Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, VIII: Return of the Dead

Bernie may be dead, but he sure can dance! It's hard to believe that this movie is 29 years old, meaning that it is separated from us by a recession, the dotcom boom, the 2008 crash, and whatever it is we've been living through since.

That, of course, was a blatant attempt to work the 2008 crash into the conversation. Niall Sharples waits until the conclusion of his book to do it.
"It is a little easier to to explain how catastrophic the end of the Bronze Age was, given the collapse of the financial markets that devastated national economies in 2008. In the Bronze Age, bronze was as important as money is today; it connected people and created a system whereby other people relied on others to provided materials that were not locally available, animals when they were needed for consumption and sexual partners necessary for the continuity of human communities. In times of crisis, the credit built up through the long-term exchange of gifts would enable people to acquire the essentials to rebuild their lives. It also provided a way of classifying and contrasting people and communities by status and identity. The complex system of exchange relationships, and indebtedness, which had been operating for over 1,000 years, was completely undermined and abandoned at the end of the Bronze Age." (Sharples, 312--13.)

I am very impressed by Niall Sharples' Social Relationships in Later Prehistory (2010), and, in my personal opinion, it would have been a barn burner if he'd gone back over it and sharpened up this point. But, of course that would be my opinion, given that my interest in the Late Bronze Age Collapse was revived by the 2008 collapse. I had a sense that this was where Sharples was going in the main text, but he waited for the conclusion to spring the analogy --if it is an analogy. There's lots of material in the main text that "hangs a lampshade" on 2008, as the kids say, or said several years ago. And then, in the conclusion, he drags out the literal lampshade. "This is what I was talking about."

Which means that it is time to forage in the communal graveyard of ideas that is academic publishing, bring to light the relics of the heroes, and expose them to celebrants of the mystery. If you don't have an epiphany, lie back and think of the polis. 

As far as I can tell, this collection of bronze tools is from the Metropolitan Museum collection, but is being used to illustrate the holdings of an online auction site that sells authentic(?) Bronze Age artefacts. The saw at the centre is particularly interesting, but Bronze Age saws are apparently rare, and the provenance of one that shows up on could hardly be more dubious. Adzes, on the other  hand, are ubiquitous, and the carpenter's level is just cool. 

Given that we are talking about the Late Bronze Age--Iron Age transition, it's not unreasonable to talk about metals. Okay, I have to back up a bit, since Sharples' claim that the Bronze Age should be seen as a gift-exchange economy, in which the exchange of metals and metallurgical products is "socially embedded," in the sense that the exchange of gifts is seen as building social relations. This gives the bronze artefacts in circulation as mysteriously fetishised as modern money. (I'm thinking here of the way that the "money" we moderns have, exists in the same way as a computer game character's treasury, and health points, rather than trying to make any more profound and fashionable point.) I have a little difficulty taking this the only way of understanding circulating bronze, since we have plenty of Bronze Age tools. People actually used bronze to make things. On the other hand, a typical Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age transitional bronze hoard is likely to consist of swords, spearpoints and axes, rather than adzes.


Moreover, the key bronze items to be explained are prestige items, of the kinds found as burial goods and in hoards; notably, jewelry. Not being a jewelry guy myself, it is easy for me to overlook the way that jewelry calls our attention to the human body. Since a clear and non-jargony way of saying it eludes me, let me settle for pointing out that Sharples heads the section in which he discusses Bronze Age jewelry with the heading "Body". You know. Jewelry reifies the body and stuff like that. This is a point that I need to bring up, since I am going to come back to the human body in a moment, but it is also important in another way. Bronze jewelry disappears at the Late Bronze Age-Early Iron Age transition, and the broad consensus of prehistorians (that is, I've seen it expressed in Greek as well as European contexts, but obviously these are all English-speaking academics, and they do talk to each other) is that the EIA sees an 
"ideological" rejection of a thousand years of bronze jewelry. Here we have something clearly not utilitarian in function, but rather important in a "constructive" way. We wear jewelry to participate in society, as it were, and if bronze jewelry becomes fatally uncool at the transition of ages, that is important. 

I've mentioned hoards, and I brought up, last week, the evidence for a "bronze crisis" in the form of a dramatic increase in the number of bronze hoards found in southeastern England at the transition. Sharples reads this as evidence for a bronze crisis. For a thousand years, people had been depositing bronze items in the landscape as part of a range of activities. These had ranged from the "potlaching" destruction of valuable items in status competition, to explicit "saving for a rainy day.
(Artefacts made of copper were the most prestigious items displayed at Northwest Coast potlaches. Their destruction signified the enormous social power of the potlach celebrant. Copper seems to have played a similar role in prehistory elsewhere in the world, to the point where some old time "Metal age" schemes include a "Chalcolithic Age." Again, however, copper tools are hardly unknown.)  

