Monday, February 16, 2015

The Charcoal Burners: Grexiting the Late Bronze Age

Edit: Title change, because I'm shameless.

THE KOURETES DAKTYLOI were three brothers, Celmis the caster, Acmon the anvil, and Damnameneus the hammer, appointed by Rhea to guard the infant god Zeus in a cave in the heights of Ida. To drown his cries, they would dance, clashing spear and shield. They were inventors of the arts of metalworking, shepherding, hunting and beekeeping. With their sisters, the Hekaterides, they lived harmoniously "finger to finger." From this union were born the rustic Satyroi, Oreiades and tribes of Kouretes, an hundred strong, who married their sister Meliai, the nymphs of the ash-trees and from their branches fashioned the first spears.

So, anyway, goes the composite of multiple legends about the Phyrgian Dactyls, said to have been the first to work iron by the Parian Chronicle, about a century after Deucalion's Flood and two centuries before the Trojan War. 

The historicity of this claim is suspect. Iron, or not so much iron as the widespread practice of smelting it, appears to have begun some five centuries later. This is a little surprising, given that Late Bronze Age specialists were very good at physical chemistry:

To make artificial lapis-lazuli: first, you grind finely and separately, ten minas of immonaku-stone and 12 minas of alussu-plant. Then you mix together, you put into a cold kiln which has four fire-openings and arrange in between the four openings. You keep a good and smokeless fire burning. As soon as your mixture glows red, you take it out into the open air and nallow it to cool off. You grind it finely again. You collect in a clean dabtu-pan. You put into a cold chamber kiln. You kee a good and smokeless fire buring. As soon as it glows golden-yellow, you pour it on a kiln-fired brick. (This) is called the zukki-stage...

I'm quoting Liverani again (277). The zukki-stage is the vitreous paste, which must go through an additional three killn firing, all described in this long technical document. Elaborate as iron-smelting is, nothing in the rural idyll implied in the ancient Greek myth makes it sound anywhere near as complicated. Yet iron-making post dates this document of the costume-jewelry industry by four centuries.

So, again, I'm testing a thesis: that an intensification of pastoralism goes along with the introduction of iron, so that slash-and-burn farming, at the periphery of history, is the site in which a monumental technological innovation is made, and the Iron Age begins. 

That is, the thesis goes, must go, that first the Late Bronze Age state collapsed of its own increasing inequality, perhaps in some kind of precursor to a more modern "monetary collapse" as bronze loses its value in a massive glut. This collapse takes the form of a general flight of the lower classes to the forest, the mountain, and the steppe. (I'll throw in Purcell and Horden's preferred marginal zones of alternating intensification and abandonment, the seaside marsh and island, for Mediterranean colour.) Once too many people have gone habiru, gone to be "outlaws, slaves and mercenaries," the erstwhile elites have to follow them. That's where the food has gone, on a light, fantastic air.

Now, I headed this with a repeat appearance of Eero Jarnefelt's "Wage Slaves." His angry eye most certainly does not see joy tripping. But let me hold with romance and mystery for a moment, and head upward to the hiddden pastures, low in the marshes, or high in the benches. The point here is to avoid the surveillance of a state whose demands have become unbearable, to practice the art of not being governed, which means, above all, the art of not being seen. 

The first time I travelled down this path, it was actually with potters, actually, who appear in M. A. Foster's Gameplayers of Zan as the most mysterious of the mysterious ler-folk, frequenting the hidden corners of their forest reservations in search of good clays. That was many years ago, before my youthful naivete was dispelled and I could see what made that book so problematic. It was also before the Nineteenth Century Italian revolutionary movement of the Carbonari were explained to me. Like Foster's imaginary potters, the very real charcoal-burners of Congress Italy were innately mysterious figures, following the summer burns through the marginal upland pastures of northern Italy in search of the fuel of small-scale industry. All very romantic, to be sure.

The last time I travelled down these paths, I ran into Eero Jarnefelt, just to apologise for reusing that image again. It is certainly not romantic. Anyway, here's some photorealism which doesn't make slash-and-burn agriculture look any more appealing. 

Photo-realism, because I've already done Eero Jarnefelt's Wage Slaves
It also seems awfully primitive for the technical stage that comes after the lapis-lazuli forgers quoted at the head. Yet there is something pretty obviously primitive about a simple bloomery. 

Even this is luxury! (Never mind the compressor in place of leather bellows ) Here's the  the University of Witwaterstand's setup, conveniently posted online:

The pincers are more luxury, by the way. I'm sure that I've seen instructions, perhaps in Biringuccio, for making pincers out of green sticks, so that the moisture in the wood would keep them from burning longer. Like the dilettantes from New Hampshire, the South Africans ended up using a compressor instead of the bag-type bellows they were assured was the echt-tradition. In various trial runs, the fuel-ore ratio was between 4 and 6 to 1, but the re-enactors could nto get access to the traditional charcoal of choice, acacia, and felt that their fire was running too hot. In any case, reported data is for a sample of 3500g of iron ore and 1500g of sintered bloom slag recovered from the previous, unsuccessful trial. In this run, the furnace was fired for 7.5 hours, the first four hours open, as charges of ore were consecutively added. A half an hour after the end of firing, the furnace was tapped, and 600g of 92.5% pure iron was extracted. This is much too high a carbon content for proper cast iron, but makes a good  raw material for fining into wrought iron. 

