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State Formation in Italy and Greece: Questioning the Neoevolutionist Paradigm

State Formation in Italy and Greece: Questioning the Neoevolutionist Paradigm

Edited by Nicola Terrenato and Donald C. Haggis. Pp. x + 281, figs. 62. David Brown Book Company, Oakville, Conn. 2011. $70. ISBN 978-1-84217-967-3 (paper).

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This book presents a set of papers that emerged from a conference held at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in October 2003 entitled “Current Issues in State Formation in the Mediterranean and Beyond.” Most of the chapters were written by conference participants, while others were solicited by the editors to fill in some gaps in coverage. By bringing together scholars from a range of fields, methodological orientations, and geographic specialties, the editors hoped to infuse cross-cultural comparison into the study of early states in Greece and Italy.

In the introduction (ch. 1), Terrenato and Haggis lay out their agenda. They seek a middle ground between the evolutionist frameworks that dominated much of the latter half of the 20th century and their postmodern critiques. Classical archaeology entered this dialogue relatively late in the game, and the editors see this as a possible advantage, since heretofore much of the scholarly debate has been contentious and unproductive. Indeed, one of the strengths of the chapters throughout the volume is their theoretical eclecticism. This variety adds interest to the case studies, which encompass the familiar episodes of state formation in the Mediterranean, including the Bronze Age Aegean, archaic Greece, Etruria, and early Rome.

A number of main themes prominent in current approaches to state formation run through the book, and most chapters address at least one of them. These include individual- and group-level agency, the manifestations of states at regional and local scales, the use of cross-cultural comparison, and an explicit (and welcome) exposition of the archaeological correlates to state formation.

Pullen’s contribution (ch. 2) focuses on the Early Bronze Age precursors to the first state-level societies on mainland Greece. This chapter is heavy on methodology and lays out explicitly how the study of state formation can be operationalized by archaeological survey. As a result, it will be useful reading to archaeologists working in many parts of the world.

Damilati and Vavouranakis (ch. 3) also look at precursors of state formation, in this case, on Early Minoan Crete. They purposefully eschew the semantic debate concerning the definition of a state and choose to focus on “the understanding of the wider social changes it implies” (32 [emphasis original]). They conclude that the primary changes that stimulated state formation on Crete were not matters of social complexity, but rather shifts from inward- to outward-looking approaches to communal identity.

Vansteenhuyse (ch. 4) takes a synchronic look at the concept of centralization in Neopalatial, specifically Late Minoan IB, Crete with an emphasis on Knossos. He considers variables including topography and food production and infers, based on calculations of territorial extent and carrying capacity, that the Phaistos/Ayia Triada dyad should have been the most powerful political entity on the island, rather than Knossos. He concludes that Knossos’ dominant position must have, in part, been the result of an amount of ideological power.

Fitzsimons (ch. 5) traces the development of monumental architecture at Mycenae over time and argues that shifting investments in types of architectural embellishment reflect strategies by local elites to look “outward,” as Damilati and Vavouranakis describe, while maintaining the priority of localized ties of kinship.

Van der Vliet (ch. 6) emphasizes heterarchy and regime building in his examination of one of the most unusual types of states in the ancient world, the archaic Greek polis. In archaic Greece, many of the standard preconditions that have been attributed to state formation such as social stratification and centralization do not necessarily apply, since they tend to lead to monarchies. While preconditions such as a certain degree of complexity were essential, models that incorporate democratizing forces are also to be considered.

Small (ch. 7) examines one city-state, Priene, and takes an agent-based approach, focusing on the changing contexts of social interactions as states form. Such relationships are accessible archaeologically in the physical manifestations of interaction such as sanctuaries, markets, and places of public assembly. Small asserts that by monitoring change in these physical structures, we can gain insights into various state-formation trajectories.

