Saturday, November 11, 2017

Soap, Ash and Hope Chests: The Iron Age Revival of the State

It was, perhaps, just before Year 1 of the New Era of Ramesses XI, the age of the Whm Mswt, the Era of the Renaissance, that the foreigner, Nessamun, cozened a few gullible masons into joining him in breaking into the tomb of Ramesses VI and removing a cauldron of bronze and three bronze washing bowls. I say "perhaps," because it is likely that the trial was the cause celebre leading to the purges that lie behind the New Era. It certainly wasn't about protecting the tombs, which would be systematically opened and their goods removed, with the sacred mummies deposited in the Deir el-Bahri cache, along with an apology so unctuous that clarified butter would not melt in its mouth. 

When a civil war needs to be funded, piety has to take a back seat; and a civil war that has no end, has no resolution, because there is no state to resolve it. Not until Adad-nirani succeeded to the throne of his father in 911BC did a state arise to trouble the nucleated, strong-man ruled cities of the Middle East, each with their vague spheres of influence. I do not doubt that I am putting things too strongly, but it does remain the case that for two and almost three centuries, human society in the Mediterranean basin had done without the states that had arisen in the Late Bronze Age to make war and diplomacy against each other. I also do not doubt that this stateless era was something short of a paradise.

I do, however, know that I am going in this afternoon to work the third of eight shifts in a row at a grocery store that can no longer open its produce department with its own staff during vacation weeks. Nor can I complain about my shift to a manager who is called in during her own vacations. Since this is a grocery store situated square at the University of British Columbia's gates, and dependent on student labour for decades, I would be inclined to point a finger at my alma mater's deceptive enrollment practices, were it not for hearing the same complaints from Control Temp people and the Frito-Lay sales rep. Either we find a catchy label to reconceptualise our times and make our problems go away, or we loot Pharaoh's tomb and call it a country. 

I'd strain at some kind of argument about how an era doesn't recognise its pyramids until they're pointed out by foreign tourists, but instead I'll just post another picture of the Vancouver School of Theology-turned-School-of-Economics. Even back in the day when I used to look at the back side of this place from my Gage Tower window, VST mainly subsisted as a residence hall for people kicked out of the official UBC system. Since they were usually disciplinary issues, living at what was ostensibly a theological college, the mind boggles, the more so since I actually knew some of them. Since I don't think that UBC Residences can afford to have disciplinary cases any more, it's understandable that the Administration would want VST off their land. The president's statement in the linked press release has the familiar tone of "we need a new asset portfolio as we moves into the not-actually-existing phase of our institutional existence," which is not an uncommon problem in these sad, latter days. On the other hand,  obviously the Economics Department deserves to hang out in a cathedral in the "theological area" of campus. Good God, guys. 

Or we could solve the problem. Given that that seems unpossible in this diminished day and age, it's look at one place where it was solved. Just to simplify things, and to use some reading I've done anyway, since the whole point of belabouring my work schedule is to rationalise a time-saving post, let's look at Provence, from the last third of the Eighth Century to the late Fifth. (730--480BC, more-or-less.)

That means that I'm cheating, inasmuch as there is no pre-existing state order in the area to reconstruct, but of course I'm cheating. This post is not going to get done if I linger. (Possible LBA/EIA proto-states in Provence: (1, 2, 3).

This Google Maps clip fits in Avignon, Marseille, the thousand square kilometer (220,000 acres in the old measures) Camargue coastal marshes, and the road to Barcelonnette on the old Via Cottia leading into Italy, although I've clipped the town itself. Not that it matters, because Dominique Garcia and Sophie Bouffier's "Territorial Variations: Natives and Greeks in the Mediterranean Celtic Region," (here), focuses on the establishment and development of Greek Marseille,and its relationship with the surrounding, "Celtic" population. Rome, and the overland connection, do not come into play. 

More specifically, Garcia and Bouffier make their argument on the version of the foundation of the city recorded in Aristotle's Politics, rather than a later one, in which the city is founded by refugees from the Persians, not that the two explanations are incompatible, given what we now know about the gradual development of Greek overseas colony sites from small, isolated empora into cities over this period. 

