Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, Sweet Sixteen: Four Key Innovations And a Key Social Context

This building, if erected, on Cornell University's New York City campus, will be the largest passive building in the world. It's hard to argue with the ambition, but, at the same time, I'm reminded of Adam (T.) Smith's impossibly pompous but profound observations about the "political landscape" created by public architecture. This structure won't be in the world, so much as making a new one, by intent. 

By Steve Swayne - File:O Partenon de Atenas.jpg, originally posted to Flickr as The Parthenon Athens, CC BY 2.0,
The comparison I am aiming for is with that most famous of ancient urban sanctuaries, the Parthenon, a temple to the goddess Athena, likely in her role as patron of virgins and maidens. The inevitable comparison with the Vestal Virgins in Rome would then link it to the city's symbolic hearth, while Joan Breton Connolly proposes an association with a mythic virgin sacrifice that links Athens' patron goddess and democratic ideology to a narrative of female empowerment. There's also plenty of room for it to be about the women's work of textile production. 

Urban sanctuaries are the social context of the title, while the four key innovations are iron, alphabetic writing, equestrianship and money. All these innovations of the Iron Age are clearly significant, just on the basis of what ancient writers said, and sometimes did, with them. The modern approach that takes archaeology before text seems to undermine and complicate the received, literary narrative. And since no historical effort can avoid its contemporary context, one may wonder about the ideological motivation that might have led elite literary practitioners to constructively misunderstand the foundations of the world they lived in --to invert transcendental and substructural concerns and reverse causality, as some mad-eyed ideologue would put it. 

This may ask too much of the interpretative power of archaeology. Or it may not! In the interest of dealing with Haselgrove and Wigg-Wolf's 2000 colloqium on "Iron Age Coinage and Ritual Practices;" the published version of Alexander Mazarakis Ainian's thesis, From Rulers' Dwellings to Temples; another colloqium,ill digested, Santuari mediterranei tra Oriente e OccidenteJorrit Kelder's The Kingdom of MycenaeBakker, Maurer, Pischke and Rauch on "Trade and Growth in the Iron Age;" and, still hanging about the apartment and perhaps somewhat old-fashioned by comparison with the other work, D. W. Harding's Iron Age Hillforts. Some other work is going to get mentioned below. As I type, I notice a certain paucity of writing about writing. As I try to reconstruct how it fits in here, I turn to Kelder, who is, of course, interested in what came before the Iron Age. Still, there's an interesting point to be made. I hope. (tl;dr: The urban sanctuary, with its sacred boundaries, might be necessary for the emergence of these technologies.)

This thoroughly conventional map of the extent of the Hittite Kingdom comes from Harry Hoffner's Letters from the Hittite Kingdom, which is still up on Google Books by some miracle, and therefore might even stay that way. Unlike maps that emphasise the sweep of Hittite Empire, this one zeroes in on the heartland. This is understandable, because, apart from letters preserved in the archives in Hattusas, the provincial centres of Sapinuwa, Tapikka and Samuha have produced significant archives of their own. For the moment, I am advancing this as a parameter of Hittite literacy. The other, and more limiting parameter is that we still have not discovered a privately held archive within the Hittite Kingdom, at this point quite likely because there were none. There were scribes in the Hittite provinces, but their activities did not penetrate anywhere nearly so deep into Anatolian society as further south. Anatolian scribes were, as in Iraq and Syria, members of scribal families, trained in family school settings. The educational corpus is well-known, and begins with Sumerian word-lists, before continuing with Akkadian glosses. Although the writing system has absolute primacy over the spoken languages it can signify, there is still at least some implication that the mere act of taking dictation in Anatolian languages requires some degree of fluency in three languages, although only elite scribes could translate diplomatic texts from their native language into Akkadian. (So, the academic author sighs, was it ever thus.) 

Or, indeed, more than three, since the Hittites obviously thought that this wasn't nearly a big enough barrier to entry into the learned professions, and threw in Hattic as an additional prestige language. 

This all seems like an unnecessarily big ask unless the barrier to entry is the point of the exercise, which tends to reinforce the general impression that the Bronze Age was big on social inequality. It also raises the question of transmission of social mechanisms. Jorrit Kelder makes the case that the Mycenaean world emerged as a unified kingdom in the early 1300s, that it was treated as a "Great Kingdom," and that, while it interacted with the Hittites in and around Miletus, that it was based at the historic centre of Mycenae