So a sudden increase in the number of hoards found in a transitional period is an indication that they are being dug up less, and not that they are being buried in increasing numbers. While you can make up any number of stories about hoard distributions, 
I intended to  use a graphic that purports to trace Third Century invasions of Gaul by hoard distributions, but this one is much more interesting. The source is a Powerpoint illustration posted at LinkedIn by instructor Robert Ehrlich
  the one that Sharples goes for is a story about a collapse in the value of bronze. More interestingly, since I've gone to this well before, is the fact that the pattern is only seen in the southeast. The Home Counties dumped massive amounts of bronze into the landscape during the Ewart Park Phase (800--700BC), while Wessex hoards extend into the slightly later Llyn Fawr phase, and Sharples deduces a revival of contacts between the Continent and Wessex. As southeastern Britain politely declined to exchange any more of whatever it was they were exchanging for bronze, Continental grifters turned to their country cousins in Wessex to make one last score.

For Wessex, this brief revival of foreign interest must have been flattering, but it will be recalled that the first hillforts made prodigious use of timbers that had been left to grow unmolested for sixty or more years. By the time the locals rallied around their hillforts, the grass had been growing in the streets for two generations or so. Whatever the phase that followed directly after the realisation that they'd been paid in Confederate dollars was like, it presumably involved some significant social disruption. 

When I say that Wessex was as much effected by the collapse as anywhere else, I have in mind a phenomena that Sharples convincingly positions as a profoundly important change. Wessex turned seriously inward.
Source: Park Hall Farm Museum
The Brits are always pleased to discover something that shows that their ancestors weren't just Germans/(French) on the wrong side of the tracks, and one of the more notable ways in which their preliterate ancestors showed that difference was in building round houses. (We award a second point for Gryffindor for round houses also showing up in Scotland, demonstrating the ancient unity of Great Britain. [Please don't separate, Scotland. We'd be so lonely.]) The emerging consensus is that the roundhouse phenomena is also an Iron Age phenomena. Houses weren't a thing in Britain before the Middle Bronze Age, by which time substantial longhouses were common on the adjacent Continent, and the initial wave of house construction featured relatively small, rectangular homes, whereas the Early Iron Age sees an explosion of gigantic, round houses. Later, Iron Age Britons began building smaller houses, but still round. 

Sharples doesn't entirely avoid the old  "Stonehenge=round; houses=round") paradigm, but for him, the equation was made by Iron Agers. Living in the midst of round henges and barrows, Iron Age Britons turned to this landscape tradition, returning to the ways of their ancestors. They even built enclosures around major Neolithic monuments like Stonehenge. In building houses that echoed their supposedly circular shape, these henge-revivalists were, in fact, flying free. But they thought they were returning to their ancestral way of life. It's a thing in modern British archaeology. 

There is more to it, as one might suspect from a glancing familiarity with anthropological literature, and there is no reason to subtly hint when you can drop the anvil: The relevant chapter is entitled "House as Cosmology." Just as the longhouse is apparently a microcosm of a larger cosmology, complete with an actualisation of gender roles in built space, (see infra, anthropologists visit headhunters, passim),so the roundhouse embodies the Iron Age cosmology. The original argument, based on an anomalous settlement at Glastonbury, was extremely elaborate and informative, but probably overly so. At this point, after demolishing the more elaborate claims, we'll settle for pointing out that Iron Age roundhouses had their entrances carefully cited facing southeast, except at Glastonbury, which was special, where they faced southwest. Taking the opposite entrances at hillforts into account, and all of the chariots all over the place, plus the roundness, and the astronomical alignments, and we get a cosmology that emphasises the celestial "wheel," or turning, of the Heavens. Helios' winged chariot and all of that. Also, it turns out that men and women are different, so there's that.  

This brings me to a final, significant change, which is in the pattern of disposal of bodies. The Bronze Age had seen the creation and elaboration of cemeteries, often containing high status graves indicated by the deposition of grave goods, notably including bronze jewelry, weapons, and parallel implements announcing female status. Taking modern interpretations into account, and we have a picture of a highly competitive society in which competing elites jockey for status. Given the explicit reference to potlaching above, making that point may seem like gilding the lily, but it is important to make it, so as to contrast this phase with what comes next. 
If you're in the mood for something gruesome, try Google Image searching "sky burial," which is a poetic way of describing the Tibetan practice of exposing the dead for the birds to eat. The practice of disposing of the bodies by exposure has a fancy, technical term, "excarnation," and is something of a default practice given that it's hard for small scale societies to properly bury a body or burn them, with only stone tools. 

It seems pretty clear that Early Iron Age British society returned to excarnation as the default way of disposing of the dead. Moreover, what was once seen as the revival of archaic, Neolithic tradition, may in fact have been, at most, a self-conscious revival of a long-abandoned practice. Or, it might just be a new way of doing things. Or, excarnation persisted in the Bronze Age as a minority practice. We don't know. We even find Iron Age society returning to the Neolithic practice (of which they were surely aware) of burying human remains in perimeter ditches, presumably to create more potent boundaries. 

