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Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History: The Present and Future of Counternarratives

July 2018 (122.3)

Book Review

Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History: The Present and Future of Counternarratives

Edited by Geoff Emberling. Pp. xvi + 366. Cambridge University Press, New York 2016. $120. ISBN 978-1-107-05333-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

This book is a collection of 14 essays written in honor of Norman Yoffee on his retirement, penned by a handful of his former colleagues and students, with a 15th by Yoffee himself to round out the volume. The unifying theme of the book, one which runs through Yoffee’s own work, is “counternarratives”; the original title proposed for the book was “Counternarratives and Macrohistories: New Agendas in Archaeology and Ancient History.” Yoffee’s understanding of these is that they are “simply those ideas that have challenged prevailing wisdom, examining current ‘paradigms’ and finding flaws in them and then producing new ideas and explanations for social behavior and change” (346). This is what we can expect from the contributions in the book.

Emberling’s short introduction (3–16), which makes up part 1 of the book, sets the volume in context with a discussion of scale in the archaeological gaze. The writer notes how nonarchaeologists have, in recent years, taken over longue durée studies of the human past, while many archaeologists have become increasingly focused on the small scale. Yet often these longer accounts suffer from the adoption of a neoevolutionary or stage-based approach, or make use of problematic deterministic arguments, all rejected by Yoffee, among numerous other archaeologists and historians. Counternarratives here become a necessary archaeological antidote to dubious grand narratives.

Archaeologists may, however, be to blame for this, for if we ourselves “do not take the lead in discussing the rise of states, the origins of cities, the trajectories of cultures, and the collapse of civilizations, then we leave the field to non-experts” (11). Pushing for big themes and comparative studies (345), neither Emberling nor Yoffee suggests the small-scale or individual should be rejected; Yoffee rightly adds that “it is valuable to tack between highly specific studies of people’s lives and behaviors and studies of long-term continuities and changes” (346). Archaeologists are well placed to do just that, and Emberling’s and Yoffee’s chapters both present something of a call to arms. Indeed, they perhaps anticipate and reflect an increasing desire to return to “big” and wide-ranging discussions, represented by volumes such as Yoffee’s own edited volume Early Cities in Comparative Perspective, 4000 BCE–1200 CE (Cambridge 2015), Ross and Steadman’s Ancient Complex Societies (Abingdon 2017), and this reviewer’s Understanding Collapse: Ancient History and Modern Myths (Cambridge 2017) that examine broad processes and specific cases without evolutionism or determinism. Their discussion is thus timely and relevant to archaeological discourse.

After the introduction, the book is divided into four main parts, which reflect some of Yoffee’s interests over the years: “Cultural Trajectories,” “Cities, States, and Empires,” “Collapse and Resilience,” and “Archaeology and History.” Yoffee’s follow-up “Commentary” constitutes the final part. Under these broad headings, the authors range widely through time and space, with most exploring a particular issue with reference to a cultural case study; the contributions cover Australia, North America (Chaco) and Mesoamerica (Maya), Egypt, western Asia (Armenia, the Levant, Mesopotamia), southern Asia (India), and eastern Asia (China, the Mekong). With much on offer, it is difficult to do justice in a short review to all the contributions; readers will dip in according to their own interests and will find stimulating ideas as befits a book exploring counternarratives.

Highlights for this reader included Fowles’ essay “Writing Collapse” (205–30), memorable in particular for his comment about how “extreme weather” is taking over “the narrative position of barbarians sweeping in to attack Rome” (208). His examination of narratives of Chacoan collapse, contrasting Diamond’s (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed [London 2005]) ecopocalypse failure with McAnany and Yoffee’s (“Why We Question Collapse and Study Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire,” in P. McAnany and N. Yoffee, eds., Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire [Cambridge 2010] 1–17) and Wilcox’s (“Marketing Conquest and the Vanishing Indian: An Indigenous Response to Jared Diamond’s Archaeology of the American Southwest,” in P. McAnany and N. Yoffee [2010] 113–41) view of successful adaptation and site abandonment as a positive strategy, adds a third element: the view of native Pueblo historians, who recount stories of how some of their settlements and communities failed or went wrong (219–23). This points to the politicized nature of historiography and to the possibilities of multi- and polyvocality in discussions of collapse that challenge sweeping judgments of collapse as a failure and continuity as success.

