Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Art of Not Being Governed, IV: Technological Attenuation

Today's theme, again, is the bold rejection of a past without painfully shallow but still real curve of population increase, and thus also of technological progress, or, I guess I should say, GDP per person. (The hypothesis being that we can throw out claims about culture and take these as necessarily related.) This vision is only possible if we understand human demography to be so radically constrained that it is not useful to think about our ancestors as pressing the carrying capacity of the landscape, because such "Malthusian" pressure would be indistinguishable from technological change. That is to say, that the history of technology (hence population growth) can be inferred at any point in human history. Even the invention of agriculture --in any case not to be seen as a binary on/off switch, but a transition embracing the whole of the Upper Paleolithic-- is not a decisive moment of transition.

The fall of the Roman Empire, however, is, because it is the last example of the collapse of an archaic state  in our inventory of historical examples; the best historical candidate for understanding our current troubles, as social commentators have grasped for generations. Which is to say, the fact that I'm doing what people have been doing for centuries is a feature, not a bug!

So, on to the matter at hand:

An "Anglo-Saxon Grubenhaus" somewhere in the east of England, c. 572. (From

And here's an educational video! In German, but it's got pictures.

But let's back up a bit from the fifth/sixth century.

 I guess I sort of learned at some point that the Roman Republic fell because Julius Caesar, his buddies, and his nephew were, I don't know, corrupted by the Dark Side of the Force. One of the great things about doing classical history as an undergraduate was learning names like Marius and Sulla. It wasn't so much that the rot had started earlier as that the whole project of the Republic was so loosey-goosey, so little in control of its own context, that a superstructure of desperate expedience and heartwrenching violence was pretty much inevitably erected on that substructure of utter poverty that the glories of the Classical age conceals from us.  

So, in other words, I don't think that it's at all inappropriate to see the arrival of 90,000 legionnaires in the middle of Europe as part of a strategic plan. Oh,  you will have heard about how fear of the Cimbri and the Teutones gripped Rome in 104BC, and that this somehow justified everything done there ever after. That's the story, and I frankly don't believe it. From the Cimbri and Teutones jumping from one Alpine pass to the next down to the campaigns of Augustus and his heirs, perhaps even of Marcus Aurelius against the Marcomanni and Gallienus against the Jugunthi, I am cynical and suspicious and prefer the facts of archaeology and geography to the self-interested rhetoric of courtiers.

What we know is this, that there is a clear agronomic division on the continent of Europe between the clay belt and the sand belt, and not on the line of the Rhine. Okay, it is a geological boundary in the north. The river breaks out of the very mildly orogenic country of the clay belt at Cologne, and then switches to run more west than northerly through the flooding lands of Westphalia and eastern Holland before trickling out to the sea through the old Maze.* In the sand country, we have evidence for a swidden agriculture switching sites perhaps every 10 to 15 years or so, about long enough for a long house to fall down from wet rot communicated through posts in direct contact with the earth rather than on the basis of soil fertility. South, in the clay country, long houses still fell down, but were renewed on the same site due to a more settled agriculture. I've described this as infield-outfield on the basis that the dividing line is also that between in a change in archaeological faunal assemblages between pig predominance and sheep/goat and cow predominance, although who knows if that distinction is going to survive (Science!).

In any case, we should be clear about what this does and doesn't mean. When I went Googling about for an explanation for the "Infield/Outfield" distinction last time, I hit a gold mine, as one sometimes does with Google. For the sake of those for whom life is too short to click on links:

The stability of the infield-outfield system lies mainly in its ability to replace nutrient-ion losses. These are inflicted in two ways: by removal of harvest and by leaching. Most infield-outfield systems operate a very effective mechanism for the replacement of ion losses in the infield, namely an ion transfer from the outfield by means of livestock. Many authors do only consider the infield-outfield term appropriate for farming systems that include animal husbandry (e.g. D. Stamp, 1966, and P. Fénelon, 1970). Really effective ion transfer takes mainly place in systems, where ruminants — oxen, sheep and goats — are daily driven into infield stables or pens, from their outfield grazing, e.g. as it is necessary for the milking of animals. Droppings from the animals are then concentrated within the infield. Of course a similar effect can be produced, when fodder is transported from the outfield for stall-feeding of animals. The mechanism is illustrated by the following simplified calculation: one head of cattle in modern farming, when well fed, is estimated to produce 6 tons of dung and 3 tons of liquid manure during the period of stall-feeding pr annum, which is the equivalent of roughly 40 kgs of N, 80 kgs of P, and 100 kgs of K fertilizers on the basis of pure elements (Johs. Olesen 1963).
Losses af macro nutrient-elements are seen from the table. From unfertilized soil a crop of less than 1 ton per hectare seems possible under North-European conditions. To stabilize such a production, weathering or fertilization must provide each hectare with at least about 35-40 kgs of N, 4 kgs of P, and 18-20 kgs of K. Any increase of production is conditioned by increased supplies of fertilizer. If the efficiency of manuring is put at 40% at a minimum (concerning N), it is seen that an increase of yield amounting to about 1 ton per hectare, requires the manure from about 2V2 heads of cattle to warrant stable production. The carrying capacity for population is thus doubled from about 4 to 8 people/hectare by the aid of just a couple of cows and a calf. Even if the estimate here proves too optimistic, manuring has considerable effects; habitual manuring usually kept the soil fertile enough to warrant an annual harvest instead of an occasional one. The beneficial effect was remembered by the saying »meadow makes/fattens the field« (eng f øder/ f eder ager). As may be seen from the example above, nitrogen supply to the soil was comparatively scarce, especially considering heavier losses of nitrogen. No wonder then, that whereas sufficient phosphorous early was stored in the soil, the nitrogen problem remained to be solved by the introduction of legumes (white clover) and later — mineral fertilization.

