Category Archives: Student Blog Post 1

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.

Boats

I found myself drawn in by last week’s discussion of boats and the Nile, much more than I expected. Why? Because I, as an English major, can’t help but to immediately space out as my brain connects this tidbit of cultural relevance to every myth excerpt I’ve ever gotten my hands on. So, I would like to expand a little bit on our discussion of the Nile as a method of travel in order to elaborate on its cultural importance, from an English major’s point of view.

 

As we talked about last week, the Nile was essentially the only way it made sense to travel in ancient Egypt. Therefore, it is not surprising at all that the symbol of a boat came to signify travel as a concept, and that boats were placed in tombs so that the departed had a way of traveling to the afterlife. But the significance of the boat goes so much deeper than that.

The boat was present during creation: Ra and the other gods were on it when it was lifted from the primordial waters and the world was created. In addition to being the mode of travel to, from, and within the underworld for the gods, it is the only way for the dead to reach the underworld. It appears in countless myths (many more than I have been able to properly get hold of), always somehow in connection with divinity. Either it is being used by a god or the descendant of a god, or it belongs to a god or is being used in order for a task to be completed at the behest of a god. (The myths in question are in a book that is currently a hundred miles away at my parents’ house–I would be happy to post source information in the comments as soon as I am able to retrieve it).

I find this connection to divinity to be fascinating for a number of reasons. First, it more or less sets the boat up as a gift of the gods to humanity, which effectively attributes its glory as a technological innovation directly to the gods, rather than to people. Second, it aligns the boat with the concept of life. The gods stood on it when they came into being from the primordial waters, and it continued (and in many cases still continues today) to provide a way and means of maintaining life for the people. Funerary boats are more concerned with the next life, but still the principle remains.

 

Discovering ties between the boat and these concepts of life and divinity makes me even more curious. As an English major, I itch to re-read the myths all over again while keeping these things in mind so that I can detect any changes in meaning and re-analyze, and hopefully understand the culture a little better than before. At the same time, I wonder how these ideas played into everyday life on the banks of the Nile?

Historical Materialism

As a student in sociology and anthropology I have been introduced to a wide array of prominent thinkers associated with each respective discipline. Throughout my various anthropology courses I have become acquainted with Franz Boas, Edward Burnett Tylor, Bronislaw Malinowski, Margaret Mead, and Clifford Geertz just to name a few. Within sociology my exposure has lent itself to Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Karl Marx, and W.E.B de Bois among many others. And although I have made some loose connections between my training in sociological thought and that of anthropology I have sadly attempted to keep the two disciplines as distinct entities. In one instance I put on my anthropological thinking cap while in other instances it seems more appropriate to engage my sociological imagination. However, as my studies continue I am gaining an increasing awareness of the great overlap that exists in anthropology and sociology. Of course, some of the methodologies and ideologies differ but one can find this same variation even within the disciplines itself.

 

A recent example I encountered was in my readings of the origins of archaeology. My investigation of this subfield of study is fairly recent, as I have always identified as a study of cultural anthropology and usually try to avoid stepping out of that arena. Nonetheless, it has become evident that in order to fully appreciate the holistic nature of anthropology one must also employ of holistic strategy of inquiry. Upon reading the patterns of prehistory, history, and archaeology I came across an excerpt on historical materialism, a theoretical framework of Karl Marx, and how it has contributed to the importance of archaeology and historical analysis. Initially, I was quite surprised to see that one of the founding fathers of sociology having a profound impact and something that was as seemingly unrelated as archaeology. I asked myself, where is the connection? Marx was mainly concerned the present social structures and their impact on future social structures. From my naïve and narrow view, due largely in part to the nascence of my study, archaeology was preoccupied of societies past. How could the study of material culture ever inform the highly politicized, and sometimes philosophical, theories of Marxian thought?

 

I quickly disabused that notion after continued reading to realize that there was an overwhelming vastness to which the material culture from archaeological sites could inform Marx’s theory of historical materialism. For the most part it coincides with the means of production. One of the main arguments provided by Marx is that “human history could be understood on the basis of an analysis of how society produces and distributes its wealth” (Wenke & Olszewski, 2007). Everything is able to be examined through technology, economy, and the environment of a given society and this is precisely was archaeologists are recovering at their excavation sites: houses, tools, pottery, jewelry, and weapons, all of which tell us something about the means of distribution as well as the means of production. Furthermore is also gives insight to the means of consumption and trade, which help to further inform the status of the local economy. From the gathering of material culture the intangibles of culture may thus be inferred and thus allowing for the connection between sociological thought and anthropological analysis.