According to Aristotle's telling, there was a common practice amongst the barbarian nation of the Segobriges, who lived near where the city of Marselle would be founded. Not to waste words, it is a version of the Roman "sacred spring," but, in this case, the new generation of colonists were led by a newly-married royal couple. Aristotle tells the tale of how the Phocaean Greek, Euxenos, just happened to be visiting King Nanus ["Dwarf," hence perhaps "petty king"] of the Segobriges ["Dwellers in the Victorious Fortress," a name otherwise only attested once elsewhere in the literature], when there occurred a banquet, in which the king's daughter, Petta [moitie; "choice morsel;" "best piece"], would offer a "beverage" to one of the guests. She offered it to Euxenos, and, it turns out, the honoree was to be the bridegroom in this Segobrigite sacred spring, leading a generation out to found a new city on the king's land. Euxenos married Petta , and lived with her in the new city, changing her name to Aristoxena [Foreign Noble Lady]. Their son was called Prôtis and there is still an aristocratic clan of Marseille today, called the Protiads, after him.

Amish hope chest with seat rail. I guess that this is the proper Dutch way of saying "Wink wink, nudge nudge."

Vast amounts of this short account seem to demand closer examination, and not just the on-the-nose names. Indeed, every word, from the particular one chosen for "living together," to Aristotle's curious formulation that "it came about" that Petta offered the cup to Euxenos, are worthy of comment. However, as I say, I think this is the takeoff point for the article, even if the incident is buried deep in the text. Garcia and Bouffier underline the reasons why: the marriage is atypical, in that, ordinarily, the bride in an Aegean marriage joins her father-in-law's household and adds to his patrimony. This looks a lot closer to a matrilineal transfer of property, of the kind that will be familiar to any historian of the "foundation myths" of European American settlements amongst the Eastern Woodland Indians. This is a connection that I make, not Garcia and Bouffier, and I will remind the reader of Fenimore Cooper's claim that landed property is just naturally female in Eastern Woodland society, because the garden and home belong to the woman's realm, while the hunting range and wigwam is a male thing. And, of course, the early Nineteenth Century chauvinist says through the mouth of even more chauvinistic Indian braves, clearly superior. 

Yes, I continue to be the only person on Earth who reads the author of Last of the Mohicans as an anthropological authority. More to the point --or perhaps not-- Garcia and Bouffier note the divergent practice of naming the female ancestor. In the classical Greek polis, the gens is associated with the male ancestor, with foreigners under pressure to use an artificial demotic name and not even an aristocratic, "genealogical" name. Female ancestors are only mentioned when they are gods. This is probably the place to mention Aeneas, son of Venus, founder of the Roman nation, and, of course, Julius Caesar, likewise a descendant of Venus. These are, of course, all objective facts, so it is probably not at all relevant to note that Virgil was the client of Julius Caesar's adoptive son, Augustus Caesar. Of course, the fact that I am talking about the lover of Dido and, below, about ashes, closes some of the distance to Fenimore Cooper .

No, really. I do think that's that's important. I am not a kook. 
My argument with Garcia and Bouffier is only this: Petta isn't necessarily an exception, because she could be a god. 

Again, I suspect that Garcia and Bouffier would be uncomfortable with me asserting that the marriage of Euxenos and Petta is the core of their article. I mean, you know, girls and weddings, am I right? Instead, they begin with the archaeologically-revealed context of Late Bronze Age Provence. This is, of course, the part that grabbed my attention:
Nature reserve in Provence

It is one of:

i) Dispersed and superficial settlements, frequently abandoned;
ii) An agriculture focussed on pastoral care, with shifting cultivation, relying on slash-and-burn techniques, making use of digging sticks and stone axes and hoes. The postulated incipient city states occupy more strategic locations rather than better soils, but add light animal draft to their inventory of techniques;
iii) Evidence of a diversity of practices, including inverse and traditional transhumance, and permanent occupation of middle altitude sites;
iv) The expected persistent but infrequent use of bronze utensils of various kinds;
v) A persistent lack of obvious status distinction (read as lack of social inequality) in burial practices;
vi) All the same, a lack of grave good signature of patriarchy, in that male burials are absent weapons, while female burials include female status goods;
vii) A wide geographic dispersal of ceramic styles, indicating that tribal identity is not localised, and is probably weakly present in individual communities at best. 
viii) Low population densities and high demographic potential.

