Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Gather the Bones, 11: 1450: Turtle Island Before Columbus: Or, The Conquest of Paradise By Something I'm Not Really Responsible For

Look! It's snide mockery of Charles C. Mann. And a reluctant appreciation of John Ralston Saul, not afraid to issue a book that rips off the Canadian Bandaid and sinks like a stone. Ordinarily not the kind of compatriot that I appreciate, (Cry me a river, Tubby),but I commend his courage.

So let's start with a review of the facts at hand.

No, let's start with today's dubious musical provocation. At the end of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe references Christ, "who was born across the sea." I've heard it said (strawman alert!) that she captures the problem of American Christianity.* It's a foreign import with no authentically American roots.

 Yeah, right. If you want to pull the other one** after this, I'll dig up snake-handlers.  

No. Wait again. I'll dig up snake handlers anyway.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Plantation of the Atlantic, IX: The Road to Norumbega

Eben Norton Horsford might deserve to go down in history as the single worst American patent troll of the Nineteenth Century. I know that would be a pretty impressive accomplishment when we look at how much money Andrew Carnegie extracted out of the Bessemer process, or find Linus Yale's patent locks in archaeological sites from before history began, but at least those early locks are made of wood, and, unlikely as it might seem, one can only be skeptical about the American rival patent to Bessemer's on the basis of an absence of evidence. Horsford, on the other hand, managed to make a fortune by "inventing" baking powder well after Oetker and Bird had done the same in Europe.

What's more, although I may be hallucinating a memory, I think that there's a scene in Little Lord Fauntleroy where the intermittently obnoxious Hull is asked to show off American democratic culture in song, and stumbles through a rendition of the "Golden Griddle Song." Memory, fantasy, whatever. The next stop on my personal free-association train finishes off the line of thought.

So perhaps some minor sense of inadequacy with regards to astronauts, or, on the other hand, inanimate carbon rods. And more; for while Horsford was rich, respected, and philanthropic, he was also a Bostoner. And nearby Newport, Rhode Island, had this.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Eighteenth Century: Building a Better Future Through Higher Energy Density?

No "series" post here, but I missed a moment in the blogosphere a few weeks ago when people were talking about how the transition to high intensity energy use (burning coal, that is), created modernity. So this whole global warming thing has us back on the road to the caves, or something. It's nice to see John Landers' closely argued thesis finally get some traction.

On the other hand, I was disappointed by The Field and the Forge. It's not that I disagreed with it or anything. I just thought that Landers was offering the wrong global explanatory framework, one that has already gone sideways in Chinese history. So now that the moment has passed me by, my unfashionably late thoughts.

Also, links to myself: this isn't one of my little series, but it is a sequel to this, this, and above all, to this. Above all, it's bout taking Daniel Szechi seriously.
So let's get  in the mood!

So what does coal have to do with romanticising the Celts this time? Here's the meditation: sure, "The Skye Boat Song" is another sporran-full of schmaltz. ( I was going to post the Real McKenzies' version, but that particular selection challenged my heteronormative assumptions, and how often does an old-fashioned historian get to say "heteronormative?" Besides,  it's not a particularly impressive reinterpretation.) Old Kenneth McKellar, on the other hand, is pretty powerfully affecting. At least, to me, but then I've probably been exposed to more of his over-orchestrated prime than most. The Skye Boat Song is about the whole "lost cause" thing, and having an old man sing it seems to catch what the song is about (now) very well. "Seems," he said. There those Hanoverian spin doctors go again. People get old. Countries and political options don't. Find a way to buy enough people (and, admittedly, it would have to be a very large "lots"), and the Jacobite restoration could happen tomorrow.

What's really going on is simple enough. If you can't put a solid, rational argument for preferring the Hanoverian dynasty to the Stuarts, you use illegitimate rhetorical devices instead. If that makes the practice of history harder two centuries down the road, well that's a problem for the historians of two centuries in the future.
That is, if you care enough to be seen making bad arguments in public, something that good people don't do unless they think there's something important at stake. So it's time to talk about what's important, and where it leads.

