All posts by hiltune5

Agriculture: The Cornerstone of Statehood

Of all of the primary and secondary characteristics of ancient states that we discussed in class at the beginning of the year, it’s my personal opinion that agriculture is the most important to the development of statehood. It sort of acts as a cornerstone for all new, developing societies; it is the component of ancient state characteristics from which all others are capable of emerging.

Intensive agriculture allows for a surplus of food to exist, which in turn allows for a growing society to vastly increase in population. Increased population promotes a more sedentary lifestyle that comes with intensive agriculture, thus forming the cornerstone of a growing society.

The introduction of intensive agriculture allowed for less people to need to concentrate on farming and food growth. With less of the population required to produce food,  more were free to develop skills or other embark in other specialized occupations.  As we discussed early on in the semester, the specialized production of goods is another primary characteristic of ancient states.

The onset of specialized labor marks the beginning of the production of purely material or luxury goods. Production of luxury goods promotes the development of a more complex economy, trading material wealth for non-essential goods and services. The increasingly large scale of this complex economy is yet another primary characteristic of ancient states, yet again prompted by the onset of intensive agriculture.

Social stratification, another of the primary characteristics of ancient states, is made possible because of the growing separation between the elites in society and the common workers, such as farmers. Overseers or landowners of the working agricultural class forms the aristocracy, while specialized workers and the luxury goods they create perpetuate the marked social stratification.

Clearly, we can see that while all the characteristics that define an ancient state are all important in making that distinction, it can be argued that intensive agriculture forms the basis of the remaining traits. Heavy food production allows for a heavy, dense population to form. Food production worked by a smaller portion of the population frees up more to become specialized or become the landowners that form the basis of the aristocracy and the beginnings of a stratified social hierarchy. Specialized workers produce luxury goods, which then contribute to the production of an increasingly complex economy. Without intensive agriculture, it’s unlikely that any of the other characteristics of an ancient state would develop at all. It also stands to reason that the destruction of agriculture would also lead to the downfall of the ancient states.


The “Mayan Doomsday”

Here’s a little excerpt from a long, angry rant thing (minus a bit of the angry verbiage for the sake of professionalism) that I wrote back in 2012, when everyone was still in the midst of all the “December 21 2012 is the end of the world oh nooo” thing.

For a little bit of background, around the time I wrote this, there was a post on Popular Social Media Website that I was getting pretty sick of seeing which claimed the following:

“There have been about 514 Leap Years since Caesar created it in 45BC. Without the extra day every 4 years, today would be July 28, 2013. Also, the Mayan calendar did not account for leap year…so technically the world should have ended 7 months ago.”

First off, this is worded very poorly. The original writer seems to be implying that if you take away the days given by leap year, we somehow end up in the future. This is obviously untrue, because it’s really stupid. Instead, what I think they meant was that the date would be 28-7-2013 if we used a calendar that consistently counted a 366-day(?) year instead of the 365.25-day year first implemented by the Julian calendar.

 Where this idea came from, I’m not sure. The Mayans did not have a 366-day calendar, or anything of the sort. I doubt many people even know what they’re talking about when they say all this nonsense about the Mayans predicting the end of the world.

 The Mayans are commonly believed to have used two calendars: the 260-day Tzolk’in and the 365-day solar Haab’. These two calendars did not identify years, but days. The combination of a Tzolk’in and a Haab’ date marked a specific “date” which would not repeat for approximately 52 Haab’ years. So, for example, the Mayan’s creation date is 4 Ahau; 8Kum’ku. This combination of days, one pulled from each calendar, would not repeat for 18,980 days, or 52 years. This period is referred to as a Calendar Round.

 Oh, but what if you had to keep track of events that happened in periods longer than 52 years? Well you were out of luck, then… unless you resorted to what is referred to as the Long Count calendar. The Long Count calendar counted the number of days had passed since the Mayan’s creation date and thus could be used to make more accurate measurements of periods over 52 years.

 The Mayan word for one day on the Long Count calendar is a k’in. Twenty k’ins made one winal, eighteen winals made one tun, twenty tuns made one k’atun, twenty k’atuns made one b’ak’tun, twenty b’ak’tuns made one piktun, and so on.

 First of all, one important thing to note, and another thing that makes comparing the Mayan to the Julian calendar pointless, is that the Mayans counted in base-20 and base-18 (most western counting systems use base-10). Therefore, (representing one k’in) is equal to one day. But (representing one winal) is equal to 20 days. Thus, is equal to 25, and is equal to 40. Since there are eighteen winals in one tun, is 360 days, not 400. Given all this, one b’ak’tun ( is 144,000 days, or approximately 394.3 solar years.

