Using Mortuary Evidence to Determine Political Economy

Political economy refers to the social relations and political structures that guide the economic practices of a group. Traditionally this has meant looking at the coercion and control of the commoners by elites. However, newer interpretations include the role that the non-elites play in structuring these relations and shaping the economy, as well as the different types of political structures that exist. Moreover, these relationships are being examined in a variety of societies, including non-state ones. In a new journal article, Shepard (2012) examines sources of variation in political economic organization in non-state societies, using Russian Middle Holocene hunter– gatherers as a case study.

Prehistoric hunters and gathers via National Geographic/Getty Images

The study of ancient political and economic structures has long relied on mortuary archaeology for its evidence. As discussed in a previous post on Status and Rank in Mortuary Archaeology, variation in burial type, grave goods and location can be used to infer differences in social status or rank. By examining the complete mortuary patterns, one can build interpretations of the political and economic structures that are based upon these social relationships. Hunter-gatherer social systems have long been assumed to be simple egalitarian societies, but new research into burial patterns shows that it may have been more complex and varied. Some of these groups have internal differentiation based on age and sex, and many scholars argue this represents the rise of leaders and hierarchies. However, this approach ignores the process by not examining the type of differentiation and which institutions change is occurring in. Shepard (2012) argues that by focusing on the political strategies of individuals we can better understand how political power developed in hunter-gatherers. He differentiates two strategies: network, where individuals gain power through long-distance interactions and display the wealth of these relations through prestige objects, or corporate, where power is gained through inclusive institutions and association with communal identities. In the former, the individuals are identified in mortuary contexts by unique exotic items, whereas in the latter they have items that identify them as part of an elite group.

In order to interpret the political structure of hunter-gatherers, Shepard (2012) examines variation in mortuary evidence from Neolithic Russia. The archaeological region of Cis-Baikal is located on the west coast of Lake Baikal, Russia. The burial data for hunter-gatherer groups extends from the early Neolithic to early Bronze Age. The early Neolithic period is marked by the rise of formalized burial locations and practices, although there is variation in posture and grave goods. During the middle Neolithic these practices cease, although it is unknown why. In the late Neolithic, formal patterns resume with both individual and multiple burials. There are clear regional patterns of burial layout, and a fairly homogeneous distribution of grave goods including ceramic vessels, polished knives, bows, and arrows. In the early Bronze age these formal patterns continue, although there is increasing differentiation with some graves containing large concentrations of exotic and labor-intensive objects. Shepard (2012) focuses on the last two periods in order to examine the rise of differentiation and hierarchy.

Prehistoric Russian Skeleton, via BBC

Based on the burial patterns, Shepard (2012) argues that there was a corporate emphasis in the late Neolithic. There are numerous multiple burials which show an emphasis on collective rather than individual representation. Some burials were reopened in order to put more individuals into the grave, which means there is continuity in ancestral lines. The grave goods are primarily utilitarian or subsistence based. Variation is primarily based on age. However, in the early Bronze Age there is increased display of personal exotic goods and the variation in these is within adults, meaning that more than age lead to differentiation. There is also increased use of foreign materials, including green nephrite, white nephrite, and metal. Since these materials are not found locally it means that individuals were forming networks that connected them to other regions. By forming these relationships they were able to increase personal status in a growing community. Shepard (2012) argues that “the decline of localistic, corporate political economies in the Cis-Baikal resulted at least in part from the new potential of these interactions for the region’s indigenous groups”.

Burial practices say a lot more than just how cultures dispose of their dead. The dead can also be used to solidify identities, and produce social and political structures. In a time of increasing populations and expanding social networks, individuals were able to improve their social status and the status of their lineage in death. Differentiation in death is a reflection of the increasing social and political disparities in life. Studies like this are important and mortuary archaeology provide an important line of evidence. However, it needs to be placed within the broader archaeological context, combining the mortuary evidence with the rest of the data.

Works Cited

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgShepard, B. (2012). Political economic reorganization among non-state societies: A case study using Middle Holocene mortuary data from the Cis-Baikal, Russia Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 31 (3), 365-380 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2012.03.001

One response to “Using Mortuary Evidence to Determine Political Economy

  1. Pingback: News » Blog Archive » Editor’s Selections: Political Economy and the Grave, and Uniform Colors·

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