PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies

edited by Glenn M. Schwartz and John J. Nichols

Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2006

Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliographic references, and index

$50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8165-2509-6

The appeal is obvious: we have learned a lot about collapse, so it would be interesting to learn more about recovery. And indeed it is. Schwartz and Nichols have shepherded to publication a valuable collection, having fourteen essays by eighteen authors, almost all anthropologists or archeologists or both. After Schwartz’s introduction, which includes some general theory, there are eleven essays on societies in specific places at specific times. The Middle East, Greece, the Andes, southeast and east Asia, and Mesoamerica are all represented. Some of those eleven essays also contain important theoretical arguments that Schwartz did not signal in advance. Two essays of reflection and comment conclude the book.

A recurring idea is social complexity: collapse is a loss of complexity and regeneration is a restoration of complexity. Schwartz mentions “complex societies” in his first sentence (3) and then often again. He defines the topic of the book, and the goal of the authors collectively, in saying “…the regeneration of societal complexity is a relatively neglected topic” (4). The reader will guess it is hard to define complexity precisely, though one can recognize it when one sees it—on the ground, and in the ground. Schwartz says complex societies means “societies with extensive populations, large-scale and often multilevel political organizations (states), large and hierarchical settlement patterns (urban systems), and (usually) socially stratified populations” (17).
Archeologists, of course, are interested in this topic, because detectives and interpreters working on collapse and regeneration must often rely greatly on nontextual artifacts. What the archeologist finds, and what she does not find, indicate a host of things: urban life, agricultural technology, surpluses, diversification of economies and food supplies, long distance trade, roads and other infrastructure, religion, hierarchies—in short, the quotidian logic of life. “Administrative trappings,” to use Lisa Cooper’s phrase (28), reveal something about complexity. On the other hand, many authors here can, and do, rely heavily on textual evidence as well.

However, not only archeologists will find parts of the book valuable. Any social scientist interested in social dynamics, theories of social institutions and elites, and human-environment relations will encounter ideas worth pondering.

A regenerated society is necessarily different from the collapsed one it replaces. However, the authors are careful to note continuities between the two. There are physical characteristics—geologic and topographic, though not always climate, since climate change may have contributed to collapse in the first place and more favorable climate to regeneration. There is location—location relative to other places, or “situation” as geographers call it—which is so important for involvement in trade. Infrastructure may have survived. Ideology may be a source of continuity—as shown by Ellen Morris in Chapter Four on Egypt—as may be all kinds of memories.

The eleven essays that are the bulk of the book throw up many fascinating facts as well as bits of theory, and their variety is attractive. John Nichols and Jill Weber describe a regeneration in Middle Bronze Age Syria that featured the rise of a newly significant ethnic group and also reliance on an economic base of onager carcass processing (hides were used for leather harness and straps, waterskins, shoes, and other things needed by long distance traders). Ellen Morris says that while there were some social reasons for collapse in Egypt, “Far more damaging to any state, but especially to a sacred kingship, however, are extended bouts of ecological disasters” (60). Gordon McEwan mentions the same vulnerability in writing about the Incas (92). Ian Morris summarizes nicely Greek history from 1500 to 500 BC, and he has ten indices of social complexity based on evidence of urban centers and large-scale settlements, extraction of surplus from peasants, monuments, ruling classes, written records, long distance trade, “craft specialization and advanced art,” military power, and standards of living (73-81).

Based on research on the collapse of the Wari empire and regeneration in Nasca (Peru), Christina Conlee argues that we cannot understand regeneration unless we know how local societies functioned under the old imperial regime—the “intrusive state”—and “not just how the external state governed its territories” (102). Local styles in response to the old regime shaped how localities responded to its collapse. Continuing the theme, and also writing on Peru, Kenny Sims advances a theory of “administrative underdevelopment” (119) to help explain why regeneration might not occur. The Wari system did not provide opportunities for local elites to accumulate administrative experience and savvy, which made it hard for them to establish a new hierarchical administrative system after the Wari collapse (119). Sims also says that when collapse destroys existing complexity, the disruption at the local level will be the greater the more the locality was “directly embedded” (121) in the higher-level state. On the other hand, regeneration will be the easier the more local systems are separated from the top and have autonomy.

In a largely theoretical essay in which he notes some applications in Asia, Bennet Bronson offers the model of “stimulus regeneration.” In ideal type, it is the creation of a new state in a place where its creators claim there was some historical antecedent, but where in fact “no immediately antecedent complex society had existed [but] where a historical stimulus—the abstract knowledge that states had once existed among that people or in that place—was a prime cause of political re-formation” (139). The political entrepreneurs use fantasy or exaggeration to legitimize what are actually new borrowings—maybe even from enemies! They “make…centralization more palatable by wrapping it in the mantle of a glorious past,” even if the stimulus is “an unsubstantiated rumor that something used to be done in a particular fashion” (138).

Bronson also discusses the opposite, “template regeneration,” where revival is based on a real and well-documented model. China was a classic case: the template was known—indeed, known in detail from the written historical record—and leaders used it over and over again to construct a new system “very similar to the one that had preceded it a century or two before” (140).

I especially liked one of the two final essays, by Alan Kolata. Here again is a new model on offer. It is based on a theoretical continuum of political ecology, varying from “direct” to “indirect” rule. “Direct” means forceful exercise of political, economic, and military power; it means imposing “externally derived laws and regulations, cultural absorption of subject populations, and often a powerful, colonial ideology of a ‘civilizing mission’….” (210), and a centrally controlled bureaucracy. Forts and new towns demonstrate power, and of course the archeologist often can find them easily. It is “hegemony with sovereignty” (211). It transforms the historical consciousness of subject populations.

“Indirect,” on the other hand, means the exercise of “indirect networks of alliance, social exchange, and commodity circulation via trade and mutually accepted tributary or clientage relationships” (209); instead of detailed administrative regulation we find “demonstration effects of cultural superiority, awesome displays of material wealth….the co-optation of local institutions and facilities….” (210). “Daily social interactions follow familiar rhythms without the continual presence of foreign authorities” (211). It is “hegemony without sovereignty” (211). I find the uses of “hegemony” and “sovereignty” unhelpful, but the basic distinction is intriguing. Kolata also suggests “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy” as labels for the corresponding relationships between belief and behavior.

Of course the point of all this is that the nature of regeneration will depend on where on the continuum the collapsed society was located. For example, “hegemony with sovereignty” and “orthodoxy” make Bronson’s template regeneration easier. The opposite region of the continuum may generate regenerations of a different character, but perhaps no regeneration at all.

The book has many virtues I have not yet mentioned. Almost all the essays are concise and commendably brief; the maps are helpful; the editing is careful; the bibliography extensive (over 700 items), which is important because the authors write concisely and rely greatly on previous literature for their theoretical ideas. Although I personally began to tire of reading about “social complexity” yet one more time, I accept the authors’ prerogative to use it as a unifying device, and heaven knows other collections of this type often suffer from not having a unifying theme!

One issue worth raising is that so many theoretical excursions are sprinkled here and there among the density of archeological facts that it is difficult for the nonarcheologist reader—and truthfully, he might not read the archeology diligently—to pick out, pick up, the theory. I myself got restive over that feature of the book, and I fear it will reduce the audience for it. On the other hand, I recognize another side of the coin, namely that it shows how theory can spring from observation. On balance, I think it would have been desirable for Schwartz to expand the opening chapter to include more theory, and for Kolata to present his continuum model in a chapter early in the book.


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