Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XIV: Geoffrey Crowther's Take

"Cottonopolis." Probably a factory, not a tenement, not 1930s construction. I just liked the name.

It's not uncommon for me to find myself a little behind in writing a Postblogging Technology update at this point in the month; it's also common enough for me to find myself inspired by my reading. That is, after all, why I'm doing it!

This is not going to be a post about soapmaking, however. It's relevant, and also something that I can't get into the postblogging series, since it comes from a 21 May 1948 leading article in The Economist, and comments on an article in the previous issue. Well, I guess I could choose a different format . . . 

Anyway, point is, the leader writer, who may or may not actually be Henry Luce's favourite "stout" boy, has a take on the dark old days of the 1930s. That old fuddy-duddy, Keynes, did much to illuminate the problems of a general glut, The Economist concedes, and was useful in the way he focussed on oversaving as a cause of the terrible economic privations of the 1930s. 

Now, however, the Voice of Neoliberalism points out, in the light of last week's article on "the capital budget," it is time to focus on a different issue. Overspending, it points out, is only an issue when there is no commensurate investment, and it must now be acknowledged that there was a terrible lack of capital investment in the Thirties, with the exception of residential spending and electricity. 

Bam! Substitute IT for the building of the National Grid, and you've got ancestral voices speaking ancient truths to us moderns. Indeed, much of the argument against the secular stagnation thesis turns on that IT spending. Something, usually AI, now that Big Data has proven disappointing, will very soon now, unleash a new era of technological progress. Self-driving trucks was the thing, as from a few years ago, and the recent travails of Uber, Google and Tesla haven't penetrated the trailing edge of our thinkfluencers. 

Never mind that, what about the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age transition? No new insights today, just some thoughts, all rather tenuously grounded in archaeology that might reverse itself tomorrow.

So just to scramble together some focus, I'll try to concentrate on the Atlantic littoral and its "door" to the Mediterranean. Up the Rhone and Garonne, down the Loire and the Rhine. Broodbank, intrepid island explorer that he is, begins his analysis with the remoteness of Sardinia and especially the Balearic islands, and notes that the Levant is the technological driver of change in the far west, the source of the agricultural practice: but the delay in technical diffusion from east to west is millennia long in the Neolithic, before coming down to mere months in the Iron Age, where he takes it for granted that Phoenicians sail all the way to Tartessos[$135!] by latitude-conforming out-of-sight-of-land voyages, taking Sardinia, at least, as a major landfall. Quite a change from the earliest visitors to the Mediterranean islands on their paddleboards, or a barely-more sophisticated later generation in dugout canoes.

Leaving the most recent, scholarly and expensive academic insight aside, Tartessos has a very well established place in popular culture. A city and associated kingdom somewhere on the lower course of the Guadalquivir river, it might be under Cadiz, or Seville of the Atlantic, but we can hope for an obscure site long since abandoned by the river, and so perhaps still to be excavated. It appears in both early Greek literature and the Bible as a place of fabulous wealth, thanks to its silver mines, the same now exploited by Rio Tinto. As though to add to the romance of its mystery, the local language appears to have been non-Indo-European, and is just beginning to be recorded on a native script when literacy peters out a century or two before intellectuals in the Far East notice its existence. 
It's almost more interesting that the practice of erecting steles has reached the region. One might almost get the impression that a script has been contrived because you've got to have texts on stelae, or they're not real stelae. By Georges Jansoone - Self-photographed, CC BY 2.5,
Let the language romantics continue to hunt for the Paleolithic European substratum amongst the Iberian languages: This "secular stagnation romantic" takes a much more important point on board. The Tartessan state stops mining and disappears just as the Middle East curtails its silver imports in favour of gold, per John Manning's theorising.  

Broodbank cycles back on the isolation and sturdy originality of far away Iberia many times. And yet, as he has to concede, there was a previous era in which Iberia engaged in a particularly rich "international" interaction. It's just not with the Mediterranean. 

The Bell Beaker Interaction Sphere, Balearics not highlighted for some reason

Volume III of The Defiant Agents has nothing
 about Beaker people, but does have the best cover.
Having been made aware of the Bell Beaker people at an early age by the scrupulous-as-possible research, lively imagination, and murky writing (these days, I usually just check the Wiki summary to find out how the book came out, because damned if I can tell by reading them) of Andre Norton, I think I probably have as good a grip as the next person, provided that person has also cheated and checked out Wikipedia. Old-time archaeology moved on from seeing the Bell-Beaker People as an invading horde of dagger-wielding archers to seeing them as elite traders who shared the technical arts of ring-built pottery and copper making with various peoples, and most notably the builders of the later stages of Stonehenge. (Stonehenge!)

