Archaeology of States and Civilizations Research Paper

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1. Civilizations

‘Civilization’ has had two meanings in reference to ancient societies both of which require critical review. First, civilization has designated complex prehistoric cultures with productive economies, class stratification, and striking intellectual and artistic achievements. Civilization in this sense has contrasted with ‘primitive’ or ‘tribal’ societies i.e., societies with modest subsistence economies, egalitarian social relations, and less extravagant art and science. Civilizations have been equated with progress and cultural superiority, a view promoted by European elites of the early modern era. Using ideas of civilization and progress, these elites assumed the role of civilizing agents to legitimate their domination of the working class at home and colonial peoples abroad. Modern anthropologists reject narratives of civilization and progress, preferring less ethnocentric accounts of non-Western cultures. Anthropologists now use more neutral terms to refer to the complex cultures of the ancient world, calling them complex societies or archaic states.



Civilization has also referred to the enduring cultural traditions of the specific regions of the world. Distinctive cultural principles characterized large geographical areas of the world for long periods of time, outliving the expansion and collapse of individual polities. For example, the idea of cyclical time was a fundamental principle among the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec people of ancient Mesoamerica, and it is an idea that persists today among indigenous peoples in Mexico and Guatemala. While contemporary anthropologists recognize the persistence of such orienting concepts, they reject the possible inference that these long-lived ideas imply cultural stasis. In the past as in the present, old concepts were reinterpreted in the face of new situations. Nor do these enduring principles imply uncontested social harmony. People of different social standing might share a set of cultural principles, but still arrive at different conclusions regarding appropriate behavior.

2. States

State has been a more useful term for analyzing complex societies. States are powerful, specialized institutions for public decision-making and control. State government was the most important element of complex ancient societies. The state created a surplus economy that supported many of the other institutions characteristic of complex societies: infra-structural investments, administrative bureaucracies, full-time craft specialization, long distance trade, market exchange, law courts, armies, and priesthoods. Every archaic state had among its key institutions: (a) some form of surplus extraction e.g., corvee, tribute, or taxation; (b) a bureaucracy that supervised the upward flow of tribute payments and the downward flow of tribute demands, and (c) coercive institutions, including armies, law courts, and police, to ensure tribute payment.

Archaeologists once characterized archaic states as having relatively simple systems of class stratification: nobles and commoners, or tribute-receivers and tribute-payers. But more recently, archaeologists have emphasized the diversity of groups within the state, their complex interactions, and the state’s chronic instability. Archaic states were constantly threatened by both internal and external forces. High-ranking nobles led factions that competed for positions of rule. Provincial leaders stood ready to declare their independence from state control. Lineages and ethnic groups resisted the state’s appropriation of their collective assets. Households tried to evade the state’s demands on their goods and labor. The history of states and civilizations is the history of strategy and counter-strategy deployed by oppositional groups, leading to the development of complex societies and their dissolution.

3. Key Characteristics Of Archaic States—Economics

Economic activity in archaic states was guided by the principles of efficiency, security, and control. All economic actors took into account the efficiency (e.g., the cost : return ratio) of economic alternatives. But peasants and household-based craft specialists often sacrificed efficiency for security; that is, they avoided economic alternatives that placed their annual subsistence at risk. States, on the other hand, often sacrificed efficiency for control; that is, they organized some forms of production so as to monopolize output rather than to maximize returns. Peasants, too, were sometimes guided by their desire for control; they were inclined to produce goods whose attributes (e.g., perishability) made state appropriation less likely.

3.1 Agricultural And Pastoral Systems

Archaic states were characterized by highly productive agricultural systems. The vast majority of these states were dependent upon agriculture augmented by some form of water-control, terracing, and/or fertilizer. Mexico is famous for its chinampas (raised fields), Peru for its terrace systems, Mesopotamia for its irrigation canals, and China for its rice paddies. Such systems enhanced both agricultural productivity and reliability.

At one time, archaeologists believed that states came into existence in order to construct and manage intensified agricultural systems as a response to the problem of population pressure (this is the ‘hydraulic hypothesis’ of state formation). But periods of state formation do not coincide with periods of population pressure, and the study of contemporary irrigation systems in tribal societies suggests that such systems can be built and managed without centralized forms of government.

