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European Journal of Archaeology

ISSN: 1461-9571 (Print) 1741-2722 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/yeja20

Archaeology of the Origin of the State: The


Theories

Richard E. Blanton

To cite this article: Richard E. Blanton (2012) Archaeology of the Origin of the
State: The Theories, European Journal of Archaeology, 15:2, 348-353, DOI:
10.1179/146195712X13382849165059

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1179/146195712X13382849165059

Published online: 18 Jul 2013.

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348 European Journal of Archaeology 15 (2) 2012

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A. Appadurai ed. The Social Life of Things. DOI 10.1179/146195712X13382851051818

Vicente Lull and Rafael Mic (translation by Peter Smith) Archaeology of the Origin of
the State: The Theories (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 290 pp., no figures,
tables, or plates, hbk, ISBN 978-0-19-955784-4)

Outside the group of doctrinaire Marxist as Eastern Despotism (p. 210), neoevolu-
archaeologists, few readers will find value tionism, a major topic of the books
in this repetitious and, at times, middle section, throughout is misspelled
difficult-to-read book. I doubt it will find neo-evolutionism, and, as there is no A.
success as a student text, given that the Mann, who is a prominent theoretician of
authors imagine an audience of knowl- the state, I believe the authors are alluding
edgeable readers capable of filling in on p. 218 to M. (Michael) Mann (men-
numerous gaps, for example, when new tioned but not cited). Writing is discussed
concepts relevant to state origins study, in relation to early states, but is simplisti-
such as heterarchy, are briefly mentioned cally conceived when the authors collapse
(p. 218) but not explained or cited in a into one category, the largely pictograph
way that would help a non-specialist learn. sign system of fourth millennium BCE
A lack of attention to details caused this Mesopotamia (the Protoliterate Period)
reader to wonder about the seriousness of and the later script (true writing) of the
the scholarship: Mesoamerica is referred to third millennium, by which time syllabic
as Central America (p. 179), the title of symbols were developed that could rep-
Karl Wittfogels famous book is rendered resent the grammatical elements of a
Reviews 349

language (e.g. Postgate, 1992: 64), a sig- A central goal of the book is to
nificant change in modes of symbolic develop a critique of neoevolutionist the-
communication. The ponderous and ories of early state formation. To this
opaque language will be an impediment to end, we are treated to 100 pages that
many readers. For example (italicized in summarize a selection of theories of the
the text to emphasize, I gather, the deep state as expressed in the Western philoso-
importance of the insight): phical tradition, very much like what one
would find in a political science textbook.
We affirm that politics is connected to Pity the poor reader who looked at the
the distribution-allocation of individuals, books title, Archaeology of the Origin of
groups, and objects in relation with pro- the State, and imagined a quite different
duction and consumption. Its place lies subject-matter (there is some limited
in the management of social dependen- attention paid to archaeology later in the
cies which it forces to the cancellation or book). The purpose of this foray into
satisfaction of the needs of particular col- antique philosophical discourses is to
lectives, in the framework of a certain eventually make the point that mid-
conjunction between division of tasks and twentieth century neoevolutionist theorists
social division of production. (p. 236)
erred by reaffirming the speculative think-
ing of Enlightenment philosophers,
Lull and Mic warn us early on that especially, contrary to Marxist claims, that
the book will be overtly political, because states evolve because they provide societal
(p. xi) A discussion of the state cannot benefits (e.g. p. 208) (the functionalist
fail to be political, for, if it was [sic] not arguments of Elman Service and Kent
political, it would be nothing. The Flannery are highlighted in this regard).
books political bias is evident in many Although they overstate their case (not all
respects, including the unrelated and neoevolutionist arguments could be con-
unsupported critical commentary inter- strued as functionalist (e.g. Carneiro,
jected at various points into the text, for 1970)), many archaeologists would concur
example, when, following the discussion with some parts of our authors project in
of St Thomas Aquinas (p. 34), we are this regard, but would find it irrelevant
informed that presidents of the given that neoevolutionism is no longer at
United States believe they have been the centre of archaeological theorizing
conferred with divine authority and has not been for several decades.
[reality check: any president so claiming More recent thinking revolves around
would not only be impeached but likely what is often termed an alternate path-
also sent to a mental hospital]. Or, to ways approach (e.g. McIntosh, 1999;
further enhance their Marxist bona fides, Blanton & Fargher, 2008), which the
we are informed that (p. 34) The devel- authors largely ignore or, even worse,
opment of capitalism, and its brutal mistakenly subsume within postmodern
frontierless globalization, requires subor- thought. But there is a deeper problem at
dination and ignorance more than ever, play, namely, that the question of
and appears it is able to generate these whether or not states provide advantages
even in people who react against it. This should be investigated empirically rather
kind of undisciplined Marxist moralizing than addressed purely as theoretical argu-
will not sit well with those, like myself, ment. The degree to which early states
who embrace the New Archaeology ideal provide benefits such as public goods can
to develop a more scientific discipline. be shown to be quite variable (Blanton &
350 European Journal of Archaeology 15 (2) 2012

