Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, II: How Far Can We Go? Collapses and Populations

This material largely revisits earlier discussions, but if I restate, I hope that I do so more clearly, and lay down the cards upon which I hope to win the hand.

Struggling with a labour shortage is not a new thing for my employer, but the last time was before the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, and I do not recall it being anything like so bad. We were having problems finding cashiers, then, and "not enough cashiers" is a very, very different problem from not having the staff to open departments. So, even though last week's post was motivated by a probe of the old soap making industry that led from glycerine recovery boilers to the potash and soda trades, it was the idea of talking about  the Early Iron Age recovery from the Late Bronze Age Collapse that inspired me to take a hand. On the one hand, if "secular stagnation" is a recurrent phenomena, perhaps something that happened repeatedly in the earliest states on very short timeframes, as James Scott and Norman Yoffee have argued, then there is something to be said for interrogating past episodes of recovery.

This is a particularly interesting episode. Historiography has never been entirely comfortable with a clean slate beginning, even if it has to elide into cosmogony. So even though we might think that we are to be left with archaeology, there is always some kind of accounting, and this is particularly true, and particularly interesting, for the Early Iron Age.

From Dido and Aeneas: A Choreographic Opera: The art credits "Reuben Willcox, Virgis Puodziunas, Michal Mualem," which is interesting, considering that they're all boys, and I think I see a girl, something I'm actually fairly good at doing, male gaze and all that. (On the basis of the IMDB credits, I think she might be Clementine Deluy?)

So what's so interesting about the post-Late Bronze Age collapse, anyway? What makes it different from the post-Roman Dark Ages? It's because, it seems to me, that it's not actually dark. I'll start with the fact that you know all about it. How did it happen?

The one and only Frank Frazetta

A volcano did it! No, of course it didn't. It just makes for a good novel. That said, we are apparently never going to be entirely rid of the idea that the "Minoan" eruption of the Santorini caldera  caused the Late Bronze Age Collapse, and the events of Exodus. The fact that the eruption is now dated to 1650BC is irrelevant. We used to say that there was something tragic about an elegant theory killed by inconvenient facts, we now know that that never happens. A four-century interval between eruption and the parting of the Red (Reed!) Sea? We'll just ignore it if we like the theory. (Welcome to history of science!)

We have a lot of good stories about the Late Bronze Age Collapse and the period after. In fact, our first stories, the ones that set the pattern for all the other stories, are about it! Amazing, but true: Iliad, Odyssey, the Pentateuch, the Aeneid. Even Chinese stories get their start with a synchronous event, although I would not suggest that the overthrow of the Shang by the Zhou, and the filial piety-tastic adventures of the Duke of Zhou are an account of a state collapse. (Which is interesting.)

Now to give equal weight to potash. Remember this, lifted from Wikipedia?

Primary Production and Plant Biomass for the Earth[edit]

Ecosystem TypeArea
(10⁶ km²)
Mean NPP
World NPP
(10⁹ tons/yr)
Mean Biomass
World Biomass
(10⁹ tons)
Tropical Rain Forest17.02,20037.445763
Tropical Seasonal Forest7.51,60012.035260
Temperate Evergreen Forest5.01,3006.535175
Temperate Deciduous Forest7.01,2008.430210
Boreal Forest12.08009.620240
Woodlands & Shrublands8.57006.0650
Temperate Grasslands9.06005.41.614
Tundra & Alpine8.01401.10.65
Desert & Semi-Desert18.0901.60.713
Extreme Desert & Ice24.
Cultivated Land14.06509.11.014
Swamp & Wetland2.02,0004.012.330
Lake & Stream2.02500.50.020.05
-- Total Continental14977311512.31837
Open Ocean332.012541.50.0031.0
Upwelling Zones0.45000.20.020.008
Continental Shelf26.63609.60.010.27
Algal Bed & Reef0.62,5001.62.01.2
-- Total Marine36115255.00.013.9
---- Grand Total5103331703.61841

