Les philosophes qui ont examiné les fondements de la société ont tous
senti la nécessité de remonter jusqu'à l'état de nature, mais aucun d'eux
n'y est arrivé. ... tous, parlant sans cesse de besoin, d'avidité, d'oppression,
de désirs, et d'orgueil, ont transporté à l'état de nature des idées qu'ils
avaient prises dans la société. Ils parlaient de l'homme sauvage, et ils
peignaient l'homme civil."
Rousseau  19.
In my last post I sketched the substance of Dr. S. Voutsaki's very useful paper from 2007 in which she gave the following summing up of her careful research into grave findings in the Argolid. It reads as follows:
"..the main organizational principle in the MH period was kin rather than status; as authority was embedded in kin relations, it did not require ostentatious gestures, impressive houses or rich graves for its legitimation.”
In this post I will try to explain what it is about this summary which in my view is, uh, less than perfectly adequate.
|Entrance to a tholos tomb. Ano Engliano.|
First of all, Dr. Voutsaki invites us to believe that kin and status are binary principles; that they exist in opposition and are zero-sum; which is to say that when one gains the other must lose.
This is completely false. There is no culture in the present or in the historical record, stratified, ranked, unstratified, or tribal, in which status is not a primary concern and in most traditional societies kin structures are the source of that status and are often deliberately manipulated in order to enhance it. It is precisely kinship that has been the richest source of status regard in almost all the societies that have ever existed. This is so important that, when high ranking lineage lines are interrupted through lack of children, birth of children of the wrong gender, deaths in war, or other problems, various subterfuges such as adoptions or simple ‘genealogical adjustments’ are often used to repair the gaps.
We are also to suppose that the primary or only possible definition of statusis 'ostentatious gestures, impressive houses or rich graves' and that these things alone can legitimatestatus.
This is disastrously wrong. Status in a traditional society is based on a number of factors and material acquisition is only one of them, and very often the least important.
Status in traditional societies does not just depend on kinship. Status ordinarily depends on the following factors in roughly this order: being well-born (however defined), being first born, being male, possession of personal skill in some art or craft (both artifact crafts as well as priesthoods), skill in planning or in executing warfare, age (seniority), and generosity. In many traditional societies (whether stratified like the Mycenaeans or not) acquisition ordinarily comes dead last as an indicator of status and even then it often accompanies generosity.
It is impossible to maintain that status concerns in the MH were either nonexistent or less than status concerns in the LH. So why does Dr. Voutsaki do exactly this?
Because any explanation for the emergence of political institutions in the LH must explain how status regard in the MH was transformed into specific new types of status regard in the LH.
And she cannot provide such an explanation.
That’s because no one can do this and for obvious reasons: whatever constituted status regard in the MH is now lost to investigators. Therefore she only takes the concept of status seriously when specific materials start showing up in hoards in the archaeological record. This is fatal because now she has no explanation for why these ‘strategies of acquisition’ resulting in the deposition of these hoards developed in the first place.
This, too, is why she encourages us to ignore the existence of 'ostentatious gestures' in the MH (by denying that they could have existed). But what about those ‘ostentatious gestures’?
No gestures such as large ceremonies? Not on the occasions of marriages? Births? Deaths? Adoptions? No grand feasts? No ostentatious gestures on those occasions? No competitive giving? No sacrifices or ritual division of sacrificial meats? No large assemblies for dancing, singing, poetic recitals? No athletic contests accompanied by religious rites? No secret rites? No magic? No witchcraft? No cursing?
What did people do in the MH?
Or are we simply to regard these proto-Mycenaeans as nothing but abstract agricultural producers with a shallow kinship-based leadership layer?
Instead of a believable explanation of the MH-LH transition (or at least acknowledging that one is required whether or not it can be immediately supplied) Dr. Voutsaki has over-emphasized the existence of expensive material goods and tried to show that these alone are the route to status; that only those materials can legitimate status.
Let’s see. Monopolization of scarce goods, monopolization of the ‘means of social reproduction’;  what kind of explanation is this?
