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“Yes, we agree it will work well in practice, but how will it work in theory?”—a French diplomat (cited by Evans 2009:126)

As the editors note, this volume consists of revised essays that were originally presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in spring 2009. The basic proposition of that conference and this volume is that past polities are territorially different from modern nation-states, especially since ancient political life was not necessarily “neatly bounded” and there was “no contiguous control” of social and economic institutions in them, not even in ancient states or empires. (A related point about the difference between modern Western states and many non-Western and ancient states was elegantly made by Clifford Geertz in his 1980 book Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali.) From this assertion, with which all the authors more or less agree, new or new-ish subjects in social theory as used by archaeologists are discussed: landscapes and the meaning of space, power, identity, communication systems, symbols and ideologies, center–periphery relations, elites of various kinds and their relation to non-elites, complexity and simplification as the description and the goals of governments, otherness (us and them relations), agency, historical contingency, networks, and ethnicity (in no particular order). These subjects are all implicated in the new studies of “boundedness” and “territoriality” presented here.

The contributors to the volume are mostly younger scholars, that is, those trying to finish their doctoral degrees or within ten years of having finished them. The longer and more data-rich contributions are by these younger scholars, who write on ancient Armenia (Alan Greene and Ian Lindsay), Syro-Mesopotamia (Jesse Casana), the Inka (Alexis Mantha), and Mauryan period India (Namita Sugandhi), as well as by the editors (Parker VanValkenburgh and James Osborne). These contributions contrast with that of John Bintliff, a veteran of the archaeological theory wars, who basically submitted his short conference paper reviewing territoriality in the Aegean, mainly classical Greece. Senior scholars like Patricia Urban and Edward Schortman (on Preclassic Maya) and Augustin Holl (on central Sudan) provide information from long-term projects. Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell and Eric Alden Smith defend concepts of evolutionary ecology in a variety of societies and settings. Bradley Parker “revisits” a previous, stimulating publication on the northern reaches of the Neo-Assyrian Empire “for an anthropological audience.”

The territories of some hunter-gatherer societies are reviewed by Chabot-Hanowell and Smith; villages, including fortified villages, are studied in chapters on Armenia, the Maya, and Greece, while pastoral villages are discussed by Holl. Cities and states and empires are the subjects of the chapters on greater Mesopotamia, Mauryan India, and the Inka. In the following remarks, I draw out the implications in the essays for new directions in social theory as used by archaeologists (or “archaeological theory,” as most archaeologists refer to it). I avoid in-text references as much as possible, since the chapters are packed with references, and I do not seek to add to the copious literature already cited.

Antinomies Are Okay

  1. Top of page
  2. Antinomies Are Okay
  3. Territories and Hegemonies
  4. New Directions in Territoriality Studies
  5. References

Archaeological theory is unlike archaeological analysis, in which typological classification is typically exclusionary. For example, a sherd is either a Show Low black-on-white or it is not. The study of social organization and social change, however, allows for, as our authors suggest, antinomies: I discuss a series of such antinomies, that is, contradictions between two (or more) principles, both of which seem equally justified.

First, if the territories of polities are not bounded and contiguous, and landscapes are given meaning, usually in order to channel behavior and social interaction, including especially to create power relations, landscapes are still never wholly new or malleable. Landscapes consist of both natural and social features, built landscapes and spolia of constructions past. Meanings emerge through a process that includes both the loss of previous meanings and the reinscription of old meanings in new contexts. The dynamics of making sense of the world therefore also afford opportunities for people to resist rulers’ attempts to impose their own visions of reality, to make the past, present, and future what the rulers say they are. The very idea that space can be bounded is subject to constant interpretation and contestation. It is, therefore, not enough to trace patterns of political territoriality in the past; we must also understand what people thought of it. In Mesopotamia, for example (my favorite area), it is a cliché that there was no political boundary that corresponded with the term Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, a notion of “Mesopotamianness” was shared by politically independent units. This sense of unity can be seen in the common beliefs in divinities, in the textual tradition that was learned in schools in independent cities and regions, and in the material record. The “idea” of Mesopotamia was not merely an abstraction but motivated rulers and provided a basis for social interaction.