From R.H. Whittaker, quoted in Peter Stiling (1996), "Ecology: Theories and Applications" (Prentice Hall)

Temperate evergreen forest, swamp, and estuarine environments have between two and three times the primary biotic productivity of arable land. The problem lies in realising that value, and, to make a long story short, one is faced with either low intensity activities such as swidden farming and beachcombing, or else entering into market-oriented production. Potash and soda remind us that, where we find sheep, dyestuffs (which require mordants) and glass, we are seeing the market mobilisation of forestland and lacrustine environments. Purple and glass are commercial products that come into focus in the Early iron Age. In general. How far does that take us in understanding the Early Iron Age recovery and perhaps drawing general lessons? I'm not going to go there today, because I have supper to make, but I'm eventually going to double down on "market-oriented." The full potential of the forest  is only unlocked by the state.

Last week, we saw Dominique Garcia and Sophie Bouffier emphasise that two of these stories (the Homeric epics) contain marriages at striking variance with normal practice in patriachal, traditional Mediterranean societies, in which the bride enters her father-in-law's house and enriches it with her dowry. Penelope and Helen are both courted by numerous suitors, who expect to be, or become, kings in Ithaca and Sparta. Both courtships are key to their respective Homeric epics. The same cannot be said for the marriage of Moses and Zipporah, but the Pentateuch doesn't stick to any of its plotlines, so that's not terribly surprising.   The arrant contradictions would seem  to be inviting us to read against the grain and derive wildly deviant readings of Jewish tradition, which can be fun, if you're into that sort of thing.

Even more interesting is the Aeneid, which has Aeneas in two such relationships, with Dido and Lavinia. As a literary construct of the Augustinian court, the Aeneid is obviously not an independent view back into the Early Iron Age darkness, but it does introduce us to the two great, rival salt-lagoon cities of the western Mediterranean, and may well speak to the nature of the Early Iron Age societies, allowing that the "Early" in EIA is relatively retarded in Latium compared with the Levant and Greece. These strange marriages suggest that the EIA was understood, by our earliest informants, as one in which the normal rules of landed property have swapped gender --Something akin to swapping polarities or even inverting hierarchies, in their eyes. Something momentous and strange happened in those days. This might not be the strongest clue around, but reading backwards from the settlement of the Americas, I'm going to go with the idea that we are dealing with the first settlement, in the sense of a legal settlement, of land west of Ithaca, here.

Pocahontas? Is that you?

Lameen, our resident historical linguist, was kind enough to take the bait I offered. We know that the northwest Indo-European languages groupings (Germanic, Celtic, Italic) differentiated in this period, firmly under the chthonic cover of Early Iron Age ash and shadow, it is also settled scholarship that the emergence of the three-gender system in Proto-Indo-European was late. That doesn't mean that the feminine gender was innovated after these language families differentiated (here's a paper explaining why the application of gender to things-that-don't-have-sex might differ from Celtic to Germanic to Italic even though they inherited the innovation from an undifferentiated ancestor). As Lameen says, speculating that the feminine gender was added at this late date as an ideological enterprise, to give meaning to transformed landscapes in which the feminine category of house/garden had suddenly become more important than the masculine hunting range is all very well. Proving it is another matter. That we can take a shortcut via the demonstrated use of feminine gender for placenames in Arabic is another thing entirely. He also points me in the direction of Lynne Kelly's work on monumental spaces in oral cultures (in which elite power is instantiated as a monopoly on useful knowledge of, for example, productive geography) as theatres of memory. To this I would only add a gesture in the direction of Adam T. Smith's somewhat pompous but deeply insightful investigation into "political landscapes," doubly interesting here in that one of his main examples is the monumental architecture of the Early Iron Age Urartian state. "Creating polities is just as much about manufacturing assemblages as it is about disciplining subjects."