States did have good reason to construct agricultural facilities. First, such systems provided income to the state. Agricultural facilities constructed with corvee labor represented prime agricultural land that the state could claim as its own without alienating existing property owners. Second, agricultural facilities attracted tax-paying settlers. Peasants were drawn to newly available, high quality land, and they were willing to pay for access to it. Third, agricultural facilities expanded food production within the immediate hinterlands of political capitals, making it possible to feed the urban populace. The desire for more land, greater crop security, and larger quantities of marketable food also led peasant households to invest in agricultural facilities on their own. Statesponsored agricultural investment can be distinguished from peasant investment through careful study: uniformity in the timing and techniques used in facility construction are the best indicators of state sponsorship.

The long-term environmental consequences of agricultural development was a potentially destabilizing factor in all ancient states. In Mesopotamia, irrigation led to the salinization of the soil, first causing agriculturalists to switch from wheat to more salt-tolerant barley and then to abandon salinized areas all together.

3.2 Tribute, Taxes, and Private Estates

All archaic states needed wealth to fund their centralized power. Taxes could be paid in labor, goods, or currency. A tribute in labor was least likely to provoke peasant resistance, since labor could be ‘reciprocated’ with food and drink, presented to workers by the state in a party-like atmosphere. This form of taxation may characterize the earliest states (i.e., states that still had to contend with kinship groups and kinship norms) or states that legitimated their rule with ideologies of collective wellbeing. A tribute in goods may have its origins in the spoils of war, tribute representing spoils paid on a sustained-yield basis. Agricultural staples and woven cloth were the most common forms of tribute goods, but metals, precious stones, and other exotic valuables were also collected. Tribute foodstuffs were used to feed state personnel. Tribute luxury goods enabled rulers to reward loyal servants and to control the formation of social identities.

Because of their bulk, tribute goods were often stored in provincial warehouses, potentially funding revolts by provincial leaders. Substituting a monetary tax for tribute goods reduced transport costs and provided more centralized control over wealth. But monetary taxation occurred only in conjunction with market systems, where money could be converted into needed goods and services.

Tribute demands often transformed rural landscapes and households. Greek farm families under Roman rule abandoned their rural farmsteads and moved to towns where economic diversification could supplement their incomes and provide the necessary cash for taxes. In the Valley of Oaxaca, the state’s demand for maize led to the cultivation of more distant fields which, in turn, altered routines of food preparation. More dry foods (i.e., tortillas) were made so that meals could be carried and eaten away from home.

Peasant households sometimes tried to escape tribute payments. In Mexico under the Aztecs, maguey cultivation expanded, perhaps because its perishable sap was not easily appropriated by the state. In Mesopotamia, peasant families wishing to avoid taxation sometimes fled to the mountains, becoming nomadic pastoralists.

3.3 Urbanism

Archaic states provided the setting for the earliest cities i.e., large, socially-heterogeneous, permanent settlements. These cities were religious and political centers; their economic functions were much less important than is the case for modern cities. Cities housed the administrative machinery of the state, usually in a multi-roomed palace complex. High-ranking nobles, bureaucrats, and military personnel resided in the capital so that their activities could be directed and monitored by the ruler. Most state capitals also contained shrines, temples, and the residences of high-ranking priests. The concentration of political elites in the capital provided a clientele for enterprising craftspeople, merchants, and other service providers, who swelled the urban populace. Early cities did not supply many of the tools or meager furnishings used by rural peasants; these were usually produced in hinterland towns and villages, by part-time craft specialists.

In several cases, the growth of ancient cities was accompanied by the emptying out of the countryside. Both Uruk (Mesopotamia) and Teotihuacan (Mexico) grew explosively at the expense of rural settlements. In these cities, peasant farmers and farm laborers made up as much as 75 percent of the urban population. Both push and pull factors may have moved farmers from the country to the city. The security, sanctity, and commercial opportunities of the city provided powerful draws; at the same time, rural people may have been forcibly removed to the cities in order to facilitate supervision by the state and to loosen their claims on the land.

Cities developed only minimally in early Egypt. In Egypt, the concentration of population along the banks of the Nile, and the ease of water-bourne communication up and down the river, may have made it unnecessary to concentrate elites and rituals in urban centers.

3.4 Markets

Markets often appear in conjunction with cities. Anthropologists are divided on the issue of whether markets developed from the ‘top down’ or from the ‘bottom up.’ ‘Top down’ theorists postulate that markets developed from the demands of urban elites for food and status goods. ‘Bottom up’ theorists view markets as developing from the efforts of peasants to enhance the efficiency and/or economic security of their households by participating in specialized production and exchange.

