Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, 19: Scheidel Versus Soap

"Sacred Spring" is a thesis about cleanliness being next to godliness. The Bronze Age was the age of wool, not of metal, and the Iron Age that followed it is when soap production caught up with wool.

Walter Scheidel doesn't seem to believe in clean underwear. Today, I'm going to try to focus the thesis and engage with The Great Leveler. 

The Bronze Age increase in wool production occurred  from very low levels, and was closely linked to long-distance exchange. This required a store of value in the form of metals. The Late Bronze Age Collapse resulted from a collapse in the value of metal which spread out from the centre, as surplus stocks were dumped on backwards communities on the periphery, culminating in the failure of the Atlantic Interaction Sphere around 850BC.

Depending on the region, this was a more-or-less "successful" collapse into much more egalitarian communities engaging in significantly less long-distance trade. The Scheidel argument is that such societies do not produce investment surplusses. I guess that makes great economic theory, but I think it is pretty clear that the Iron Age was not like that, that a drastic reduction in social inequality coincided with rapid economic growth. That said, the growth phase may have been significantly retarded, since it can be dated with some confidence to the 850/800 period, while the first wave of the Late Bronze Age collapse hit the Aegean at the onset of the Late Helladic IIIC strata, fairly rigorously dated to 1190BC, with a target bracket of 1230--1130BC. 

Silver smelting pretty firmly nails the beginning of the Iron Age expansion. It may not be the first. It is part of a new complex of forest industries, of which ironmaking at least has a very gradual and early birth, while only the earliest signs of cavalry warfare appear in the record so early. Dyemaking has a well known c. 800 horizon from the literary sources, but these are also now archaeologically bolstered. Glass manufacture seems to track these dates as well. As already implied, the 800BC horizon, is also that of the "EIA reemergence of the state." That is, of course, a poor formulation, since the states I want to talk about are new ones in the western Mediterranean lagoons, notably at Rome, Carthage, Syracuse, in the Camargue, and in western Andalusia. But what are you going to do? However, all these new states remain within the Koppen Csa zone (Hot Summer Mediterranean), that birthed the earliest urban civilisations of the Middle East. Looking a little deeper into the continental interior, we find persistent experiments with state-ordered societies in temperate Europe,the subcontinent and possibly the Sahel. None of the experiments took off before the Principate, admittedly a controversial claim for South Asia and a bit outlandish for Africa, but my point is that they were a persistent object of experiment, and not a viable lifestyle. 

Thus: Wealth inequality led to excess saving and an investment bubble. The collapse of stored value, which led to social collapse, in turn led to a period of economic growth, which led to economic change, which led to the revival or new creation of the state.

The reader may recognise this as a response to the trauma of 2008 and the collapse of the neo-Liberal order --same as Scheidel, but with a technological point of departure. Taking the lead between my teeth, I have proposed the High Priest of Amun at Karnak in Thebes as the central banker of the Late Bronze Age, sterilising currency flows until the rate of burial could not keep up with the inflow of bronze, then stimulating a post-Collapse western Eurasia until, at last, the corpse rose and walked. Hey, if Scheidel can give us ten millennia of the Gini coefficient, I don't see why I can't play this game! 

Cupellation relies on smelting lead-silver ore on a bed of ash. The ash soaks up the lead, leaving a round disc of silver on top.
As noble metals go, silver is inferior to gold. It is unreactive enough, however, that there is such a thing as native silver, and in any case we have Neolithic evidence for the incidental refining of silver by "depletion gilding" of silver-gold pieces. By the Akkadian Empire, silver had taken on something like its modern role as money, at least for elite transactions, given that a single shekel of silver (8.4g +/-0.34g, says Wikipedia) is recorded as a month's wages for a field worker at Mugdan. That is six silver pennies --a little more than six day's maintenance for a groom on a manor in fourteenth century England. It is often observed that, prior to the Iron Age, silver was actually more valuable than gold. This is not ideological. It's an industrial fact. 