Enough of that potential digression: What are we talking about?

i) The Late Bronze Age collapse itself. Depending on the causes we settle on as explanation for the simultaneous dismantling of most of the interacting Great Powers of the Late Bronze Age diplomatic concordance, we might have the foundations of a discussion of the EIA recovery. Just because we have two gurus telling us that the collapse of ancient states is a natural and expected consequence of their systemic weaknesses, doesn't mean that we can't find unique and telling things to say about it.

. . . And just to anticipate further material that, at this rate, is going to take me through the winter . . . 

ii) Age of Bronze, Age of Iron. This is Hesiod, not Homer, and he doesn't mean what we mean, but, eh, close enough. Our ancient sources put their fingers on a transition that really, really seems to matter. It's also a big deal for the history of technology, which historians used to lose track of, and perhaps now overvalue.

iii)   The end of the chariot and the rise of horsed cavalry. Talk about moving from girl toys to boy toys! Homer's aristocratic warriors ride chariots in battle, even if Homer seems to have no idea how chariots might have been used in pitched battle. (Alternatively, he is  very familiar with how they were actually used in the low-intensity, raiding warfare of his day. If there is a "Homer" to have a familiarity with warfare in c. 650BC.) By the time the Romans have a constitution and an army, riding horses into battle is what makes one an aristocrat.

v) The rise of (alphabetic) literacy, its spread, and its dramatically elevated ambition.

v) As already noticed, the spread of urban civilisation into the western Mediterranean basin. Greeks, Phoenicians, and perhaps others established colonies, managed migrations, and also interacted with autochthonous states, besides Rome.

So. What can be extracted from all of this?

i) The Late Bronze Age collapse isn't quite as ludicrously over-explained as the fall of the Roman Empire, but it is getting close. First up, in this post and in the Wikipedia article, are exogenous explanations.  People like catastrophes, and if it's not going to be a volcano, perhaps it was climate change, although a tidal wave of barbarian invasion remains as popular today as when Gaston Maspero proposed it, more than a century ago. I, personally, prefer some kind of story about endogenous causes. A long time ago, and without a note-taking pen in hand, I encountered an argument about how the numerous bronze hoards recovered in the archaeological site of Ugarit showed that the collapse followed from a bursting of a bronze "bubble." I find that I'm the highest-ranked search return for the theory, but I don't own it, and I've no doubt that a better-conducted literature review would give credit where credit was due. In the mean time, I did find a source discussing those hoards.  The obvious problem is that all past catastrophes turn out to be the current one in ancient-historical-drag, and I'm still a little pissed about the instant evaporation of Vancouver-area academic teaching jobs during the Asian monetary crisis of 1998, with the follow-on crisis of 2008 the icing on the cake of my personal bitterness. Of course I'm going to say that it is all about long-distance trading networks bringing excessive quantities of tin into the Middle Eastern centre, leading to a collapse in the price of bronze and the erasing of stored wealth, followed, in some underpants-gnome kind of way, by the inevitable collapse of (most of) the LBA states.

Okay, that said, we have a problem. I dashed off a critique of the "Malthusian" historical model last week. Here's the issue, as I see it.
This is a map-based synopsis of the reduction in number of known settlement sites in Greece during the LBA collapse, taken from Osborne, 21--1. Jonathan Hall prefers a synoptic table that puts numbers to impressions: a 62.5% reduction in number of sites from Late Helladic IIIB to IIIC, a further 61.9% reduction through the Submycenaean. The result is robust at this point, the argument being whether the people died, emigrated, or shifted to an archaeologically invisible lifestyle, which I have argued here, elsewhere.

The idea here is that wattle-and-mud constructed apsidal buildings do not just signify a new architectural style (ideological change? After all, why not shoot for the Moon?), but are also less archaeologically recoverable. The other argument is that this is nothing more than yet another unsustainable attempt to evade the horrifying reality of mass depopulation/migration during the LBA collapse. That being said, while I assume that I am arguing against a widely held, mainstream position, inasmuch as it is in Wikipedia and all, I'm having trouble finding scholars who argue for a depopulation event, although critics who articulate my concerns far better than I could (and have data!) are not hard to find at all. [pdf]. The trend in scholarship is to talk about connectivity and mobility, and I would be able to give you more than tend-watching if the Cambridge University Press weren't set on selling the Kindle edition of The Cambridge Prehistory of the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean for $210 Canadian, or if UBC had bothered to acquire a copy of the much-more-reasonably-but-not-that-reasonably priced hardback. 

