All posts by Megan Caveney

The Importance of Authority

All primary and secondary characteristics of a state are important to its success, but the most important characteristic is having a state authority. It is vital to the survival of an ancient state to have a central system for decision-making that can also enforce those decisions. In any society, choices will need to be made, and a system must be in place to solve problems. Even the most egalitarian societies will encounter natural leaders in their midsts. In the case of a state, organization of a large, unified population is necessary. Agriculture, infrastructure, and trade need to be managed. Militaristic and diplomatic relations need leadership. Without a state authority, the level of centralization seen in ancient states would not be possible.
Egypt is a great example of the importance of one central power. The pharaoh governed lower and upper Egypt. Symbols of power demonstrate the unified state. The double crown represents the joining of the two lands. Den implemented the use of the title Nsw Bty, meaning, “king of upper and lower Egypt” as a reminder of unification. Other demonstrations like the Heb Sed festival serve to perpetuate the notion of one comprehensive state. The pharaoh was an intermediary between the physical world and the gods, further validating his power. The importance as well as the scope of the pharaoh’s power is evident in the pyramids. He was powerful enough to devote labor and resources for thirty years to grand architecture. In addition to the pharaoh, there was a hierarchy of administrative decision-makers. Nomarchs also led districts, or nomes, and reported to the capital on a regular basis as a reinforcement that they were under his command. Only when these visits and other demonstrations of unification become less frequent did the centralized state collapse.
In the Indus Valley, centralized power comes in a different form than the extreme demonstrations of unification as in Egypt. Harappan cities have tremendous standardization. Incredible amounts of mudbricks, all the same size, make up the rectilinear buildings that line the streets. Cities, all on a grid, feature standardized houses, alleyways, drainage channels, wells, cisterns, and even neighborhood baths. This type of city standardization would not be possible without a master plan, laid out by an administrative body. Standardization was not only within city walls, but extended into Harappa’s extensive trade network in the form of standardized weights and measurements.
While expressed in different ways, every ancient state we have explored this semester contained a governing body. This authoritative power allowed states to grow and flourish; without it, many were unable to have continued success and fell. While every primary and secondary characteristic is important to ancient states, a state authority is the most essential to maintaining organization and structure.

Religious Texts

I have always enjoyed learning about the indigenous peoples of ancient Mesoamerica and the Andes. In my Spanish classes over the years, we have discussed them to various depths, and my senior year of high school, my Spanish class examined the history of Latin America from the ancient states to present day. We first read excerpts from the religious myths of the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca. The Spanish recorded the documents, so they did contain bias, but they also provide insight into aspects of their cultures. After reading these stories, the ideology behind sacrifice is more understandable.
The Mayan creation myth explains the importance of maize and consequently the importance of sacrifice. The myth that the Spanish recorded was similar to the book of Genesis. In the Bible, God created the world in seven days and seven nights, adding more and more creations until finally He created humans. The Mayan version tells a parallel story of the gods creating the world and ending with humans. This biased telling probably was a mechanism that the Spanish used to convert the indigenous populations to Catholicism. In Genesis, God creates the first man from clay. According the Maya, the gods tried multiple times to create a being to rule over the world as their servants, including people from mud, wooden dolls, and monkeys. Finally, they created humans from a concoction that included maize, which proves to be an important substance to the Maya. This also explains why the Maya practiced human sacrifice; they believed that humans were made out of maize, and their responsibility on Earth was to provide subsistence for the gods.
The Aztec’s story of human sacrifice is depicted as extremely gruesome and excessive by Spanish ethnohistorical documents. They built their capital in the middle of Lake Texcoco, where they saw a vision that Huitzilopochtli had ordered them to find, an eagle with a snake in its mouth standing on a cactus. As legend goes, Tenochtitlan was the location of the site where Huitzilopochtli had his son’s heart buried after he tried to rebel against him. Nourishing Huitzilopochtli with sacrifice, including hearts offered on the plates of chacmools, was the Aztec’s duty, so that he could keep the keep the universe running and out of darkness.
While human sacrifice is hard to understand because it is something so unimaginable in our society, to the Latin American ancient states, it was an important and necessary ritual for society to survive. By hearing the stories behind their beliefs, the indigenous point of view becomes a little clearer. While the Spanish altered myths and depictions of sacrifice for colonization purposes, they still provide valuable information as an addition to archaeological evidence when examining their cultures.