The collapse of the Akkadian Empire exercised a dire fascination in later Iraq, but only in eras well after its immediate successor state, Ur III. This early vagueness is a challenge for the comparative chroniclers. The first Ur III king might have begun his reign in 2119BC, during Egypt's decomplexified First Intermediate Period, or in 2055, synchronised with the beginning of the Middle Kingdom.  It is regrettable that we don't have a better date given that I was recently remarking on a scholarly insistence on simultaneity between the Great Pyramids, Stonhenge, "and the earliest Mesopotamian kingdoms." Stonehenge 3, I. Forget my anachronistic central banker. Bringing these into synchronisation and arguing for a common cause is really radical. It's also a bit tricky considering that we haven't good dating for Ur III , although as far as my wool thesis goes, it is pretty clear that the Ur III regime went heavily into sheep. Finally, since construction at Stonehenge stretched over a millennium and a half, it is hard to say that it is coincident with anything. However, the Wessex Culture of southwestern England is identified with the most significant construction phases and is key to a claim that the Bronze age was socially stratified and static. Stephen Pigott originally identified the Culture on the basis of the Normanton Down Barrows, a barrow cemetery that it is hard not to see as appropriating Stonehenge for the Wessex Culture elites. 

Piggott's Wessex Culture has been sustained and attacked in the scholarship, and I would like to be more agnostic about it than this thesis requires: but there you go. Andrew Martin argues here that the Wessex Culture emerged in response to the Beaker Culture, waged an ideological/armed struggle against it, consolidated control, and participated in an Atlantic interaction sphere extending from Scandinavia to Andalusia. Tumuli may themselves represent a wider interaction sphere. That is Gimbutas' explanation: Intrusive Indo-Europeans heaped up barrows over their royal dead. Everyone, including the Beowulf poet and Tolkien, has read their Iliad.  I'm personally allergic the the Gimbutas thesis, so here's a sketch map of tumuli cultural horizons I scraped from a short article by Anthony Harding, available here, which makes a different argument.
There's no doubt that the Bronze Age was an age of barrows. After a much less extensive Neolithic horizon, the Bronze Age sees them everywhere. Forty thousand surviving barrows have been claimed for  Denmark alone. And then,nothing, more or less. All the more amazing that our literary record of barrow building is all Iron Age! The Harding argument, however, is that there are multiple ways to build a barrow, and, evidently, multiple ways to interpret them. Barrows are the conceptual foundation, but bloody conflict can break out over the details. Perhaps some kind of reductive explanation is in order. It's all to do with the social function of elite burial, which is to immanentise the social order as the only one possible.

Stonehenge, specifically, is a very immanent cult centre in a horizon of the dead. That's also a way of describing Karnak at Thebes. The Valley of the Dead is a river-crossing away, but Karnak's cult of Amun managed the entire site from the rise of the office of the First Priest of Amun, an office intimately linked with the power of the New Kingdom monarchy. Ultimately, the first priests escaped pharaoh's power and became the rulers of central Egypt; but before that happened, one, Pinedjem I, achieved the same kind of outsize fame in literature as his thirty meter high statue in the Temple of Amun Re did in architecture. Specifically, he seems to have been up to his elbows in tomb theft. This (and the caches of royal mummies that give us some kind of indication of the extent and time frame of the practice), is my reason for claiming that the High Priests of Amun went from destroying surplus value by burying it in inviolable tombs to, well, violating them and releasing bronze and precious metals into the larger economy beginning about 1050. To make this thesis work, the culmination of this archaic monetary easing must have come during the 800s, which is probably the era of the 22nd Dynasty's long struggle with independent and kingly high priests. Probably. has bombed my inbox with papers about chronology and prosopography to the point that I do not entirely trust myself to give a summary.

There is, finally, the question of how this monetary easing was accomplished. Egypt's role in the international money market included control of African gold exports, but Thebes was also subject to throttling by Lower Egyptian authorities. This makes it intriguing that the Theban state spent so much effort on controlling the Western Oases. On the one hand, these were a convenient route to Nubia. On the other, though, there is a western access, presumably via Siwa Oasis and Cyrenaica, although the rise of Carthage is tied up with the caravan routes that run up to the Tunisian Sahel. It's not obvious that Egyptian bullion would have reached the Mediterranean by such an indirect route. Lameen, of course, is arguing for Cyrenaica, another site of early colonisation. As for the cause, maybe Thebes is trying to convert bronze into silver.