 Again, the Long Count calendar does not count years, but days. Specifically, the number of days since the aforementioned creation date, 4 Ahau; 8 Kum’ku, which is estimated by historians to be roughly around 11-8-3114 BCE on the Gregorian calendar.

 If it were not already incredibly obvious, you might have noticed that, given the way the Mayan’s Long Count works, it does not simply end. The Mayans didn’t predict a single thing about anything ending. 21-12-2012 is simply the start of the next b’ak’tun (, roughly 5125.9 solar years after the Mayan creation date. It’s not the end of the world, it’s simply just the beginning of the next cycle in the calendar.

 Sandra Noble, executive director of the Mesoamerican research organization Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), notes that “for the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle”. She considers the portrayal of December 2012 as a doomsday or cosmic-shift event to be “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.”

 In short, all this stuff about doomsday is nonsense and if people would do a little research then they would know that we should all actually celebrate on December 21, 2012 because it’s a huge deal to be around for the beginning of a new cycle!

 Oh yeah, and those of us around on October 13, 4772 will get to see the first piktun (20 b’ak’tuns, or!

Under the Adriatic- A Discussion

First off, I’d like to thank Doctor Hrvoje Potrebica for opening my eyes to the fascinating subject of underwater archaeology. Going into the good doctor’s lecture, I did not know what to expect from examining a bunch of old shipwrecks. As it turns out, however, underwater antiquity sites are just as rich in culture and history as their aboveground counterparts. A lot can be learned by examining the remnants of old ships, or cargo lost at sea, or old harbors and portside buildings that have long since been overtaken by the sea. Overall, I’m glad that I attended Dr. Potrebica’s lecture, as it really made me consider a lot about archaeology in ways I never would have considered before.

I can imagine, since the Adriatic Sea is a pretty big place, that one problem with finding an old shipwreck or cache of lost cargo would be determining where it came from or who it belonged to. This is a problem unique to underwater archaeology, as even with trade routes above ground you can use physical clues to tell where it belonged or where it may have been going to or coming from. Doctor Potrebica covered this scenario briefly, showing off a chart of different unique amphora shapes that have been categorized over the years. I think it’s fascinating how they can use the form and shape of the amphorae recovered in a cache to determine where they were made, and then use that information to determine where the shipment was coming from, or perhaps going to. With the sheer amount of trade routes going on in the Adriatic Sea- especially those going to and form the Roman empire, it’s astounding that archaeologists are able to use such techniques to narrow it down to that extent.

Doctor Potrebica even described one situation where a ship’s bell was found intact with the year inscribed on its surface. Using similar techniques to those described above, the port of origin for the shipment was determined and historians are looking through old records to see if they can determine the name of this individual vessel.  Perhaps they will then be able to use this information to extrapolate on trade and the relationships between ancient states in the medieval era.

These aquatic archaeological expeditions are also helping us determine new information about more modern wrecks. A World War 1 battleship or an American heavy bomber plane can serve to teach us about more recent history, and to recover precious artefacts that may be worth something a bit more sentimental to the families of those who may have died and were never recovered.

All in all, I’m glad I attended the lecture with an open mind. Underwater archaeology is a very interesting field with a lot of potential to uncover the secrets of the past.

Do We Really Learn From Our Mistakes?

One of the more obvious things that we may note about these ancient states as we continue with the class is that they are clearly no longer around in the present. Of the many striking similarities that are shared by these ancient states- urban centers, proximity to large bodies of water, hierarchical social structure, etc etc- the most obvious, which frankly goes without saying, is they have all in their own time collapsed into obsoletion and destruction. Now, ignoring the fact that thousands upon thousands of years is an almost inconceivable amount of time for any one state to last, why is it that so many ancient states have succumbed the same pattern of rising and falling? And why have all the succeeding states done it too?

We’ve discussed it before in class: some problems arise, the government (or whatever the ruling political/social power may be in a given case) attempts to fix it, and then fixing it creates more and bigger problems in its wake. These mistakes are fixed, which creates more mistakes, and so on and so forth until the state and the state’s society has incidentally run itself into the ground. It’s happened time and time again, though not necessarily for the same reasons. For the Egyptians, it may have been the crumbling of centralized power; for the Romans, it may have been because they stretched their resources too thin. It’s likely that a lot of different problems compounded themselves to form the inevitable statewide catastrophe, but it has always been the same case of issues stacking on top of other issues until finally the whole thing self-destructs. One could find evidence of this in pretty much any single ancient (or more recent, perhaps) state upon giving it a closer look.