Do go have a look at the full site if you have the time. It has some neat graphics. The suggestion that keeping "2v2" (one would like to know what that meant before typo) stall-fed cows will double carrying capacity from 4 to 8 people per hectare (of infield) does seem a bit optimistic to me, but it is surely in the right range. It also elucidates the potential of seaside agriculture, using wrack, fish offal and even seal poop-enriched beach sand in lieu of animal manure, but that's another story. 

The actual agriculture as practiced both north and south of the great divide is further elucidated by archaeobotany, which reveals (at least to Peter Wells) the predominance of legumes, barley, and spelt in lieu of bread wheat, which first appears in quantity at the height of the Roman era. Crazy health claims by its modern revivalists aside,** the advantage of spelt seems to be that it is close-husked, making it labour intensive but hardy.

But let's get back to those mythical boundaries for another take. Peter Wells goes about as far as anyone is going to dare to go at the moment in abolishing the crucial distinction here between Celt and German. Pointing at fragmentary linguistic evidence, he suggests that identifiable German and Celtic were spoken in parts of Europe, but that most of the old northwest was probably inhabited by speakers of languages that merged what we now call Celtic and Germanic. (Which isn't actually an entirely archaic thing.) The Rhine boundary, then, came about exactly as we would intuit that it would. It was the natural extension of the Rhone-Saone-Moselle-Rhine communications line that already brought Roman wine north and whatever it was that the northwest paid for it with on the return leg. 

This brings me back to the chaos of Roman politics: it wasn't that the frontier needed defending. It was that those 90,000 men needed the kind of lifestyle to which they'd become accustomed. And that meant the conspicuous consumption of the distinctive luxuries of Mediterranean life: consumption made class, and to be deprived of them meant to be socially deracinated. The army needed a communications axis. This much is well known from pottery studies that have amply affirmed the huge quantity of olive oil, wine and fish sauce shipped to the army, and even narrowed the origin of those products down to southern Spain and southwestern France from pottery studies in recent years. 

This conspicuous consumption did not only mean Mediterranean goods, however. Archaeology again comes to our aid in documenting the growth of a livestock trade, in which the region beyond the frontier increasingly specialised in raising animals, mainly cattle, for the Roman garrison. A look at the calendar of religious festivals celebrated by Roman army units underlines that the soldiery sacrificed, and ate, a great deal of cattle, especially of the preferred "blemishless heifer" and "white bull" variety of pointlessly specific added value. Another way of looking at it is the calculated 64,000 calfskins required to make the tents for a single Roman legion. 

That Roman soldiers on the Rhine got to eat a great deal of beef, and thus were less inclined to mutiny, is not news. The general implication that they didn't mutiny, however, also suggests that they weren't short of bread, or, presumably, warm garments. This implies that the regional economy was able to support a great deal of additional demand. (Or, less plausibly in the case of grain but reasonably in the case of textiles, that these were imported from the Mediterranean.) In other words, while no-one is arguing that the population wasn't living close to subsistence, it could be pushed into the market to produce some level of surplus.

What happened? Again, at least in Wells' interpretation, archaeology serves to elucidate the story somewhat. On the one hand, there is the increasing specialisation of beyond-the-frontier livestock raising. On the other, there is burial evidence showing an increased emphasis on weapons, including spurs, in burial assemblages. The locals of the immediate post-Roman conquest liked their Roman imports, but also buried their male dead with a great many more weapons, especially of a cavalry type, than before. Wells reading of this is straightforward: service in the Roman auxiliaries had become socially important. Discounting the possibility of largescale immigration from the Mediterranean centre, he sees a pro-Roman ethnogenesis motivated in part by the opportunities of auxiliary military service. 

