The Social Logic Transforms
For a long time Jericho and Çatalhöyük, and similar other examples were isolated enigmas. These were essentially supersized villages of thousands of people. They preceded the Urban Revolution described by Childe by millennia, at a time when most people still lived in villages closer to the optimum (Dunbar’s number).
In the fertile alluvial valleys of Mesopotamia around 4000BC, suddenly dense urban settlements are established once again, but on a very different order from earlier ones like Jericho and Çatalhöyük. These are true cities, with planned streets, temples, palaces, granaries, and so forth.
But why did large groups of people suddenly start living in such dense settlements again? And why did it happen when and where it did? It’s notable that when cities reappear, they are planned, with temples, streets, palaces, etc. This has led to the conclusion that cities are intrinsically tied with the emergence of the state as a governing entity, replacing tribal or chieftainship modes of governing:
At some point during the fourth millennium BC, farmers and herders in Mesopotamia began to concentrate in large, densely occupied settlements, the best known of which is Uruk. For millennia previously, since the start of sedentary life in the Near East, settlements had, with a few exceptions, rarely exceeded a few hectares in size; now places like Uruk and Tell Brak exceeded one hundred hectares of settled area.
Contemporary with this demographic expansion, monumental architecture, specialist-produced status-marking goods, record keeping devices, and mass produced pottery appeared, which have been interpreted as signifying a new complex and centralized form of sociopolitical organization, i.e., the state. On these empirical bases, archaeologists have interpreted the record of the Uruk period as the beginnings of urbanism as a settlement form, and the state as a political structure.
Why did these settlements begin and grow where the previous failed? I suspect that it is because the intervening years had seen a transformation in the social logic. The evidence shows that Near Eastern societies had transitioned from a transegalitarian phase to a much more hierarchical one over the intervening thousand years or so. This allowed for the introduction of much more top-down political systems which were required to make cities possible. Such systems may have emerged as a result centuries of domesticated agriculture and anial husbandry, along with the attendant feasting they engendered.
There are several clues in the archaeological record indicating such a change:
1.) Temples: As Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus point out, the emergence of hierarchy is strongly correlated with the building of temples. Temples indicate the emergence of full-time religious specialists who gained a monopoly on intercession with the gods/ancestors and derived their enhanced status thereby. The lack of any specialized religious structures was noticeable at both Jericho and Çatalhöyük.
We have used the building of men’s houses as an indicator of village societies where leadership was based on achievement. This enables us to use the decline of the men’s house and the rise of the temple as an indicator of societies with some degree of hereditary leadership…the transition from the men’s house to the temple seems to have been associated with the decreasing importance of ordinary people’s ancestors and the increasing importance of the celestial spirits in the chief’s geneology. (COI: 207)
Temples…went on to replace men’s houses in several parts of the New World…the transition was accompanied by evidence of hereditary inequality…we have seen that as chiefly elites emerge, they begin to dedicate buildings to the highest celestial spirits in their cosmos.
Mesoptamia[n]…societies were among the first to replace the small ritual house with the temple. Beginning 8,700 years ago with the Terrazzo Building at Cayonu, Turkey, villages of the Tigris-Euphrates drainage built increasingly temple-like structures. For centuries, some early temples coexisted with circular building that look like men’s houses or clan houses. Finally, between 6,500 and 6,000 years ago, the temples stood alone. (COI: 260)
But we can see this hierarchical transition most accurately reflected in the pottery. Pottery first becomes widespread at this time. Pottery, being fired clay, does not decay, and it has very distinct artistic motifs and creation methods. This leads archaeologists to use pottery artifacts (along with grave goods and building types) to classify distinct cultures before the introduction of writing.
The Samarran culture is defined by Samarran ware pottery, and these pieces have distinctive markings indicating the makers of the pottery, and possibly the owners. This is a clear evidence to archaeologists of 1.) The existence of specialized laborers, and 2.) The emergence of private property.
