Author Archives: Josh Schnell

Bonus Blog: Urbanism and the Journey to Statehood

I spent some time deliberating with myself as to which of the six primary characteristics seemed o be the most important when considering ancient states. It was between Urbanism and Intensive Agriculture, but I ultimately settled on Urbanism as the most important of the primary characteristics of an ancient state as the most important, and this is why:

Every single one of the other primary characteristics comes as a direct result of urbanism. As populations begin to increase, agriculture must intensify to meet the demands of a growing populace. It might also be viewed that populations bean to expand as a result of increasing agriculture, but for the sake of my argument I will assert that increases in agriculture were a direct response to increasing populations. As populations grew and became more centralized, and agriculture intensified further, new technologies allowed for specialization in the labor force. Less people are required for food production due to new technologies that increase production and efficiency, allowing others to learn additional crafts such as weaving, ceramics, even literacy. These specialized professions gave rise to excess and unique goods and crafts that were sought after by neighboring societies. This created the first trade networks, the large scale exchange of goods over geographic distances. This process would have continued, with populations growing, new technologies emerging, the amount of individuals required for food production decreasing, the number of individuals going into specialized occupations increasing, all resulting in larger numbers of goods leaving the location for trade, bringing in other crafts from elsewhere. This would have directly caused social stratification to occur. The accumulation of goods or control over new technologies, or possession of a particular specialized skill would set one apart from his or her peers, a difference in status essentially. Soon enough, individuals with control over large amounts of land, or important trade connections, or who were able to write, became increasingly powerful, ascending past others, creating a hierarchical structure within the society. One individual will end up on top of this emerging pyramid, and elite systems and bureaucracies begin to develop. Those now in charge, at the top of the new social hierarchy, will start creating codes of law to guide those below them, this ability to make decisions for a large number of people is a large source of power, and after trial and error, a successful system for enforcing those decisions emerges, authority in its simplest form.

And the catalyst for that entire process, the creation of an ancient state was increasing populations, the beginning of urbanism. I realize the preceding example was extremely general, but it highlights the process that can be traced and examined in many ancient states, beginning with the dual process of rising populations and increasing agriculture, which one happens first is hard to determine, but in my opinion, the journey t statehood begins with urbanism.

The Wayib: Maya Spirit Companions

Among the most widespread of all Mesoamerican concepts is that of a “companion spirit,” a supernatural being with whom a person shares his or her consciousness. Understanding such an important, and different, concept requires differentiating between our worldview and that of the Maya. In order to do so, we must first “identify” what constitutes the “traditional” Western worldview. Western thought places a significant distinction between the natural and supernatural realms. Traditionally, we see the world as composed of two separate worlds. We use science to study the natural world, which we define as everything that can be observed. Western science has not traditionally been concerned with the supernatural though, which is often identified as anything unobservable. The Maya however, did not distinguish between the natural and supernatural realms. All things, whether animate or inanimate, were many parts of a single existence that is both visible and invisible.

The Maya believed that everything was imbued, in varying degrees, with a sacred essence. Rocks, trees, mountains, stars, the sun, living creatures, us, are all animated by this essence which they called k’uhK’uh (“divine” or “sacredness”) can also refer to a deity, and is also the root of k’uhul ajaw (“holy lord”), the title of Maya kings. This sacred essence was part of the life force associated with blood, the heart, and breath, this life force is called ch’ulel in many modern Maya languages. This sacred essence also manifested itself as the wayib (way singular), invisible animal companions associated with living and divine beings. Every person had a way whose destiny was intertwined with their own. The wayib of Maya kings was the jaguar, and the animal was highly regarded, an altar commissioned by the sixteenth king of Copan was accompanied by the sacrifice of fifteen jaguars, honoring the spirit companions of the fifteen kings that came before him. The most powerful wayib were embodied in what we would define as “deities.”

These co-essences took many forms in the Maya region. There were reptiles, rain, dwarfs, balls of fire, comets, inanimate objects, or rainbows; others appear as huge deer, birds, flying jaguars, or other composite creatures. Most behave in odd ways or show unusual features such as great ugliness or bloodshot eyes. Many Maya deities, as well as shamans and priests who conducted rituals, were identified as being able to shape-shift, this probably has roots in the spirit companion tradition. Maya names also often included animals such as jaguar or turtle, and may also have roots in the pervasive belief in wayib.



