Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, XIII: A Midsummer's Night Update

I hope that you've had a restful June. I have, with the family visits and the vast amount of standing around involved in closing a grocery store. (Sigh.) I also hope you've learned new things. I have!

By Cliff from Arlington, Virginia, USA - Barley (Hordeum vulgare), CC BY 2.0,
For example, did you know that Hordeum vulgare counts as a marginal halophyte due to its ability to tolerate up to 5 g/litre of salt in water, compared with the 1-3 g/litre tolerance of other cereal and legume crops? That's why it is so widely planted on irrigated land, and, in particular, on the alluvium of southern Iraq ("Sumer and Akkad.") That fact might have slipped into an earlier post in this series, and appears in J. G. Manning's intellectual armature, as of The Open Sea, a monograph already noted here, although one that I took some time to get my brain around due to a certain lack of patience for wheels spinning. It's also something that I learned at 53, thanks to following links on Wikipedia, once again underlining the sheer intellectual dilettance of agrarian history.

Admittedly, technical dilettance is an occupational hazard for the historian in general. Take, for example, a blog post based on three monographs that pretends to develop the state of the art at the end of the Iron Age. Oh, well. Three books isn't much by the standards of comps reading, but I didn't have a fulltime job in those days, either. (We'll pass over the time I was able to spend at work, reading, last week, in silence.)

Another case of dilettance leading to a monograph, admittedly far less important, being the existence of the island of Ustica:

By Lucia Missoni -, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The argument that anyone other than biographers of Antonio Gramsci should know about Ustica is made in Cyprian Broodbank's The Making of the Middle Sea, the other big-book-about-the-Mediterranean recently released by a major university press, and I do mean big. As a book that brings the history of the Mediterranean down to the end of the Iron Age, it has pretty direct relevance to this series, and Dr. Broodbank's thing is the archaeology of Mediterranean islands, and his grand synthesis develops from an extended meditation on those islands. Ustica is arguably the most isolated of all Mediterranean islands, so its settlement, sometime in the 1250BC timeframe, marks the moment when the Middle Sea was "made."

 Now off to another island, this time one of the earliest settled. Here are the ruins of ancient Gortyn, the town, deep in the Mesara valley, once thought to be the ancient Knossos. Overshadowed by an obsessive focus on Crete's Greece-facing, Aegean side, it was a substantial city in its time, and even so early as 450BC, when the Great Law of Gortyn was inscribed on a monumental structure its agora. The Great Law is touched upon by Marc van de Mierop with lapidary care, along with some equally careful speculation about the contents of the Twelve Tables of the Law that were exhibited on bronze tablets in a public place in Rome until destroyed by Brennus in 387. (Seems plausible!) That discussion occurs in Philosophy before the Greeks: The Pursuit of Truth in Ancient Babylonia.

I have a confession to make. In spite of what seems like direct instruction from OUP and sumptuous production values, I'm just not that into Broodbank's masterpiece. 
Who even produces scholarly monographs like this any more? If you're wondering, I somehow got my thumb into the original image on the far left, and I cropped it rather than retaking the photo.
It's not that it's in any way a slight book. Indeed, much of the rest of this post is going to take it as a masterful exposition of the state of the art of Mediterranean archaeology and draw out some points of interest. It's just that I read it and then turned to Mieroop, and there's just no comparison. It's not just that the doyen of ancient Near Eastern studies has produced an outstandingly lucid and convincing book in spite of having no published track record in philosophy. It is the ambition of his effort to understand the "Babylonian" mind that comes through.

And, also, of course, his ability to illuminate its western echoes. As I implied, Mieroop is all-too aware of the extent of the resistance in academia to the idea that Babylonian philosophy, or "philosophy," has any echo in the West. This is why, I think, he treads lightly on the Great Law, and especially the Twelve Tables.

My potted summary of Philosophy before the Greeks is that the literary turn comes first. This might, I continue to ferociously argue, have to do with ancient Babylonia's fraught relationship with Sumerian, a language that, possibly, has to be written in spite of the fact that no-one ever managed to speak it (as a complete, natural language). Whatever. That's speculation. Mieroop, the historian, focusses on evidence in its historical context. Cuneiform literature, he points out, begins with administrative documents and moves on to lexical lists. The famous list of professions that appears in the earliest, proto-cuneiform contexts, is still being reproduced in the latest deposits of cuneiform texts. It must be a pedagogical exercise, and we must be able to reproduce the thought process it is intended to teach; and see how that teaching leads to the career of the students who reproduce it. Which is to say, the career of Bronze-to-Iron Age accountant-administrator. 