Recent research has made it all more confusing. Those "stone wristguards" for elite archers turn out to be in some cases not suitable for archery, while the most recent ancient DNA research champions "population replacement" by invading "Yamnaya People," bearing Indo-European languages, pastoral culture, equestrianship, and an unquenchable appetite for the genocide of the populations amongst whom they settle, a genetic feature passed ont to their Polish-plumber descendants.

He may look like a teddy bear, but he's hiding a bronze halberd behind his back. Photo credit: Andrew Roth for the Washington Post. 

 Languages, interaction spheres, the refraction of prehistory through current controversies --it can all get a bit much, after a while. That's why it's sometimes a pleasure to be reductionist, to think like Geoffrey Crowther, who wouldn't for a second doubt that there's got to be an economics story here. How did the Bell Beaker Interaction Sphere get to be so big? What made it so successful in integrating disparate regions that resisted integration into the world on the far side of the Sicilian narrows?

So let's find a point of departure from the realm of Wikipedia to real research that doesn't take us to the same old places. Since I've telegraphed my point in previous entries, it will not surprise that that direction is a Google search for "Beaker interaction sphere spindle whorl."

Source: Marek Poznanski's blog
Gold! I've hit gold! Spindle whorls are something that the ladies use, which, obviously, makes them far too boring for real history of technology, which is about Supermarine Spitfires and maybe also tanks; but after I started down this path with soapmaking, there is no natural end point. As the linked FAC says (not Wikipedia, because, you know, boring), spindle whorls are simple devices for guiding the spinning of short-staple animal fibres like wool. First appearing in Iraq about 7000 years ago, they spread to northern Europe during the Bell Beaker Interaction Sphere era ("Eneolithic"or Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age, flexible definitions allowing for the retarding of the era from area to area). 

Reconstructed Funnel Beaker People weaving workshop. Another from Poznanski's blog, 

Thanks to Gimbutas, we will probably never get rid of the idea of invading, battleaxe-waving Kurgan people driving chariots (and by "chariots" I mean "T-54s"). 

 "Not a chariot, Pinko says what?" By John Harwood - T55, CC BY 2.0, I hope all of this "invaders from the eastern steppes" stuff turns out to be hot air, or I'm going to have some apologising to do to assorted academic paranoiacs. 

The Yamnaya, in spite of inconveniently also originating in the Iberian peninsula, are the latest incarnations of same.  Fair enough, though, since their arrival in Europe coincides with the arrival of the "Secondary Products Revolution" across many metrics, including animal traction. I still prefer, on an ex Oriente lux basis

to think of donkeys and chariots as coming from the Middle East, but the Yamnaya thesis cleverly allows for that by including a "cross the Caucasus mountains" vector. Broodbank constantly, lugubriously demands that we delay the introduction of the wheel to the very last minute in which it can be directly supported by archaeology, and I'm down with that. As for milk and dairy, Janice Kinory's bracing reminder that we need to read recipe books before we make easy assumptions about how the earliest dairying peoples used milk, is well taken.  But wool is entirely a different matter. If wool really does supplant flax linen, at least for the time being, then it also transforms the landscape by making possible new uses for water meadows and cold, seasonal uplands. Otzi, Europe's most famous prehistoric mountaineer, lived before the Bell Beaker era and made do with furs, hides and grass; but there is some reason to think that he was a wealthy man, as these things went. The uplands were not going to be exploitable until poor people who could not afford store-bought hiking boots, could exploit them.

Tobias Kienlin is so upset at "centre-periphery"models that he could spit, and his monograph at Open Access is half fieldwork, half a vicious review of Kristiansen and Larsen, which is too bad, because I liked that book.

I'm going to put down a marker: As far as I understand what we now know, the Bell Beaker Interaction Sphere was a woollens-interaction sphere. That other stuff, as culturally important as it might be (beer!), pales by comparison with the economic relevance of woollens manufacture and trade, however we may want to Polyani-up this "trade." 