It doesn’t fit in our box.

On thing that has particularly interested me in this class so far is the history of archeology itself. Throughout that history, the field has evolved not only in its practices, but also in its motivations. The reasons we look at the past seem to be as different and numerous as the schools of thought that have emerged as a result of the looking.

The modern public’s idea of archeology tends toward the misconception that it’s about adventuring and treasure hunting: the Indiana Jones modus operandi. Where this does have some basis in truth if we look at 19th century “archeologists”, it is far from the modern day process. In those days, it seems to me, that there was more a preoccupation with collecting history rather than understanding it. The removal of artifacts and the application of modern ideals and standards to states long decimated by time.

In lecture, we discussed the “legacy of the 19th century” in which the philosophies and social structure of modern western culture have skewed our vision when we look at ancient states. The concepts of progress, technology, racism, elites, bias, and rate of change all change the way we want to understand the artifacts and evidence that we find. We see what we expect to see.

In the last half of the 20th century, the archeological process was shifted. There is an attempt  to avoid empirical assumptions as an answer to the question of “why”. Our textbook, in the first chapter, briefly discusses the realm of physics and other natural sciences, which can offer concrete, testable answers on not only what the natural world does, but why these things happen. In studying human history, we can only make reasonable guesses at most of the “what happened” and even less certain is the “why it happened” and as agreed by most, we cannot know. And yet, these are the questions that archeology seeks to answer.

As we move through the semester, examining  several Ancient States, it will be important to keep in mind that these people are not living in the Midwest of the United States in 2013, and therefor may not think, plan, and live as we do. If we try to fit the evidence we find into our own pattern of thinking, we block the potential for new discovery and may in-fact lead ourselves to making assumptions that are woefully inaccurate. We must resign ourselves to the fact that we may have to say we don’t know.

Predynastic Egypt & Ceramics

In this week’s lectures we talked about the predynastic period of Lower Egypt as well as the predynastic period of Upper Egypt. When discussing these topics what continually came up was the ceramics of these locations as well as the similarities and differences between Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt’s ceramics. We also discussed how Upper Egypt’s ceramic techniques eventually took over Lower Egypt’s techniques as the two regions became more unified.

 

When thinking about this topic and these ceramics in general, I begin to wonder why about a lot of it. Why these decorations? Why these shapes? Why this size? I feel like we didn’t address a lot of these questions. That may not be that important in the scope of these civilizations as well as their rise and fall but with the way my brain works I have a tendency to wonder and ask why. Now, I know that a lot of the ceramics were used for cooking and such activities around the house and that a lot of them were buried with various people in their graves when they died. But why did they bury this person with a bird and a pear shape ceramic with very deliberate decorations on it. What did it mean to this person in their life? It made be hard to answer this and the reason may be trivial but for some reason I can’t help but think about the people of this time and their daily life. How could a clay ceramic pot be so significant to a person’s life that it was buried with them? It is fascinating to me and perhaps only me.

 

I should mention that I am not an anthropology student and I took this class because I am interested in the past and how people lived and how they evolved and changed in a time that is so alien to me, and so different from how we live today. Why did they make animal figurines? Did they see these animals as greater than them? Was it something they did when they were bored, in the same way that we surf the Internet? They also drew a lot of boat decorations on their ceramics and surfaces around their homes. Was this a way to tell people of the future about their life? A form of communication? Or maybe they were just showing off a skill?

 

Sorry if this sounded like a jumble of thoughts in my brain. But that’s kind of what it was. Again, maybe these questions were/are answered in different classes and maybe they aren’t important but it still makes me wonder. The unknown fascinates me.

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.

Plastered skulls

Due to being sick with mono for the past month I unfortunately missed some of the lectures this semester and am now finally starting to catch back up. As I read through the PowerPoint slides from the past lectures I came upon the slides talking about the pre pottery Neolithic and the slides that involved the plastered skulls. I found these skulls kind of weird but mostly interesting. Having missed the lecture on them I decided to do some further research on my own to try and learn about them as well as figure out what their purpose was.