Redhouse and Stoddart (ch. 8) examine Etruscan state formation from a regional perspective. They present the result of the XTENT model, a long-term project spearheaded by Stoddart that developed out of Colin Renfrew’s work on early state modules. They highlight the importance of studying political agency near the boundaries of a polity, not just at the center, and also consider the overlap between natural and political boundaries. Most impressive is the model’s ability to experiment with changing variables such as the buffer zones between territories. This approach permits them to examine the relationships between primate centers, intermediate-sized settlements, and “corridors of political vacuum” (169).

Peña (ch. 9), in a textbook example of how anthropological theory and classical archaeology can cross-pollinate, writes about Etruria and reconfigures the Kipp-Schortman model of secondary state formation, which emphasizes the transformative effect that trade played in the evolution of early states. He accentuates the roles of market exchange, efforts among the elite to control external trade, and the intensification of production for export.

Murray (ch. 10) looks at monumentality and ritual structures at various sites in Etruria, with particular attention to Veii. She notes their quick rise—20 monuments in 150 years—and traces diachronically their life histories through the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E.

Smith’s study (ch. 11) of early Rome, which relies heavily on ancient texts as well as archaeology, forgoes the traditional emphasis on the city itself, and explores state formation in Rome through the lens of the individual. He cogently notes the difference between the reality of the Early Republic and the story of that reality that has come down to us.

Terrenato (ch. 12) also uses texts and archaeology to trace the roles of elite agents in ancient Rome. He critiques the evolutionary manner in which Roman state formation has traditionally been studied, attributing its teleological bias to the fact that we know the end result so well. He questions “why the existing power brokers allowed the state to happen” (234) and concludes that early Rome was a weak state (by design) that was manipulated by those landed elites to their advantage.

Motta (ch. 13) creatively explicates Roman state-formation processes as a function of changes in crop processing as revealed through her analysis of archaeobotanical remains from the Palatine Hill. She compares changing proportions of grain, chaff, and weeds over time and, noting a preponderance of clean grains in the sixth century B.C.E., argues for a shift toward centralized redistribution of grain during that period. She interprets this as evidence for the “progressive widening of the new communal civic sector at the expense of the old family-based one” (252).

Finally, Ammerman (ch. 14) provides a comparative study of three civic centers: the Roman Forum, the Athenian Agora, and Piazza San Marco in Venice. He observes a number of common features of these important sites: they were polyfunctional spaces that lay on the margins of preexisting centers, and they required significant topographic transformations before they became civic centers themselves. Furthermore, their establishment reflected conscious acts of relocation and the deliberate forgetting of the central spaces they usurped. These findings, provided primarily through archaeology, are an important complement to textual sources that tend to be mute concerning the conditions around which places are abandoned.

Collectively, the chapters touch on a number of important aspects of current research on the topic. The prevalence of anthropological modeling and cross-cultural comparison reflects the continued bridging of Renfrew’s “great divide.” Beyond anthropological and classical archaeologies, the range of specialties represented by the authors is noteworthy. Most important, in my view, is the inclusion of wide-ranging types of data that can be marshaled to investigate state formation, including the action of human agents, ritual practice, settlement patterns, architecture, trade goods, botanical samples, and texts.

The volume is not without its fair share of mistakes, which include typos, incorrect citations, missing punctuation, and grammatical errors. Moreover, the subtitle is a bit misplaced, as the issue of neoevolutionism is rarely questioned explicitly, and many of the papers follow the paradigm quite closely. However, none of these problems interferes with the readability of the text. Overall, this book is an eclectic and thought-provoking volume that will greatly benefit students and researchers of state formation in the Mediterranean world and well beyond.

Robert Schon
School of Anthropology
University of Arizona
Tucson, Arizona 85721-0030

Book Review of State Formation in Italy and Greece: Questioning the Neoevolutionist Paradigm, edited by Nicola Terrenato and Donald C. Haggis

Reviewed by Robert Schon

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 2 (April 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1162.Schon

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