A Curse from the Gods? – The Akkadian Collapse

In class we discussed two different theories that caused the collapse of the Akkadian Empire. The first was climate change, a three-century long drought that made the fertile plains unable to support the large populations they had previously. The second theory is attributed to increased foreign pressure from the Gutian people of the Iranian Plateau, according to this theory the Gutians were able to topple the Akkadian Empire and establish the Gutian Dynasty, effectively initiating the Mesopotamian “Dark Age”. I would like to present some of the historical and archeological evidence supporting the climate change theory, and its global reach.

We know that Sargon supposedly ruled for 56 years, and then was succeeded by his two sons, Rimush, whol ruled for 9 years, and Manishtushu, who ruled for 15 years. Sargon’s grandson, Naram-Sin, ascended the throne and for the first time declared himself a god, “king of the four quarters”. Naram-sion was then succeeded by his son, Shar-kali-sharri. Following the rule of Shar-kali-sharri, when the Akkadian Empire had begun to decline, a period of anarchy ensued, the Sumerian King List describes what happened:

“Who was king? Who was not king? Irgigi the king; Nanum, the king; Imi the king; Ilulu, the king—the four of them were kings but reigned only three years.”

About a century after the fall of the Akkadian Empire, a lamentation entitled “The Curse of Akkad” was written, attributing Akkad’s fall to a curse from the Gods who were angered at Naram-sin who, angered by a pair of oracles, attacked the city of Nippur. He sacked the E-kur temple, protected by the god Enlil who was the head of the Anunnaki (Mesopotamian deities). As a result of this, eight chief deities of the Anunnaki pantheon were supposed to have come together and withdrawn their support from Akkad. The lamentation is provided below.

“For the first time since cities were built and founded,
The great agricultural tracts produced no grain,
The inundated tracts produced no fish,
The irrigated orchards produced neither wine nor syrup,
The gathered clouds did not rain, the masgurum did not grow.
At that time, one shekel’s worth of oil was only one-half quart,
One shekel’s worth of grain was only one-half quart. . . .
These sold at such prices in the markets of all the cities!
He who slept on the roof, died on the roof,
He who slept in the house, had no burial,
People were flailing at themselves from hunger.”

For years, the events from “The Curse of Akkad” were perceived by scholars as fiction, but recent evidence from the archaeological site of Tell-Leilan and sea cores from Oman, which date to the time of Akkad’s collapse, suggest that the climate change alluded to in the lamentation may have played a role in Akkad’s collapse.

Tell-Leilan was a large city imperialized by the Akkadian Empire. There, archaeologists uncovered a 3-ft deep layer of sediment that contained no evidence of human habitation or activity. They believed this sediment layer may provide clues to the decline of the city and analysis showed that at around 2200 BC, a three-century drought was enough to affect both agriculture and settlement. Dating to around the same time, sea cores retrieved off the coast of Oman contained elevated levels of dust.

This climate change was most likely the very one that caused the fall of the Old Kingdom of Egypt. In a writing eerily similar to “The Curse of Akkad”, the Egyptian sage Ipuwer described the anguish of the period: “Lo, the desert claims the land. Towns are ravaged. . . . Food is lacking. . . . Ladies suffer like maidservants. Lo, those who were entombed are cast on high grounds.” There is also significant evidence for the Gutian Invasion of Mesopotamia, namely references to Gutian kings in the Sumerian King List. But cuneiform sources also tell us that the Gutian administrators had little concern for keeping records or maintaining agriculture and that they let the flocks from free, during this time crops died and prices skyrocketed. What most likely happened was that the drought, coupled with increased pressure from the Gutians finally caused the Akkadian Empire to topple, places were abandoned for long periods of time, like Tell-Leilan, and the continuation of the three-century long drought caused the overall decline of the Mesopotamia region




Graffiti in the Giza Pyramids

I had remembered reading something about strange markings a robot discovered while exploring the tunnels in the Great Pyramid of Giza a while ago and talking about pyramids in class recently made me curious to see what had become of them. I came across two articles, which I’ll link below. One of them, from CNN examines hidden graffiti that has recently been examined at the Great Pyramid, and the second is a NOVA interview with Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner about who built the pyramids.

