The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


Have you ever pondered the definition of complexity? This might seem like a strange question. After all, we tend to throw the word out fairly casually, applying it to any number of ideas or situations: a complex crossword puzzle, a complex math problem, the complex workings of the brain, and so on. In these examples, complexity is used to describe something that is tricky, something that is hard for us to understand, something with many interwoven and sometimes confusing parts. How, though, would we apply the term to the social sphere? Suddenly things get a little more - for lack of a better term - complex. It’s easy to grasp the concept of a tricky crossword puzzle clue, but similarly labeling a society as “a tricky one” leaves much to be desired. Clearly, we need to flesh out our definition, but doing that isn’t going to be an easy task. In fact, a straightforward characterization of complex societies has eluded social scientists for many decades.

In this virtual exhibit, we’ll be introducing you to a history of theoretical thought regarding social complexity. As you likely noticed, our area of particular interest lies in archaeology, or the study of past societies. Therefore, we will focus on a few major questions. What are some of the ways that archaeologists have attempted to define social complexity? What features, if any, can be nailed down as hallmarks of complexity? And how do scientists take their theoretical understanding of complexity, and apply it to the actual data they find in the archaeological record?

Our goal throughout this exhibit is to present you with the information you need to start answering these questions. To this end, we will present first a brief history of archaeological thought, followed by a discussion of a concept known as the politics of representation. We hope that these discussions will allow you to get into the mindset of an archaeologist, and encourage you to think about the various characteristics that make up societies, how those characteristics come to be, and how they can be organized into a cohesive whole. Next, we will challenge you to take your newfound archaeological mindset and apply it to some actual case studies. Using what you've learned, you'll be able to take a look at data from past societies and determine whether or not you think they fit different definitions of complexity. In other words, you'll be going through the same steps and thought processes that actual archaeologists use to make interpretations of the past!

A brief disclaimer before we move forward: as we said, a true understanding of social complexity is something that has eluded archaeologists for many, many years. This exhibit isn't meant to provide you with straightforward answers, to point out any single definition of complexity as the "best" one. Rather, we hope to challenge some of the previously conceived ideas that you might have had about this topic, and to make you aware of some of the difficulties that social scientists face on a regular basis. As you move through the following pages, make sure you are thinking critically, considering your own perspectives alongside those of other theorists, and using your own creativity to make links and draw conclusions. On that note, welcome to the world of archaeology, and have fun reading!

One Word, Many Definitions: A (Very) Brief History of Archaeological Theory

We begin this journey by paying homage to past theorists who have approached the question of complexity. The work of these men and women has informed archaeology throughout the history of the discipline. Before moving forward with this discussion we must first clarify what we mean when we use the term "theoretical paradigm." Across the various fields of science, a theory is much more than a basic or uninformed guess. The term may be defined as a framework of ideas intended to explain certain phenomena. Any scientific theory worth its salt is built upon an abundance of empirical (or real-world, observable) evidence, can withstand or incorporate a variety of criticisms, and can successfully accommodate the discovery of new evidence for the phenomena in question. The adoption of a theoretical paradigm is an important aspect of scientific research, as the paradigm shapes the way the scientist views their discipline, conducts their research, and interprets their results. Yet as a discipline matures, theoretical paradigms are not expected to remain static. Just as your view of the world likely changed as you grew older and gained experience, so to do theoretical frameworks adapt and change, sometimes dramatically, to best incorporate critiques and new ideas. This propensity for change means that the history of thought surrounding social complexity involves many different players, all of whom attempted to propose overarching explanations for how societies developed. In this section, we've picked out a few of the biggest names - thinkers and ideas that had a lasting impact on the field of archaeology.

