Modern Political Views and the Emergence of Early Complex Societies in the Bronze Age Mediterranean

By Herrero, Borja Legarra | Antiquity, March 2013 | Go to article overview
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Modern Political Views and the Emergence of Early Complex Societies in the Bronze Age Mediterranean

Herrero, Borja Legarra, Antiquity


The Tea Party, the Arab Spring and the 'Occupy' movements may seem to have little in common. They respond to very different circumstances, and they are fuelled by very different ideologies. Furthermore, they do not represent homogeneous movements and each of them amalgamates very different groups with very different interests. Stripped of their most obvious traits, however, they share a common dissatisfaction with the nature of power in the present world, and each has opened a debate on the nature and legitimacy of current power structures.

Interestinffly, many of the questions raised by these movements are shared by the archaeological study of the early complex societies and first states in the Mediterranean Bronze Age: why did decision-making become the prerogative of a few over many? Was it a necessary step, or the result of the calculated promotion of this few over the rest? The fact that two such different debates involve comparable questions highlights the fact that modern political views about power and the study of the past are intrinsically connected (Tilley 1990; McGuire 2008), much more than archaeologists in the Mediterranean have normally been willing to admit. Indeed, only recently has the political charge of our studies of early complex societies in the Mediterranean begun to be explored (Lull & Mico 2011), bringing into focus many ideological assumptions that have slipped into our research unnoticed.

The mere question, 'are unequal power structures necessary or not?', throws us deep into the many political connotations of the archaeology of early complex societies. Recently, Lull and Mico have reminded us ofa point that was made 30 years ago by Gilman: while most of Anglo-American archaeological academia interpret the appearance of complex socio-political systems as a necessary and positive change, such change can be alternatively interpreted as having provided very restricted benefits for the majority of the population (Gilman 1981, 1990, 2001; Lull & Mico 2011). The pertinence of opening such debate is supported by modern ethnographic work that is still trying to understand who exactly benefits from the creation and maintenance of unequal power structures (Wiessner 2002, 2009; Hayden & Villeneuve 2010). There are therefore, two paradigms for the understanding of novel complex societies in the Bronze Age that have significant ideological and political repercussions. Each paradigm is deeply embedded in the historiography of two classical case studies on state formation in the Mediterranean: the Aegean and south-east Iberia.

Modern political views and the emergence of early complex societies in the Bronze Age Mediterranean

Good for the Aegean, bad for Iberia

In the last 40 years of study in the Aegean, the assumption that change was necessary, accumulative, positive and, more importantly, beneficiai for most of the population (Hamilakis 2002) has been the corner stone for most studies inthe region. Renfrew's study of the third-millennium Aegean published in 1972 (Renfrew 1972) presented society as a welloiled system in which its various components are seen to interact in a reciprocal, beneficial way. Changes are positive and are built within the systemic structure, and therefore are not traumatic. Different social and economic roles work in unison, in a process of feedback that continues to evolve towards increasing complexity. Growth was the natural outcome of such a system.

In the 1970s and 1980s this positive view was maintained in the study of the Aegean. Managerial models presented chiefs as necessary to organise society (Branigan 1987) and to help tackle inherent problems such as growing demographic pressure. The development of successful risk buffering strategies to cope with the uncertainties of the Mediterranean climate has also been argued as a positive motor for social, economic and political changes (Halstead 1988, 1995).

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