At Tell es-Sawwan, evidence of irrigation—including flax—establishes the presence of a prosperous settled culture with a highly organized social structure. The culture is primarily known for its finely made pottery decorated with stylized animals, including birds, and geometric designs on dark backgrounds. This widely exported type of pottery, one of the first widespread, relatively uniform pottery styles in the Ancient Near East, was first recognized at Samarra. The Samarran Culture was the precursor to the Mesopotamian culture of the Ubaid period.
Samarran ware was traded far and wide in the Near East at this time. The ability to store goods individually for long periods of time indicated a greater shift toward inequality. As mentioned earlier, storage for foodstuffs would have also aided greatly in feasting.
Following Samarran Ware is the introduction of Halaf Ware, a distinctive polychromatic (multi-colored) pottery style. Early evidence indicated that this style was primarily traded between various political centers in the region rather than between neighboring villages, indicating the presence of an elite trading network.
The clay that allowed pottery to be made also allowed the first permanent records to be kept. Halaf culture also saw the introduction clay seals called bullae, indicating ownership and management of surpluses. Even more importantly, such seals were often included in burials indicating that status position were now being inherited.
Tell Arpachiyah is the main settlement of the Halaf culture that has been excavated. Excavations start to show differentiation in housing sizes and belongings. There are also the presence of what are called tholoi: keyhole-shaped structures that are thought to indicate the presence of early temples and religious specialists. The clay token heralds the eventual appearance of writing later in Mesopotamia:
In pre-agricultural Mesopotamia, there was little need for counting. Egalitarian societies practise reciprocity (the rule of hospitality) and there is no separate portion of society which needs to keep track of what it is owed or who owes it…With the development of agriculture, one sees the introduction of clay tokens representing quantities of grain, oils, etc., and units of work. These tokens indicate a major conceptual leap as well as a need for systemization.’
[T]he conceptual leap was to endow each token shape … with a specific meaning’. Previously, any markings, such as those on tally sticks, could not be understood outside the context in which they were notched. With tokens, anyone conversant with the system could immediately understand their meanings. Moreover, as each token represented a particular object, it was now possible to systematically ‘. . . manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously’.
In the fourth millennium, accompanying urbanization or the formation of classes, these tokens assumed new shapes, were of a higher quality indicating production by specialized craft workers, and featured lines and marks which required the development of writing and reading skills. Writing emerges from bookkeeping. The marks are designed to solve the technical problem of storage and cumbersome tallying. When tokens were few in number, it was easy to both store and count them. With a growth in the number and types of token, a new system had to be developed to allow easy maintenance ‘of the books.’ Hence, a particular mark indicated so many tokens, and one mark replaced the physical presence of (say) ten tokens.
We also now begin to see tokens as part of the funerary goods found in grave sites, and these are only found in the graves of the wealthier members of society. Tokens are a status symbol, indicating a change from egalitarian to hierarchical society. Eventually, the production of tokens and their administration becomes a temple activity, associated with the system of taxation that has supplanted the older tribal obligations. Writing – in this case the marks on the clay tokens that are the unit of account – was ‘invented to keep track of economic transactions’.
Taken together, these indicators show that the transegalitarian societies of Mesopotamia, especially in the Northern plains, were becoming more stratified.
A number of ancient villages in Northern Mesopotamia provide us with clues to social inequality such as elite children buried with sumptuary goods, long-distance exchanges of polychrome pottery among elite families, the clustering of satellite hamlets around chiefly villages, and the burning of elite residences in raids. For Southern Mesopotamia, the evidence for rank is more subtle… (COE: 260-261)
2. The plow: The domestication of cattle allowed for eventual the introduction of the plow. The plow may seem unrelated to the emergence of the state, but in fact it likely had a great social impact.
Early gardening was based around the hoe. Archaeologists believe that much of this hoeing labor was initially done by women, possibly as an extension of their gathering role. In fact, agriculture was typically associated with female deities, possibly indicating their initial role in cultivating grains. Or it may simply related to the earth being perceived as “womb” from where the planted “seed” grows, similar to the female’s role in human reproduction:
Early agriculture may …have made use of an organization of work along sexual lines, the women, perhaps assisted by children, planting and cultivating while the men hunted. Ancient mythology possibly lends credence to the assumption of women as agriculturists; Isis, Cybele, Demeter, and Ceres, the Egyptian, Asian, Greek, and Roman divinities of grain-raising are all goddesses. More probably, however, the goddess seemed appropriate as a symbol of fertility…(BtSoTB)
But it takes significant grip and upper-body strength to control a plow pulled by large animals. The first plows in Mesopotamia were called ards, and were basically hoes attached to a wooden frame.