So why is depopulation important, here? The traditional argument, which goes back to the Reverend Malthus, is that population expands exponentially, while food production increases arithmetically. Writing in the troubled, early years of the Revolutionary era, and, it be noted, against increases in the Poor rates, Thomas Malthus made a set of arguments that boil down to the claim that population growth, if left unchecked by the means he approved of, would increase until famine and disease checked it, on its own. In the somewhat more sophisticated version brandished by anti-Corn Law advocates, the marginal productivity of additional labour in agriculture (more hands per acre means means a higher production per acre, but. . . ) eventually diminishes to the point where you cannot add another hand and extract enough food to feed that hand. (And since productivity declines with additional labour, the "bounty" that subsidises corn production on marginal land becomes a "rent" extracted by the owners of better land. Rent is bad. Bounties are bad. Free importation of corn is good. The only argument against this is that an unregulated free market in corn is going to lead to the collapse of British agriculture, and how crazy is that?)

In the final version of Malthusian history, we boil it down: At every stage before the modern "takeoff," population pressed at the limits of subsistence. Now, there is the difficulty that this 

Diagram sketch of an Independence Culture home from Peary Land. That is, just about the most miserable human lifestyle to leave an archaeological record. In the warm season, you kill caribou and cache them. When the cold comes, you crawl into a house made by piling up stones, lie around a box hearth fired by driftwood in the cold darkness and chew fermenting caribou until spring comes in eight months or so. Source.
is not this.
Artist's impression of a late Thule Inuit home. (It's from the Britannica site, and I feel terrible about scraping it, although not terrible enough to subscribe, or whatever it is you do to pay those poor guys to live in the Internet age). Driftwood is used for construction instead of fuel, which comes from seals, and is burnt in highly efficient soapstone lamps. Note that this is Thule work, and so implies iron tools. 
In other words, "subsistence" means different things in different eras. Brad Delong, from whom I'm cribbing, throws in a "technology" term to cover off the difference between early caribou hunters and late whale-and-seal-takers. I'm not going to argue, especially when he posts mainly to explore an endogenous account of technological innovation, in which population increases and technological progress are related. I think that that is an important point to make for many reasons, and in particular calls attention to the fact, a bit buried in Mark Kremer's original form of the argument [pdf], that models in which the rate of population growth (technology is raising the "subsistence" threshold) is proportional to population which are forced to fit population estimates from The Beginning to 0 BC, overshoot population estimates from about 200AD on. I'd say something about that third century crisis being a real crisis were it not for the fact that this applies to China, too. Not that China didn't have a Third Century crisis --only that the causes seem to be quite different from the Roman one. Unless they're exogenous --climate change, volcanoes, whatever. 

Or that something else is going on. The argument here is that the anomaly comes before. Traditional historiography --perhaps-- sweeps the board of excess human population in the paroxysmal year of 1177. A revisionist take that goes out to pasture, says  that the Early Iron Age was a period of profound creativity and of largescale transformation of the possibilities of "subsistence," a transformation that unlocked the demographic potential of the human race. If it is also a stateless transformation, am I painting a libertarian-friendly picture? Are we moderns going to have to orchestrate the collapse of the modern state to get technological progress back?

No: On the contrary. What we need is a man like Tiglath-Pileser III, a king of a laughing house. (No, seriously. If it's not time yet to flay a few climate change deniers alive, it soon will be.) But I've gone on far more than long enough for today, given that I'm back to work tomorrow for seven straight, and I have to find time for some technology postblogging, if for no other reason than because it brings things like the potash and glycerine industries to the light. 