Some time around 1766BC, Hammurabi of Babylon inaugurated a new literary form, the legal text. Whereas the lexical list is a series of Sumerian words with definitions, alternate forms, and Akkadian glosses, Hammurabi's monumental text is in Akkadian, and almost exclusively in syllabic signs. In the bilingual context of Babylonian civilisation, it  is a new linguistic form. Van de Mieroop, like most modern authors, rejects the idea that the so-called Hammurabic code is anything of the sort.  However, he also departs from the idea that it is intended to create an image of Hammurabi as a "King of Justice." On the contrary, he sees it as having a more-than-illustrative value, but one limited by the choice of medium. Starting with the largest and most ostentatiously valuable piece of basalt, fetched at extravagant cost from remote mountains, Hammurabi's scribes have created the longest text and most carefully composed text they can create. Its intention is to exhibit a King of Wisdom by teaching the reader to think like a Babylonian lawyer. Hence its importance to "Babylonian philosophy," which is slowly developing out of the frame of mind that relies on the lexical lists to understand reality.

In the century after Hammurabi, leading up to the mid-Bronze Age Near Eastern "Dark Age" of 1650--1350, other legal texts appear, but soon pale before a much more imposing literature, the divination texts.
Chariots. It's about chariots. Yeah, I know that's reductive. 

Van de Mieroop concludes that this literature reflects the ideological failure of the divine kingship model, and its replacement by the idea that the gods legislate reality by the literal writing of signs --omens. In textual terms, the new literature is often seen as a step backwards, since it abandons strict reliance on syllabic script and returns to the  use of logograms and visual references, as seen in the lexical lists. On the contrary, says van de Mieroop, they are the logical culmination of Babylonian thinking, a way of using writing to represent reality as a play of ominous signs. It is an ineffable wonder that an infinite reality can be expressed by a finite number of signs, but every tool must be used, and written representations come first.

I have to qualify my praise of van de Mieroop here. He asserts that the postmodernist literary turn is the way to understand this thought process, and I heartily agree. I do not, however, think that I left his monograph with a better sense of Derridean "grammatology" and all of that than I had coming in. On the other hand, had he embarked on that project, I'd probably still be struggling through the book!

At the end of the dark ages, indeed, at the beginning of a new one, at least in the West, there appears  Esagil-kin-apli, the great scholar, who, according to the colophons on many texts, redacted much of the divinatory literature handed down by the Gods. This is a new kind of myth, in the sense that there is no way that Esagil's labours, however prodigious, covered so large a share of Akkadian literature as has been claimed for it. It is also an interesting myth, in that  neo-Assyrian scholarship appears to have gone to a great deal of trouble to find texts from before his time, so as to recover what Esagil altered or suppressed. Van de Mieroop takes this tradition as evidence of a larger school of Babylonian scholars attributing their work to a single Great Man, and sidles up to a full-throated claim of peripheral creativity.

That is, we do not know what "Babylonian" scholarship was doing in 1650--1350, but we do have texts from peripheral locations like Hattusas, Susa, Ugarit on the Mediterranean shore (significant!) and even Bahrain. Here, we can see, scholars used cuneiform to write new languages, create new multilingual glosses, and interpret new social realities. But what of the core innovations, the ever-more powerful grammatology at the heart of the new  literature? Is it an echo of scholarship in the heartland that we simply cannot find? Or was it produced at the periphery, fertilised by contact with new cultures? It is impossible to say for certain without the risk of being proven wrong by the next cache of tablets, but van de Mieroop comes down, in the end, in favour of creation at the margins. For the historical linguist, the implication is one of innovation pointing in both directions in the context of emergent west Semitic, Ancient Egyptian, and, of course, the Anatolian branch of Indo-European. That being said, the inability of these languages to support the full apparatus of Sumerian grammatology is going to limit the extent to which these texts can ever teach a unilingual, or at least non-Sumerian-speaking administrator, lawyer, divination priest or philosopher how to think like a Babylonian. The Great Law of Gortyn is clearly modeled on a Babylonian law-stele, but is simply not possible for it to be the same kind of pedagogical text. In the same way, the ominous literature --such  cool turn of phrase-- is just not going to be propagated beyond the limits of the Babylonian-style administrative state. Where Sumerian literacy fails, so fails the administrative state,or vice versa. As far as geography goes, the Arzawan letters in the Amarna archives, which show that the scribes of Ephesus could only communicate in written Hittite, mark the limit of the full-blown Babylonian world system.  The Linear A/B world of Crete and the Peloponnese is, of course, beyond the pale, and Ustica far beyond the edge of the world.
Great is Diana of the Ephesians!
Van de Mieroop, Philosophy before the Greeks: 4.5 out of 5 unexpected-breakout stars of the DCEU