In all of the Old World’s high cultures, crop cultivation started with plowing. Its indispensability is reflected even in the oldest writing. Both the Sumerian cuneiform records and the Egyptian glyphs have pictograms for plows. Plowing prepares the ground for seeding much more thoroughly than hoeing does: It breaks up the compacted soil, uproots established plants, and provides weed-free, loosened, well-aerated ground in which seedlings can germinate and thrive.
The first primitive scratch plows (ards), commonly used shortly after 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, were pointed wooden sticks with a handle. Later most of them were tipped with metal. For centuries they remained lightweight and symmetrical (with the draft line in a vertical plane with the beam and share point). Such simple plows, which merely opened up a shallow furrow for seeds and left cut weeds on the surface, were the mainstay of both Greek and Roman farming. They were used over large parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia until the twentieth century. In the poorest regions they were pulled by people. Only in lighter, sandier soils would such an effort be speedier than hoeing (EWH: 30)
Plowing was undoubtedly the activity where animals made the greatest difference. Given the relatively high power requirements of this task, it is hardly surprising that the first clearly documented cases of cattle domestication involved plow farming. In time, these animals were also used in many regions for lifting irrigation water and for processing harvested crops, and they were eventually used everywhere for transportation (EWH: 41)
Evidence indicates that cattle became much more common in the Ubaid period:
Archaeologists…find impressive numbers of cattle bones in the refuse of ‘Ubaid villages. Their abundance raises the possibility that oxen had now been harnessed to wooden plows, allowing families to cultivate larger tracts of land.(COI: 283)
With plowing came significant social changes 1.) The control of food production passed exclusively into the hands of men. If women and their children wanted to eat, they needed to submit to the control of their fathers, uncles, brothers and husbands. This is thought to be directly related to the emergence of patriarchy and the demotion in the status of women to little more than chattel in many ancient Near East cultures.
Its often said that the passing down of land to firstborn sons led to the need for “paternity assurance” and hence the strict and oppressive controls imposed on female sexuality. This is unlikely, as land was typically collectively owned by the temples and clans until later periods. What’s more likely, given the evidence of clay seals above, is that it is status positions that being passed down. Thus, men needed to be assured of paternity, and marriage contracts became dependent upon strict assurances of virginity.
Once patriarchal authority became established and politics became firmly entrenched in the hands of males, much more hierarchical structures were able to form, leading to much more hierarchical householding systems replacing the communal structure we see in the earliest farming villages:
Farming, as it started and spread from the Fertile Crescent, was originally hoe-based, thus largely women’s work, as hoe-based farming can be done while child-minding. The men hunted and later herded, the women farmed. There was no inherent reason to shift away from egalitarian norms and beliefs. But the larger population led to the development of substantial permanent settlements, which persisted for centuries or even millennia, and then collapsed. Settlements which were physically structured in a way that did not reflect any apparent social hierarchy.
It has been suggested that such settlements failed because the belief system could not longer sustain them. But it had for many generations. It is more likely that some new factor destabilised the social arrangements, leading to the abandonment of the concentrated settlements. Otherwise, they would more likely have simply reached an upper limit and plateaued in size.
One factor could be climate change: the productivity of the region declined. Though there is apparently no correlation between a drop in regional surges and collapses in population in Europe and climatic conditions.
A possible disrupting factor could be pastoralist raiders; disrupting the productivity of the region. This has been suggested as reason for the collapse of “Old Europe”, the farming settlements of the Danube valley…
A third possible factor could be the introduction of the plough, disrupting the social logic of the egalitarian settlements…Ploughs have two effects–they increase the productivity of farmers and they concentrate farming in the hands of males. More productivity means (1) more people, (2) more possibility for social differentiation, (3) a more sizeable possible extracted surplus. Moreover, ploughing is men’s work–both because of the greater grip and upper body strength required and, more crucially, as it is not compatible with childminding. As neither is animal herding, that leads to a male monopoly of the major productive assets and, as a consequence, male domination of public social space.