Submerged History of the Adriatic

I really like Hrvoje Potrebica’s presentation on the Submered History of the Adriatic because not only was the topic of underwater archaeology different from what I normally learn about archaeology, but it was easy to tell that Potrebica really enjoys and values his work. One thing that really stuck with me from his presentation was what he said about archaeologists trying to figure out people’s stories. Sometimes it can seem like they just find artifacts, but Potrebica made the point that he is really trying to learn about the lives of people like the ship’s crew. I think that passion is a key ingredient in anything a person does, especially in the case of archaeology.
Potrebica’s overview of Croatian underwater archaeology encompassed a lot of information and definite sparked my interest. There are over 400 archaeological sites in the Adriatic Sea, and one is even a Neanderthal site. They range from prehistoric, Roman, Medieval, Remaissance, World War I, and World War II shipwrecks. The vessels could have been trading, visiting and traveling, or military ships. Many of the trade vessels made various stops, acquiring goods at multiple ports, so in order to determine their country of origin, Potrebica and his colleagues look at the ship’a kitchen and the origins of the artifacts in there. In addition to the ships on the Adriatic, there are sites in lakes and rivers, where smaller ships would move trade goods further inland.
Unfortunately, many shipwrecks fall victim to plundering, so conserving underwater sites can be problematic. When a new site is found, plunderers hear about it and will disturb the site before it can be fully excavated. The challenge for archaeologists is to excavate the site as quickly as possible to get everything out of the water. However, the artifacts can crumble very easily when exposed again because they have been underwater for so long. I think that underwater sites seem more difficult to preserve because they are harder to keep under surveillance. Potrebica talked about some ways in which archaeologists have been trying to overcome these obstacles. They have built cages around sites in an effort to keep out plunderers. Hopefully innovations such as that will be successful in the future when more site are discovered.

Under the Weather

So far, every ancient state we have studied has not only arisen by a river or another body of water, but they also have used the different weather phenomena associated with their perspective rivers to their advantage.  Rivers can provide many resources such as food, water, and transportation, but the implications they have for agriculture cannot be overlooked.  One of the classic theories about how ancient states emerged was that irrigation supports more intensive agriculture, which supports a larger population.  Then, elites arise to control the irrigation and its products.  I would argue that without rivers and weather phenomena, irrigation might not be possible.  Without irrigation factoring in, ancient states might not have arisen.  Other factors could have made the push, but rivers could have been the tipping point in some circumstances.

In Egypt, we saw the control of the Nile and its inundation was of great importance.   Even today, infrastructure like the Aswan High Dam reinforces Egyptians extreme efforts to tame the Nile.  In the documentary, Egypt Uncovered: Chaos and Kings, we saw that early Egyptians encountered the chaos of the untamed Nile.  Unpredictable flooding could destroy land and crops.  On the plus side, the flooding regularly replenished the soil with nutrients, leaving fertile farmland behind.  Learning to predict and control the flooding cycles (with infrastructure like irrigation) of the Nile helped Egyptians to take full advantage of the soil.  The consequent agricultural success contributed to Egypt’s flourishing.  However, when the Nile was less predictable, famine contributed to its demise.

Mesopotamia also made use of its rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris.  Especially in the southern plain, where rainfall was low, control of water made all the difference.  Mesopotamians relied on human intervention to get water where they needed it to go.  Irrigation canals made this possible, and water could be available for agriculture and other needs.  In Mesopotamia, we can see the hydraulic origins of complexity at work.  Building such canals required cooperative labor and at least some central control.  Farmers also became reliant on the canals, so leaders could step in, exploit control over the canals, and increase their authority.

Finally, in the Indus Valley, monsoons were the weather phenomena of importance.  They provide most of the water that is in the ecological system.  Because of these storms, the land is extremely fertile.  Fertile land allows for more intensive agriculture, which can support a larger population that often contributes to the formation of ancient states.  Furthermore, the monsoons have a fairly regular seasonality and are very predictable, so farmers can take full advantage of them.

Ancient states were under the influence of the weather.  They often flourished around bodies of water and used the associated weather to their benefit.  This is only one similarity among ancient states.  While they may vary in many ways, there are also similarities.  As we continue to explore more ancient states I am sure that more patterns will become apparent.  While living in different regions, environments, time periods, and cultures, we are all human.