What we’re being treated to here is a little Materialist fairy tale. In this fairy tale society begins among simple static tribal structures in which the concept of kin has made everyone secure and given everyone a legitimate role. There is no need for ‘ostentatious’ gestures because there is no concept of status (conceived of, apparently, as a kind of supra-kinship baggage) in such a society. Societal position is effortless. Then, for unaccountable reasons (our friend Otto’s ‘the middle part’), covetous and acquisitive people seize the means of production, break the kinship system, hoard all the golden goodies for themselves and, by so doing, cause poverty everywhere except the palatial centers. Moreover, through their ‘strategies of acquisition’ they also seize power and political control.
Am I the only one to notice that this little tale is just a series of non sequiturs?
But if we are to reject Materialist explanations and ‘strategies of acquisition’ as the impetus to a stratified society then what does lead to this outcome?
Put simply, a society becomes more likely to make a transition to stratified classes and political institutions when one segment[7a] of a lineage becomes dominant over the others. This can (but not always) lead to the crushing of the traditional distributional role of the kinship system. This can happen in a bewildering variety of ways and is oftentimes stranger than we imagine.
What can we plausibly infer about the MH-LH transition, that modification in social logic which takes us from a (probably) achievement-based tribal organization [9a] to one that appears to be a stratified social structure and one living under political institutions?
I certainly don’t know and we’ll probably never know. But that doesn’t mean that we can just whisk the problems out of sight or bury them beneath a stale Materialist template about seizing ‘status’ goods along with the means of their production.
Here is a list of hypotheses of the type that we would have to form in order to investigate this question:
H1. In the MH Greek-speakers lived in loosely ranked tribes in which status was based both on kinship and, to a significant degree, on individual achievement. This achievement would have been based either on religious closeness to the deities or to success in war or both or some other combination of factors.
Ranks reached through achievement status would not have been heritable. Each new generation would have to create its own achievements in order to establish its legitimacy to wield power.
H2. This is succeeded by a phase in which, under the influence or the direct involvement of Minoans living on the mainland, achievement status is ultimately converted into inherited Rank (following Minoan models). (It's almost impossible that these proto-Mycenaeans did this on their own.)
After generations of intermarriage between prominent kinship segments and Minoans the old most prominent Greek kinship segments are transmuted into a dominant new segment; one which now has strong interests and claims both on the mainland and on Crete. (This might position us to discuss what happened on Crete in the middle of the fifteenth century.) Conceivably, this hypothesized ‘mixed’ class was exogamous and, perhaps, the other kinship segments endogamous. If true then such marriage patterns would accelerate the stratification process.
H3. This would lead to the society we see in Mycenae and in Pylos in LH III. In this society rank is inherited; this new society is fully stratified (If not then it would make rubbish of every learned paper in which the ruler of Pylos is referred to as a ‘King’). Its institutions have a strong Minoan component. The people in this society now derive their authority, their occupations, and – to greater or lesser extent – their status from political institutions which, as Dr. Voutsaki rightly intuits about the Argolid, are centered in Mycenae. I think it’s best to regard the luxury objects so prominent in graves in the LH as what modern anthropologists call ‘materialization’. I would suggest that it’s not the objects that are ‘coveted’ as Dr. Voutsaki seems to think; they are merely signifiers of high status achieved by other means. And of these other means we know, and probably can know, nothing.
H4. An accelerator in this transition process would have been the undertaking of massive building projects in several of the Mycenaean statelets. The process is clearest in Orchomenos where a very large amount of land was gradually reclaimed from Lake Copais. Such projects require more than a ranked-society to carry out and the resulting new land would have been under the direct control of the paramount in Orchomenos; an open invitation to him to escape from the traditional kinship constraints (but not necessarily replacing kinship itself). One of the reasons that the heads of stratified societies undertake such projects is to accelerate population growth. Population growth translates into larger armies, political power, and larger ambitions. This is, perhaps, a marker for the unfortunate events which occurred between LH IIIB and LH IIIC early.
These are hypotheses only; potential lines of investigation. These are examples of what I mean when I use the word ‘reasonable’; I mean ethnographically reasonable. I know quite well that most of these particular hypotheses can be neither supported nor falsified by objective evidence; certainly not by any evidence which archaeology is likely to produce. But from the ethnographic standpoint they make a lot better starting point than the Materialist  straight-jacket of Dr. Voutsaki.
This post is a plea for greater ethnographic sophistication in Mycenology and for Mycenologists to see the Mycenaean people as people like other people – (not just hoards of materials) - with all the complications and sophisticated analysis that that requires. Archaeology is a valuable tool but if it is used only to support materialist explanations then I don’t think that anyone will be happy with the results.