Deploying available anthropological theory, after some blah-blahing about typologies of government (Big Men? Chiefs? That sort of thing), they move on to the more interesting question of territories and social dynamics. Given a dispersed population, they propose that the "sacred spring" model is normal, or perhaps, normative. A given community lacks a sense of permanent territorial ownership outside of the dwelling place and its associated garden (again, Chingachgook would say, "women's property"). The community assigns cultivation plots to each family, which plots pass back into community ownership once the plot is abandoned to regrowth. Permanent lineage wealth is measured in livestock. Is it too much to say that this would probably be a bride-price, rather than a dowry culture?  When a community, through its internal demographic processes, becomes too large for this kind of governance to be practical, the population "swarms,"  and settles a new site. This constant interchange of migratory groups creates the long-distance social homogeneity detected in the archaeological record. The implications for tribal ethnogenesis, and, of more lasting significance, language change, are clear. That is, this constant interchange will retard both. 

But, beginning in the 725-675BC period, and intensifying thereafter, we see rapid change, as settlements begin to occupy more traditional sites --eminences, with enclosures-- and there is evidence of more permanent inhabitation of land, especially the coastal, lagunal sites. Bouffier and Garcia link this, unapologetically, to the coming of iron, "which alone makes possible" intensive agriculture in this wooded ecosystem. Yay! Technological determinism!
Iron, cold iron, is the master of them all.
Or, not so fast, dude: is the coming of the Iron Age, and of the Phocaeans of Marseille, planters of olives and vintners of wine, entirely coincidental to this spread of iron technology?

By Marco Schmidt [1] - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
Not bloody likely. Marsh samphire, pictured here, is grown today in saltwater-irrigated sites as speciality produce with a certain, niche market suggested by the common name, "picklegrass." It is just one of a number of traditional "saltworts,"  and not the only one grown today as a comestible. In times past, however, it was the common source of NaOH, just as the ashes of the leaves of broadleaf trees, so-called potash, was the main source of KaOH. While potash is a common product of agriculture in forested lands (the linked Wikipedia article has a fascinating digression into the economics of potash production in the North American Eastern Woodlands before the beginning of potash mining in the 1880s. Apparently, the potash collected from a cleared plot in New York (New-York) or the Canadas would almost pay for a labourer to clear the land, or provide a handsome source of additional income for a settler), the saltworts of traditional chemical industrial production were largely the production of --wait for it-- Mediterranean lagunal plantations. Hence, no doubt, the reason that Marseille and its adjacent, "Gallic" hinterland has been known as a source of good quality soap from the time of Pliny the Elder. (Per my old Brittannica: the Roman connection doesn't make it into Wikipedia. Make what you will of it.)

Castile Soap rather than Marseilles, because I like the picture better. Not that old-time Castilian soapboilers would have used hemp oil. CC BY-SA 3.0,

So with that reference to soap-boilers, back to basics, and the Eleventh Edition of the Britannica, often over-rated, but in this case blessedly LaTeX and IUPAC free, to give you a sense of doing chemistry back in the day when no-one knew what your fancy "OH" group was all about, much less electron and proton sharing.
 C3H5(OH)3 [glycerin] + 3(C10H31O2)H [Palmitic Acid] >C2H5(C16H31O2)3 [Palmitin] + 3H2O
 A further decomposition in a pressure boiler in water is described as
[Palmitin] +3NaOH> 3NaC16H31O2 {soap} + [Glycerin]. 

I omit the stage in which potassium carbonate, also known as "potash," is converted into "caustic soda," because just how much old-time chemistry do you need, but note the appearance of glycerin as a waste product of the path of synthesis, as it might explain the glycerin recovery boilers of the industrial soap manufacturing house, which, amazingly enough, this 1909 article may somewhat precede. (If so, it is an old article rewritten, as at least Ivory Soap was well into the industrial phase of soap making by Edwardian times.)