Regardless of their origins, markets attracted the attention of political leaders. Market taxes were an important source of revenue to rulers, and markets provided an efficient means of provisioning cities. States provided both direct and indirect stimuli to market growth. Rulers promoted markets by offering merchants protection against thieves and bandits and maintaining market order. Indirectly, states stimulated market participation by peasant households. Tribute demands forced peasants to become more efficient producers, engaging in specialized production and market exchange. In addition, the social hierarchies that accompanied state formation sometimes prompted peasants to consume specialist-produced goods to enhance their social standing.

In the long run, markets weakened the state’s control over the economy. Merchant guilds, formed during periods of state collapse, resisted state control of the economy. The wide array of goods offered for market sale made it difficult to enforce the state’s sumptuary rules limiting certain forms of food and dress to state-designated groups. Buying and selling conferred economic power upon individuals who were not state functionaries.

3.5 Full-Time Craft Specialists

Many forms of craft specialization antedate the origins of states. In tribal societies, it is not unusual for households or entire villages to specialize in ceramic production, stone tool production, or even metallurgy. This craft activity is carried out on a part-time basis in conjunction with basic subsistence activities. Craft products are distributed in reciprocal exchanges to strengthen social ties and/or to acquire goods from other specialists. Rural, part-time specialization of this sort was also present in archaic states, often enhanced by the opportunities for exchange provided by urban markets.

In situations of incipient social inequality, some craft specialists produced very elaborate goods that required heavy expenditures of labor. These ‘hypertrophic’ goods (such as embroidered textiles, jade earspools, stone sculptures, heavy bronze vessels, and gold jewelry) were commissioned by aspiring leaders to legitimate their claims to social worth. The craftsmen filling these commissions were part-time specialists either living in their own households or as members of the leader’s high-ranking family.

The earliest full-time craft specialists in archaic states were the dependents of state rulers. Rulers supported craft specialists to maintain exclusive control over their output. Controlling sumptuary goods enabled rulers to consolidate their power by rewarding loyal servants and controlling social identities. Thus, for example, the Inka ruler supported a certain number of yanakuna and aqllakuna, full-time specialists in metallurgy and elaborate textile production. Gold and silver jewelry and embroidered textiles were used by the ruler to denote statuses within the state hierarchy. Maya rulers sponsored elite kinsmen who specialized in the production of elaborate painted ceramic vessels. Used in royal funerary rituals, these vessels confirmed the noble status of families. Egypt’s pharaohs supported entire towns of craftsmen dedicated to the preparation of royal tombs. Royal patronage accounts for the high levels of skill and artistry that characterize the finest works of archaic states.

Full-time craft specialization also emerged in more commercial contexts when a high demand for craft goods (usually for export trade) combined with developed transportation networks and a steady supply of marketed food. These conditions were met most fully in the Mediterranean world where the waterbourne transport of food staples from one broad region to another underwrote really large-scale production and exchange. In late precolonial India and China, reliable agricultural systems combined with riverine and oxcart transport yielded similarly high levels of commercial production and exchange.

4. Key Characteristics Of Archaic States—Social Organization

Social heterogeneity is the defining characteristic of complex societies. In addition to the occupational diversity described above, the intersection of class, gender, and ethnicity created an array of social statuses and life histories in the ancient world.

4.1 Class Stratification

In the earliest states, the division between classes was based on political rather than economic status. A key division within society was between those who paid tribute and those who received it. Tribute was paid to the ruler who distributed it to servants of the state (usually close relatives). Key personnel were endowed with their own streams of tribute flow. Thus, the tribute-collecting class in archaic states comprised the ruler and his close relatives, high-ranking military personnel, government administrators, priests, and surviving elements of the pre-state nobility. For the governing class, wealth, power, and prestige coincided and were mutually reinforcing. Conversely, tributepayers suffered a lower standard of living, a lack of formal power, and low social status.

Archaeological and historical research reveals significant variability within the commoner class. For example, Aztec households varied by size, composition, wealth, and ethnic affiliation. Rural households chose different combinations of agricultural production and craft activity. This variability complicates the traditional view that commoners were a homogeneous class. It suggests that commoners were divided by demographic, economic, and social factors.