With that said, let's start from the very beginning. Perhaps you've heard the famous quote, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains?" This is a line from 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau's treatise The Social Contract. Early sociological thinkers such as Rousseau and his contemporary Thomas Hobbes (known for his work The Leviathan) questioned whether or not it was a part of human nature to be socially organized and wondered how society becomes productive and maintains its efficiency. Hobbes believed that the State was the source of protection and order, and that society was organized around the threat of punishment. Rousseau - using a slightly more optimistic metaphor - likened the State to a living organism that creates social order based upon the general will of society itself. With their work, Hobbes and Rousseau provided a foundation for later theorists.
Unilineal evolution provides one of the next early frameworks for understanding complex societies. This theory, based largely on the work of early anthropologist Lewis H. Morgan, works off of the assumption that societies undergo predictable evolution, passing through a number of definable and observable stages. Morgan’s stages range from savagery to barbarism to civilization in a unilineal, or singularly directed, path. The basis of this evolutionary trend lies largely on technological advancement and cultural “achievement.” The state of savagery included the development of fire and the bow, barbarism included animal and plant domestication as well as craft specialization, and civilization included the mastery of craft, destructive weapons, language, and education. Anthropologists eventually moved away from this paradigm, realizing that this thinking was far too linear to explain the variations that actually exist in the archaeological record, as well as incredibly biased towards a Eurocentric view of the world. While these typologies may have had some descriptive uses, a new explanation was still needed to understand how a society could become more complex over time.
The archaeologist V. Gordon Childe understood cultural evolution as resulting from increases in population, a trend which results from changes in economic base structures. Childe argued that increases in complexity were due to increases in surpluses, which stimulated an upward trend in population size as well as the creation of a governing body to make decisions. For Childe, the rise of civilization was directly tied to the rise of early cities. In attempting to define complex civilization, Childe came up with ten criteria that can be observed in the archaeological data. These ten criteria included things like a writing system, monumental architecture, increases in urban populations, craft specialization, and a state organization based on residence rather than kinship. 
Karl Marx has proved another major player across a variety of social sciences, and his work pervades several archaeological frameworks. Focusing on the modes of production, Marxist theory is concerned with the processes by which humans come together to produce various means of subsistence. This mode of production - which focuses mainly on the material aspects of life - forms the economic base from which social and political institutions arise. As the economic base changes, so too can social institutions and ideology. These three factors (economic base, social institutions, and ideology) are constantly interacting with each other, and this interaction between the parts is what is known as the “dialectic." Ultimately, Marxist theory seeks to understand the relationship between changing social forms and the objective conditions of the natural world. To Marx, the focus of understanding increasing complexity was on how the mode of production changed from being a kinship-based set of social relations to an increasingly hierarchical one in which groups of elites could control the mode of production and ideology.
Another anthropologist, Leslie White, suggested that there are three factors that determine the growth of a culture: the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year, the efficiency of its use, and the magnitude of need-based goods and services which are produced from it. The amount of energy used is the most important aspect in developing culture. Rather than focusing solely on energy, as White did, other anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service decided that focus should be centered on the social and political relationships in a society in order to identify change. While disavowing the idea that cultures evolve in a directional, linear way, these theories proposed several stages based on differences in political institutions. The stages are band, tribe, chiefdom, and state.
Many of the theories previously described have included an assumption that complex societies must contain some sort of hierarchical social organization. This sets them apart from egalitarian societies, where individuals are not ranked according to social status. However, many archaeologists have moved away from this inherent assumption, arguing instead that societies consist of a complex system of interrelated parts. Heterarchy, which argues for high levels of complex organization in all aspects of society, is one framework which encompasses such views; under a paradigm of heterarchy, a society might be hierarchically organized, but the lack of hierarchy does not negate the possibility for complexity. Individuals, or agents within a society, are constantly operating within this complex system of networks and are constantly adapting to their cultural and natural environments. Individuals help shape cultural practices through innovation and by choosing new strategies to succeed in their environments, while larger societal institutions in turn can shape and constrain the choices of the individuals. If enough individuals adopt a new social strategy in one system, then that could trigger changes across other systems. Therefore, no one part of society is inherently a driving or limiting force, but the whole system is self-organized by the choices of its members.  
We have decided not to focus on a single theoretical approach in this exhibit, but rather to consider the merits and disadvantages of each in the context of some actual archaeological investigation. To that end, we will be presenting case studies from seven famous archaeological sites, and you will be tasked with applying the above theories to these sites. As you may have noticed, many of the above theories tend to focus on specific aspects of society: the environment, economic and subsistence strategies, technology, social organization, and ideology. As these aspects have so often been considered important or crucial in the rise of complex societies, we have dedicated discussions to them in all of our case studies. As you read through the information we present, you'll likely find that some of these sites can be easily considered “complex”, while others are more difficult to classify. Remember our central questions as you move forward: What factors make a society complex? Are there certain traits that all complex societies share that others do not? Or are there no commonalities, with every society subject solely to the whims of its own historical trajectory? What exactly is a complex society?

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