Speaking of Lameen, he has turned up an interesting paper showing that the date palm population of Siwa Oasis has an unusual and significant Cretan date palm admixture. All eyes, then, on Cyrene, which turns out to be a very interesting place. While I don't find anyone on the Internet inclined to cast doubts on the 631 foundation date of Cyrene derived from Herodotus and Pindar and an inscription and later writers, I do note that the Temple of Apollo at Cyrene is built round a typically Late Bronze Age megaron. The archaeological consensus is that it was a 550BC construction that used a simpler earlier architecture because there was no local marble. So I'm just stirring up shit here.  On the other hand, the story of the foundation of Cyrene that we have in hand is as much a story about the Oracle of Delphi as of the city, and it is not going to be earlier than the First Sacred War. All that said, Cyrene is a most atypical Iron Age Mediterranean colony, being perched 513m up in the Jabal al-Akhdar (Green Mountains), and not at a coastal site at all.

The temple of Apollo at Cyrene. By Giovanni Boccardi - This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed asArchaeological Site of Cyrene., CC BY-SA 3.0-igo,

Unlike some other high elevation settlements, Cyrene flourished during the Roman period. There are special factors at work  here. Silphium aside, I gather that the coastal escarpment also constrains settlement patterns. (At least, that's what all the Desert Campaign historians say!) Cyrene is associated with a porty city, but, unfortunately, its earliest levels are underwater are so we're not going learn very much from them. That said, Cyrene looks a lot more like the kind of site erected during the Late Bronze Age collapse than the subsequent period.

High altitude refugia in the Aegean are associated with Saro Wallace's "successful collapse," already referenced. Wallace argues that the final Late Mycenaean stages saw Crete supporting just about as many sheep as Nineteenth Century practice would suggest that the island can support. Wool production would have been much lower than in the Nineteenth Century, as it was by combing rather than shearing (sheep shears are one of the more common early Iron Age finds). One might wonder if the introduction of iron tools would have sufficed to crash the Late Bronze Age trade system, but there is little evidence of ubiquitous iron this early. Instead, when the system crashed, the formerly Minoan population distributed itself more-or-less rationally over settlements located at least 300m above sea level, presumably reserving the island's lowlands mainly as summer pasture. This is your "successful," or "managed" collapse. The settlements might be poor and lacking in prestige goods and individual burials, but they are well sited to make full use of the landscape in a way that the previous palace order could not, in its obsession with maximising wool production. As Wallace points out, we can't expect to find this pattern with anything like the same clarity on the Greek mainland, where the coastal plains are too extensive to be emptied of permanent settlement, but a movement uphill makes sense everywhere in the Mediterranean once the long-distance exchange networks break down.

Another place where there is some (weak) evidence of an upward redistribution of population after the collapse of the Mediterranean Late Bronze Age system is the Gubbio, an upland region adjacent to, and evidently under the sway of the Terramare Culture. The claim that the lowland populations of the Terramare migrated south into the Appenines during the Collapse is well established. Dragging the Gubbio into the story is just a way of getting to the not-quite-as-notorous-as-they-deserve-to-be Iguvine Tablets, and the most vexed aspect of this thesis: Is there a literary and linguistic signature of an Early Iron Age expansion that goes beyond the attested Greek and Phoenician (West Semitic) colonies. Is widespread Afro-Asiatic in Africa, and Indo-European in Europe, evidence of some kind of linguistic convergence with the elite languages. I think that the consensus of the learned scholarship is, "no," but I continue to hold out hope that the spread of language families across these vast spaces can be explained without reference to Gimbutas' hordes of migrating barbarians. The Iguvine Tablets are important here because they show how written texts and languages might have been deployed before they were expected to make sense. That is, they served as a hieratic nonsense "language," to add tone to imported rituals that were key to the establishment of early states.  A great deal of literature on the establishment of extra-urban sanctuaries in the Early Iron Age suggests a systemic change in the way that religion was practiced in this period. Why not import these ideas from the glamorous East, and some vocabulary and grammar to go with them. In particular, I am going to continue to plump for this being the way that the European Indo-European languages came to import the Semitic feminine gender, wreaking holy  hell with their gender, but giving them a language with which to describe the feminised state --your Roma and Athena.

