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Bonus Blog

Primary Characteristics vs. Secondary Characterisitcs

By Charles Wilson

Whenever we are examining an ancient state, there are two sets of characteristics that we are looking at: primary and secondary characteristics.  Primary characteristics tend to be the very basics that are found in all ancient states in some shape or form. These include urban settlement, intensive agriculture, a set of specialized occupations within the state, a complex economy, and a system of social classes. Secondary characteristics are specific qualities that are unique to that particular state, such as writing, state religion, art, monumental public works and a system of taxation. Both are important both to the ancient states and to those studying them, so it is very difficult for me to answer to pick one over the other. Ultimately, it depends on our answer “more important to whom?”

If we are asking which is more important to those who actually lived in the ancient state, the primary characteristics were more important. Human beings are very social beings and found, like many other animals, that living with others increased their chances of not only surviving but thriving. Much like with a pack of wolves, leaders eventually rose from the group, eventually creating a social hierarchy. As time passes and the population grew, alternative food sources were sought out to feed everyone, which eventually (not over night) became a complex form of agriculture. With a new food source that requires more time and energy than hunting, permanent (or at least seasonal) settlement which eventually leads to urban cities. From these settlements, there are ideas that are being exchanged (particularly of beauty or practicality) which eventually leads to artifacts not associated solely with agriculture (such as jewelry, ritual objects, clothing, etc); as the greater community not only accepts these artifacts but desires them, specialized jobs emerged. Trade systems are created in order to gain raw materials that are not found in that particular environment.

While secondary characteristics were still important to the people who lived in these ancient states (especially state religion and a system of taxation), they were not as important as the primary ones. While it would still be a heavy blow to the state if one of the secondary characteristics failed, it would not necessarily lead to collapse as much as if one or more of the primary ones did. As important as a system of taxation would be for the state, it would not necessarily be as disastrous as if their system of agriculture failed (as we have seen happen towards the end of multiple states in the past such as the Egyptians and the Mississippians). A disruption in wealth is a lot easier to solve than famine is. So why did I not pick the Primary characteristics over the Secondary ones? For one simple reason: while they may not have been as important to the past citizens of the ancient states we are studying, they are very important for those who are studying them in the present.  Without the Secondary Characteristics, it would be very difficult to study multiple states in great detail because all states would essentially be the same (in other words, Archaeology would become a fairly boring gig). While the similarities between different states are indeed important, it is the differences in things like art or ideology that make each of these states unique and interesting to study in the first place. It also makes it easy to see how the state become more…complex (proper term?) by observing artwork and architecture  from earlier periods of the state’s history to those found in later periods (heck, at times it is HOW we can come up with a time line for that state).

So, to summarize everything up, both characteristics are very important not only to those who lived in the ancient states themselves but for those who study them as well; which one is more important depends entirely on the individual’s perspective on the issue.

First Blog “Bias in Archaeology: can we escape it?”

As a sophomore student with a major in anthropology, I have been exposed to many different schools of thought within the field. My very first anthropology class I took  was focused on the study of living cultures today, just like many others who have the same major. In that particular class, we were stressed that including any presence of a form of bias known as ethnocentrism in our work when studying different cultures is considered  both unacceptable and distasteful in the field. If one is studying an indigenous tribe in the Amazon as part of a study abroad and they portrayed the members of the tribe as cannibalistic crazed savages, that individual’s work would be practically bleeding in red ink (if the professor would accept it at all). However, it seems like archaeologists cannot help but use what could be considered a form of ethnocentrism (a much skewed version but a form of it none the less) known as the progression when thinking about how civilizations go through their cycles of rising and eventually collapsing after a period of time.

The idea of progression in archaeological terms is classically referred to as a simpler society becoming more complex. However, based on our own perspective from our technologically advanced world today, the concept of something being simple could be associated with being a bad or primitive period while being more complex of society is considered a good change (this is not always true, just look at the collapse of multiple ancient states such as the mound builders who settled by the banks of the Mississippi river). When the terms “simple’ and “complex” are used in this way, it is ethnocentrism; we are judging the quality of life in ancient societies based on our views about our own today.  The word “civilization” is also deeply rooted in the bias of archaeologists in the past; for it emphasizes that if an ancient state is civilized, the ones who came from it are considered to be barbaric. This idea of progression being a good thing is a legacy of the past that should be discarded.

Which leads me to finally answering the question I have been getting around to addressing: is bias inevitable in archaeology? The answer is not as black and white as one would think. Sure, one could have their papers edited so that there are no obvious forms of ethnocentrism before being published, but since we are working with history, there really is no real way around avoiding it completely. When working with ancient states where there are not any living individuals from that culture we can interview and only have the material culture left behind, our bias is bound to manifest in some form in our studies because we do not really have much else to work with. We have to use our imaginations to figure out why things were made and left behind the way they to understand what life was like back in However, as long as we are careful with our words in order to avoid ethnocentrism and focus on evidence provided by the material culture, we will have done our best to avoid as much of the presence of bias understandings from our work.