Now on to Broodbank. My review is peevish, but I think that's justified. If you're going to make me waste my time on a big book, it needs to be a work of literature. To select at random, "Small-scale overland contact and transmission across northern Sinai, along a dry, briny coastal passage backed by dunes and rocks, had to date been effected by a patchy scatter of Copper Age groups between the Levant and Delta" (287) is not even vaguely a sentence that belongs in a world-historical work of great literature. With Braudel we're probably more indebted than we know to Sian Reynolds, so perhaps Broodbank will yet be rescued by a felicitious translator. Perhaps OUP should have cut a few colour plates and splurged on a copy-editor who might have recast the sentence in active voice and cut either or both of "dry" and "dune," "and transmission" and "patchy," at the very least?

Look, I get it. This is scholarship, not poetry, and at least Broodbank has written a book! Plenty of historians of the last generation managed to avoid anything so gauche, not that I'm bitter or anything. This is powerful book, with a convincing framework (those island sites) and a reconstructable history-of-technology that illuminates the early Iron Age in powerful ways. But you try reading it on a deadline, in snatches of early morning time before work! 

So what did your humbler servant learn? First, Broodbank is brave. He is willing to lay out a positive chronology of seafaring in the Mediterranean, in the understanding that archaeology, in the form of indisputable, earlier human remains on any of a thousand islands might overthrow his framework. The first, assisted-flotation seafarers of the Mediterranean basin were hunter-gatherers of the Last Glacial Maximum, who crossed the very narrow water gap between Italy and Corsica-Sardinia, which then reached as far north as Elba, and is known to have been an island by virtue of its endemic species. Canoe voyages to islands outside the reach of water-wing assisted hunters (I'm imaging) had to wait for the stimulus of the Younger Dryas. This, by the way, is an example of Broodbank's curious, back-to-front climactic determinism, which he ushers off the stage, in contrast to Manning, with the coming of the modern Mediterranean climate in 3200BC.
Just yesterday, really.
  More ambitious canoeing waits until the full-blown Levantine Neolithic is well underway, and is signalled by the arrival of hunters on Cyprus who take advantage of its endemic population of pygmy hippoptami, which at the very least sound like a more reasonable Christmas gift than the full-sized animal. "Voyaging," which Broodbank conceives as an ideological statement as much as anything else, has to wait until the fourth millennium, the age of the Uruk Expansion and the first stirrings of the Egyptian state. After all, canoes are slow, so long voyages are strongly motivated somehow, and the profit motive is a weak reed of an explanation, even if we have obsidian scatters to indicate a "trade" in this rare material, easily traced and often sourced on relatively remote islands like Melos and Pantellaria that have to be reached by "voyaging."
 At the same time that the more-elaborate canoes and (perhaps) first sails of the Mediterranean --East Asia and Oceania are so over this phase-- are appearing in the area where Broodbank made his bones, donkeys are appearing on land, two millennia before the mule. "The oxen plants the harvest, the donkey eats it." The parasitic nature of overland trade in prestige goods is not going to keep the land bridge between the bend of the Euphrates and the Mediterranean shore unused for very long!

At the same time, those patchy scatters are not enough for newly dynastic Egypt, or, perhaps for the subaltern Deltaic community that Broodbank insists upon without characterising. Therefore, a millennium or so later, perhaps, we have the Byblos ships,

We talk a lot about how marine transport is more efficient than overland without acknowledging that it's a pretty high-level activity when you get right down to it. The real historical miracle is the point at which non-state societies can build these things!
With sailing ships, we get to the point where Ustica is a reasonable place to settle, but not quite to the point where it is settled. For that, we need one final innovation, which will, of course, be familiar to the old-time wargamer: After Cloth (for Sails), comes Astronomy, which allows you to cross the open-sea squares and really throw your game of Civilization wide open.