Voutsaki  92. Emphasis in the original. See Voutsaki  44 for similar ideas and wording: “ … the main organizing principle during this period [e.g., the MH, RHC] was kinship rather than wealth or social status; that authority, being inscribed and embedded in kin relations, did not require legitimation by means of elaborate practices and material distinctions.'”
Voutsaki shows examples of this. In Voutsaki  37 she describes the Trobrianders’ Kula ring and the status it conveys to those who belong to it. She calls this increased regard ‘prestige’ but ‘prestige’ is just the concomitant of Status. Trobriand is a traditional kinship-based society. At the same place she makes much of status among the ‘Northwest Coast Indians’ relative to the potlatch feasting behavior. And see Chagnon  338 ‘There are enormous differences in status among tribal communities.’ He means among the individuals who make up those communities.
In Goldman  throughout.
Adoption in Polynesia, Goldman  432 ff. In Pukapuka “Absolute adoptions known as kokoti, ‘to cut’, were negotiated to repair a ‘break’ in a lineage.” Goldman is citing Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole, ‘Ethnology of Pukapuka. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Bulletin 150. 1938. I do not have access to the Beagleholes’ work.
The ‘Louis Vuitton Theory of Social Transformation’. This principal probably has much more validity in our own society than it did in ancient Mycenaean societies. Chagnon describes this mode of reasoning in an anthropology of a certain type: “I concluded that this myth about differential access to resources was so pervasive and unchallenged in anthropological theory because anthropologists come from highly materialistic, industrialized, state societies and tend to project what is ‘natural’ or ‘self-evident’ in this kind of world back into prehistory. In our world, power, status, and authority usually rest on material wealth. It follows that fighting over resources is more ‘natural’ and therefore comprehensible to anthropologists than fighting over women.” Chagnon  328.
In Goldman . ‘Principles of Status’, Chapter 1, pp. 4 ff. Mana defined at 10, Tohunga and Toa on 13, Seniority on 14, Sanctity of Male Line on 15.
Voutsaki  102, “The evidence suggests that Mycenae exerted control over both the production and consumption of prestige items, primarily the most coveted ones such as gold and ivory, and thereby controlled the means for social reproduction.” The important word here is ‘coveted’ which is a term from the realm of ethics and that converts her theory of social change into an ethical one. I cannot see how Dr. Voutsaki can know these assertions to be true.
[7a] And by 'segment' I mean either a sub-lineage or a clan conceived of as linear or dual-descent, as cognates or agnates, however the total of the population conceives itself to be divided.
 Goldman 
See Harrison , Chapter 6, ‘Treading Elder Brothers Underfoot’, 114 ff. as well as the gloss on this in Flannery and Marcus  188-191.
[9a] Goldman calls this an 'Open' society. Goldman  20.
 Parenthetically I should say that such a kinship scheme would exhibit more instability than Dr. Voutsaki seems to think. The idea of ‘closeness to the deities’, for example, is subject to proof tests. The unlucky loser might very well lose his place and status in the event of failure. So also with military leaders. Flannery and Marcus  356, “Unfortunately for Ghuti Mirza, his term of chief had been plagued by drought, and his subjects had ceased to believe that he could control the mountain spirits.” He is then deposed by his brother, Silim Khan, who “astonished everyone with a dramatic display of weather magic. He is reputed to have caused a violent snow storm in mid-summer. ‘The snow accumulated on the ground,’ Hunzakut aver, ‘up to the length of an arrow.’ This miracle is said to have convinced many Hunzakut of the legitimacy of Silim’s claim to the throne. People are said to have rallied around Silim in great numbers, while Mirza was deposed and executed.” in Sidky  71. There’s an ‘ostentatious gesture’ for you.
 Wright  70
For the example of Maori in which endogamous and exogamous marriage practices were thought to accelerate the separation between kinship segments see Goldman  50 ‘..Firth has recorded that ordinary persons married within the hapu, while persons of rank married outside, in order to advance their status interests. Since the male line carried highest status, the higher ranks in a hapu tended to form themselves around patrilineal descent lines whose maternal links were, however, with other hapu.’ The hapuis a lineage segment.
DeMarrais, et al. .