Suddenly, family relations become much more hierarchical. Hierarchical families provide easier support for wider social hierarchy: ploughs predate the first states. Contradiction between the egalitarian social logic which originally sustained the first wave of urban settlements–manifested in their physical construction–and the new logic of male domination of productive assets, and so public social space, could have been so disruptive as to lead to the abandonment of the first wave of concentrated settlements–which reflected, and were associated with, the previous social logic–and dispersal into new villages, which could now reflect physically the new social logic. Possibly helped by the plough increasing the land area which could be cultivated. A social logic that had not yet developed the means to support larger aggregations of population.
When sizeable settlements arise again, they are both significantly larger in population–they are undoubtedly cities–and physically reflect much more hierarchical social arrangements. Including explicit physical public spaces, which Çatalhöyük, the largest of the earlier settlements, had entirely lacked–it had no streets, one went from house to house via roofs.
Hierarchical families, based on unequal gender relations, may well make the generation and acceptance of wider social hierarchy more acceptable, but that is hardly enough in itself to generate states. Though the larger populations, higher individual productivity and capacity for social differentiation from the plough created a much larger possibility for the creation of states.
Origins of the state (Thinking out loud)
In fact, we see in the ethnographic record that the introduction of cattle does lead to significant status differentiation between individuals and families. As mentioned earlier, cattle-herding cultures often do have a hierarchical structure of powerful chiefs, subchiefs and clan elders who control the political life of the tribe. They also engage in elaborate feasting rituals, often involving sacrifices to the gods.
In fact, North Africa is unique in that it developed cattle herding before crop cultivation. Unreliable rainfall during the “wet Sahara” period placed a premium on being able to move around with changing climate conditions, meaning herding was much a more logical way of life to adopt than sedentary farming, and domesticable sheep and goats are not native to North Africa. Some archaeologists consider this crucial to the formation of Egypt’s hierarchical top-down political system. The Pharaoh often depicted himself as a “great bull” trampling his enemies, and carried the crook and flail–herding implements–as symbols of his authority. Some archaeologists believe that the office of Pharaoh is the direct decedent of the powerful headmen typically seen in herding societies.
Of special relevance to the development of economic institutions is the work of Thurnwald. From his ethnological studies in East Africa he developed a theory of development of simple societies into stratified social systems, feudalisms and despotisms. He pointed out that a stratified society with clearly distinguishable social classes usually results from cultural contacts between gardening, artisan, or hunting-fishing peoples on the one hand and herding peoples on the other, with the herdsmen tending to form an aristocracy. Such a society may develop along feudal lines if the clan heads of the herdsmen remain relatively equal rivals, into a despotism if power can be centralized under a single dynasty, or into a tyrannis if someone outside the traditional aristocracy can seize power. The ancient despotic state, such as Egypt is a development typical of this scheme. Not only is the economy intimately connected with the social structure in Thurnwald’s schema, but the development of the two is pictured as a dynamic relationship.
Thurnwald also placed great stress on gift-giving, or reciprocity, as a pervasive element in primitive economic life, a pattern far removed from the acquisitive motives of the market economy and requiring a symmetrical pattern of social relationships for its operation. Indeed, Mauss has suggested that gift exchange is the fundamental principle underlying all primitive trade.
Polanyi, Trade and Market in Early Empires, pp. 345-347
Much larger tracts of land could now be cultivated via the plow. This meant that a single farm could feed many more people than before. While earlier agriculture had been based on shifting cultivation, in the alluvial plains of Mesopotamia, the same ground could be cultivated year after year, allowing land to be passed down much easier than it could in earlier farming villages.
The bump in energy utilization via plowing also freed up more people to do non-agricultural labor. The ability to cultivate larger fields most likely resulted in significant inequality. Throughout history we see that new technology that allows labor to be more productive allows fewer people to manage more labor, leading to inequality in and of itself.
