Expressions of Inequality: Settlement Patterns, Economy and Social Organization in the Southwest Iberian Bronze Age

By SanJuan, Leonardo Garcia | Antiquity, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Expressions of Inequality: Settlement Patterns, Economy and Social Organization in the Southwest Iberian Bronze Age


SanJuan, Leonardo Garcia, Antiquity


If there's no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn't try to find any. And yet I don't know, I seem to see some meaning in them after all.

L. CARROLL Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Introduction

One of the most intensively debated research themes within contemporary archaeology revolves around the causes, processes and consequences of the rise of complex forms of social inequalities in prehistory. This general issue, often referred to as the analysis of early social complexity, has for 30 years comprised three main subjects.

Firstly, it has involved the definition and shaping of key, and often conflicting, conceptual categories derived from separate theoretical traditions, mainly Marxism and cultural evolutionism. Early seminal notions have been discussed, criticized and reformed according to the growing amount of new empirical evidence and new theoretical approaches. Secondly, to a lesser extent, it has conveyed the discussion of how those concepts, drawn originally from ethnography, can be translated into archaeologically readable terms; or in other words, how they can be articulated in the form of middle-range theories.

Thirdly, it has involved the analysis of concrete regional sequences as a means of testing specific theories and hypotheses. In the case of European prehistory, discrete case-studies have framed and supported approaches emphasizing different causal processes of early social complexity during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Agricultural intensification as well as management, redistribution and exchange of subsistence goods have played a central role in the analysis of social evolution in the Aegean region; alternatively, exchange and consumption of prestige goods has been considered critical in the increase of social inequalities in southern Scandinavia. As debated and mutually conflicting as these approaches may be, they have made possible the construction of a broader picture of the rise of highly inegalitarian societies throughout the European continent during late prehistory. Furthermore, the task of analysing the variability involved in the origins and early evolution of complex societies is inextricably dependent upon the available number of detailed and methodologically comprehensive regional investigations.

Fundamentals of a regional investigation of social complexity

The regional analysis of the evolutionary trajectories of social complexity in later Iberian prehistory remains at present rather uneven, as some recent contributions suggest (Diaz 1993; 1995; Lillios 1995; Oliveira 1996). In areas such as the southeast (or its peripheral regions of La Mancha and the Upper Guadalquivir valley), current knowledge of the demographic, territorial, economic and social dimensions of those trajectories has been greatly enriched in the light of theoretical approaches based on a wider availability of empirical evidence (Lull 1983; Chapman 1990; Gilman 1976; 1981; 1987; Gilman & Thornes 1985; Arteaga 1992; Nocete 1989; 1994; etc.). Arguably, the set of research strategies deployed in the southeast during the last two decades has also encouraged innovation within other Iberian regions (Chapman 1997: 286). However, the resulting knowledge of the regional variability of social modes of organization during the Copper and Bronze Age is limited and unsatisfactory. This is the case of the southwest, where not only a significant part of current prehistoric research remains detached from the discussion of concepts and problems relating to social evolution, but also where the set of available data displays limitations for the key issue of empirical testing.

The data-set for this study concentrates on the Sierra de Huelva (covering 5027 sq. km), located at the western extreme of the Sierra Morena mountains [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], in the Iberian southwest. The chronological focus is the Early and Middle Bronze Age, with reference to both the preceding Copper Age period (c. …

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