Evaluating Michael E. Smith’s “The Archaeology of Ancient State Economies”
Michael Smith’s paper on the archaeology of ancient state economies identifies the theories and methods utilized in the archaeological study of ancient state economies. His focus encompasses the earliest states throughout the Classical period and beyond; and he claims that the study of these economies has been hindered by a reliance on over-simplified concepts and an inadequate awareness of the degree of variability within these areas of interest. He claims that, although many scholars have researched certain aspects of this subject, a comprehensive analysis of ancient state economies is virtually nonexistent in modern archaeological studies. In this writing, Smith is asking, “What can archaeology contribute to such a synthesis?”
According to the author, the archaeological interest in the economy has waned since the 1980’s. He theorizes that this is mainly due to the fact that scholars in other fields of study such as economists, historians, and economic anthropologists have applied powerful models to precapitalist economies, but rarely consider archaeological data. For some, they ignore the ancient states, or they are not willing to study any economy that occurred prior to Rome or Greece. Also, some working in the Near East and the Classical world have detailed economic data, but their work remains highly particularistic.
An important piece of this writing occurs near the beginning, and is where the author explains the definition he applies to economy. He suggests that he uses the definition that has “greater applicability in cross-cultural analyses.” The “substantive definition” that Smith is referring to views the economy as the provisioning of society, which includes production, exchange, and consumption. The alternate “formal definition” of the economy, expressed by Polanyi, is the allocation of scarce resources among alternative ends.
One of the major areas of concern relating to archaeological analysis of ancient economic systems is the long-standing debates, between scholars over polarized views of ancient economies. Smith mentions the modernist/primitivist debate, created by Morris and Finley, respectively, which creates, what he refers to, as the “Same/Other” dichotomy. This “Same/Other” theme is also apparent in the formalist/substantivist debate in economic anthropology. The formalists argue that ancient and non-Western economies differ only in degree, not in kind, from modern capitalist economies. The substantivists, led by Karl Polanyi argue that noncapitalist economies are fundamentally different from modern capitalism, and are organized around the exchange mechanisms of reciprocity and redistribution. The substantivist theory was eventually discredited and refuted by scholars because it left no room for noncapitalist commercial exchange. Smith claims that we need to move beyond these “Same/Other” debates that are hindering the production of more sophisticated frameworks for concepts and theories. We are in dire need of models that allow for more variation, and less polarization of ideas.
Another issue Smith identifies as interfering with our furthered knowledge of ancient economies is that we do not have sufficient models for material culture that will reveal economic practices and institutions. We do not yet have standardized identifiers for evidence in the archaeological record of commercial exchange, attached production, temple economies, or economic growth. He identifies those materialist approaches to ancient state economies that are empirically grounded and share a concern with variability in the relationship between politics and economics as “archaeological political economy. This is not yet an integrated theoretical movement, however it has been described in several recent syntheses by Cobb (2000), Earle (2002b), Hirth (1996), Muller (1997, pp. 1-53), and Yoffee (1995). This work has been based around several broad economic themes and is related to work in anthropological political economy by Wolf (1982) and Roseberry (1988). A major problem Smith readily identifies is the need for far more comparative and comprehensive research on ancient state economies. He calls for more targeted comparisons of limited domains, and of whole economies and societies. He mentions Angresano (1996) whose work is an example of the controlled, theory-based economic comparisons that is necessary in this research. Also, the author argues against unitary approaches to states, where “most anthropological archaeologists view the state more as an evolutionary stage than as a political institution”. Lastly, Smith urges more contact and close interaction between archaeologists and economic historians, and calls this exchange of information a “high-priority”. Both, he states, have maintained a disassociation because of their own unique, “ironic” biases, but this needs to be resolved because the topic of ancient economies will benefit greatly from a broad, holistic approach.
Variability occurs in every component of ancient state economies. One example is the degree of commercialization, which is the extent to which a price-making market allocates commodities and the factors of production; the prominence of entrepreneurial activity; and the pervasiveness of institutions such as money, marketplaces, credit and banking. Smith focuses on the variability of internal commercialization and external. He divides states into a four-class ordinal scale of commercialization to make an attempt at classifying the endless amounts of variability that may occur in this realm of economy. The linear view of the “evolutionary stages” of a state is an insufficient, homogenizing approach to categorize types of states. Smith argues that states need to be viewed as political institutions and classifies them into a four-class typology to present a compromise between the extremes.
Furthermore, Smith identifies several different scales of the economy in his paper. The first is the household, which he describes as the primary social unit of production, consumption and reproduction in most agrarian societies. He states that households play an important role in the study of ancient economies. Still, however, there is a very large amount of variation between households, even those of the same community. Another is temple and palace institutions. Smith explains that these were major economic institutions that often controlled land, labor, and processed large volumes of goods and labor. Smith notes that archaeologists have made many contributions to the understanding of ancient state economies, but the most trusted information is found in documentation. Textual sources are sometimes the only means for evaluating a societies’ economic situation. Smith uses Mesopotamian temple economies as one example of this particular situation. The cuneiform sources found revealed that the temples, once erroneously viewed to be coterminous with the entire economies of states, actually owned land and herds, controlled attached farmers and crafters producing goods, and even leased land to private individuals. Without this cuneiform documentation, and considering the very small amount of artifactual evidence of economic activities uncovered, Smith concludes that these and other temples may have never been known to be major economic institutions. Fortunately, archaeologists have been investigating these sites that are documented so well to identify material evidence that will enhance our ability to characterize these attributes by the material culture when documentation is absent. The areas of state finance, cities and regional systems, and international economies are other scales of ancient economy, but sufficient models to examine them have not yet been created. Some views have been polarizing, and the arguments are becoming increasingly counterproductive.