Fargher, 2008), which poses interesting expanded outward during the mid twenti-
new research questions about the causes eth century and influenced
and consequences of variation. neoevolutionists and other anthropologists.
The founders of neoevolutionism, such (I count no less than sixteen books on
as Leslie White, aimed to rethink the population and ecology that I consulted
anthropological enterprise to build a more during my graduate student days, still
scientific discipline that would be broadly sitting on my office bookshelf. Kent Flan-
comparative in temporal and spatial nery and Roy Rappaport were among my
senses, would develop explanatory theories, instructors who encouraged students in
and would strive to understand social this area, and, at that time, Marvin Harris
change in a largely materialist frame of was an influential theoretician.) For these
reference. This historical turn reflected the reasons I find Lull and Mics argument
influence of some elements of Marxist about Darwinian influence unrealistic, but
theory (e.g. Blanton & Fargher, 2008: I also find fault with their argument on
Chapter 2), among other influences, yet, the grounds that the two authors display a
in a confusing section of the book, Lull poor grasp of what constitutes Darwinian
and Mic claim that the materialist and theory, most notably, claiming on p. 164
scientific sensibilities of neoevolutionism that natural selection operates at the inter-
reflected the influence of Darwinian evol- species level. Rather, Darwinian theory
utionary biology (pp. 149, 16364). As a emphasizes how natural selection plays out
person who took courses from Leslie in relation to genetic variation at the
White as an undergraduate and graduate population level, although perhaps, also, at
student at the University of Michigan, I the between-population level (group selec-
can attest with considerable certainty that tion). Given that different species are
he would not be amused at this assertion. likely to depend on differing resources and
White and other neoevolutionists under- to occupy distinct ecological niches, it is
stood that the extreme biologically less likely that natural selection would
reductionist theories that followed on operate at the between-species level; even
Darwins ideas during the late nineteenth closely related sympatric species exhibit
and early twentieth centuries were Euro- considerable niche underlap.
centric, racist, and, moreover, had been The books authors go further when they
scientifically discredited. Hence, for claim that neoevolutionists, while adopting
White, culture was always supra-biological Darwinist theory, did not carry it far
or extrasomatic (e.g. White, 1949: 16). enough to make it suited to social analysis.
Rather than Darwin, the materialism of I quote the authors confusing phraseology
neoevolutionist theory stemmed from in this regard to confirm what I see as a
Marxist influence coupled with a growing lack of comprehension of the theory and its
interest in population and ecology, potential for application (p. 164): We
expressed as a popular environmental should bear in mind that, according to the
movement of the 1960s and 1970s and as theory of evolution, it is essential to take
a result of the growth of the discipline of into account how intra-species variations
ecology. Ecology was late in developing occur (mutation) and how inter-species
from the ideas of early practitioners such natural selection works (competition) (fact
as Charles Elton in the 1930s, and was check: intra-species variation between
not fully systematized until the 1950s populations could reflect the outcomes of
under the direction of Eugene Odum and mutation, genetic drift, gene flow, and
others (Odum, 1953). From there it differential natural selection operating on
Reviews 351