A second antinomy, or irony, has been noted effectively by James Scott in Seeing Like a State (1998). Scott claims that modern states—highly complex, stratified, differentiated, bureaucratized, centralized societies—attempt to simplify their societies. They do so by regimenting their natural and social environments in order to create territories and landscapes as homogeneous and as easy to manage as possible. Scott's point, and this is also productive for the study of ancient states, is that such top-down, simplifying strategies to make societies “legible” do not work. Whereas much literature on territories and their evolution has considered progressive degrees of complexity, the opposite proposition may be considered: ancient states are fragile, and the more highly stratified they become, the more likely they are to “collapse” into previous forms of organization or to lead to new ones. The most powerful ancient states studied in our chapters, the Maya, the Neo-Assyrian, and the Inka, were neither long-lived nor stable in their territoriality.

In Chabot-Hanowell and Smith's chapter, the authors admirably contend that concepts of territoriality derived or inspired from evolutionary ecology are not mutually exclusive from studies of agency and historical contingency. In all societies, they say, there are skeins of social learning, rules and strategies of behavior, and social adaptations to the natural environment. Adaptation, furthermore, is constrained by evolutionary history, and there are accidents of strategies along with unexpected outcomes and surprises. Much of their chapter explains, with references to many cases, how territories are constructed through “economic defensibility” and “collective action,” “cooperation,” and “altruistic participation in group selection.”

Clearly there is room for discussion among evolutionary ecologists like the authors and those who do not find that “economic defensibility” is a key in understanding how territories, especially unbounded, noncontiguous territories, are formed. Since most examples adduced by the authors are of small-scale, little differentiated, and not highly stratified societies, some of the discussion on territoriality must consider the scale—in population, area, and degree of stratification—of the societies in question. States and empires are not good examples of “cooperation,” “altruism,” and “fitness” but are repressive, usually murderously so, and some elite actors’ strategies are precisely to remove as much agency as possible from non-elite actors.

Holl's chapter, however, shows the impossibility of removing ecological principles from historical events. The pastoralists he studies “carve[d] a ‘space’ of their own in the interstices of the multiethnic landscape.” Their “territory is the spatial framework for ‘ego-group’ action” in which they traversed paths in the landscape according to seasonal availability of water and grazing land. This is a clear example of how the landscape is socialized such that a “network of places” exists “without any bounded territory” but still with places demarcated (to show “territoriality,” ownership of land). The spaces of the pastoralists were marked by cemeteries, “landmarks…to achieve exclusive control” of villages that were seasonally reoccupied.

Territories and Hegemonies

  1. Top of page
  2. Antinomies Are Okay
  3. Territories and Hegemonies
  4. New Directions in Territoriality Studies
  5. References

Cemeteries and ceremonial sites where the ancestors were venerated are also discussed in Mantha's chapter on the Rapayán Valley, Peru, in pre-Inka times. These sites marked the territory and identity of local people. When the Inka conquered the valley, they built roads, moved people into different parts of their empire, and created “new symbols of dominance.” The Inka were both “territorial,” that is, administering a territory, with a “high [level of] investment,” and “hegemonic,” that is, ruling indirectly through local elites (in terms discussed by Terence D'Altroy [1992]). The new Inka constructions were designed “to shift…the inhabitants’ territorial self-understanding.”

Parker's chapter on the Neo-Assyrian Empire (in “the Mesopotamian Iron Age”) and Greene and Lindsay's chapter on Late Bronze Age Armenia (that is, Armenia before the appearance of the state of Urartu in the early first millennium B.C.E.) emphasize the noncontiguous control of political systems. It is a little unfair to group these two chapters together, since Late Bronze Age Armenia was certainly not a state (and obviously not a “nation-state,” a possibility gratuitously dismissed by the authors). Rather, it consisted of hilltop fortresses from which leaders could monitor, not regulate the movements of goods and people.