With limitations on field size due to labor needs, there was a limit on how big a farm could grow. With plowing, certain families could effectively cultivate much larger fields if they had access to cattle. Although plantation slavery did not develop in Mesopotamia as it did later in Rome, often times debtors would become debt slaves to large landowners, causing a spiral of inequality. People who lost their farms and people fleeing from debt were likely some of the earliest inhabitants of cities.
Sumerian descent was reckoned in the male line, although elite women were mentioned in the genealogies of aristocrats, and women could hold high office. Sumerian kings, like the monarchs of other societies, were allowed multiple wives. Royal polygamy was not just a perquisite of office but a diplomatic strategy, allowing rulers to forge marriage alliances with the aristocracy of other cities.
Commoner marriage, with few exceptions, was limited to one man and one woman. Divorce was allowed, but bigamy and adultery were punished, often severely. One inscription discovered at Lagash states that “the women of former days used to take two husbands, [but] the women of today [if they attempted this] were stoned with stones [upon which was inscribed their ‘evil intent.’
What evil intent? Most of the societies discussed in earlier chapters saw no harm in polygamous marriage. For societies that believed in reincarnation, paternity was not a concern. Babies were seen as recycled ancestors, and all children born into a polygamous marriage were considered full siblings.
The logic of Sumer was different. Men were seen as “planting a seed” in the woman, and because of the male-oriented system of inheritance, the origin of this seed was a major concern. A woman who lost her virginity before marriage, committed adultery, or took two husbands had created intolerable doubt about paternity. The state intervened to protect what it saw as a husband’s rights but phrased it in terms of good and evil to make it appear that it was carrying out the will of a deity.
The term for “father’s brother” appears in Sumerian cuneiform texts. This suggests …that one of the preferred types of marriage might have been between a man and his father’s brother’s daughter. Anthropologists call this “patrilateral parallel cousin marriage,” and it is still common today in parts of the Near East.
Sumerian marriages, like those of the less complex societies seen in earlier chapters, required gifts between the bride’s and groom’s relatives. Exchanges of gifts could go on for months. Marriage was considered a legally binding contract, and divorce could cost the husband a fee in silver. Owing to sexism, it was harder for women to get a divorce.
It is probably from the Sumerians that later Near Eastern societies, including the Aramaic-speaking authors of the Old Testament, got the notion that marriage should be restricted to one man and one woman. The flexible marriage partnerships of egalitarian societies, which came in six or seven varieties, had been arbitrarily reduced to a legal contract between a man and a woman. Nothing could be allowed to make a man worry that his male heir was the result of someone else’s “seed.” (COI: 478-480)
3. Marriage: One intriguing theory for the origin for inequality in Flannery and Marcus’s book, The Creation of Inequality, is marriage alliances with neighboring cultures. For example, societies with surpluses often wished to establish regular trading relationships with neighboring cultures who had access to desired status goods. To create such relationships, women from the “advanced” society would be often exchanged as wives with the leaders of such cultures. The recipients of these wives then emerged as a hereditary overclass in the “lesser” culture.
We know that the inhabitants of southern Mesopotamia established trading outposts all throughout the ancient Near East early on. We know that they desired all sort of goods from neighboring cultures, from timber to ivory to precious stones, and later metals for bronze. We know that trade took place, including of jewelry, metals, pottery, and other artifacts. Might this have been instrumental in expanding social inequality throughout the region? In fact, even into the era of Bronze Age kingdoms, marriages between royal households was commonly used to establish political/economic alliances, and only aristocratic households could participate. This certainly must have cemented status differentiation all cross the Levant.
In their book they describe the establishment of hereditary inequality in a Burmese hill tribe called the Kachin by way of interactions with a more complex hierarchical farming society called the Shan:
There may Once have been more than 300,000 Kachin living in the hills of northern Burma. Hpalang lay 5,800 feet above sea level in forested hills receiving 120 to 150 inches of rain a year. The Kachin cleared patches in the forest