All posts by Dan Wright

Agriculture: The Most Important

When reviewing the primary and secondary characteristics that apply to all states, it seems to me that agriculture is the most important.  Others such as specialization, stratification, and state authority all seem to come much later in the general development of a complex society, more “icing on the cake”, if you will.  Apart from agriculture, I also closely considered the factors urban and complex economy.  Deciding was not only a matter of figuring out which characteristic had what the others did not, but also what is fundamentally most crucial to the building of a state.  While complex economies foster technological growth from learning from other cultures, make previously unavailable resources available (trade), and lead to competition and expansion into an empire, it is not the most important factor.  I asked myself if complex economies could offer everything agriculture could: could you simply trade for enough crops to supply a growing state?  While technically I suppose it is possible, it is not very reliable.  As a general rule complete dependency on another state does not a successful state make.  Any state which attempted to do this probably wouldn’t be around long enough for us to need to learn about them.  I also considered the characteristic “urban”.  It could be argued that this is the most fundamentally important thing as a state is constructed.  After all, if you don’t have enough people in one place, not only is it not easy to build a state, it is not necessary.  I agree that you need the numbers first and foremost.  However, where that large population grows – where the first of its people choose to settle down – depends on the land being fertile.  The ancient Egyptians depended completely on the water of the Nile, and the Indus Valley states have become known as the “Cradle of Civilization” and the “Fertile Crescent” for its crop nurturing environment.  Without the means to supply them with food there would be no large and dense population and no urban type of settlement.  Another way to look at the question of which characteristic is most important to ancient states is to ask which one could they not do without?  The removal of which one led to their collapse?  In writing the first question to the take home exam, I noticed that many of the ancient states we studied experience catastrophic environmental changes just before their fall.  Many of these were droughts, while some were floods or storms, but they all disrupted the most important characteristic to ancient states: agriculture.

Adaptation in Moche and Tiwanaku

The thing that has always most interested me about anthropology is evolution.  It fascinates me to look at characteristics today and be able to figure out why they are that way, that there is a purpose, a reason, an adaptation which overcame a threat to survival.  Adaptation can be seen on many scales from accumulating over millions of years to just a few generations changing their way of life to better suit their surroundings.  I was at once intrigued when the South American cultures were presented as having adapted to a variety of extreme environments along the Andes Mountain Range.  Where these took place, in modern Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, have several directions along which the settings change.  The west coast contains a thin band of fertile micro-climates, the north is mainly desert plain and the east and south are decided more by the Andes Mountains.  The survival strategies in these areas ranged from alpaca and llama herding (animals who themselves are expertly adapted to their specific environment) in the highest altitudes where no agriculture is possible, farming of potatoes, maize, and beans lower down (though still fairly high altitude), and utilization of water wildlife along the west coast low altitudes.  One specific example we were given which I thought was very clever adaptation took place in the highlands of the south central Andes.  Here one difficulty is that it gets fairly hot during the day and very cold at night.  In order to adapt to this dilemma, the Tiwanaku people developed an agricultural technique, “flooded-raised field”, in which mounds of soil are built up above the natural level of the ground and canals are dug through them.  These canals are then filled with water, serving several purposes.  Most obviously this supplies the crops with moisture, but it also serves to absorb the heat of the day and emit it during the night, keeping the crops from getting too cold.

We also see these cultures’ political strategies adapt to the environment.  In the lowlands the Moche were able to expand their control by having several satellite political centers which each ruled over individual valleys.  This delegation of power increased their reach without making themselves move over several valleys.  Apart from their religious influence, the Tiwanaku seemed to have expanded their control by taking possession of trade – something both necessary and difficult in mountainous environment.

Though these cultures were well adapted to their extremely variable environment, it was still environment which in the end caused their collapse and led to the vacuum filled by the Inca.

Underwater Archaeology and its Stories

I really enjoyed Dr. Potrebica’s presentation on underwater archaeology: Adriatic underwater history and Croatia underwater heritage.  The sheer number of sites exemplified how pivotal sea travel was to trade, something that is not quite as easy to picture today.  He said that of over 400 hundred sites found so far, 200 are shipwrecks (most of these are Roman), and only 2 were not already looted when archaeologists got there.

My favorite aspect of his talk was how the stories – either of how the sites were discovered or how the shipwreck happened – are pieced together.  For instance, the more than 200 discarded clay pipes near a dock were most likely of sailors waiting to come onto land or go back out to sea.  Also, it can sometimes be easy to view an archaeological site as static, especially ones such as mortuary sites that have been purposefully arranged and deposited; however, the examples of artifacts being discovered in a trail leading to the shipwreck really showed how this was a dynamic moment of sailors battling violent weather by throwing valuable cargo overboard in an effort to save their ship and their lives.  Then of course there is the story larger than just the wreck: where, when, why, and what these ships were traveling.  It seems that this would be especially difficult when dealing with artifacts of trade, as Dr. Potrebica explained, these ships were not simply going from their origin to one destination; they would stop at many ports along the way, picking up and unloading various cargo.  Therefore, by the time of the wreck the ship, which could have been at any point along its route, might have evidence pointing to any variety of locations.  This is why I thought it was so important that Dr. Potrebica explained that to discover the original location of the ship and its crew, the archaeologist must look to the kitchen which would have tools that the men used from the beginning of their voyage and point to their original location.  One detail I thought was pretty amazing that they were able to tell in the story of one ship was the brass bell which had the exact date (1567) engraved.