different populations). To continue the uncomfortable reading Marx and Engels


quotation: Yet, the human species shows searing opinions about Latin America with
some significant differences. First of all, the regard to the wars of the United States
place reserved for intra-species mutation, of against Mexico (quoted in Isaac, 1993:
a stochastic nature, would in our case be 43334).
occupied by political decision, of a rational The present book is not likely to change
nature. Secondly, competition, which is the failure of Marxist ideas to gatecrash.
inter-species in the general theory, among Many elements of Marxist theory in
human beings also acquires an intra-species addition to the AMP have been found
dimension when it is shown that this com- biased and lacking in theoretical value,
petition takes place between political units, including the basic notion, as expressed by
which is the anthropological translation of the authors, that because production is
population as understood in biological collective in its realization, the individual
terminology (certainly a controversial trans- person loses all centrality (p. 222). Of
lation, may it be said). I fully concur with course, as is always the case in Marxist
their in-parentheses assessment. theory, we must make an exception (as
Economic anthropologists generally have Lull and Mic do) in the case of the
high regard for Karl Marx, who is counted emerging elite. As owners of the means of
among the most important challengers of production, they appear fully capable of
the classical economic theories of capitalism, translating private material interests
alongside Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen, (p. 240; see also pp. 21819) into political
and others. However, Marxs theories are action, namely, the construction of a state
no longer highly regarded as a pathway to that will have as its objective the safe-
understanding early state formation in con- guarding, through the use of force, the
temporary archaeological thinking. His relationships of economic exploitation
theory of the pre-modern or non-Western between classes, at the time and place in
state, incorporated into the concept of the which antagonism derived from these
Asiatic Mode of Production (AMP), is relationships goes beyond certain limits.
clearly a product of late eighteenth and Another questionable aspect of Marxist
nineteenth centuries Eurocentric propa- theory as expressed by Lull and Mic is
ganda meant to justify European the claim that once the state is established,
colonialism (e.g. Isaac, 1993), and so has no the whole society becomes agentless,
place in modern theory building (Lull and because, as they put it (p. 243), society
Mic ignore this aspect of Marxist theory). aborts its own freedom of movement and
Given this sordid history, it is no surprise to ingenuity, abandons the search for alter-
me, as the authors admit, that Marxist nate ways of living, and living together,
theory has rarely been able to gatecrash and is forced institutionally to devote itself
archaeological research in the Anglo-Saxon to exclusive activities that respect and obey
academic world, by contrast with Spain, self-interested normality (italics theirs).
Italy, and Latin America, where it has been This argument is not meaningful because
relatively successful. However, this is not it reifies society, and because it fails to
always the case. The prominent Mexican properly characterize an important dimen-
anthropologist Angel Palerm was stupefied sion of emerging complexity in human
(using his term) to find the palpable ethno- societies. The authors claims about the
centrism in the writings of Marx and state are empirically valid only in a few
Engels, and argued that The majority of exceptional circumstances. One would be
our New World Marxists would feel very those Marxist-inspired socialist polities
352 European Journal of Archaeology 15 (2) 2012