Because people spent a lot of money prettying up the place. As theses go, it's not rocket science, although that doesn't make it wrong. By Andreas Trepte - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,
A high altitude site on the northwest of the Argolid plain between that fertile lowland and Corinthia, it is a well-furnished site, although the elevation raises interesting questions about the tendency for the centres of population in peninsular Greece to go up and down slope depending on the relative importance of seaborne trade and pastoral production. That aside, the perhaps obvious point is that you don't need to spin stories about the Great King of Achaia/Ahhiyawa to arrive at the conclusion that the ruler of Mycenae had a certain weight in the affairs of the world. Where Kelder pushes behind previous writers is when he conjures up a unitary Mycenaean state embracing all palatial sites where written documentation in the form of Linear B-inscribed tablets have been found, and comes close to endorsing the controversial thesis that the Linear B archives all date from the same period, shortly before the collapse of the state, so that the various figures with the same name in the archives are, in fact, the same people. This then constrains the extent of the literacy that was lost with the fall of the Mycenaean kingdom, as a very small number of Mycenaean families around the Great King might have participated in turning the Linear A precedent into a vehicle for "proper" Greek, and then furnished the scribes who worked in the surviving Linear B archival settings. 

This is speculation. It is not speculation, but rather a long-standing illustration of a "Mycenaean" cultural horizon, that a number of sites are characterised by palatial structures with a twin-megaron layout. Kelder supposes that there was a megaron "throne room" for the itinerant Great King, and a secondary megaron for his local viceroy, the larawanax. This is at least plausible, but what matters here is the evolution of the megaron palace into the later classical Greek temple, with a stereotyped megaron-like layout. 

As many authors have pointed out over the years, temples are all but impossible to find in Mycenaean settlements, just as "royal palaces" are invisible in Classical Greek cities. The temptation is to suggest that the one evolved into the other. There is an ongoing controversy over whether Athens' acropolis held a Mycenaean palace, Homer's "strong-built house of Erechtheus." If so, it would be a pretty clear case of a palace being replaced by a temple, or, indeed, temple precinct. On the other hand, Wikipedia has just now made me aware that a temple of Hera was built over the palace at Mycenae at the end of the Archaic, so we don't have to enter into ancient and convoluted controversies over the internal layout of the Acropolis to conclude that this did actually happen in at least one place. 
The problem of identifying the classic, Classical temple is a well-known one for us dilettante readers of archaeological texts. It is, at this point, quite reasonable to argue that they didn't exist in times and places where they were once thought to have existed. While it gets tattered at the margin, with some authors arguing strongly for marginal sites that would invalidate the observation for various times and places, Ainian's summary review would seem to hold: there were temples in Late Bronze Age Greece; rural sanctuaries are a thing; and the primacy of domestic cult in Dark Age Greece does not exclude the existence of dedicated cult sites within some settlements. However, the temple precinct, with its demarcated boundaries, the sacred temenos, is a phenomena of the Archaic age, is linked to early walls, and is just as obviously an indication of state-building as it was to the Roman mythologists who told the tale of Romulus and Remus. 

It is not that this concept was invented in the European early Iron Age; as, on the contrary, it was of long standing in the Middle East. (To put it in linguistic terms: in regions where literary Afro-Asiatic predominated.) It is the spread of the institution into Mediterranean Europe (but not temperate) that is important here. There has been some effort recently to explore the "logistics" of the urban sanctuary, and I had been pursuing an explanation without much success when a prospectus for an upcoming conference appeared on  Academia. edu:

-Urban sanctuaries employed numerous craftspeople and cleaners, preferring to hire within the community by widespread and small contracts, rather than retaining them as temple employees, as was more common in the Middle East, and kept elaborate records of these small transactions, perhaps to promote communal patriotism;
-They participated in water resource management, veterinary care, hospitality, and urban marketing;
-There was a lot of drinking, and the economics of this have not been properly assessed;
-Zooarchaeology has hit faunal debris with a heavy hammer of science without obtaining any mindshattering results, but it is noteworthy that animals were provisioned locally, and that meat production for communal dining was maximised by using young animals for burnt sacrifices. Perhaps not surprisingly, meat was mainly prepared by stewing and boiling. 
-Another consequence of largescale meat processing at urban sanctuaries was a close link with the tanning trade. There is an important distinction between sacred and non-sacred hides, which is interesting in the light of the use of parchment for writing. 
-Sanctuaries are profoundly important to travel and trade. 

How do you make a Greek stew? Apparently, you sprinkle feta cheese on top on top of an English stew. I'm reminded of the staff cafeteria at the Austrian State Archives: take a stew, add chili beans, and you've got "Chili," or Mexikanergoulash; bean sprouts make it Chinozisher. Try harder, please.  

Well, there you go. I read the abstracts so you don't have to go to Athens! Apart from their role in procuring and distributing meat, a utilitarian role in promoting literacy becomes obvious. Sanctuaries need to keep track of things. That doesn't precisely explain why the Archaic sanctuary has to invent a new kind of writing, given that cuneiform is perfectly satisfactory for keeping records. Presumably, alphabetic systems fit the needs of the sanctuary better --I'd just like to know what those needs were. Could it be as simple as their ability to render nonsense jargon, and so maintain the social exclusivity of the hierophantic families? Or can we be more generous and say that alphabets work better for heterarchical societies? The archaic sanctuary is, after all, decoupled from a kingship that can impose a single syntax. 