Lastly, I enjoyed how the presentation showed not only history and artifacts found, but also the field of underwater archaeology and current issues it faces.  Dr. Potrebica explained that while divers feel obligated to bring up artifacts as soon as possible to save them from looters, the next step in the process – restoration – is the slowest and artifacts can also be damaged while waiting to be restored.  This presents a dilemma wherein restorers must go as quickly as possible while also doing quality work.  I was wondering if this means there is a high job demand for restorers, something that is not often seen in archaeology.  I thought the solutions of protective cages around the sites and turning them into underwater museums were very clever.  In some ways it is more informative and interesting for the public to be able to see the wrecks in their original form.

Harappan language and architecture

What intrigues me about the information presented on Harrapa is how much remains unknown.  While we know (in comparison) quite a bit about the ancient trade routes, exports, and urban planning, the very way any of this was communicated is completely unknown.  It seems incredible that in this advanced time of research and discovery that something so fundamental to an ancient culture can be unknown, especially with other ancient states’ (Egypt) written language being very well understood.  It was interesting to learn that clear reasons have been outlined to explain why the language remains undeciphered, mainly that the underlying language is not known, the average inscription length is too short, and no bilingual text has been discovered.  Also, it is hard to even fathom learning a language made of more than four hundred different symbols.  The apparent fact that the two inch square seals – the only evidence of Harappan writing – were made in specialized workshops makes me wonder how integral the written language was to common people, or people not involved directly in trade.  Today it seems hard to imagine a functioning society without a commonplace script.

Another interesting aspect to our study of Harappan culture is how little we know about the language is contrasted with how much we know about the architecture.  While the language has died out the architecture, urban planning, and even brick manufacturing is remarkably similar today as it was thousands of years ago!  It is very neat to see the cultural continuity as displayed in the geometric and logical blueprint of streets and the immense usage of fired mud bricks (even the mud brick kiln is made of mud bricks).  One detail I found myself wondering about was the specific dimensions of the individual bricks.  The way I understood it, they measure the same all over the region, across hundreds of sites, millions of bricks, and even into today.  What is it about these dimensions that made the bricks so versatile?  Why not produce different sized bricks for different sized buildings or different requirements of structural integrity?  It didn’t sound like there is any evidence of Harappan people ever manufacturing bricks of different measurements, not even earlier on.  This is intriguing because we often find there is an evolution, a progression, in style, size, composition, etc. such as with the Egyptian pyramids.  How is it that they got it right the first time?

While some is known about ancient Harappan culture, even more remains a mystery.  This is what makes it interesting and difficult to compare it with other ancient states.

Blog Post 1

Something I’ve noticed throughout most anthropology subjects is a shared ability to defeat misconceptions.  So far this class is no exception.  It always amazes me how much we think we know about something we know nothing about, and even more so when we don’t know how little we know.   From generalizations and common misconceptions to stereotypes and the wrongful placement of continuous spectra into discrete categories (the historical idea of essentialism), we as humans seem to have a natural tendency to impose simplicity onto complex concepts.  We have seen perfectly clear examples of this with the classic theories and the legacy of those researchers of the 19th century.  Early in class we were presented with the original ideas of how ancient states emerge and each focused on specific, individual factors such as irrigation, urbanism, technology and trade, and warfare.  As it turned out, this was one of those situations in which a complex process was wrongly attributed to finite causes.  We all know that it was most likely a mixture.  Similarly, the influential St. Augustine declared that historical processes occur in a linear fashion with progress and inevitability as defined by a divine plan; all roads lead from simple to complex and complex is better.  Unfortunately this idea and its byproducts stuck in the field and contributed to much of the bias, racism, and ethnocentrism observed in history.  However, when studying different cultures (including those in past history) we know not to place judgment but to use cultural relativism and study each context as its own.

We again see these patterns when studying Egypt.  The transition to a unified Egypt is just that, a transition.  However, there has always been the want to pinpoint exactly who, what, and when caused this.  While the want for a clear, direct answer shows up in many fields, I believe it is so persistent in this scenario because the evidence is discrete.  This seems to be one of the main challenges of archaeology, to piece together the full spectrum of a society using only individual, finite artifacts.  It is easy to overstate the significance of a single artifact. As Dr. Watrall emphasized, it is not only impossible to pinpoint a single person or event that unified Egypt, it is also meaningless.  The important thing to study is the process.  Unification actually happened over the lives of several rulers and no single event caused it, even though Narmer and the destruction of Buto are often focused on.  The study of Egypt and the field of archaeology as a whole demonstrate the importance of considering the entire process, not oversimplifying for clear, convenient answers.