All posts by Thomas Cook

Mass Production

Out of all the primary and potential secondary characteristics of an ancient state discussed over the course of this class, it is mass production of goods that I think is most important.  Despite this secondary characteristic being not as impressive as monumental structure building, or as life essential for a state as extensive agriculture, I think it is important because it ties other characteristics together in the formation of an ancient state.   It is the mass production of goods, for example, that allows an ancient state to trade the less exotic of its resources, such as pottery with other ancient states.  The complex internal economies of an ancient state also required mass production, for if the people of an ancient state wished to trade amongst each other in items such as pottery, food stuffs, artisan goods, and more, it is essential for mass production in some form, whether it be a surplus of goods produced by an artist or a farmer family, to occur.  This in turn reflects a primary characteristic of specialization, for one person or groups of people, once driven to mass produce a particular good, tended to remain committed to making that particular good for the rest of their lives as their occupation. Mass production of tools assisted an ancient state with its extensive agriculture, as it did also for the tools necessary for creating massive public works.

The ability of the elite of an ancient state to encourage/direct mass production from those beneath them in the social stratification reinforced their positions and importance in society.   This ability to command by a state to decide what would be mass produced by a particular group within it also represents power and authority.  State religion, reinforced in some cases by religious icons distributed to the masses, required mass production for the latter, for if a state religion required its followers to retain icons for worship or other matters, then it is necessary for the ability to produce enough icons for an ever changing population.

Metallurgy and mass production’s relation to it is a mixed bag.  For producing metal weapons certainly mass production can be linked to it, but for decorative metal works that is debatable, since such goods were typically produced sparingly for elites.  Perhaps though in some cases these sort of goods were produced on scale due to daily consumption by elites of an ancient state.

Tribute/taxation is naturally tied to mass production, for if a farmer, for example, is tasked by the state to produce a certain amount of tribute/taxation for the state in exchange for the lands given to the farmer, it is in most cases the goal of the farmer to mass produce enough agricultural goods to pay the requirements to the state and also either provide for the farmer’s personal consumption or for open market.

All in all, mass production is a secondary characteristic that I consider most important despite it not being paid attention to as much as other characteristics of an ancient state.


Andean Potatoes

I had heard of the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes a long time ago, but with the subject brought up once more in class, I feel like talking about it.  Compared to the other regions discussed in class, the Andean peoples’ use of potatoes as their main staple crop strikes a contrast to the other regions in which grains became the dominant crop.  While maize eventually became a staple crop for the peoples of the Andean region, the potato did not simply get sidelined, but endured to remain the main staple in the Andean diet, even to today.   There are many questions I want to ask regarding the Andean peoples’ use of the potato.

One question is in regards to how the potato came to be domesticated.  As we learned earlier this semester,  while we may not know exactly how the various crops of today became domesticated, one common theory is that domestication followed discovery and extensive gathering of wild crops by hunter-gatherer groups.  Now, while it is easy to imagine hunter-gatherers seeing patches of wild wheat and other grains growing across the terrains they traversed, it is harder for me to image tubers like potatoes attraction much notice.  Unless the tops of potatoes were the only viewable “greenery” for miles, I would think that hunter-gatherers would ignore it in the face of other, more noticeable plants.  Of course, that is a modern prospective, as we can only hazard a guess as to the methods in which hunter-gatherers selected what they gathered.  From some research on the side I have learned that there were over 3000 varieties of potatoes in the region alone, so perhaps they were more noticeable than anything else.

Another question is to what effect if any the cultivation of potatoes had on the physiology of the Andean peoples.  For example, we know that the people of this region have over the centuries adapted physically to the low oxygen levels of their highland environments.  We also know that the teeth of modern humans are vastly different from earlier hominids as a result of millions of years of diet differentiation.  So, what did a diet that rested mainly upon potatoes result in for the Andean peoples?  Was the high starch content of potatoes a factor in their biology?  I would be interested to know whether or not the people of the Andean region today have higher than the common norm for starch in their physiology.

Finally, while we have learned about the paste making and freeze drying of potatoes in this region first done by the people of ancient Andean states, but I also wonder if like other ancient peoples, the ancient Andeans combined potatoes into a stew or porridge like meal.  Many of us today know or eat regularly potato soup, but I imagine the ancient versions of this classic dish may not appeal as much as one might think.

Pit House Usage in Ancient China

As I read about ancient China over the weekend, I was perplexed by the wide usage of pit houses amongst the various Ancient Chinese cultures. Compared to the other ancient states we have so far discussed, pit houses seemed to be much more prolific in ancient China. I question why though. Surely one of the benefits of a pit house (better insulation from the elements) would be something equally liked by the peoples of other ancient states. What we have seen with the other ancient state cultures has been above-ground structures (in some cases with storage pits underground), often placed in structured layers within a village or village. For what I have read so far about ancient China though, pit houses were the common structures alongside vast amounts of storage pits (although by the Yangshao culture there exists evidence of above ground houses). Like other ancient states so far discussed, the ancient Chinese tended to situate themselves alongside the various rivers that flow throughout China. This similarity with other ancient states is somewhat perplexing to me given the preference for pit houses. I am certainly not educated enough to elaborate on my thoughts as to why, other than the potential for ground water flowing towards the rivers flooding these pit houses, along with the increased potential for moisture to destroy what is stored inside (which paints a question towards the vast usage of storage pits as well). As the lands occupied by ancient Chinese cultures also dealt with the East Asian monsoon, I would think above ground (perhaps even structures above the ground itself as seen in many regions today with flooding issues) would be more preferable. Perhaps the ancient Chinese had a particular process of placing their underground homes to mitigate these issues that I see. Naturally I doubt that they built such dwelling directly next to the rivers, but I do not know that for sure.

