Cost, Benefit and Value in the Organization of Early European Copper Production

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The object of this paper is to explore the validity and usefulness of looking at the production and exchange of metal in non-western societies from the point of view of the costs and benefits they entailed. Consideration of the ideas which the paper discusses was prompted by the outcome of a fieldwork project which I carried out some years ago and which involved the excavation of a settlement site associated with Bronze Age copper production in the eastern Alps (Shennan 1995). It appeared difficult to explain why the small-scale, apparently autonomous communities which began to exploit the copper sources of this region at the end of the 3rd millennium BC should engage in the arduous activity of copper mining and smelting in this relatively hostile environment. The situation appeared all the more puzzling when the archaeological record of these copper producers was contrasted with that of the salt miners of the Durrnberg, slightly further down the same valley, a millennium later. The copper producers show very little sign of having accumulated any wealth through their endeavours while the deposited wealth associated with the salt-mining community is extremely striking (cf. Collis 1984: 118-20).

It might be thought that the explanation of the Bronze Age situation requires us to invoke Sahlins' (1968) 'Zen road to affluence', and to postulate the existence of societies with value systems entirely incommensurable with our own. To suggest, then, that the key to understanding is an evaluation of costs and benefits not only appears perverse, but is also deeply unfashionable.

The mind-set which currently dominates British archaeology is one which rejects any analysis of other cultures, past or present, in terms of the costs and benefits associated with particular practices, as the imposition of a modern capitalist value system. Thus, if We engage in exchanges to make some sort of profit, They do so in order to cement social relationships; We trade commodities, They give gifts. This attitude belongs to a long tradition of constructing 'noble savages' in opposition to ourselves, and more generally of generating rhetorical opposites to 'western society', such as the 'promiscuous hordes' posited by Victorian social thinkers as the original form of human social organization. In our own time such attitudes are further encouraged by our strong feelings of post-colonial guilt, not to mention the rise of a culturalist perspective on human differences, which assigns to each self-defined group a unique world-view, hermetically sealed and inaccessible to others.

Such dichotomies not only pre-empt many important issues which should be open to empirical investigation, a key point to which I will return, but their modern versions are just as culture-bound as those of our Victorian predecessors, except that these days we assign the positive term in the binary opposition to the Other, rather than ourselves. The challenge, in my view, is not to take one side or the other of these facile dichotomies but to attempt to dissolve them in as open-minded a way as we can manage.

Accordingly, the first part of this paper will outline the rationale for considering non-western production and exchange systems in cost-benefit terms; in short, for assuming that when people make production decisions, at least decisions over which they have some control, they act as 'rational economisers', a situation which has profound, and in some respects counter-intuitive, consequences for those production and exchange systems where the assumption holds. The second part of the paper develops the implications of these ideas for understanding the production and exchange of copper in the earlier Bronze Age of Central Europe.

One very general basis for making such an assumption is the widespread human response to 'least effort' considerations, which is not merely a product of capitalism. Thus, Altman shows how the eastern Gunwinggu in northern Australia responded to the availability of store-bought goods by switching to these for the carbohydrates which had previously been one of the main objects of women's subsistence activities, because the effort involved in obtaining the cash to pay for these was far less than that involved in collecting equivalent wild sources, especially in the worst seasons (Altman 1987: 42):

As one woman stated: 'What for I want to walk about all day, . …