The robot, named Djedi after the magician Khufu consulted when building the Great Pyramid, captured images of a number of hieroglyphics written in red. A Harvard professor remarked that the marking were similar to ones found across Egypt, and that they usually marked the work gang that built the room. These graffiti marking often show up in places that were never meant to be found like the foundations exposed when archaeologists dig below floor level. These marking give us a picture into the organization of the workers who built Egypt’s large monuments, the Great Pyramid in particular. Any particular gang of workmen was divided into two crews which were then divided into five phyles, the Greek word for “tribe”. The phyles are divided into divisions with each division identified by a single hieroglyph. This knowledge comes from the burial chambers within the pyramids where these marking are found. Archaeologists find a cartouche of a king with some red markings beside it, this represents the group of workers who were working there. In the Old Kingdom, gangs of workers were named after kings, and then the divisions differentiated by what they called themselves. One well preserved marking, in the King’s Burial Chamber of the Great Pyramid, reads “The Friends of Khufu Gang”. Now this really interested me because many traditional, older theories for the construction of the pyramids involved large slave forces. But workers calling themselves “The Friends of Khufu” doesn’t sound a whole lot like slavery. On some monuments, archaeologists have found the sign of one gang on one side of the monument, and the sign of another gang on the other side, making it seem like groups of workers were competing with each other to see who could get the most done.

Reading about how workers in ancient Egypt were tagging their works makes me think that these workers were proud of what they were doing. They weren’t coerced into manual labor by oppression, and they certainly weren’t treated like slaves. These workers saw the grandeur and magnificence of what they were undertaking and they were proud to do the work.

Here are the articles:

Gleaning Information From The Dead – The Gebelein Man

In class earlier this week Dr. Watrall had mentioned that since the predynastic period falls mostly before the introduction of any form of writing in Egypt, archaeologists dug up burials to learn more about the time period. Consequently, being that my academic field of interest is in mortuary practices, I became immediately intrigued. There was one burial in particular that Dr. Watrall mentioned, shown below, that sparked an interest on my part. This particular mummy, nicknamed “Ginger” for his red hair, is officially called the Gebelein Man for where he was found, at the site of Gebelein near Thebes in Egypt, and what he can tell us about predynastic culture is astounding.

Photo Source - in the British Museum

Photo Source – 
Taken in the British Museum

At predynastic sites like Ma’adi, where the dead were buried outside, often in separate graveyards out in the desert, shallow graves were dug, filled with burial goods, and then filled in, sometimes topped with a small mound of sand. Being in contact with the hot desert sand dried the bodies out and that natural mummification is what allows us to observe these burials thousands of years later. The Gebelein Man is currently on exhibit at the British Museum, the grave goods displayed with him are from similar predynastic burials since the objects that accompanied him at his original burial site are unknown. Based on this burial though, archaeologists can infer much of how predynastic cultures viewed the world, the dead, and the afterlife.

The shallow graves were often oval or rectangle in shape, and lined with reed mats. The body was then placed on its side in the fetal position, hands clasped in front of the face. The body usually faced westward, the direction of the afterlife. The goods placed within the burial included pots filled with food for the afterlife, as well as tools made out of stone and flint. All of these factors indicate a special attention was paid to the afterlife and ensuring that the buried individual would have the means to reach it. Intentional, or artificial mummification, as seen in later periods of Egyptian history, was not practiced during the predynastic. All predynastic mummies discovered so far have been naturally mummified by the desert sand they were buried in.

Burials, no matter what culture they may belong to, offer a fantastic insight into the culture and society to which the deceased belonged. We can often tell how the deceased lived his/her life, his/her social status, as well as the deceased’s importance in life. All of this can be gathered from how the individual was buried, as well as what and how much burial goods accompanied the individual into the afterlife. The Gebelein Man tells us the predynastic Egyptians clearly held it a priority that their deceased make it into some sort of afterlife, and probably spent a good deal of limited resources to ensure their deceased a safe and easy passage. He also tells us what the predynastic Egyptians were eating at the time, based on residues left in the pots that once held food to see him into the afterlife.

Mummies like the Gebelein Man can also shed light on various diseases and other causes of death that may have afflicted the ancient Egyptians. It was recently discovered from a CAT Scan at Cromwell Hospital in London that the Gebelein Man was most likely murdered. Damage to his ribs, shoulder bone, and a mark on the flesh of his back indicate that he was stabbed from behind with a copper blade.

When looking into cultures with no written record, especially ones with very little structural remains like predynastic Egypt, burials provide key insights that might otherwise never be known. How a culture treats its dead can tell us a great deal about the culture, its ideals, beliefs, and structure. Well preserved and untouched burials like the Gebelein Man are especially helpful and act as portals back through time where ancient traditions can be observed just as they were practiced thousands of years ago.