As I searched through the articles in the MSU libraries catalog I found one that talked a lot about their origins, characteristics, and theories for their existence. I learned that many of these skulls have been found; seventy-three approximately, in Jordan, Syria, Israel, and Turkey. They have had many different substances applied to them such as plaster, marl, animal collagen, shell and paint. These were applied in order to imitate facial or other features. Many of the skulls have been found in groups without the rest of their skeletons which made it hard for identify the sex of them. But we now know that they range for adult males and females to even children. Because of the lack of the postcranial skeleton many scholars assumed that this practice was evidence of ancestor cult worship. They assumed that the skulls belonged to toothless men who were elders and community leaders. This promoted the notion of the worship of old men and the importance of males in Neolithic society. However, due to recent scientific analyses this theory cannot be true because it contradicts the new evidence that these skulls also belonged to adult females and children. The skulls have been found in a variety of locations from abandoned house to caves to graves. Many of the skulls have been found with objects that have decorative and practical functions. It is speculated that these may have been included with the skulls because of their importance or usefulness to the dead and that they may have been needed in the afterlife. Because of the various locations and contexts as well as the recovery of funerary offerings it is suggested that they held multiple functions. Some of these may have included use as fertility devices or devices to ward off evil, or as mementos of the dead. All of the evidence found taken together doesn’t support the interpretation of a form of ancestor worship. But instead it supports that they were used in a type of funeral ritual.

Beginnings and Ends

In today’s lecture, Professor Watrall’s lecture was very heavy in the characteristics, both similarities and differences, of lower and upper Egypt throughout different periods of time. He noted many times that unification had not necessarily happened yet, and that when it did indeed occur, it was a slow and gradual process. As he put it, there is no specific day Egyptians set aside to celebrate unification. There were many differences between lower and upper Egypt, but, there were also, of course, many similarities. Over time, as evidenced by the evolution of lower Egyptian pottery, from crap to nice (or from lower-style to upper-style), the two Egypt’s began closer trade and communication. Eventually, they will unify, which leads me to my thoughts of the unification of Egypt and the general beginnings of nations across the world.

It seems to me that the study of ancient Egypt, its many nuances, and the many differences and similarities between the lower and upper regions can be, in a sense, a microcosm of how a country forms. One could compare the beginnings of predynastic Egypt to that of city-states that had began gaining power and traction throughout the late medieval period of Europe. Gaul and Germania were very rough territorial boundaries that had been designated by Roman emperors much prior to this – Gaul being modern day France; Germania being modern Germany. Beside this, however, there was very little to distinguish between the two, as populations were relatively unorganized, with a somewhat classless society. The populaces of Gaul and Germania at this time were very far behind the empire of Rome, of course. The question I would pose is, how did the modern day European boundaries of countries such as Germany and France form? While England’s boundaries are quite easy to distinguish, it is interesting to wonder how boundary-lines, cultural practices, and language evolved between Germany and France (and of course, Poland, Russia, and the many other European countries).
While the beginning is fascinating, so is the end. Professor Watrall had mentioned that the conclusion of archeologists is that all empires will collapse. It is just a matter of when. Throughout human history, there have been numerous collapses of empires that have had dire consequences. When Rome was sacked, and the Roman Empire’s capital moved to Constantinople (and would become the Byzantine Empire), Western Europe essentially collapse. The entire western part of the continent would suffer through the Middle Ages for centuries before the first ray of light came with the Renaissance. However, not all empires end in such a manner. England’s globally dominant empire, the one that the sun never set on, would come to an end some centuries after its beginning. Following the end of World War II, Britain would no longer be an Empire, as it had gone through a long process of decolonization. Obviously, there have been no dire consequences as a result, as Britain’s fall from the foremost global power to a western country was somewhat voluntarily and occurred in the age of information and technology. With that example in mind, does the collapse of an empire necessarily mean civil war and a loss of wealth, technology, and power? Or is it simply the passing of a torch? One could argue that the United States ascent to the foremost world power occurred simultaneously with Britain’s descent.

Professor Watrall’s discussions of the beginnings and endings of empire and civilization is one of great interest to me, and really does offer up some interesting questions and possibly conclusions!