Parker, like Mantha, appeals to the territorial-hegemonic network model to understand the “mosaic” of “provincial and vassal capitals, military garrisons, and the like” of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Neo-Assyrian rulers were both hegemons and territorialists. Although Parker asserts that this model refutes Mesopotamian scholars who conceive of Assyria as a “territorial unit,” historians such as Van De Mieroop (2007) normally discuss provinces, vassal states, and puppet states in much the same fashion that Parker does. Parker's contribution (in the publication that he synopsizes in this chapter) usefully shows how in some sections of the Neo-Assyrian territorial expansion there was a considerable amount of Assyrian pottery, whereas in other areas ruled by Assyria only local ceramics were found. This variability, according to Parker's reasonable deduction, implies different amounts of Assyrian influence in areas ruled by Assyria. There are data on how Assyrians attempted to reshape the ideology of local areas, especially in their governance of ancient Israel/Judah (Machinist 1992), and this practice could be interposed between the Assyrian strategy of deporting kings who unwisely withheld tribute—along with tens of thousands of their subjects—and the manipulation of vassal kings whose every letter had to be read in the presence of Assyrian generals.

The other chapter on greater Mesopotamia, that by Casana, is an original and interesting study of how archaeologists and historians employ different forms of evidence and can reach consequently different conclusions concerning ancient territoriality. Casana's analysis of settlement patterns in mid and late second-millennium Syria shows an “enduring settlement strategy” during a time when various kings and empires—Hittites from Anatolia, Mitannians from north Syria, and Egyptians—competed to control the area. Yet the Syrian statelets were able to “endure” in the territories of others and to engage in local politics.

Sugandhi's chapter on Mauryan India and Urban and Schortman's chapter on Preclassic Maya in the Naco valley of Honduras both advocate “network” models to understand quite different kinds of societies. In the Preclassic Maya case there are “differently constituted social networks,” meaning (I think) that although there was no centralized political infrastructure at the time (1200–200 B.C.E.), there were trading partners and cooperation among those with a posited common belief system. Small territories were established (as the evolutionary ecologists have suggested) that “tied followers to the best terrain.” Nevertheless, these strategies failed, and the sites of the Preclassic Period were abandoned.

For Sugandhi, the standard historical picture of tight Mauryan control of a large territory must be (and has been, in the literature cited by the author) revised to allow for “multiple nodes of power” and “autonomous territorial polities.”

New Directions in Territoriality Studies

  1. Top of page
  2. Antinomies Are Okay
  3. Territories and Hegemonies
  4. New Directions in Territoriality Studies
  5. References

According to Alexis Mantha, “one should attempt to investigate the means by which territoriality or hegemony was acted out in a given time and place.” In suggesting areas for future study, I elaborate on this excellent statement and pose the following questions, which I derive from the chapters in this volume.

What are the actual methods by which rulers or governments (or both) attempt to establish territories, and with what capacity and legitimacy? What are the goals of creating territories, and with what kind of force do rulers attempt to establish them? Do some conquered elites profit from being territorially incorporated, while others resist such incorporation? How are ideas communicated by territory-makers in order to “legitimize” their territorial policies to subjugated regions? What cleavage planes exist such that a territory, whether bounded or noncontiguous, can (or, indeed, is likely to) “collapse”? Are new social boundaries created in the process of collapse?

The essays in this volume, in sum, ask archaeologists to break down the process of territorialization, requiring that we understand the scale and nature of territories, the kind of rulers and elites who form territories, the nature of resources and their locations that impel rulers to establish territories, and not least the nature of social stratification and the diverse interests, organizations, and goals of the people in the regions that are territorially incorporated.

The territories of ancient polities, simple and complex, are, according to the editors and authors of the chapters of this volume, no more and no less than the changing geographic entanglements of humans with their social and natural environments. Territories are not “correlates” or “essences” but are points of entry into how people thought (and think) about their identities and their neighbors and their universes.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Antinomies Are Okay
  3. Territories and Hegemonies
  4. New Directions in Territoriality Studies
  5. References
  • D'Altroy, Terence N. 1992 Provincial Power in the Inka Empire. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Evans, Harold 2009 My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times. New York: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown.
  • Geertz, Clifford 1980 Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Machinist, Peter 1992 Palestine, Administration of (Assyrian-Babylonian). Anchor Bible Dictionary 5:6981.
  • Scott, James 1998 Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Van De Mieroop, Marc 2007 A History of the Ancient Near East. Malden, MA: Blackwell.