Or so the re-enactors assume. In practice, only after multiple attempts (and the abandoning of the observed Nigerian practice), were they able to create a 99g bar of wrought iron, much smaller than the pieces out of which traditional hoes and adzes were traditionally forged. On the other hand, arrowheads or razors would have been easy to make. 

In the end, the re-enactors conclude, the experience highlights the importance of "aptitude, training and experience." To put it another way, if they didn't know that Early Iron Age workers were consistently successful, they would not believe it. 

To get some sense of the charcoal burning side of things, I did what any serious researcher would do: I went to Google and trusted the first three random strangers. According to "Steve Nix, forestry expert" (no), traditional charcoal burning recovered 60% of the original wood by volume, 25% by weight. White ash weighes in at 670kg/cubic meter, yielding about 160kg of iron from roughly ten big trees, although that would be nearly 400 firings.

From this first sketch, I'm going to suggest that the burning very clearly comes first. For some industries and some settings, fuel economy is going to be important, as the Witwaterstand re-enactors assume, but in pretty much any scenario except the most intensive one --say, the Wealden gunfounding industry-- labour is going to come up short long before charcoal. You can take easily take 3 cubic meters of white ash/hectare from good forest land, although this is an estimate from cutting the block rather than a sustainable yield via pollarding. 

Now I am going to drill down, to a familiar setting: Dark Age Greece. The threshold horizon for dramatic social change is set for 1200BC. Shortly after that, the Hittites lost or abandoned their capital at Hattusa, with its presumptive population of 40,000 (based on population density) in a difficult agricultural region, because it was no longer practical to feed them, Liverani thinks. 

Not to make this a grade school book review, but Liverani offers some context. On the one hand, crop yields are very low for Middle Eastern dry farming, in the order of 4 to 1. On the other, interstate treateies very persistently focus on  low class fugitives, prsumably runaway debt slave labour. (At least, we can suspect that they were runaway debt slaves, since so many poor people are debt slaves.) 

The fugitive problem comes to us from the peak of the LBA. The fall of Hattusa is its end. If the fall is endogenous, it is a case of rot setting in from the periphery, an assumption that certainly fits James Scott's much more recent paddy states of Sotheast Asia. Once we accept that we're not going to do any better than the current pottery-based archaeological horizons, is that we can put this in a periphery-to-centre series, we can assign a date of roughly 1200BC to whatever befell the Palace of Nestor on the west coast of the Peloponnese in the country of Messenia. Perjpheral rot doesn't just spread from stepped and mountain to the arable centre, but from the minor states of the far west to the centre of the Hittite Empire, perhaps even not finally overtaking Assyria until 612. 

It's very, very old news that the collapse coincides with the arrival of iron. The problem lies in making it effective as an explanation. For the ancient Greek poets, there was a Golden Age, a Silver Age, an Age of Bronze, and, lastly, this diminished Age of Iron in which we live. The subsequent eras are human eras. The men of the age of gold were better than the men who came after. (Women, too, maybe?) This will hardly do for a history of technology, perhaps (until now) the one where the profession is most free to be whiggish. 

Certainly, given the stratigraphy, we can date the 8 swords, 4 axes, and 2 "Dark Age" daggers found in Dark Age Greek contexts to between 1050 and 900BC, leaving a 150 year gap between collapse and iron. This might not be a big problem. As the Witwaterstand experiments show, the relatively large billets required for this work are unlikely to have been the first products of a pioneering industry, and iron also predominated oer bronze in dress pins, with bronze "holding its own" only in spear points and arrowheads. Perhaps small iron bits come first.

What we'd like, however, is some kind of strong evidence, and, for that matter, a strong causal link. It is not as if iron in China collapsed the state there, after all. What we have is surface surveys which have traditionally been taken as showing depopulation. If surface scatter denotingn sites declines 61% between the end of the "palatial period" and the next, then we either accept a massive demographic decline, or migration, or a new lifestyle with reduced surface scatter. 

Demographic decline does haunt the literature of state collapse. Liverani cites Late Bronze Age Hittite documents showing the king constantly resettling war prisoners in urban, productive contexts. The families are named and numbered frequently enough to suggest that while palace elites lived in polygamous relationships and produced multiple children, "working class" families in outlying areas were monogamous and had perilously few children. Such evidence reinforces Liverani's thesis of a society teetering at the edge of collapse due to gross social inequity, but without really telling us that the population as a whole is in decline. Without that, it is hard to make decline the cause of the LBA collapse, since it might be an effect, or absent entirely.

