All posts by cappel10

Social Inequality as the Most Important Primary Characteristic

In my opinion, the most important characteristic of the ancient state is marked social stratification. The reason social stratification is so important is because it gives rise to elites with eventual hereditary status who have the state authority required to encourage, if not force, all other characteristics associated with the state. Other characteristics were important as well, but they did not have the sway of social inequality. Agriculture was a necessary characteristic, yet many agricultural societies were not states, indicating agriculture alone is not the deciding factor. Urbanism is also necessary, yet without central authority urbanism merely leads to chaos. Specialization is also a factor, often giving rise to the elite, yet it is not the only factor that causes stratification. Stratification is generally caused by one person amassing more wealth, or controlling production or trade. While specialization and the complex economy help fuel stratification, neither are necessary for the beginnings of it as even hunter-gatherer societies can have marked social stratification. Finally, state authority may be the most important characteristic in making a society a state rather than a chiefdom, but stratification is what actually causes this to occur; it is the catalyst that brings about states, making it the most important.

Stratification can be seen in all states, particularly in mortuary contexts. The more complex or elaborate the grave, the higher the status. For example, ancient Egyptians built their pharaohs enormous pyramids as tombs. The pharaoh’s tomb was filled with rich grave goods and large texts of incantations to ease his passage to the afterlife. Grave goods included jewelry made of lapis lazuli or gold, ceramics, figurines, foodstuffs, sacrificial animals (including lions) and the like. The elite attempted to bury themselves as close as possible to the pharaoh, showing his status. In fact, during periods leading up to collapse, this tradition switched to elites burying themselves regionally, indicating the pharaoh had lost some sway over the people. Ancient Mesopotamians created enormous pits for the graves of their rulers, filled with rich goods and attendants for the afterlife. The tomb of Queen Puabi contained 52 sacrificed attendants, another nearby tomb contained over 70! In the earlier era of the state, Chinese rulers were also buried with sacrificed attendants. The elite were buried with elaborate bronzes, pottery, and various artifacts. Rulers were often buried with terra cotta statues, chariots, foodstuffs, and even larger amounts of pottery and bronzes. Overall, these graves show the extreme status of rulers and other elite. It is clear that these rulers had state authority, based on the power and status that can be seen in the graves. In order to have such authority, one needs the status required. That is where social stratification comes into play, as without stratification there would be no state authority and no way for the rulers to assert their authority.

Societies Across the World Share Certain Similarities

From the idea of forming priest cults for divine kings, to human sacrifice to nourish the sun god, to ancestor worship, the strength and variety of ideology in societies is absolutely astounding. It appears that appeasing the gods has always been a large focus of ancient societies and still persists today. This took a variety of shapes and was more important to some societies than others. Beyond appeasing deities, many societies also worked to appease ancestors or spirits of important people, such as the idea of divine kingship in Egypt or the split inheritance of the Inca. Temples have always been a large focus in the majority of ancient states, and in the case of some (i.e. Mesopotamia) even had a great deal to do with the economy. This all goes to show the influence of ideology on the ancient state.

Traditionally, ideology has been thought of on an individual basis without much thought given to its effects on a society. This is unfortunate because ideology truly shows how similar many societies are in important values or basic aspects, yet the amount of specifics are incredible. While Mesoamerica was unique in the sense that the people believed in [human] sacrifice to keep the world functioning, is this terribly different from any other ancient state making offerings and erecting temples to various gods? The answer is no, it is the same idea just more extreme. The Aztecs in particular may have feared world destruction, but so did the ancient Egyptians. They had a deep fear of chaos and something going wrong with the Nile floods. Many societies worked to appease the gods, particularly over environmental concerns, which also shows the depth to which environment affects a society. In all ancient societies, the elites and the rulers were often religious in nature and also had a special connection with the spirits, and could intercede on behalf of the people to the gods. Perhaps the reason ancient societies had such powerful rulers was because of their environmental or ideology-based fears. Out of trust (or desperation) the ancient peoples may have given their rulers increased power in return for protection. Starting off as priests gaining more status, eventually rulers were born. This may be overestimating peoples’ fears, yet in societies such as Egypt or Mesoamerica this may have been part of the reason for absolute authority. However, there is never one reason for anything, and thus ideology is not the only reason elites could have arisen, yet it could be part of it. If elites did not arise directly because of ideology, they certainly used it to their advantage, particularly in cementing or legitimizing their power. Using peoples’ ideology in one’s own favor seems like a cheap shot, yet it certainly happened, and still does today.

