Author Archives: Mel Walker

Bonus Blog: Specialization

At the beginning of this class we discussed a variety of characteristics that are typically used to define a state. Not all states have all of these characteristics, but they are generally present. However, one of these characteristics sticks out as the most important in defining and developing a state: specialization.

Specialization is when people specialize in a certain area of production. It occurs when only part of the population is needed for food production, allowing others to take on other duties. Specialization is what allows for many of the other characteristics that define a state. Without specialization, a complex economy would not form. Specialization allows for an increase in both production and quality of goods. This in turn fosters the growth of trade because a society is able to make a great number of desirable goods to exchange with others. Upper Egypt was able to create sophisticated pottery that was superior to that of Lower Egypt, creating a lot of trade between the two. It is theorized that the cultural connection produced by this trade aided Hierakonpolis in its takeover of Buto.

Specialization also aids in the development of a stratified society. It creates a class of skilled producers and creates prestige objects that are used by elites to demonstrate their status. Specialization is what leads to the creation of beautiful and sophisticated objects, such as the beads found in Harappa. Some of the beads would have taken up to twenty-four hours to make. These goods can only occur within a society that has people working this as their sole job. These objects are used as markers of class, often demonstrated bu grave goods. Cong and bi were elite grave goods found in ancient China that marked prestigious burials. These sophisticated objects had to be specially made and would have taken a great deal of time to produce.

Specialization is what really sets a state apart. It allows for growth in many different areas of society and culture. The more specialized roles get, the more opportunity there is for complexity. All the characteristics that define a state are intertwined. They are not black and white categories but rather mix in with one another. Specialization is needed in a complex economy and for social stratification, metallurgy and the mass production of goods, but specialization also depends on this complex economy and an urbanized society to maintain itself. I count specialization as the most important individual factor, but it is really the interplay of these factors that creates a state.

Cong and Bi

I was very intrigued by two particular types of Chinese artifacts discussed in class, cong and bi. They were obviously important, since the jade they were made out of is so hard to work with, they’re often so elaborate and they an abundant grave good. Yet we have no idea of their specific meaning. Archaeologists can tell that they were a ritual object, but what they may have represented remains a mystery.

A search for some more information found a page from the Smithsonian website that had a short write-up on cong. It discussed some interesting stylistic differences. Many early ones are compact but feature incredibly detailed decoration. Hours and hours of work had to have gone into their making. They featured motifs found on other special objects, such as a face or mask design. However, another style of  cong is found that is much larger but lacks the careful craftsmanship of the smaller examples. They were often made of nephrite. They would have been much easier to produce, and quality seems to have been sacrificed for quantity. If the purpose of the cong was known, this difference may reveal  some social or cultural significance or change. However, it is simply another unknown facet of the cong.

Bi also had some variation, being found in different sizes and styles. They averaged about eight inches in diameter. Earlier bi are relatively undecorated, with designs becoming more and more elaborate as time passed. Like the cong, they were elite goods. The jade they were made of was difficult to carve and would have taken hours upon hours of workmanship.Bi were usually found with cong, often in rather large numbers. While the exact relationship between the two is not known, later historic documents suggest that cong represent the earth while bi represent  the sky. The  prevalence of both these objects demonstrates the presence of specialized labor. It would have taken a great deal if time and skill to make these; it could not have been achieved by your everyday farmer.

Cong and bi are found in the late Neolithic, when Chinese society is developing many of the defining characteristics of a state. These objects are a perfect example of this. Their sophistication and complexity mark them as elite goods that only some would have access to, demonstrating marked social stratification. This also demonstrates that some people are moving away from solely subsistence labor into much more specialized labor. Although much is unknown about these objects, they reveal a lot about the social layout of Neolithic China.

Cultural Context

Archaeology differs from other branches of Anthropology in the unique viewpoint it is afforded. Archaeology gets to view cultures across time, seeing change and development and delving into the human race’s past. However, this also means that Archaeology faces problems other branches may not. It only has the material remains of a people to study, not the people themselves so direct ethnography or participant-observation cannot be utilized. This makes it difficult to figure out the social and cultural context of evidence found. This can be easier to do when the cultures being studied make great use of writing, but for cultures where writing is scarce or non-existent  the problem is compounded.

One of the areas this difficulty is most apparent in is religion. It is difficult for archaeologists to figure out the meaning of objects that seem to be sacred, or even if they are sacred at all. Wenke dryly observes in Patterns in Prehistory that archaeologists have been accused of declaring any building “large enough to stand upright” a temple (249). Each building or artifact uncovered has to be carefully considered within the context it was found. An elaborate building surrounded mostly by simple mud dwellings pretty clearly has some significance. Determining what exactly this significance is however, is the difficult part. Frustratingly, the archaeologist may never know what is what that an individual or culture was thinking about a particular object.

Early Egypt provides an example of a culture that does have some writing to aid archaeologists in determining the meaning of what they found. The Egyptians had especially complex ideas and rituals surrounding mortuary practices. From painting and writings found in tombs we can see what their view of the afterlife was. The Egyptians believed that when one died they had to go through a harrowing process in the afterlife, including having their heart weighed against a feather. Not only is this procedure depicted on the walls of tombs, it is written out in The Book of the Dead. These paintings and writings also explain why boats have been found buried near tombs. They were used to transport people in the afterlife. Archaeologists know so much about the religious practice of Egyptians because it was documented in their tombs and writings. It is much easier to match up artifacts to known practices. Egypt provides an example of why having cultural context is so useful to archaeologists but also so difficult or even impossible to obtain.

Cultural Complexity

The study of the emergence of civilizations examines the development of complex societies from previous simpler ones. But the question of how to define complexity is a tricky one that has affected archaeology from it’s beginning. How complexity is defined changes the framework of how societies are studied and viewed, often with problematic results. This is illustrated more dramatically with nineteenth century academics but still applies to archaeological study today.

Looking back to the nineteenth century provides a good example of how the definition of complexity can change how research is conducted. Most nineteenth century archaeologists and academics had a very Western-centric definition of complexity, focusing on things such as technology and capitalism as signs of advancement. During this time period, a great deal of importance was placed on “progress,” the idea of moving forward linearly to better things. This concept was fed by new scientific theories regarding evolution and geology. Complex societies were seen as the natural progression from simpler societies, with Western societies representing the pinnacle of complexity. Using this framework, many cultural beliefs and systems were discounted as primitive or barbaric. The legacy of nineteenth century research is rife with racism, sexism and an over-focus on the elites of society. Defining societies in a biased manner led to biased conclusions. The cultural focus that is present in archaeology makes it especially susceptible to these sorts of problems.

While the field of archaeology has come a long way from its less culturally sensitive roots, many of the same issues still apply today. Complexity is still defined in a very ethnocentric fashion, favoring Western culture. Harris’ model of complexity uses social organization as its primary classifier, with states as the most complex. This favors Western societal organization. If characteristics such as kinship or piety were used, Western societies would be viewed as simple. Harris’ model is used to organize societies for research purposes, but the problem comes when this cultural complexity is conflated with cultural worth. This is a longstanding issue that persists today. In Patterns in Prehistory, Wenke cites an example of an Iraq city-state citizen in 2500 BC who disparage his nomadic neighbors for their simple, “barbaric” culture (203). The danger of this sort of ethnocentrism is still imminent, even with the prevalence of cultural relativism in anthropology today. While biased definitions of complexity are still used for research’s sake, archaeologist must take care to refrain from making judgements on cultural worth based on these definitions.