So then the real question is this: are we doomed to repeat ourselves? Do we learn from history? Sure, we can take a cue from the ones who came before and attempt to rectify the same problems they encountered, but there are always bound to be new problems. No city, empire, civilization, or state has ever lasted forever. Personally, though, I think we could. That’s what makes archaeology so important. Studying the past is a really big deal! There is still so much that we do not understand about who we, as humans, came to be in the place and time that we are now. And if we want to avoid making the mistakes of our ancestors both distant and relatively near, then we’ve got to take an unbiased look at what they did, how they lived, and where they went wrong. I think we owe it to them to learn from their mistakes, if only so that in another two thousand years when scientists are exploring where we went wrong, they’ll have an idea of what not to do.

Ancient River States

One interesting thing that will be worth noting as we move on in the semester (and one that I imagine has already begun to be touched upon in lecture) is how a vast number of the earliest and most prominent ancient states all originated as river cultures. River cultures are, as one might infer, largely agricultural nations or cultures that are based- both economically and physically- around rivers or other large bodies of water.  We’ve already witnessed ancient Egypt as it arose alongside the Nile, and now that we’ve begun discussing ancient Mesopotamia I’ve no doubt that we will be discussing it along with the rest of the fertile crescent that lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  Other particularly noteworthy ancient river cultures that will likely come up in the course of this class include ancient China and the Yellow River, and ancient India along the Indus.

River cultures were the most common centers of human growth for many reasons. First of all, drinking water is a necessity to life and living in close proximity of it can be a godsend, especially in the more dry or arid parts of the world near the equator (like many of these ancient river states were). The rivers also provided food in the form of fish or other animals who would come to the river to eat or drink. Economically speaking, rivers were vital in ancient times as they made it easier to transport goods between cities along the river or, later on, with other ancient states.

Perhaps most importantly, like its namesake, these rivers are what made the land in the fertile crescent capable of growing anything at all. These rivers would form the basis of what would later become irrigation, leading to the development of the agricultural society! And we’ve already covered in class how important agriculture was to the development of ancient states: it gave people a steady source of food capable of sustaining a population, a location that made sedentary life possible, and eventually social castes and specialized workers all arose from this.

It really was all about the agriculture for most ancient states, and the river basins most of them were situated in provided the much needed resources to make farming possible! I will be interested in seeing how the later ancient river cultures we discuss in lecture depended on their own body of water of choice to survive.

The Red, the White, and the Blue (Crowns, that is!)

Discussing Narmer’s depictions with both the White Crown and Red Crown on the sides of the Narmer Palette got me interested in these unusual headpieces. So I did a little digging (hah, archaeology humor) to see what I could discover about them.

The White Crown of Upper Egypt, or Hedjet, was a symbol of royalty or kingship appearing all the way back in predynastic times. The first depictions appear in the Naqada II period (somewhere around 3500-3200 BC) in northern Nubia. How the crown adopted to Egyptian use is up in the air; it could have migrated and was adopted, or perhaps conquering Egyptians adopted it (like they did with the Red Crown later on).  Common depictions show the gods Nekhbet and Horus adorned with the White Crown, and easily the most famous depiction is that of the Narmer Palette itself. No physical example of a White Crown has been found, so it’s unsure what they might have been made of, but leather or felt have been suggested. Also, since no pharaoh appeared to have been buried with the crown, it’s possible that it was traditionally passed down between rulers.

The Red Crown of Lower Egypt, or Deshret, was just that: the Lower Egyptian equivalent of the White Crown. It is uncertain when exactly it came into usage but as it appears on the Narmer Palette, it had to have been around long enough to be a familiar symbol by around the 31st century BC. No physical example of the Crown exists today, much like the White Crown, so we can’t be certain what it was made from, though leather, felt, or even copper have been suggested. And like the White Crown, the absence of a Red Crown suggests that it was passed down between rulers.  Also like the White Crown, it was not only associated with Horus, but also the deities Wadjet and Neith.

The Double Crown of Egypt, known formally as the Pschent or Sekhemti (literally “the Two Powerful Ones”),  combined the Red Deshret Crown and White Hedjet Crown together into one crazy-looking headpiece. It was likely concocted sometime after the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, worn by the rulers as a symbol of power over both regions. The First Dynasty pharaoh Menes is attributed by some to be the creator of the Pschent, though the first depiction of a ruler wearing the crown is on a rock inscription of Horus and the First Dynasty ruler Djet. The deities most commonly associated with the Pschent are, of course, Horus, and also the god Atem.

Additionally, there is a third (or fourth, if you count the Pschent as a new crown entirely) crown, although  it does not seem to have made an appearance until the Second Intermediate Period with the pharaoh Amenhotep III. The Blue Crown, the Khepresh, has been found by archaeologists and is made of blue leather or cloth with gold disks. It’s believed that it became popular with New Kingdom pharaohs and may have even been adopted as the primary crown. It is sometimes referred to as the “battle crown” as it has been depicted in many military instances and may have actually doubled as a helmet and been worn into battle.