As for how the excarnation was practiced, one argument is that the "four post structures" built just inside hillfort walls were not granaries, but rather excarnation platforms. 
Tower of Silence, Bombay, 1880
Excarnation is still practiced by the Parsi community in India, because that's what their Zoroastrian ancestors did, although it is an open question whether they know it from anything more than Herodotus. (Which is to say, I think I recall Pierrre Briant making a skeptical case, as he does, but "think I recall" seems weak). This living tradition successfully establishes that excarnation is a disgusting thing to do around cities, and Sharples uses osteological evidence to argue that Early Iron Age excarnation was actually practiced through primary and secondary burial. Bodies were buried in fields, and the bones disinterred while digging were recovered later. Unlike the Eastern Woodlands practice of gathering the bones into ossuaries controlled by paramount chiefs, however, only a few and characteristic bones were recovered and brought back to hillforts and enclosed settlements.
Because of the vultures, which may or may not be associated with a shamanistic bird cult. In which case the shamans who inhabit birds during their out-of-body experiences eat the ancestors' bodies? Weird.

 For Sharples, the point is to anonymise the ancestors. This putative excarnation cult is the keystone of Sharples' vision of Early Iron Age society as one that erases individualism, in favour of subordination to the group. It is, he thinks, the only viable way that this society, at least, could function in the absence of a generally accepted commodity-money-of-gift-exchange. (As iron "currency bars" and coins begin to appear in the archaeological record from the Middle Iron Age on, these characteristics of the typical EIA anarcho-syndicalist commune begin to disappear.) If so, this inward-turned and isolated society was also strikingly succcessful by the metric of demographic growth. 

So much, then, for Sharples. Now I want to circle back to the excarnated body, and, specifically, my quotation of Tiresias' speech from Sophocles' Antigoneof 441BC. The famous plot of this famous play has Antigone defying the laws of the state to bury her brother, whose body has been left exposed at the gates of Thebe (liminal point!) because he Did a Bad Thing. Creon, ruler of Thebes, responds by having Antigone buried alive, as one does, only to discover that this causes pretty much the whole cast to commit suicide before Tiresias' belated intervention brings him to his sense. This illustrates the moral of the play, "Talk to me before you do anything stupid,"  which is also the moral of most episodes of most sitcoms, now that I think about it. 

Anyway, there's layers here, and I can't say that I've plumbed them, given that my acquaintance with the play as a whole is confined to the introduction to a "hurt Penguin" edition that I'm never going to find among my books, and Wikipedia. But taking issue with Wikipedia, I can't help but field that the ostensibly central issue of the treatment of the dead is getting short shrift in modern criticism. Antigone is there characterised as being surprisingly free of patriotic sentiment, considering that it was staged just as the Athenians were embarking on an expedition against Samos. Personally, I'd say that a rousing call for a religious crusade against excarnation might have some vague relevance to a war against (excarnating), Persian-supported Samos. And in a war only made possible by diplomatic efforts to keep Sparta neutral, you might want to explore ideological arguments like "Exposing bodies to be devoured by the birds pollutes the sanctuaries and offends the gods."

While it is not impossible that Sophocles was making up Tiresias' objections on the fly, it seems more likely that he was repeating a commonplace, even if no doubt a contested one, since some people did still practice excarnation, and that's leaving Greek hero cults, which probably did exhibit the body parts of ancient heroes, aside. Tiresias does leave the possibilities open, however. His objection is that the dead belong below ground, the living above, but a loophole allowing the exhibition of body parts in underground chambers seems permissible --which seems to have been the original context and purpose of the symposium, not that Google is revealing the old papers on underground burial chambers/feasting halls that I'm recalling right now. (Although thanks for telling me about the "Neolithic underground tunnel networks" that formed "Europe's first superhighways," Google.)

What does seem relevant is that, at least from the moment that the actor playing Tiresias recites Sophocles' lines, and probably from well before, given the concerns over unburied bodies which are central to the Iliad, the diviner-prophet who presides over the temple sanctuary is announcing control over the disposal of the dead within the city itself. It's a brilliant rhetorical move for extending the sacred perimeter of the sanctuary to the wall-perimeter of the city itself.

It also brings me to the other bit of new scholarship that I want to patch to Sharples to make a post. A distinct shortage of temples has been an embarrassment for Iron Age Greek archaeology for some time. Do we take this strange vacation from temple building seriously, or write it off as an artefact of an incomplete archaeological record? Antonis Kotsonas believes that the record is now complete enough that we have to take it seriously, and I have to take him seriously, because he's got a database and everything. Most Bronze Age sanctuaries were abandoned at the LBA-EIA transition. Temple building only revives, and dramatically so, after 800BC, and for the most part in the south and southeast; in the Peloponnese, Attica and the Cyclades. So Sophocles, speaking through Tiresias, is two-and-a-half centuries out from the revival of the temple. It's a long period of time for an oral culture, but it's the closest thing we have to a window to the mindset of the transitional phase, and we should take it seriously.

As to what that means . . . Well, at the moment, I got nothing, though I'm hoping for profound revelations when I engage modern Assyriological cuneiform studies. 

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