Before we get that far, however, I want to go back to another place where Broodbank is willing to stick his neck out: the disappearance of flax in Swiss lake village levels at the end of the Neolithic, which in the dominant paradigm of Swiss archaeology marks the arrival of wool, along with any finishing touches on the "Secondary Products Revolution," hence the abandonment of linen and a new comfort level at higher altitudes. (I'm not sure that the research, as represented by one article, because I am thorough[!], supports this dating.) That being said, I started this series with the revelation that you make salt, soda and potash out of ashes, and wool manufacture remains one of the most important consumers of soda ash. Glass demonstrates the existence of a woodlands alkali industry, and pops up in the Late Bronze Age, showing that it is preliminary to the Iron Age transition, but it would nice if we did have a well-secured date that shows that wool production is intrusive into the  Atlantic European "Beaker interaction sphere" [ is awesome] at the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Once again my photography fails me. I'd like to tell you that I'm not lazy and slapdash, but I've got to get this done and get on with making dinner. The point is that Broodbank is making his argument for a separate Deltaic cultural sphere in the photo captions because it's hard to sustain in text. Shame! Shame! ;-)

Moving hastily along, a book that premises the Iron Age as the culmination of a phase of Mediterranean history pretty much has to deal with the Late Bronze Age collapse. In Broodbank, that explanation is a push back against the old "The Sea Peoples" thesis that turns back on "Sea Peoples." In essence, the long-distance trade networks that allow peripheral areas to pursue comparative advantage in the field of dyed textiles, painted pots and perfumed oils depends in this period on tight control over nexus points. Ugarit is not so prodigiously wealthy because it has a natural chokehold on the bridge between Babylonia and the West; it maintains its wealth by maintaining that chokehold. This is not because it is strong, however, but  because there are no rivals. When rivals do emerge, when the Mediterranean first takes on its "corrupting" aspect, perhaps with the appearance of the vexing pirates of the west Anatolian coast, cityless but well-timbered, and likewise the Phoenicians, also dwellers on a coast where wooded mountains fall into the sea without troubling themselves to stop at a roadable coastal plain, first.

In any case, Ugarit may come to an end, but rival towns flourish even as the system collapses and Aramaeans (just perhaps, etymologically, "the young ones") emerge in the desert with their barbaric West Semitic jibber-jabber. Broodbank specifically mentions frescoes from Pylos showing palatial soldiers fighting rude barbarians clad in wool --without gasping with realisation, like a haruspice discovering the perfect correlation of liver blemish to question in the ninth sheep sacrificed, just at the moment when the "rules" of extispicy require you to give up and accept that the gods have ordained something, and that no amount of sacrificial propitiation will prevent it. (The common sense rationalisation for extispicy usually producing a positive result, in case anyone is wondering.) The yokels are wearing their wool renders! Let's kill them until they stop!

The collapse of controlled, palatial trading is, then, of a piece with the collapse of the palatial system itself. Bullion money makes it possible, as everything solid melts into air. The sting in Broodbank's tale is the hypothesis that the Near East was suffering a silver inflation as early as the immediate pre-Classical age, perhaps at the same time as the rise of the Persian Empire, forcing it onto a gold standard at a time when the monetary age was barely emerging in the west.

I'm not as satisfied with Broodbank's handling of the metals trade as I am with much else that he has to say. He accepts earlier dates for the exploitation of Tuscan metals than have recently appeared here, and so salvages the center-periphery model for "Phoenician" voyaging. And he seems less aware than I now am (by virtue of the shallowest of link-following) of the comparatively sophisticated chemistry of silver refining via cupellation.  That said, there is something cynically persuasive about the implicit thesis that established elites would rather shut down the monetary system than allow inflation to put cash money in the hands of the unwashed. Allow for it to have happened at the end of the Late Bronze Age and the Third Century Crisis, and we have three periods of deflating-rather-than-lose-social-control in a mere fifteen hundred years.

Farging bastiches.

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