There is, finally, the question of horsemanship. Clearly the Iron Age is not the first wave of equestrian practice to break into western Eurasia and Africa. There was a previous phase of chariots and chariot warfare. Whether originating on the steppe or in the Near East, the chariot reached the West thoroughly entangled with Near Eastern practice. Cavalry, which can be seen rising to prominence in Assyrian inscriptions in the 900--700 period, might also be argued to reach the West via the Near East. The equestrian class is the very definition of social inequality in Classical Antiquity, so what about it, Walter? Do all these mercenary cavalrymen have some influence? Since I am currently on p. 107, I can hardly say for sure, but I can tell you that there isn't a single entry for "Cavalry" in the index.   Even so, I want to know about cowboys. That is, are there proletarian riders? Are there cattle drives? is the deep interior linked to the nascent cities of the lagoons by long-distance trade in livestock? Is wealth measured in cattle? If so, it's a bit more fragile than if invested in land!

As I have suggested before, my hypothesis is that cattle drives are a thing, and are linked to a new ideology of sanctuary and sacrifice. Provision of sacrifice to sanctuary cult is the basis of Antique religious pratice, we know, and Hans van Wees traces the origins of the new Mediterranean city state back to sacrifice. The original Athenian tax collectors are the "Ham Collectors." For Scheidel, Classical Greece is the one place where the "violence" in his title operates before 1914, where war constrains wealth inequality. This is half-baked, if you ask me. We should, by 2019, be thoroughly allergic to the argument that "the Greeks were just different, that's all." And the Northern California collegiality that takes Josiah Ober seriously is no recommendation of anyone's scholarship.

So, having piled one crazy hypothesis on another, it's as well to draw back and offer a summary of the summary. There is no doubt of the technological precocity of the Iron Age:

--Iron, of course;
--Silver from lead smelting;
--Dyed cloth;
--Riding horses;
--The alphabet;

Having taken so many potshots, it might be as well to summarise Scheidel's argument in The Great Leveller: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, which posits that periods of political stability coincide with economic growth and ever greater wealth inequality. Scheidel proposes "violence" as the only counter to inequality, but specifically restricts social violence to the recent world wars and system collapse. "Violence" apparently includes plagues.

The Annalistes long ago rejected the idea that a medieval outbreak of Yersinia pestis caused anything in particular, plumping for endogenous causes (Malthusian overpopulation, mainly), reducing disease from effect to cause. This reflects the Marxist influence on the Annales school and has my sympathy, but perhaps I should restrain myself here. Plague may have an outsized role in human history in Scheidel's picture, but it plays no role in the end of the Late Bronze Age system. Here we have instead a more obvious place for "violence:" System collapse. Scheidel takes the most cynical view of the archaic state imaginable, seeing it as solely an extractive mechanism. Its collapse therefore occurs when the state loses its ability to extract --a failure of violence, as it were. James Scott's model, in which elites render society illegible to the state (for example, by getting their tenants off the tax rolls) is doing the work, here.

Scheidel obviously can't ascribe a specific mechanism to the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Aegean, never mind the much later collapse of the Atlantic Interaction Sphere, which is known to us solely archaeologically. On the other hand, no explanation is really needed. Archaeology does a good job of telling us, from the Peloponnesian countryside to the hillforts of Early Iron Age Wessex, that we are looking at decomplexification and enforced egalitarianism: Small homes, absence of prestige items, the end of barrows, multiple pharaohs, simple burials without grave goods. "Poverty" is the operative word. Surplus extraction has ended. Violence ceases to impose surplus. Without overbearing elites imposing their taxation, everyone downs tools and goes off to make time with that mountain nymph, sweet liberty.

The problem here is pretty simple: All that tripping of fantastic airs is somehow coming alongside enormous amounts of investment in training and capital equipment (why stop being anachronistic now?) and population growth. I see a problem here.  Maybe we can decouple elite extraction from economic growth, after all? Pessimism regarding the power of wealth taxes to constrain inequality, is, after all, an argument for doing nothing in thin disguise.


  1. I throw links into the hopper:

  2. What? why are they butchering animals away down at the dangly end of England? I get that a slaughterhouse isn't a good neighbour, but 20 miles from Exeter seems like pushing the zoning restrictions a bit. The obvious answer is that they're shipping salt beef. And while I get that Romans are different, I'm not seeing that as satisfying a high income market. Storing ships is another matter. Tin for the Mediterranean?

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