Underwater Archaeology Bonus Blog: The Importance of Bias

Attending Dr. Potrebica’s lecture on Croatian underwater archaeology was very interesting and informative. It is hard to believe how much time and effort is involved in processing sites that are difficult to locate, and are often plundered. While all the facts were certainly interesting, what really struck a chord with me was Dr. Potrebica briefly mentioning that archaeology is supposed to tell a story of the past, and of people’s daily lives. This reminded me of the previous in-class guest lecturer Jon Frey mentioning that up until recently archaeologists had been focusing almost entirely on elites, rather than commoners. While it sometimes may be difficult to discover much about the common person, this is no excuse for bias. Both Dr. Potrebica and Frey really reminded me of the degree of potential bias in archaeology, and the importance of the archaeologists themselves in shaping the information taken from a site.
While bias is an obvious problem that is constantly being addressed, I feel that another sneaky issue is just as important: how the archaeologist him or herself affects the study. From what Dr. Potrebica said on the various case studies around the Adriatic, it appears that the archaeologists are doing their best to be as scientific and precise as possible. It is good that they are using specialists to restore artifacts, otherwise the data would be skewed. How the artifacts are restored will affect an archaeologist’s interpretation of them, even if it is at the subconscious level. These specialists will be the main players in underwater archaeology not only because there are not enough for the demand (as Dr. Potrebica stated), but also because of their subtle role in affecting interpretation of data.
Archaeology is supposed to be more than categorizing artifacts or assessing complexity, it is supposed to show how a people lived. I am glad that the archaeologists in Croatia looked at more than just the cargo of the shipwrecks, they also tried to identify who the crew was and how they lived by looking at regular items such kitchen tools. While such items may not seem important, they can tell great deal about the people who used them, from basic subsistence to reasonable inferences on more vague topics such as ideology or social structure. Archaeology is an incredibly informative field, rich in knowledge and understanding. It is unfortunate that this knowledge is often hampered by bias or misunderstandings. Whenever reading any archaeological studies, one must always be on the lookout for bias and be aware of the flexibility of interpretation.

Elites and the State

Elites are one of the largest factors in ancient states. A society has to have marked social stratification, or elites, to constitute as an ancient state. Over the duration of this class, I have been pondering what separates elites in a state level society and those from a non-state society, such as as chiefdom. After all, chiefdoms have social stratification, practice agriculture and have many of the characteristics an ancient state has. The main difference between chiefdoms and states (in my opinion) is that they do not have the full governmental authority that states do. Thus, where do elites come into play? As far as I can tell, what really separates the two is that  status is able to to be inherited in a state-level society. This is a big deal, as it is in part what gives these elites both the power and authority required in a state.
Having solved this first inquiry, the logical response to is to consider what causes status to become hereditary. The archaeological evidence for this factor is clear enough, when infants and people without signs of having done physically labor begin to be buried with increasingly elaborate grave goods, this indicates inherited status. What I would like to know, is what caused people to decide that it was acceptable to pass down status. How can someone untried be trusted to lead an entire nation? What gave King Tut the right to rule? He was only eighteen, and he did nothing to earn this right, he just so happened to be the son of the previous pharaoh. Pharaohs make a tad more sense, as they had divine right, but then I suppose that most civilizations gave their elites the divine right to rule. If the elites themselves were not divine, they at least were chosen by a divinity. This idea proceeded for centuries, even past the Middle Ages. Back to the original question, where did this divine right come from? In egalitarian societies, this sort of business could never have happened, as everyone was equal, and if someone gained a higher status, it did not automatically pass to that person’s children. However, as elites steadily gained more power, perhaps even mere associate with the elite (such as being apart of their family) made them indirectly famous, as it does today.

When elites began to wield authority, it is only natural they would have done everything in their power to make their child or family carry on their lineage. Besides a normal parental interest in their child’s life, the elite is also able to raise his or her child in a manner he or she sees fit, thus keeping a continual social order. While this may happened very gradually, once the effects snowballed, they were unstoppable. Once people may have begun to realize that an untried person was trusted to rule, the system was in place, and it is very difficult to oust someone with ultimate power.