Sigh. It's money, of course. And the conjunction of money and politics and guilty, weak arguments leads to foreign military misadventures, and corrupt people getting rich. But before I mutter about how the more things change and retire to cultivate my garden, I am going to stop and propose that it also led to the industrial revolution, in a much clearer way than the notional proposition that people suddenly discovered that coal burned real good.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, IV: Why Pylos?

Another month's end, another set of disappointing economic results. Endless arguments about how public policy should respond to what seems to be a slide towards deflation. Maybe it is because it is election time in the United States that things seem both to be at their worst. (But when isn't it?) Is this going to be the new normal? Take it from this sometime Germanist: deflation can be normal. And that's not a good thing. Clearly, deflationary cycles can be broken by public policy. There's the Great Depression for an example, and also the way in which, in the early modern and above all the Nineteenth Century, deflationary cycles were broken by gold rushes and silver booms.It might seem apparent that the more valuable money becomes, the more there is to be made in winning it from the ground, but in reality, this was public policy at work.

How so? Money is not bullion. Money is a social artifact. We know that. We can define it as bullion,but an act of policy (specifically, the act of policy of saying that we don't understand these things and don't care to) is an act of policy. And we have a counter-example. For, whatever the causes of the end of the Roman Empire(it is, after all, far more common to read this as an episode of inflation than my counter-intuitive speculation abut deflation), there was evident currency disorder that didn't lead to the opening of the Saxon mines. If the end of the Roman Empire were a deflation, it was one in which increases in circulating money was not enough. There was a lack of demand that needed slating, but by, I suggested, by the restoration of  credit. I don't know. Does that make sense?

Anyway, if we're going to talk about policy lessons from past catastrophic, state-system-ending deflations, perhaps one accompanied by the appearance of a major new technology is more relevant to modern times. (Also, plant lipids, if anyone's wondering.) That would be the Late Bronze Age Collapse, perhaps the clearest case of a state system collapse accompanied by the rise of a really fundamental new technology, ironworking. In 1300BC, iron was a precious guest-present for kings, a metal given value by rarity and a connection with the Stormgod of Heaven.  In the c. 1050BC Lekandi "heroön" burial, iron tools and weapons have largely displaced bronze. That's our framework: state collapse and the appearance of a socially-disruptive but transformative technology. It only remains to find a deep causal link and really get this gloom-fest on the road.

Or not. All this modern talk is really just a framing device. What I really think is that the LBA collapse and following "Dark Age" is just too fascinating not to explore. The Middle Bronze Age collapse was "normal." These things happened all the time back then. The fall of the Roman Empire was earth-shattering. So the LBA collapse is a transitional moment --more reason to ask whether this particular technological change was somehow irreversible.

So just to refine our temporal parameters, I'm going to lay out what looks like a timeframe to me. Sometime after it occurred (obviously) Suppiluliuma II recorded a 1210 BC naval victory over Alasiya. Some people take that as foreshadowing, but I don't. Admirality is expensive, something for powerful rulers to indulge in, and the fact that it is commemorated in an impressive and expensive new monument at Hattusa tells us more.  Yet our only account of Suppiluliuma's later years is a king list that closes his reign in 1187, done by a pretender to his throne at Carchemish. And, nice as Carchemish is, it is not Hattusa. On its face, while a Hittite successor state may survive, it has lost its capital and its heartland. .

Another way to look at the time frame of the collapse is through the Assyrian annals. These sources suggest  the death of Tiglath-Pileser I in 1076 as a date for decline, and the accession of  Adad-nirari II (911BC) for a restoration. Or we can take the decision by the priests of Amun at Thebes to consolidate all of the royal mummies from the tombs at the Valley of the Kings in a single cache as an admission of defeat. State power had lost the fight against social disorder.