I also ponder whether it was not just the environment temperatures and weather concerns that prompted such wide spread use of pithouses, but also the terrain. Certainly the cold and harsh environment of North China, for example, would prompt the ancient Chinese living there to seek warmth and safety underground, but perhaps there was also a lack of suitable material to build dwellings about ground that could survive the elements at first. Perhaps it is instead simply just a matter of progression, although even today underground dwellings can be preferable in certain cases. I for one, living in the space that is considered underground for my home, enjoy not being susceptible to the elements as much (in lazy modernness I refer to not having the wind battering windows and shaking the room up).

Some Early Thoughts About Mesopotamia

I must admit that compared to some of the other regions to be discussed in the course, it has been a long time since I have heard or read about Mesopotamia.  So far the subject seems intriguing, although we have just began to explore the region.  Naturally, as I write this, I am doing so without much prior research.  My questions reflect this uncertainty, so please forgive me if I seem ignorant.


Now, during Tuesday’s lecture, I was struck naturally by the discussion of the importance of writing in Mesopotamia compared to Ancient Egypt.  I can only put forth a personal argument that perhaps the mass amounts of urbanization in the various city states of Mesopotamia demanded more development and usage of a written language amongst every level of society compared to the case of Ancient Egypt.  Of course, I await to see if the written language was utilized to a farther extent than so far displayed in Ancient Egypt, beyond the use on trade vessels, cult and funeral goods, and texts written for elites.  The origins of the written languages in Mesopotamia is another matter, for whether it began as a way of describing events/prowess of elites, was created first for facilitating trade, or was created by the common person for one reason or another.


Regarding the discussion of the “implosion” of urbanization, I am most interested in learning about how this affected the agriculture of Mesopotamia.  If for cities like Uruk, the surrounding areas were once agricultural lands, which may have been due to the location of the city relative to the rivers the region is named after, what became of these areas?  Were these lands all urbanized, or were certain areas let alone to retain their agricultural value?  I suppose that his may have resulted in the originally more fertile lands of the north being desired by the southern city states, although this is a baseless conjuncture.  Nevertheless, I am perplexed by this urbanization magnetism, for I would assume that rural agricultural communities amongst the fertile areas of the river sides would have been more feasible than urban landscapes.


Another matter not yet discussed in class is the river travel aspects in Mesopotamia.  I ponder as to whether or not river travel was as extensively used as in Ancient Egypt.  I suppose that it may or may not.  While certainly the two main rivers that make up the region could offer more versatility in river travel than even the Nile in Egypt, but the urbanization of the region may have facilitated more land-based forms of travel as well.

Pre-dynastic Ceramics: A Few Thoughts From Class Discussions

Regarding the past few weeks discussion regarding pre-dynastic Egypt, I am intrigued by the discussions in class about the ceramics that make up much of the archaeological record of the sites in lower and upper Egypt.  The images detailing the shapes, styles, and storage pits of the ceramics throughout the various sites presented so far leave me to thoughts as to the everyday use of the various pots, and the social organization of their use. 

For example, what denoted one pot from another in terms of being used as a liquid transporter, or vice versa a solid transporter?  Could some pots be used for both interchangeably?  Naturally, one would assume that certain styles and sizes of potteries would be preferred for certain goods, but that would be not likely universal amongst both the lower and upper Egypt polities and across the pre-dynastic periods.  Social status may also have determined what a pot was used for, as a more influential person may have had separate pots for every good they required stored, while the lesser influential may have had to use a single pot for what little they could store. 

Furthermore, how were certain goods, such as beer, wine, and other liquids would be kept stored for long periods, particularly in the storage pits in sites such as Ma’adi.  I ponder as to how the pots may have been sealed, possibly with some sort of sealant made of animal or plant matter.  If so, is there evidence of such sealants amongst the archaeological record?  For solid goods, were some stored within liquids to preserve them as well, or were the pots themselves stored within materials such as mud to preserve the goods they held?

The storage pits themselves intrigue me in terms of the way pots were arranged in them.  Was there particular layouts for solid or liquid goods?  Were some storage pits built specifically to store certain pots, whether it be due to size, contents, or style (as in, pots styled after another polity local or foreign that may have been part of a trading system)?  If so, what made a storage pit suitable for certain goods?  Perhaps depth of the pit, range of expose to light and other elements, and ease of access determined which goods went to which storage pit, particularly in sites with strong evidence of trading.

Naturally, not all of my questions can be answered, but I hope that perhaps some have already been, and that the work at the various pre-dynastic sites of Egypt make continue to reveal more.