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  2. I dabble in the same line of thought. My current general take is that complex societies need some external input (usually luxury goods) to create and maintain the social order. The more complex social order enables greater production, and facilitates obtaining more luxury goods. Then supply falls, or demand outruns supply, social order simplifies, production falls, population falls. The Bronze Age luxury goods inputs were ivory, textiles, slaves and foreign jewellery.

  3. The idea that long distance luxury trades support social hierarchy has an old pedigree. It's probably not an excessive paraphrase of Smith on luxury, for example. What I'm wondering about is the role of human circulation in maintaining it, and whether we could talk about Latour's Laboratory Life in this connection.

    In that case, long distance trade also underpins social networks of knowledge. Does the transmission of knowledge require social hierarchy?

  4. The connection with Latour escapes me. "Luxury" and "long-distance" are more or less synonymous in this context. The external input can be seen as necessary to maintain the structure in the face of social entropy, in that it allows rewards to arrivistes or bribes for support without requiring that some other party lose (Peter Brown makes this case explicitly for the late Merovingians/mid Carolingians - they had to trade parts of the royal domain and powers for support in succession contests, and a run of disputed successions and short reigns left them fatally weakened).

  5. It's hard to comment on the Merovingian/Carolingian case, because it is so far out of scale --and also perhaps not as interesting as the Early Iron Age, since it isn't obviously an era of technological/economic transition. Although I guess Lynn White would disagree with me.

    Latour's anthropological study of the discovery of an important peptide at the Salk Institute has some complications, in that the question of whether TRH(F) was "discovered" or "invented" is sufficiently alive to raise the usual epistemic squeamishness. Significantly, although understandably, he used a Pasteur demonstration when he spoke at the University of Toronto, and it might be better to go back to another chestnut and use the difficulties of replicating the vacuum pump, or my undergraduate/early graduate experience of watching cold fusion and high temperature superconduction verifications proliferate around the world as examples of a general phenomena of Latour's modified actor-network theory that might have some bearing (cont....)

  6. . . . In the spread of ironworking praxis. Latour emphasises the role of visitors, hires, and institutional prestige in the spread of a technique (knowledge) from one research site to another. Techniques rarely spread without being demonstrated on site by a visitor, although a new hire can also bring them. The question of why a technique is accepted as being worth replicating, and which originating site gets to claim to be its origin, comes down to the prestige of the institution (cont....)

  7. . . . Not to burn all my powder now, but we have one dramatic example of the spread of "knowledge--" the haruspicy demonstration models of clearly Assyrian inspiration found in Etruscan contexts. This is clearly knowledge, if false, and might be used to calibrate the spread of ironworking and equestrianship. If Actor Network Theory is right, these are being spread by demonstrators. The wilder extension of this is that we can talk about the social prestige of the originating site (Assyria), and even the way in which social relations embed knowledge. I know, I know, fuzzy as all heck, but what that means is that ideas about how human biochemistry work are implicit in our idea of what this peptide is, and by reproducing the peptide in our lab, we are basically saying that the Salks Institute is in charge of telling us how biochemistry works. (And that we should hire Salks graduates for our tenure-track positions.)
    We have a slightly hypothetical one --the spread of annual eponym officials and eponym lists-- and one highly hypothetical one, the spread of a female gender case in Indo-European. To do Assyrian stuff, we need to think like an Assyrian.

  8. Not related to the above, but plugging an old but worthy effort, here again is Andrew Sherratt's ArchAtlas, on routes and paths in prehistoric Eurasia:

  9. Sure. Iron technology (or any other) spreads through networks (although there are a couple of cases of people inventing writing systems after hearing them described).

    We lack the evidence to pinpoint exactly how late Bronze Age societies imploded, but the pattern of their rise and their general structure are clear. My point is that we don't need to look for a positive impetus - a technical, logistic or ecological limit would be enough to do the job given an inbuilt tendency to decay.

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