What I shouldn't omit is the direct conversion of potassium carbonate into potassium hydroxide in the boiler for use as a saponifier, that is, cleaner, without the intermediary stage of reaction with glycerine to produce soap, proper. It is not that there wasn't glycerine around in the old days. Thanks to the very extensive Wikipedia article, driven by the apparent world glut of glycerine due to biofuel production from fats, I now know that glycerine is a byproduct of solid fat, and thus of candle-, ,and soapmaking from earliest times. No doubt the Gallic soap of ancient Rome, described by Pliny as a product for making hair "bright," was real soap, made with glycerine, and perhaps even analogous to the Marseilles soap of the London market of the Early Modern. And, no doubt, no-one used boiled potash to make their hair "bright," ever! Where ashes would have been used, was to treat wool for yarn-making. 

So there you go: A connection from ash to land to wool to the coastal lagoons of the Mediterranean littoral, and, very specifically, the coastal lagoon of Marseille. The addition here is of an industry, a forgotten angle that makes (iron-enabled) forest clearance especially economically valuable in the specific context of the growth of the wool trade: potash. It's what your economics-writing guy would call a hysterisis loop, and what a science-jargon guy like me would prefer to think of as a "positive feedback loop." Above all, I want to call attention to the particular boldness of Garcia and Bouffier in unapologetically adopting the position that Late Bronze Age peripheral populations were small, and growing --or, at least, had the potential to grow. And, moreoever, that we can carry forward our settlement archaeology-based boldness and finally push back against the recent argument that Roman-era populations in, for instance, Kent and southeastern England (that is, the region that relates to the Weald and its woodland industries) had a population equivalent to, or greater than, the late Medieval one. As Michael Fulford and Martyn Allen say here, the Late Iron Age population of southeastern England really was low. Moreover, after an expansion of settlement in the period from the Roman Conquest into the late Third Century, began to contract in the late-200s in the southeast, and in the late-300s in the Home Counties.  "Recent estimates [of the population of Britain] from the province have always looked high in comparison to medieval and early modern population foigures for Engalnd, and it may well be that we will move back to a figure that is closer to, but probably less than, the Domesday estimate of 1.75--2.25 millions." 

Ha! Take that, "Malthusian trappists!"

Different kind of Trappist, but still. By Source, Fair use,
The spread of settlements around the Weald now look familiar, with the difference that they occurred in the Late Iron Age, and not at is inception. Iron arrived in Britain ahead of the state, although the rise of iron-enabled lifestyles there, coincide with the emergence of domestic proto-states, a process short-circuited by the arrival of Rome, much in the way that the arrival of the Phocaeans disrupted the emergence of proto-states in Provence --maybe. Did foreign goods, international trade, and even taxation triggered the further intensification of woodland-extractive industries like the potash-yarn-soap axis? Leaving out my emphasis on the technologies of everyday life, that is the Garcia/Bouffier argument. 

One final point, and that is the importance of the matrilineal connection, and the (proposed, by me) connection of actual matrilinearity with the deification of the ideal, maternal ancestor. I know that I have banged on this drum before, but the claim deserves to be dredged up and given new life here, even if, given the fact that I'm fifteen minutes from leaving for work and need to eat soemthing, I am not going to link to the old post on the subject. And that is the need to explicitly describe the locations and things associated with the goddess. Garcia and Bouffier's anthropological sources speak of an "archipelagic" sense of territory, in which extensive hunting regions contain a scattered constellation of named and signified, perhaps intrinsically female, places. I apologise for introducing such an important point so late, but time constrains editing, too. 

Anyway, point is, if your model for city development is Semitic anyway, and you really, really need to express the relationship of places and things to the goddess in an appropriately reverential way, might it not be a good idea to adopt a feminine case into your (Indo-European) language? There might be one last thing left in the hope chest along with fine linens and soap to make the hair bright, of interest to linguistic (pre-)historians.

1 comment:

  1. OK, I'll bite... I wouldn't rule out a division between men's property and women's property as a source for grammatical gender, but it would take a lot of work to come up with a plausible pathway of development. On the other hand, did you know that all placenames are feminine in Arabic?

    According to local oral tradition, Timbuktu and Ghardaia are each named for a lone woman found living there, around which the settlement coalesced... although in both cases the woman's alleged name looks like blatant folk etymology.

    Also, apropos of that last point, just came across this: "My theory about the purpose of many ancient monuments argues that they were built primarily as memory spaces.".