I've rather awkwardly talked about one innovation before  I got to the social context --social innovation, as it were. However, writing is --barely--prior to the urban sanctuary in the European Mediterranean. Money, arguably, is not. This is the current working thesis on Greek money, which should be seen, it is argued, as at least by analogy an extension of the exchange of sacrificial meat controlled by sanctuary and state. Shades of van Wees' "Ham Collectors!" In these writers, who are coming from a linguistic rather than administrative perspective, money is similar to meat not as a representation of (economic) value, but in that it is circulated. This opens up the discussion towards the idea of a gift exchange economy in money, and to the problem of money in temperate Europe beyond the Mediterranean, which Christopher Howgego proposes to problematise here. 

This is from Maurer, Pischke and Rauch on "Trade and Growth in the Iron Age, and does not propose to show us anything new about the early Iron Age. Rather, it is an attempt to link an unidentified index of connectivity (the zooarchaeology of mice?) with some kind of index of prosperity. Taking the Aegean as a settled matter, one's eyes go west, and are disappointed by the relative lack of  shading that might direct our attention north and inland. This is a problem, because, as Howgego notes, the distribution of pre-Roman coins in temperate Europe closely tracks the borders of the Roman Empire. This aligns with an explanation of the limits of Roman expansion as an ecological limit, which is hardly news, but raises, once again, the question of how money came to expand so far, and no farther, and then to become ubiquitous north, west and east of the frontiers after the Romans. Although maps tell us nothing, he points out, about credit; at which point he waves in the direction of the embedded economy.

Pardon the awful graphic quality here. It's a literal screenshot, since JSTOR has changed the rules again, and is currently trying out a very expensive subscription model for non-library access. (There's an introductory allotment of six free articles, but the website does not make it clear how I access them. ) 

Howgego's thesis is that money didn't actually take anywhere in temperate Europe. Directed trade with the Roman army, yes, but, otherwise, money was valued as a gift. And, in particular, as a gift to the supernatural world. At some early point in this inquiry, I was following up on the well-known phenomena of the iron currency bar.  The Haselgrove group soon disabused me of my naivete. Yes, it is true that Julius Caesar identified iron ingots as an alternative to money in Gaul, but Caesar is n't really qualified to comment, and has his prejudices. "Currency bars" are known in types that recall swords, ploughshares, and cooking spits, suggesting some kind of symbolic significance, although the author who published the original classification omits the important category of "bay leaf shaped" bars, which are not obviously symbolic of anything. Also, some cranks continue to argue that the ploughshare-like bars actually are ploughshares. More importantly, they're not money in any useful way, because while the shapes are standardised, the weights are not. 

Leaving aside the resonances for this author in standardised iron shapes in trade from reading many regional notes in Engineering about the current price of iron angles, bars and plates, there's one final, odd bit here, which is the regional record of iron currency bar deposits.

 So it looks like currency bar deposits map the boundary between the money-circulating and non-money circulating regions of Britain. Deposits are found in liminal spaces, as the jargon goes. In particular, they are found in ditches, a fairly common phenomena in British prehistory. Ancient Britons being constantly engaged in enclosing enigmatic sites with earthworks and ditches, and then filling the ditches in with stuff that might be either junk or very important possessions. 

The iron currency bars being pretty clearly the latter, there are two possible explanations here. The first is that they were put there because the ditches are important boundaries between the natural and supernatural world. The other, which I think might be at the point of needing to be considered, is that they were put there in an attempt to create those boundaries. Taking a vulgar Marxist approach, one might then go from worrying about ditches to worrying about the sacrificial economy. Perhaps it wasn't taking, beyond the line?

In other words, I am suggesting, the people along the currency line wanted sacred boundaries and spaces. The process just wouldn't take. The line --whether instantiated as Roman frontier or as the end of coin scatters, is the boundary between boundaries and not. As to why this frontier is where it is, I dunno. I'm going with horse-raising, because I don't see a reason to drop the thesis, and Harding has some interesting things to say about hillforts as fortifications, suggesting that some of the objections fall away if you see them as being directed at mounted raiders rather than besieging armies. 

When we turn back to the Mediterranean world, the idea of coin money originating as payment for mercenaries has long been a popular one. If cavalry, in particular, are the specialists that the state cannot secure without coins, then coins and equestrianship (and naval warfare, of course) are linked. 

Horses are inclined to wander about in search of green pasture. Having done my wandering here, I'm thinking of going out for coffee. 

No comments:

Post a Comment