The importance of increased population in Avatip, Flannery and Marcus  188-9. And see Sidky for the example of Hunza where increased irrigation and increased irrigated land caused a population increase. This in turn was used by canny Mirs to convert Hunza from three miserable villages into a conquering power that forced the Chinese in Turkistan to pay tribute in order for their caravans to pass unmolested. Sidky  69-70.
 “When I was a graduate student, my more advanced graduate classes on primitive social organization informed me that differences in status in all human societies were basically determined by ‘differential access to scarce, strategic material resources.’ We were taught that this condition did not obtain in tribal societies because there was no wealth as such, and thus there were no status differences other than sex and age. … This was a fundamental message of Marxist social science that dominated most departments of anthropology in the 1960s, especially those departments that were considered to be ‘scientific.’” Chagnon  53. Clastres can be devastatingly funny on exactly this topic. Ostensibly he is attacking Marxism but he's actually attacking the lack of ethnographic sophistication on the part of Marxist anthropologists and why they cannot remedy it: "In the logic of the Marxist discourse, primitive society quite simply cannot exist, it does not have the right to autonomous existence, its being is only determined according to that which will come much later, its necessary future. For the Marxists, primitive societies are only, they proclaim eruditely, pre-capitalist societies." in Clastres [2010b] 234-5. Also "..if there are laws of history, they must be as legitimate at the start of history (primitive society) as in the continuation of its course." ibid. 234.
Chagnon : Chagnon, Napoleon. Noble Savages. Simon & Schuster. New York, USA. 2013. 978-0-684-85510-3.
Clastres [2010a]: Clastres, Pierre. The Archaeology of Violence. Translated by Jeanine Herman. Semiotext(e). 2010. 978-1584350934. (Originally published in France by Éditions du Seuil in 1980)
Clastres [2010b]: Clastres, Pierre. “Marxists and their Anthropology” In Clastres [2010a] 221-236.
DeMarrais, et al. : DeMarrais, Elizabeth, Luis Jaime Castillo, Timothy Earle. "Ideology, Materialization, and Power Strategies", Current Anthropology. Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 15-31. Online here.
Flannery and Marcus : Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality: How our prehistoric ancestors set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Harvard University Press. 2012. 978-0674416772.
Goldman : Goldman, Irving. Ancient Polynesian Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637 1970. 0226301141.
Harrison : Harrison, Simon J. Stealing People's Names: History and Politics in a Sepik River Cosmology. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, 71. Cambridge University Press. 1990. ISBN 0-521 38504 0.
Kirch : Kirch, Patrick V. A Shark Going Inland is my Chief, University of California Press. Berkeley, CA, 2012.
Leach : Leach, Edmund. Political Systems of Highland Burma; A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London School of Economics Monographs on Social Anthropology. Berg Publishers. Oxford, UK. 2004. 1845200551. Originally published in 1957.
Pullen : Pullen, Daniel J. (Ed.) Political Economies of the Aegean Bronze Age; Papers from the Langford Conference, Florida State University, Tallahassee, 22-24 February 2007. Oxbow Books, Oxford, UK. 978-1-84217-392-3.
Rehak : Rehak, Paul. The Role of the Ruler in the Prehistoric Aegean; Proceedings of a Panel Discussion presented at the Annual Meeting of the
Archaeological Institute of America. New Orleans, Louisiana. 28 December 1992. With Additions.
Rousseau : Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes. Édition électronique réalisée par Jean-Marie Tremblay. 2002. Online here.
Sidky : Sidky, H. Irrigation and State Formation in Hunza; The Anthropology of a Hydraulic Kingdom. University Press of America, Inc. Lanham, New York, London. 1996. 978-0761802044.
Voutsaki : Voutsaki, Sofia. "Social and political processes in the Mycenaean Argolid: the evidence from the mortuary practices." In Laffineur, R. and Niemeier, W.-D. (eds.) POLITEIA: Society and State in the Aegean Bronze Age. Aegaeum 12, Liège, 55-65. 1994. Online here. Voutsaki : Voutsaki, Sofia. "The Creation of Value and Prestige in the Aegean Late Bronze Age." Journal of European Archaeology, V.2, 1997. Online here. Voutsaki : Voutsaki, Sofia. "From the Kinship Economy to the Palatial Economy: The Argolid in the Second Millennium BC", in Pullen  86-111. Online here.
Wright : Wright, James G. "From Chief to King in Mycenaean Greece" in Rehak . 63-80