Slaves constituted a class below commoners. Slaves were captured in warfare, purchased through the slave trade, or sentenced to servitude as punishment for crimes or failed debts. Among Aztecs and Mayas, slaves were used as household servants, but they were never very numerous. In Mesopotamia, large numbers of female war captives worked at textile production, and this may have set a precedent for the use of slave labor in commodity production. The use of slave labor in commercial enterprises was extremely important in highly commercialized economies of ancient Greece and Rome.

Private property sometimes developed out of warfare-based economic systems. In China and Aztec Mexico, lands that were seized in warfare and redistributed to loyal soldiers constituted an early form of private property. In Mesopotamia, private property developed long after states arose, through the gradual sale of lands belonging to kinship units to secular or religious elites.

4.2 Gender

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1972 [1884]), Frederick Engels argued that the development of private property brought about the state (to maintain wealth differences) and the patriarchal family (to insure the legitimacy of inheriting offspring). In the process, women’s status declined from a position of approximate equality with men to an inferior position. This was the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex.’ Modern historic and archaeological scholarship suggests that institutions such as private property and the patriarchal family are not universal characteristics of ancient states, nor is the subordination of women. Nevertheless, gender relations and ideologies were frequently renegotiated during the process of state formation, with results that were detrimental to women.

The status of women in states was undermined by several factors. First, states were commonly created and maintained through warfare, and war was usually men’s work. Through warfare, men gained access to spoils, a form of wealth that was not household-dependent. In addition, rulers often glorified male warriors and rewarded them with administrative positions in order to maintain their loyalty. Thus, warfare provided avenues of wealth, prestige and power for men that were not available to women. Furthermore, rulers dismantled kinship groups, which were nodes of resistance to state rule. These kinship groups often provided the primary rationale and defense of women’s rights in ancient societies, and when they were destroyed, women were left without social recourse. It is not surprising, therefore, that many archaic states favored men. Ancient Rome and ancient China both awarded great authority to male household heads. The Classic Maya and the Aztecs conferred public prestige upon male warriors, and men dominated these state governments.

However, the subordination of women to men was not universal. States that legitimated their rule with ideologies of collective wellbeing did not emphasize warfare and did not stress gender difference. These states might have included Teotihuacan (Mexico), the Harappan states of the Indus Valley, and Egypt under the pharaohs. In the Andes, a long tradition of parallel descent favored gender equality. Even in states where patriarchy was the norm, high-ranking women were wealthier and more powerful than lower class men (i.e., class trumped gender). In peasant families, women’s contribution to the household economy often translated into approximate gender equality. In addition, women found forums for resistance outside of the state. Female oracles provided social critique in Oaxaca Mexico, ancient Greece, and the Andes.

4.3 Ethnicity

Ethnicity is an identity based upon a presumption of shared history and common cultural inheritance. Ethnic identity is shaped by both ethnic affiliation and ethnic attribution. Ethnic affiliation refers to individuals’ own sense of group membership and the characteristics of the group as defined by its members. Ethnic attribution concerns the characteristics of the group as defined by outsiders.

States acted opportunistically and inconsistently in dealing with ethnicity. Sometimes they suppressed ethnic affiliation to weaken the resistance of subject groups to the state. At other times they encouraged ethnic affiliation to accentuate division within the commoner class. States also used derogatory ethnic stereotypes to legitimize their exploitation of subject peoples. For example, Aztecs depicted their Otomı subjects as lazy, improvident, untrained blockheads and gaudy dressers. Stereotyping and ethnic prejudice generally heightened ethnic consciousness and perpetuated ethnic heterogeneity within ancient states.

5. Key Characteristics Of Archaic States—Religion And World Views

5.1 State Religion

All archaic states had an official religion with standardized temples and full-time priests. Rulers’ patronage of religion may have sprung from either piety or cynical efforts to manipulate the subordinate class. Either way, religion provided a powerful political resource that was actively exploited by ancient rulers.

Many archaeologists argue that state religion was used to forge a unified polity out of distinctive subject peoples and to legitimize the ruler’s authority. For example, Chinese rulers tried to force cultural uniformity upon all the groups that they conquered, and Confucian philosophers declared that just rulers held the ‘Mandate of Heaven.’ The Incas’ effort to impose cultural uniformity on their subjects is archaeologically visible in provincial capitals where large plazas were constructed using Inca architectural forms. Local people gathered in these plazas to attend state- sponsored rituals.