The long span of dates is justified by a centre-periphery mode,according to which the decline begins at the edge of the larger Middle Eastern world and moves inwards. Thus, when,in the very same annals we use to reconstruct the rhythms of the Assyrian state, we find consistent mention royal campaigns against "the Hittites," we find a change in the expected geographical perspective. For us, the story of the end of the Hittites is the fall of one centre (Hattusa), because we understand it as the Hittite heartland. That the Assyrians take this heartland to lie elsewhere perhaps signifies a contraction of highly organised state action towards its heartland. not of a claim to political continuity and ethnic identity. At the same time, we may reasonably ask why it was Cappadocia, specifically, that was abandoned. Because it was further away from Assyria is not much of an answer!

As for the priests of Amun, they are certainly preserving the ideologically vital mummies of dead royalty, but you don't have to be a dialectical materialist to notice that they didn't they re-inter most of the precious treasures  originally consigned to the royal graves. I can make up a story about deflation here, and others have, according to which all of this buried money must be recirculated, but the when of that recirculation matters.

Another way to tell this story is the way that Ángelos Chaniótis does here,quoting Curtis Runnels' fascinating observation (presumably from here; Google Books doesn't seem to want to let me look at bibliographies) that metals, which embed investment, experience and exchange, make an excellent medium for the storage of (social) capital. On the face of it, bronze, although less expensive than bullion, makes a better store of value. For while both gold and silver could be mined with the Middle East, tin entered the region from outside. From a strictly practical analysis, it would make little sense for a Middle Eastern state to turn bronze into a currency standard without knowing the rate at which tin was entering the region, but it is likely that no prince of that era would have even realised that such a statistic could potentially be known, much less what a currency standard might be. An exogenous collapse in the "price" of bronze due to a steady acceleration in the inflow of tin is surely a part of this story, but only a part of it, or we would find an effort to sterilise this inflow, something on the order of the explosion of tripod dedications at Olympia in the 700s.  

This is because, as I understand or recall some half-remembered articles encountered while browsing that lately deceased institution, the periodical stacks, the Late Bronze Age already had the rudiments of an international bullion standard, with standardised weights in lieu of coinage.* It clearly lacked a theoretical apparatus that would have allowed it to understand the workings of its own financial sector, but if bronze hoards weren't sustaining the state, silver and gold hoards would seem able to serve. But it didn't. The near-simultaneous collapse of Pylos and the other Mycenaean palace-principalities is still difficult to understand or conceptualise in this framework. The  financial instrument upon which they relied to store labour and speculative gains and reputation was suddenly, inexplicably losing its value, and the world was unwinding. Sure. Sort of like this, I think. Deflation breeds a hunger for money, but we're still left to explain the collapse in demand. Can iron do that, ahead of its introduction as a tool metal? Yes, I think that it can. (Or, rather, it can if we get away from too much specificity about the actual material.)

Or, it's a theory, anyway. Pulled out of my nether regions, of course, but remember: the project is a world history. That's like a license for ass-pulling!

And, thanks to the Web, I can also circle back on things that I can at least claim to know, specifically, the Battle of Navarino. Poor old Richard Helmstadter** would probably shake his head at hearing me claim to understand the Nineteenth Century context of the Greek Wars of Liberation way back there in London, but I do have a PhD field to my credit, enough to see that the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Navarino is a pretty good summary, and well linked. Here's an aerial, apparently a 1943 RAF surveillance photo. of the Bay of Navarino. Pylos seems to be just north of the crop, but you can see the flat and fertile land below it on the way to the Bay.
Linked via Wikipedia article***
In 1827, something happened here. 10 battleships-of-the-line and 10 frigates against 3 battleships and 17 frigates, plus lots of lesser vessels of very little importance. Was it this?

Or this?

That's history for you: one event, multiple interpretations. We humans. Bubbly Dutch girls against bare-armed leather boys. Warriors of the Faith verus warriors of Progress. 

Yeah. Enough of that. Here's a utilitarian point: the Bay of Navarino is an excellent anchorage, and big enough to stage a naval battle. Yet the lord of Pylos went to the trouble of excavating an artificial port in the dunes only 10 miles north. That, I modestly argue, tells us something concrete about the Late Bronze Age collapse. Sure, it's all a complex tapestry (if you're a real Simpsons fan, you'll remember the context of the quote from a little later in the episode), but here's a telling fact.