The Bell Beaker Interaction Sphere is an Early Bronze Age phenomena that I want to somehow coordinate with the Middle Eastern administrative state sphere. Fortunately, another scholar has done more work on this than a blog post for a lazy Sunday. Here is a great graphic from Lorenz Rahmstorf, who has made the article that contains it available on
Nice! The article is a bit of a damp squib, tending to confirm what was already suspected, that early Iraqi cultural influences reached the Aegean in an attenuated form via Anatolia. Although Ebla stands out as a very early administrative state, thanks to the discovery of its extensive archives, and although it was both located at a bridgehead between the Euphrates valley and the Levantine coast, and traded with Cyprus, it was not a point of access for points further west. The "Tartessian" route via Cyprus, the south coast of Crete, Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics was hardly yet possible for the shipping of the day, whatever we make of the Lapita interaction sphere by way of analogy

Thanks to the sudden end of Eblaite archival continuity, we can be confident that its end came swiftly about 2300BC, perhaps with the arrival of Naram-Sin's armie, until implicated in a general collapse of city life at the end of the Ur III period. This coincided with the rise of the Amorites, and an ongoing, screaming argument over early chronology such that I can read one authority claiming a collapse in the "22nd Century BC," and another pinpointing 1930BC as the very year of disaster, when the Amorites, "whose kings lived in tents," arose and overthrew the cities. The Ur III state has left us some 100,000 mainly administrative texts in Sumerian. One can argue that a larger Sumerian literature passes underneath this mass of baked clay, carrying the Epic of Gilgamesh forward from purest Sumerian times.

Or one can be suspicious, with Marc Van de Mierop, that what we have must reconstruct what was going on, and that reading from what we know, something less dramatic is going on. That is, we see a working community of accountants making this state society function, and their school work is based on writing out the older, Sumerian, "List of Occupations." That's it, that's what we have. Writing is primary, not language, and the mental framework and training that allows these accountant-scribes to do their work is passed on in lexical lists of occupations of more or less complexity. I'm tempted to generalise or speculate (that is, credit Mierop if this turns out to be right, blame me if it is wrong), that the basis of this state was that a person's identity was defined by occupation, and their place in the economy by their rightful share of the harvest controlled by the state. There are all kinds of ways this simple system might be vulnerable to attack, but the Akkadian age already documents the use of silver as a way of storing status, as it were. Occupation is irrelevant when presenting a certain standard weight of silver at the granary door qualifies one for a certain standard issue of grain.

It is also, of course, inherently inflationary when new ways of producing silver become available. As long as all silver  is alluvial native metal, it is rarer than gold and sourced from remote mountains that can hardly sustain mining and smelting communities. Once it begins to be produced from lead silvers by cupellation or silver salts by natrification, there is a danger that the granaries will be stripped of their grain and left with an embarrassment of silver. And given that someone has discovered a way of tapping unlimited amounts of silver, the consequence is likely to be a rapid rise in the number of sheep --and shepherds. 

If so, the collapse of the administrative state is brief, at least on the periphery of the alluvium --oddly enough, the Kassite era lasts almost through the Late Bronze Age, in marked contrast to the rest of the world, cast very widely, in which the new lifestyles that follow the Early Bronze Age breakdown are stable for some thousand years, as Niall Sharples emphasises with respect to southwest England. But this raises the question of how the Beaker Interaction Sphere collapses in coordination with the collapse of the administrative state. At the moment the only obvious explanation is the coming of the Bronze Age. This new era in which a metal is both precious and utilitarian, and periodically hoarded in large quantities, seems to be one of elite emulation and control. 

The reason that I dragged Crowther into this in the first place is by an analogy, no doubt hopelessly jejune, between bronze hoarding and "excess saving." What other crazy analogies can I draw? I guess bronze metallurgy itself compares with the single focus of investment on electrical power and IT in later eras. The other place where we are to look for runaway spending is residential spending or investment. Tobias Kienlin makes a good case that the building that is so characteristic of Mycenaean palatial society needs to be looked at as a phenomena in its own right, and not as consequential to the replication in the west of the Middle Eastern administrative state. (Indeed, if so, where are the lexical lists?) Taking Kienlin's polemic against diffusion seriously, and Crowther's over-investment in residential building as symptomatic of over-saving naively, can we find it as a spontaneous consequence of the Late Bronze Age economy in different regions and within local traditions? The answer is defensibly yes, as the LBA is repeatedly characterised as an era of big men and small chiefs.  

How far this can be pressed, God only knows. All I know is that I can't fly to the Okanagan next week on a Brabazon, and my assumptions about why that is  might turn out to be wrong. 

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