In contrast, Aztec state religion was not geared to produce a uniform world view within the empire, nor to sanctify Aztec rulers in the eyes of their subjects. Rather, Aztec religion was intended to win the loyalty of a relatively small target group, the young men who formed the core of the Aztec army, by imbuing their military exploits with cosmological significance. In the Aztec hinterlands, distinctive forms of ceramic figurines suggest that commoners did not accept the state’s ideology; on the contrary, commoners successfully maintained their own world view. Distinctive commoner ideologies may have been present in all archaic states, challenging the official point of view.

5.2 Monumental Architecture

The earliest monuments were megalithic tombs and earthworks built by groups that were still organized using kinship principles. These monuments were probably constructed during communal rituals, when aspiring leaders sought social prominence by sponsoring group festivities. Under state rule, monumental construction increased in scale, creating some of the most striking icons of the ancient world: Egypt’s pyramids, Mesopotamia’s ziggurats, the colossus of Zeus at Rhodes. It is estimated that the great Pyramid of Khafu (Cheops) required 13,440,000 person-days of labor.

Some monuments may have been constructed by a willing populace, motivated by civic pride and religious devotion. This would have been most likely in states that legitimated their rule with ideologies of collective wellbeing. At Teotihuacan, for example, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon may have been constructed in a surge of popular enthusiasm. In states relying upon coercive rule, monument construction expressed submission to the state. Aztec rulers invited subject communities to participate in the construction of the Great Temple in Tenochtitlan, and refusals to participate were considered acts of rebellion.

Through their size, monumental structures symbolized the ruler’s exclusive link to supernatural forces. Monumental structures also expressed overwhelming power of the state and the fact of commoners’ subordination. Large buildings and massive sculptures imposed themselves on social space and human psyches. In the words of Antonio Gilman (1996), they showed ‘who was boss.’

5.3 Writing

Writing developed in archaic states for many different reasons. The earliest texts, from Mesopotamia at 3300 BCE, recorded the economic transactions of large temple estates. In ancient Egypt and Mesoamerica, writing was first used to record the exploits of rulers. The earliest Chinese inscriptions were questions carved on turtle carapaces and the shoulder blades of cattle for the purposes of divination. In all cases, writing was an elite activity. Writing can be regarded the product of elite efforts to establish and to preserve a single, authoritative record of events and to make its voice stronger than the spoken words of its subjects.

6. The Rise And Fall Of Archaic States

In the 1970s, archaeologists believed that states arose to manage environmental problems. Since states are powerful administrative institutions, state officials can function as highly effective problem solvers. They can construct large-scale irrigation networks, insure populations against crop failure, administer markets, organize warfare, and sponsor long-distance trade. Archaeological evidence confirms that archaic states did oversee some of these activities. However, the evidence for these activities usually dates to a few centuries after state formation; thus, the problem-solving capacity of states does not appear to account for their origins.

More recently, archaeologists have begun to account for state origins by examining how individuals acquire social power. In one model, dynamic, ambitious leaders assemble coalitions of followers by sponsoring feasts and distributing gifts. Each leader with his followers then competes against other leaders and followers to establish dominance, first on the local, then on the regional, level. In these systems, personal prestige is emphasized, and dominance may be maintained through naked force. In a second model, leaders attract a broader following, by appealing to ideologies of collective wellbeing. State formation is more ‘volunteeristic,’ resembling a religious movement, and there is broad-based participation in collective rituals and public monument-building. Leaders are more anonymous, and when force is used, it is used on behalf of society as a whole. It has been suggested that the flamboyant Maya and the Shang rulers might exemplify the outcome of the first (individualizing) strategy, whereas the Teotihuacan (Mexico) and Harappan states might be products of the second (corporate) strategy.

Archaic states were complex, often fragile, social structures. Social dominance required balancing the needs and power of diverse social segments. Sudden shocks and long-term problems threatened the delicate balance. Over-population, excessive tax burdens, climatic deterioration or invading barbarians, all threatened to topple archaic states at one time or another. Egypt’s Old Kingdom collapsed when provincial officials became increasingly independent of the pharaoh’s rule; the Middle Kingdom fell because bureaucrats at the center absorbed too much of the state’s wealth. Competition among the independent Classic Maya kingdoms led the Maya to over-exploit their resources and, finally, to abandon their homes. The surprise is not that archaic states eventually collapsed, but that ruling elites could devise institutional structures that enabled states to endure, sometimes for centuries at a time.


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