his fertile land will come under threat of seizure.  In conclusion, this theory is not capitalistic enough standing alone.

If the competition began after institutions were set in place (i.e. state, religion, laws), then it would make more sense.  It seems only natural to me that elementary fraternal populations had developed certain innate practices even during the hunter/gather to chiefdom era.  Here, in these social establishments, lay the basic foundations for pomp and circumstance: communal integration, cultural responsiveness, recognizing natural phenomena through “religious” practices.  Small celebrations bring communities together and these frequent interactions lead to social acknowledgment of land ownership, for now collective admissions are basic institutions.  And once kinship ties begin breaking within the community due to hierarchy contestation or scarce resource for an increasing population density, competition arises.  One community becomes two, and two becomes four, and an “one-upmanship” feasting model is more viable.  But the concept of community, hierarchy, and institution must be in place for settlements to practice agriculture.

There is complete validity in saying that for a community and institutions to develop there must have been a stable food supply.  Agriculture provides a steady amount of crop previously referenced.  And that is where this particular theory, against my personal opinion, leads to a chicken vs. egg situation.