The Complexity of Mesopotamia

I am excited to be learning about Mesopotamia because it is always a place my previous classes have mentioned, but none of them have ever gone into that much detail.  When learning about Mesopotamia, I have heard about how fertile the farmland was and how writing began there to document economic transactions.  So far in lecture, I have learned that everything I thought I knew about Mesopotamia only scrapes the surface and that there is so much more complexity.

One thing that surprised me was that Mesopotamia had fertile land because of irrigation systems.  Previously, I thought that the land was fertile on its own.  Actually, different geographic areas had different climates.  For example, the northern plain was hot and dry in the summer, while the fall was a littler cooler with light rainfall.  Irrigation canals are the key factor into turning this land into farmland rich enough to sustain a large population and eventually city-states.  Irrigation also has implications that we talked about in the beginning of the class.  It was one of the classic theories to how ancient states emerged.  Irrigation can support more intensive agriculture and therefore a larger population.  Elites also emerge to control the irrigation systems.  While it is not the only factor that contributed to the formation of city-states in Mesopotamia, the Hydrological theory certainly played a part.  The building of irrigation systems requires a level of organization and leadership.  Once built, community leaders can exert authority over the irrigation canals on which farmers depend.  Because of its ability to increase population and encourage the emergence of elites, irrigation can contribute to the formation of city-states.

Another topic I often find associated with Mesopotamia is the appearance of writing.  In previous classes, I learned that writing emerged in Mesopotamia for trading purposes; it kept a record of exchanges.  However, how that process began was never discussed.  It makes more sense to me that it actually started out as a 3-dimensional record keeping system with tokens and bullae that then evolved into the cuneiform that we recognize today.  Another thing that surprised me about writing in Mesopotamia was that cuneiform could represent multiple languages.  I had always assumed that it was the written form of a specific language.

I have been pleasantly surprised by how much I have already learned about Mesopotamia, and I cannot wait to see what else we learn.  For example, I have heard of Hammurabi’s Code and the saying “an eye for an eye.”  Also, the hanging gardens of Babylon are an image I associate with Mesopotamia.  I look forward to learning more about the complexity of which I have only scraped the surface.

Honoring the Dead

In the movies, archaeologists studying ancient Egypt are often portrayed excavating the pyramids, which include elaborate mazes featuring hieroglyphics and statues, where they encounter booby traps in their search for tombs of pharaohs.  The heroes disturb mummies’ afterlives, stir up curses, and defeat the supernatural wrath of the undead.  Hollywood romanticizes not only archaeological practices but also the mortuary practices and beliefs of the Egyptians.  Despite its inaccuracies, this cinematic fascination with the afterlife mirrors what is found in the archaeological record.

The Egyptians left behind a lot of funerary remains, and they make up a significant portion of the archaeological record.  Even in predynastic Lower and Upper Egypt, there is a substantial amount of evidence related to the mortuary remains and therefore practices.  At first, at sites like Tell ‘El Omari and Marimda, the dead were buried within the settlement, sometimes in a fashion similar to that of what is found at PPN sites.  However, at sites like Ma‘Adi and Buto there are separate cemeteries.  In Lower Egypt, slate palletes, ivory and clay figurines, elaborate lithics, and pottery are buried with the dead.  As time passes between the Badarian and Naqada periods, cemeteries become more and more segregated. By the end of Naqada II, there are clear distinctions between the tombs of the elite and those of everyone else.  All of these findings show the progression of how Egyptians buried their dead.  As time went on, funeral objects and tombs became more elaborate.  The motivation behind the increasing honoring of the dead interests me.  It may be impossible to know for sure without a time machine, but I still wonder if it is due to increasing social stratification, changing religious beliefs, or something else.

I have a feeling that the trend of mortuary remains will continue into Dynastic Egypt.  This vast amount of archaeological evidence for one aspect of Egyptian culture makes me wonder why.  Why do we have so much information regarding the afterlife?  Is it because of where archaeologists have focused their efforts?  Is it because the ancient Egyptians put so much into their necropolises?  This brings me to wonder why the ancient Egyptians were so concerned with burying their dead.  In comparison, today’s Western mortuary practices often involved funeral services and headstones.  Sometimes smaller objects are buried with the dead, and flowers constitute most of the items left at the grave.  Compared to the pyramids, we seem to be slacking off a bit when it comes to honoring our dead.  Elaborate burials seem to have been important to the ancient Egyptians, but why?  In the larger scope of anthropology, why can mortuary practices tell us so much about the dead’s’ behavior during life?  As we explore other cultures this semester, I hope to be able to compare their memorial practices in order to answer this question.