It's weird. On the one hand, our understanding of the Roman army is so fragmentary that we don't know how many auxiliaries there were. The usual handwave is one auxiliary to one regular, but the evidentiary basis for this is strictly conventional literary accounts of periods long before the key early Principate, in the case of Vegetius, retailed long after. On the other hand, we know quite specifically that the Roman Emperors of the Julio-Claudian dynasty surrounded themselves with a bodyguard of Germanic cavalrymen. 

After spending a second giving that as deeply perverse a reading as we like (blond beasts servicing Latin boy-emperors!), the point should be more clear in this post-modern age. It is deeply wrong to project modern, or, worse, Nineteenth Century sensibilities on the past, and we should understand the emperors as sacral warriors,  patriarchal household heads, and translucent mirrors  to the identities that their subjects projected on them. Their understanding of what it meant to surround themselves with a following of picked warriors from the far north will be that this was a normal thing to do, and all else will flow from that. 

Hmm. Okay. What does that cultural stuff have to do with economics? The answer is that we're getting into the second wave, to the second and third century. Now, Wells detects a nostalgic resurgence of old "barbarian" themes in local funerary assemblages, even if in the form of newly invented "barbarian" tradition such as early Germanic art and possibly runes. At the same time, there is regional differentiation. The nationalist response to Empire --and the internationalist response to that-- is  to see the "classic imperialist strategy of divide and rule." 

There is, however, another way of  looking at this: as the breakdown of a pro-Roman consensus. This is the supposed context of the appearance of the Franks, Alamanni, Goths and perhaps even the Marcomanni on the far side of the frontier. These are to be seen as ethnogenesis events in the sense of the rise of new, larger, post-tribal proto-states. There are even manufacturing sites of Roman goods (specifically a major pottery and an ironworking site) appearing way out in the barbarian wilderness. These set the context for the breakdown of Roman frontier security during the third century crisis. The problem is more organised enemies. 

The Wells evidence suggests that these events were not confined to the "barbarian" side of the frontier. Indeed, archaeologists continue to argue about whether there is evidence that the frontier insecurity was driven by violence on the frontiers themselves. According to the accepted model of the fall of colonial empires, indigenous rebellion ought to be as important, if not more important, than foreign invasion. Yet no-one is debating the old claim that the Roman Empire did not fall from revolt from below, unless the rise of Christianity can be somehow forced into that matrix. (And it can't.)

So we come back to the problem of the third century crisis. Dress rehearsal for the Fall, or seeds of the Fall? Here I'll end where I came in, with the Grubenhaus, an low, humble A-frame structure built on a shallowly excavated basement. Although there are arguments against the interpretation, it is normally assumed that the Grubenhaus has a post-suspended plank floor and is primarily intended as covered storage up out of the wet. It would be ideal for keeping barrels, perhaps for as much as a generation, because there is an entire post-length between them and the creeping wet rot, though it would also be a good way of storing hay. 

The Grubenhaus obviously not a new technology in the sense that it hasn't been available conceptually since the invention of the stone axe, but, practically, it is a pretty extravagant bit of carpentry for people whose presumptive tool is the kind of axe we actually  have from that era. Its especially extravagant considering that the absence of hearths in specimens predating the eighth century indicates their use strictly as work or storage sheds. I would suggest that it is a necessary technology if you want to go in for barrels in a big way in a wet climate, but that just redirects one's attention to the decision for barrels, with all that it implies about a reorganisation of the northwestern European economy to direct far more agricultural surplus to elaborate woodworking.

Something's going on here. The archaeologists who first directed us to the importance of the Grubenhaus phenomena thought that they'd discovered the real counterparts to Tacitus' sunken houses in Germania, and thus were proving that the Anglo-Saxons really were so the kind of freedom loving Germans that the ancient Roman senator wrote about, all come across the limes to conquer the Britons in days of old that were amazingly like the east-west split in the old Liberal party over Home Rule. 

Well, no. The limes were invaded for centuries by pure white heifers and pure black bulls, intended for Gods and the table. Then came funerary articles, and finally came the archaeologically and literarily-attested "sub-Roman" period. In that context, the Grubenhaus is a technological indicator of whatever it might be that is going on.  

*Seriously. The tangle of water and sand through which the Scheldt, Meuse, and Alt Rhine reach the sea used to be called the 'Maze,' in English, admittedly an Anglicisation of "Meuse/Maaß" rather than as a colourfully accurate usage, but still.)
**Seriously, guys. "It's got gluten, but it's a different kind of gluten?" If gluten sensitivity were, you know, an actual thing, you would be in so much trouble. 

No comments:

Post a Comment