Getting a little closer to my "grounded" region, Ian Morris offers some numbers: Pylos was a 30 hectare site with a population of 5--10,000. "Dark Age" sites in Messenia are rare; Luraghi gives an estimate of 10% of Late Helladic B (ie, "palatial") sites being occupied in the following era. Twelve Dark Age sites are identified for Messenia, hamlets of a "few dozen souls." Ten people per square kilometer are suggested, or up to three times this many near Pylos, or somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000. From there to 288 seems a bit . . . apocalyptic, so a one-half to one-third reduction is assumed instead, which means that much of the remaining population is archaeologically missing, which strikes me as undermining the need for a demographic decline at all, but what do I know? 

Overall, the story gets much more plausible if the missing people are opening up a new productive niche for themselves. In Scott's analysis of the way that upland Southeast Asia resists the state, one of the choices is a deliberate move away from taxable rice to other crops, and I have gone that way myself around here, highlighting buckwheat as an alteranative, "western" counterpart to the root crops, dry rice, and corn of the mountains. But that is because I want to offer a premature starring role to a key American crop. I certainly would not want to go down that road again.

Excavating at Nichoria, near the Palace of Nestor, begining in 1939, Carl Blegen found what he thought was evidence of a switch to "pastoralism," in the form of an increase in the amount of cattle bones in the faunal assemblage: here's the UMinn tradition as from 1983. The idea, then, is that the people who left the state-centred palatial society for rural sanctuaries perforce adopted a light-footed, cattle-centred life. Now comes word from the University of Cincinatti that this conclusion was an artefact of differential survival rates. The acidic soil broke down smaller bones long ago, leaving bit cattle bones behind. 

Probably a good thing, because cattle-based pastoralism raises more questions than it answers. As efficeint as cows are at converting fodder into meat, there's the problem of finding enough people to eat them. Beef is excess, and faunal assemblage evidence from Dark Age sanctuaries (did they exist?Opinion differs!) has even been taken to suggest that wild animals were preferentially offered to gods/ancestors. A higher value place on the fruits of venery would go well with a picture of a de-centred, swidden farming, charcoal-burning, ironmaking population of shepherds. 

See? Burgers, not venison medallions. 

Good news, though. They think that soil conditions might also explain the poor survival rate of metal objects. The authors think, however, that the composition of the soil changed during the Greek Dark Ages. 

Given that archaeology has not found more Messenian sites to mull over --something that does not mean that there are no sites, but rather no agreed excavation, so that we do not know whether to accept the dates given for the sanctuary of Apollo Koythos, or even whether it was an early sanctuary, since someone is going to argue the persistence of hierarchy into the Dark Ages includes a restriction of sacred space to "chietainly homes--" we have to seek our evidence where we find it. An attack on the (assumed) forests by charcoal burners is slash-and-burn agriculture. I would assume that if we go far enough back, that this is going to be found in Greece. 

Assume way, because one thing that I can tell you is that "Swidden farming in ancient Greece" is not a subject in which the Internet finds much interest. the Internet has a very narrow taste, in terms of things it will tolerate being said about ancient Greece. It's the three-tier trireme again. Whereas the Internet is quite taken with the idea that slash and burn agriculture brought down the Mayans, its notion about the Greeks and the forests is that deliberate deforestation ruined Greece. The Ancient Greeks, unlike the ancient Mayans, are masters of their landscape, probably to a fault.. People are certainly not looking for signs that the Greeks practiced an ecologically balanced but "primitive" shifting agriculture, much less looking for evidence that the transition occurred during the Dark Ages --even an author like Morris, who is so taken by the fact that the Greeks "fell" in 1200, and somehow could not rise again until 750.

There's no Lucy!

But, thank God, the idea of ancient Greek deforestation is not so ancient that there aren't some contrarians out there who still want to argue the point at the length so often required to root out bad ideas. Here's John Salmn and Graham Shipley on point. The imperialist British Forestry Service officials who imposed pine plantations on Cyprus while doing their best to discourage "deforesting" goats appear. The "old" Greek landscape, we are told, is a fire-resistant, 'browsing' landscape, while its pine forest successor is fireprone. (See also. And.) There's probably a lesson for southern California here.) This fire resistant browsing landscape is ancient, and was in place by Classical times, but it is not the sub-Ice Age Greek ecology. Salmon and Shipley want me to be sure that Homer putting boars on Crete does not make it a Dark Age phenomena.

Well, not a late Dark Age phenomena. There's that soil composition change. The lanscape becomes stable, the pH in the soil falls, scatter surveys may become less reliable. (although this UCLA study I found cautions that no definitive conclusions should be drawn yet). Swidden farming actually raises soil pH, but it will fall again during fallows. If the fallow cycle is long enough. . . .

A switch to shifting agriculture would not just account for the end of the LBA and the rise of an iron-based everyday technical praxis. It might even account for the political changes of the late Archaic. 

--No, not the coming of the polis. That stuff is so overdone. The appearance of the "tribe" organisation, and in particular the tendency to treat some of the tribes as initially non-Hellene. This is a society, I am suggesting, still in the process of absorbing an unsettled population. The expansion of the browsing ecosystem, breaking up zones of swidden farming, will force a gradual social and political change, and the state rises once mor in this peripheral zone which had done without it for six centuries. 

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