Tag Archives: art

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.


Chapter 8 of Patterns in Prehistory discusses the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Just after reading this section, I traveled to SUNY Buffalo to visit their anthropology department, and while there, I had a chance to meet with the department chair, archaeologist Dr. Peter Biehl, who coincidentally is involved in Ian Hodder’s research project at Çatalhöyük. Specifically, he is part of the team that is excavating “West Mound, Trench 5.” He offered some information about Çatalhöyük that you can’t find in Patterns in Prehistory–for instance, the site was relatively recently designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with that designation has come increased tourism, which raises questions about balancing site preservation with public access and ensuring that those native to and living in the area are not disrupted. In reading through Dr. Biehl’s field notes from 2007 (available on the above website), I learned that he was, at the time, working to prove the hypothesis that the two main mounds at Çatalhöyük, the East and West mounds, were not representative of two different time periods; rather, they were contemporaneous (as his field notes available on the website abruptly end, I do not know what became of this hypothesis).

Especially interesting to me is the 2010 find of imported shells and jewelry of value. According to the 2010 Çatal Newsletter, these objects were not found in graves, which indicates that  “this society was not ready to discard of their valued ornaments and figurines inside graves” and instead preferred to keep them circulating “above ground.” Because Çatalhöyük is thought to have been occupied from 6250 BC to 5400 BC  (Patterns in Prehistory p. 330), and the extraordinarily rich burials of Tell as-Sawwan were found to be from about 5500 BC (p. 337), this leaves a time span of anywhere from 750 years difference to 100 years of overlap between the two groups–a relatively short amount of time to experience such a huge change in burial tendencies. Whether this indicates that the groups at Çatalhöyük and Tell as-Sawwan were very dissimilar in ideology, I am not sure, but I think it begs a close examination of why these two geographically and temporally related groups had such different burial customs.

In a 2011 find (as described in the 2011 Çatal Season Review newsletter), archaeologists discovered a 9000-year-old wall that had layers of plaster, each with its own painting. This in itself is not unusual to the site: what is fascinating about this discovery is that  each layer of plaster had the same geometric shape, meaning that “the artist had ‘remembered’ the earlier painting” each time it was plastered over and started anew. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Egyptian Nag el-Hamdulab tablet scenes in which it was found that the artists began on the right-hand side (rather than in the center), indicative of their having a “broader vision” of the scene they were designing. That the artist(s) at Çatalhöyük showed some similar sort of grand plan or scheme in their painting to the artist at Nag el-Hamdulab nearly 6000 years later is remarkable.


All information about Çatalhöyük comes from Patterns in Prehistory or the above website for the research project at Çatalhöyük, as indicated in text.