Archaeology can offer unique perspectives to the study of ancient state economies, and is especially valuable in economic analysis because archaeology surpasses the documentary record in the quality and quantity of numerous types of economic data for many periods. The role of archaeology in the study of ancient economies was emphasized by Greene’s (1986) book, The Archaeology of the Roman Economy, which Smith asserts is “the best archaeological study of an ancient state economy yet published”. In it, Greene points out (after analyzing Keith Hopkins’ model of economic growth during the Late Republic and Early Empire periods, which was expressed in terms of seven propositions) that “archaeology has a major part to play in the analysis of at least five out of Hopkins’ seven clauses”. Smith states that archaeology has made its greatest contributions to economic analysis in the topics of regional demography and agricultural systems, however the nature and evidence of intensive agriculture in specific cases is a matter of serious debate.
Within anthropological archaeology, there are three theoretical approaches to investigating a culture’s economy: the adaptionist, commercial, and political approaches. In Smith’s writing, the discussion of these approaches serves as a useful summary of the general archaeological thinking on ancient state economies. The adaptionist approach focuses on the adaptation of human groups to their environment, and by doing so, minimizes the importance of long-distance exchanges and interactions. The functionalist (functionalist perspective definition) notions it maintains conflict greatly with more sophisticated models. However, these scholars (e.g. Redman 1978, Sanders et al. 1979) produced important contributions to the study of ancient economies by analyzing regional settlement pattern surveys, and by reconstructing the regional demography and agricultural practices. Brumfiel & Earle’s (1987b) description of the commercial development model is that “increases in specialization and exchange are seen as an integral part of the spontaneous process of economic growth”. Two reasons are given by Brumfiel and Earle to dismiss this model, both of which Smith describes as “unconvincing”. The first argument they present is that it is very seldom that social complexity has originated through commercial development. Smith agrees that this was the case in very early states, however the more recent cases (e.g., the Swahili and Silk Road economies) provide evidence that commercialization did, in fact, generate social complexity. The second objection given was the notion (which Smith refers to as “odd”) is that the “model requires that sizable profits accumulate in private hands’ and that this rarely happened'”. Smith then suggests that is more useful for one to consider this process as an empirical phenomenon rather that a general theoretical approach. He concludes that the level of commercialization is one of the major dimensions of variation in ancient state economies. The third model described in this paper is the “political model”, which Smith believes is clearly favored by Brumfiel & Earle (1987b). This model is one that surely is reminiscent of our own society. It states that local elites assume control of the economy and take a self-centered stance by manipulating aspects of it for their own economic and political ends. Smith evaluates this model as including some very valuable contributions in its literature, but believes that economics has been overshadowed by a major focus on political strategizing, prestige, emulation, identity, and gender. He then asserts that this model “typically emphasizes theory-driven speculation over empirical research and it as yet contributes little to the study of ancient economies”.
Essentially, I read Michael Smith’s paper, not as purely informative in nature on “The Archaeology of Ancient State Economies”, but rather a critique of modern theory and methods pertaining to ancient economies. The title could have, for instance, been titled “The Problems with the Archaeology of Ancient State Economies”. Smith explains, what I consider to be, some serious problems interfering with the interpreting ancient economies. After reading this piece, I agree that many of the practices or schools of thought between archaeologists and other scholars concerning this study are extremely detrimental to the furthering of our knowledge of these cultures. However, I do not agree completely with Smith’s attempts to improve upon the models and categorization already in place. In my opinion, and understand that I do realize that my opinion, as an undergrad, is not much of an authoritative one, he did not resolve the problem areas with his models of political systems and commercial levels. The problem of the lack of room for variability and sophistication still remains, just to a lesser degree. It is clear to me, however, that no model may ever exist that could encompass all aspects of every variable that could ever exist and that these models are necessary in archaeology. I believe, alternatively, that the extreme emphasis is being placed on the wrong portion of the research. It would make more sense to me to focus on the common artifactual, architectural, and textual evidence that occurs at common sites. In this way, conclusions may be drawn, free of restrictions and open too all types of variability that will inevitably occur between sites/cultures even of the same economic systems. I suppose my direction would lay in the tying pieces together rather than shoving them into pre-determined categories.
Regardless of this disagreement, the theme that is constant in Smith’s work is the immediate necessity of change in this field, and if everything he claimed to be is true, I couldn’t agree more. The theories and methods concerning the study of ancient economies seem to be entirely insufficient. They are polarized, over-simplified, and seemingly plastic categories which lack sophistication and sufficient room for variability. The debates are never-ending and fruitless when one considers that they are only wasting time and effort that could be applied to create a more ideal model, by leaving room for the natural, automatic variability that occurs. Another viewpoint of Smith’s that I strongly support is the notion that the study of ancient economies needs to be a holistic approach. For instance, economic anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians should not be avoiding contact with one another, but they should be utilizing every resource they have to produce a strong, more accurate synthesis. They each have a wealth of information in the same field, but in different aspects, with different conclusions that should be pooled together for the common goal of understanding these economies and cultures to a greater degree. The main point that completely sums this work up is the last statement of Smith’s work: “Finally, archaeologists need to rise above the isolating tendencies of existing regional and disciplinary traditions to enlarge the comparative scope of their analyses of ancient states and their economies.”