Religion Matters

It has always been fascinating to me to see the importance of religion in culture. Throughout the history of the world, religion has always been a large focus. For whatever reasons, humans always feel the need to explain the purpose of life and their place in the world. The many different mythologies used are in themselves interesting, and their affects on societies astonishing, even today.

In the majority of ancient civilizations there was some sort of state religion that the entire populace followed. In some societies this religion also facilitated divine kingship. I wonder how divine kingship came about. Who thought that one person could be a god? Granted, after a person dies it is easy to see people believing their spirit could potentially become something greater, but in Egypt all pharaohs were divine, even the ones that did not do anything great. King Tut, who was 18 years old and not particularly famous, would have been divine. What did he do to earn this? Nothing. I suppose if a person becomes powerful enough, they eventually are able to coerce enough people into doing what they desire, including worshiping them and their descendants, but the idea seems very strange to me. However, the idea of divine kingship itself is not the important idea, rather it is the power of religion, and how powerful elites became in ancient civilizations. If a person can gain both religious and secular authority, they are practically unstoppable. They are able to build 3 pyramids, stop all opposition, hold an entire kingdom together, and so on. It is rather astonishing.

Of course, religion is more than who is considered divine; there is also the factor of the afterlife. While gods and goddesses certainly affect the average person, the promise of the afterlife affects a person even more. By making a selective afterlife, this gives the creator of that afterlife (a temple or religious leader) an extreme amount of power. Humans have always been worried about what comes after death, so they will do practically anything to ensure their place in the afterlife. Selective afterlives enforce a certain set of beliefs or practices everyone must do to enter into this afterlife. This is an important thought because it maintains cultural values, which are in turn passed down generation to generation. Somehow, ancient Egyptian cultural values lasted for millennia, perhaps by maintaining a strong temple culture, even during the collapse of the state itself.

Even though different societies have different religions or cultures, the importance of religion is felt by everyone, particularly in the ancient world.  Around the world, religion has dictated so much more than just what temples came and went and who gods were, it tells a great deal about a society. I feel religion is often overlooked when thinking of factors of change or motivators in what drives society. It is clearly important, perhaps even as important as the big ideas such as climate change, or irrigation, and must never be forgotten.

Thoughts of the Cause(s) of Ancient States

Ancient states were very unique among the world, with only about eight or so existing for a significant portion of history. This is absolutely fascinating, considering the world is full of so many people one would think that hundreds of ancient states would have arisen, especially since many societies had some of the factors that make up ancient states. Bearing in mind the uniqueness of ancient states, this leads me to wonder what exactly caused these few groupings of people to rise to full ancient statehood. For example, why did the LBK of Europe or the Jomon peoples of Japan never become states? This is a lengthy debate, with no right answer. I believe it to be the result of a variety of factors, however the environment appears to be the biggest one.

While the LBK built dwellings and were agricultural, they were never very urban the way the people of Egypt were. Because Egypt’s environment forced people to concentrate themselves in the Nile Valley in order to survive they quickly became urban, while the environment of the LBK had resources evenly distributed meaning that the LBK never had to concentrate themselves. With concentration often comes hierarchies and a more complex economy. If resources are easy enough to access and people are not crammed together, there does not necessarily need to be a powerful authority, considering there will be less conflict. However, being urban and social complexity or stratification are not the only things that create a civilization. For example, the Jomon people were complex, with social stratification and specialized tools, yet they never became attached enough to agriculture and thus could never become civilizations. Their environment was much more conducive to hunting, gathering and fishing as compared to agriculture, which could be why they did not become fully agricultural for millennia. While they practiced some food storage, without intensive agriculture there could never be enough build up enough surplus to make a constant grouping of elites. Elites tend to be a direct result of a few individuals having the most stuff and thereby gaining the most authority, which can eventually become inherited. While the Jomon had elites, they were not as powerful as those of an ancient state. For example, in Egypt entire cemeteries were dedicated specifically to these elites and status became inherited.

Overall, it seems that the environment played a huge role on determining a society’s major components, which would occasionally couple in such a way to lead to ancient statehood. It is fascinating to see how different societies reacted to different outside pressures and how some combined their factors in such a way to result in statehood, a surprisingly unique process.