such as the Soviet Union and contempor- find incredible their assertion that Marx
ary China in which a single political party alone was able to separate himself from
has been able to consolidate its power over the speculative and contemplative phil-
most aspects of society, economy, and osophy of the Enlightenment by
culture (e.g. Kornai, 1992). However, in developing the only valid theory of
most other societies governed by states, we society in his method of historical mate-
find a diverse array of social systems oper- rialism (p. 108), then, according to our
ating side by side, with the state authors, I am guilty of ideological oppo-
constituting only one source of power in sition rather than objective thought.
society, in some cases not even the major Only advocates of capitalism and
source. For example, the vast irrigation modern liberal philosophy (p. 258)
control system of traditional Bali, with its would attempt to undermine the theory
central office in the temple of Crater and are understood to be part of a capi-
Lake, was far more territorially and socially talist system that attempts to discredit
encompassing than any of the small king- anyone who tries to undermine it. What
doms that dotted the Balinese political critics say can be likened to (p. 227),
landscape (e.g. Lansing, 1987). Having myths similar to those sponsored by
just completed a paper on early market rulers in classical times when they jus-
systems (Blanton, in press), I am also tified their government by alluding to
reminded of the well-developed para- divine right.
governmental systems for market manage-
ment that operated in many early states,
for example, the Aztec Pochteca of the REFERENCES
Late Postclassic Basin of Mexico. Here, in
the main imperial capital of an empire of Blanton, R. (in press, 2013). Cooperation and
6 million persons, the main marketplace, the Moral Economy of the Marketplace.
the most economically valuable piece of In: K. Hirth & J. Pillsbury eds. Merchants,
territory in the empire, was independently Markets, and Exchange in the Pre-Columbian
World. Washington, DC: Dumbarton
administered by the Pochteca, an associ- Oaks Research Library and Collection, pp.
ation of prominent commoner market 2348.
managers. Blanton, R. & Fargher, L. 2008. Collective
Karl Marx made notable contributions Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern
to Western philosophy by pointing to the States. New York: Springer Science
+Business.
naivete of claims, such as Hegels, that Carneiro, R. 1970. A Theory of the Origin of
the state is the social realization of the the State. Science, 169:73338.
ethical system of a society (reviewed on Isaac, B. 1993. AMP, HH & OD: Some
pp. 9899), and his idea that social and Comments. In: V. Scarborough &
cultural production of a complex society B. Isaac eds. Economic Aspects of Water
Management in the Prehispanic New World.
may be mystificationist and ideological
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. Research in
a powerful insight. Yet, the growth of Economic Anthropology, Supplement 7,
science requires the judicious evaluation pp. 42971.
of any theory to distinguish between Kornai, J. 1992. The Socialist System: The
those elements that may be useful from Political Economy of Communism.
those that fail to stand up to empirical Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Lansing, J.S. 1987. Balinese Water
scrutiny. Yet, Marxist theoreticians resist Temples and the Management of
such scrutiny by protecting the theory, Irrigation. American Anthropologist, 89
and Lull and Mic are no exceptions. If I (2):32641.
Reviews 353

McIntosh, S. 1999. Pathways to Complexity: White, L. 1949. The Science of Culture: A Study
An African Perspective. In: S. McIntosh of Man and Civilization. New York:
ed. Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Grove Press.
Complexity in Africa. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 130.
Odum, E. 1953. Fundamentals of Ecology.
Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company. RICHARD E. BLANTON
Postgate, J. 1992. Early Mesopotamia: Society Purdue University, USA
and Economy at the Dawn of History.
London: Routledge. DOI 10.1179/146195712X13382849165059

Lotte Hedeager, ed. Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia AD
4001000 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011, 286 pp., 93 figs., pbk, ISBN 978-0-415-
60604-2)

This book brings together research carried mud of processual or culture historical
out by the author over many years on the thinking by new generations.
relationship between myth and materiality Another strength of the work for an
in Scandinavia during the Migration English-speaking audience is its presen-
period (c. AD 400560). It is an ambitious tation of key aspects of relevant recent
work drawing on both written and Scandinavian archaeological research. Like
material sources and using both to argue the authors own papers, much of this is
the case for a new interpretation of their published in widely dispersed media, often
significance. It brings together a range of not surprisingly in Scandinavian languages.
themes explored in previously published This has meant it has not been as widely
papers, and shows their interconnection. To known as it deserves outside Scandinavia,
have this research clearly set out as a coher- especially in monoglot UK. Here is an
ent whole in one publication is very useful. excellent guide to material which shows the
It is particularly interesting to see how Migration period as a dynamic, creative,
the authors ideas have developed and and exciting part of European history with
changed from her first book, Iron Age just as vivid a story to tell as the Roman
Societies (Hedeager, 1992), which focused ruins beloved of western Europe. The
on social and economic systems, supported wealth of gold and silver, the complexity of
by quantitative analysis, whereas the present the ornaments, and elaborate weapons,
work is about mentalities. The illustrations sacrificed in lakes or buried in graves, or the
alone show a marked change from plans post-holes of enormous buildings found in
and histograms to drawings of artefacts. southern Scandinavia, are all unlike the near
This is an interesting example of the change invisible remains of fifth century Britain or
in archaeological interpretation in western France. Here is evidence of self-confident
Europe from processual to post-processual and creative societies, contrasting with the
which began in the 1980s, a reminder of disintegrating post-imperial provinces. It
the way in which individual scholars change makes the success of the take-over of those
and develop their ideas over time; they provinces more explicable not savage bar-
should not be seen as frozen at some stage barians erupting from deep forests to
in past thinking, forever left behind in the destroy civilization but organized and