Article excerpt

Archaeology is at its best when tackling the major transitions of humanity: the emergence of culture, the development of agriculture and the formation of the state. Even in a theoretical age that is suspicious of any remnant of cultural evolutionism, we maintain that these transitions, and the categories we necessarily employ to define them, are still fundamental to our knowledge of humanity, and thus to archaeological research. The first transition defines the onset of humanity, the second provides the intensive food production on which the full impact of `culture' is developed, and the third represents a major re-working of political values and organization. In our current archaeological discussions of theory, we are inclined to forget the effectiveness and primary importance of archaeology in exploring each of these central issues. In the next three editorials of ANTIQUITY, we will investigate these major transitions with the assistance of invited colleagues. We invite readers to add their reactions.

We start with the final transition, variously defined in ways that are not co-terminous, as the city or the state. This is a threshold forgotten by some (Mithen 1996) and criticized over a number of years by others (Gledhill 1988; Kohl 1987). For still others it is dangerously associated with neo-evolutionary theory (Shanks & Tilley 1987). We examine here two traditions, the Mediterranean Old World (see also Book reviews section), where the concept of the city was perhaps first studied, but is subject to major critique, and the New World tradition where the state remains the accepted mode of analysis. Whither are these two streams of thought developing?

The recent conference organized by Barry Cunliffe (Institute of Archaeology, Oxford) and Robin Osborne (University of Cambridge) on Mediterranean Urbanisation 800-600 BC took place at the British Academy in London on 15 &16 November 2001, and provided an opportunity to assess the Mediterranean flow. This was deliberately an interdisciplinary conference attended by both archaeologists and ancient historians. The main thrust of the meeting was to reject or, at least, heavily criticize the city and state as entities, with particular suspicion directed towards the historical validity of founders of cities. In this latter respect the work of Carandini (already assessed in the pages of ANTIQUITY 73: 463-7) was reviewed critically. More generally, retrojection of later textual sources, in the past a frequent approach for the classical world, was also attacked. This is an important point because, although state formation and urbanization are a transition that often introduces the technology of written history, only archaeology can study the formative phases of the earliest examples. Archaeology is now available to provide a primary source of evidence into which the partial written sources can be fitted. This has not prevented historians attempting to employ textual models for earlier periods, and indeed some of this approach was present at the meeting.

If such concepts are rejected, what should be put in their place? One proposition was a vaguely defined idea of community. Another was the concept of identity, a theme popular in non-Mediterranean Europe but perhaps less developed for the archaeology of the Mediterranean. There was also a thrust that dynamism (and thus instability) was the underlying force, fuelled by the frequently addressed mechanism in the Mediterranean sea, that of trade and interaction. In summary, a pattern emerged of dynamic and changing political worlds in strong contact with other equally evolving political structures. To our mind, however, this is the product of a text-led analysis. In the Mediterranean world, there is still a relative lack of attention to infrastructure (production rather than consumption or usually deposition; agriculture rather than feasting; rural settlement rather than city life or more usually death). …