Also interesting is McAnany and colleagues’ chapter “Leaving Classic Maya Cities” (259–88). Rather than trying to “explain” the Classic Maya collapse, the authors use computer modeling (NetLogo) to explore fluctuations in the population of cities and the circumstances of urban abandonment. They choose three variables—land, weather, and war—as their parameters and incorporate a “collapse button” that removes royalty from a city. The results suggest that royal courts were attractive to Maya people, even when other variables were in play (e.g., when there was war or environmental stress), and the end of a royal court tended to result in outmigration to still extant courts rather than local regeneration. This suggests the importance of the psychological elements of community and embedded ideas of how society should be organized. McAnany notes the “close synergism between sustaining populations and royal courts and how deeply entangled were their lives at the same time as they lived worlds apart” (282). This takes us beyond lone “rational” considerations such as economics, or fleeing violence, or adverse environmental conditions and adds nuance to conceptions of individual agency and group behavior, at the same time contributing to our understanding of a much larger historical change.

Sinopoli and Suvrathan also comment on how Harappan people “walked away from urban life and many of its associated technologies” (112). They offer a comparative study of a long-lived city, Banavasi, and an abandoned imperial capital, Vijayanagara, both in southern India. Banavasi had a more stable existence owing to social and political arrangements that ensured its persistence even through political change, while Vijayanagara’s fate was closely linked to the emergence and fall of a powerful dynasty. People were attracted to Vijayanagara and its royal dynasty while it was successful and then detached themselves from it as it failed (119–22). The city was abandoned and sacked by northern enemies, but selectively—structures associated with the dynasty were targeted for destruction, but other areas were left untouched; this selectivity is similar to other cases of collapse, such as Teotihuacan and Tiwanaku. Even though much of the infrastructure remained, the city was not reoccupied. This departure from urban zones must make us question our assumptions about the meanings of urban life to individuals and groups and their commitments to it: in preindustrial societies, leaving a city (which in any case would have been very much integrated with the rural) may have been a more viable option.

The other chapters are no less interesting than those already mentioned. Lin’s exploration (291–327), for example, of the origins of Zhou political ideology in the ancient Xia state questions whether there really was an ancient Xia state or whether it was a myth developed in hindsight to explain the present. He concludes that “the Xia narrative” was “a process of cultural construction,” which selectively incorporated aspects of the social memory of other states and “political elaborations” in earlier times (292). This might be compared with the Inca’s selective incorporation of Tiwanaku and Wari legacies, physical and nonphysical, in their own culture. With a view to promoting intercultural comparisons, Baines writes on the invisibility of urban landscapes in Egyptian art of the third millennium B.C.E. (161–84). Urban areas were closely associated with royalty, but there was little interest in representing them, in contrast to depicting some urban activities and idealized rural scenes. Smith and Khatchadourian, in their chapter (231–58), relate the different trajectories of two sites in Late Bronze and Iron Age Armenia, Gegharot and Tsaghkahovit, applying concepts of entanglement, repair, and curation to conceptualize these.

Overall, Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History will appeal to those interested in the specifics of a given chapter or culture that is discussed and also to those interested in how archaeological counternarratives can and should be developed and deployed. Those who are familiar with Yoffee’s work will appreciate seeing the ways in which it is being taken forward by others, and those who are not yet familiar with it will doubtless want to become so. The book is certainly to be recommended. The physical volume is well produced, with relevant figures in black and white throughout and a useful index.

Guy D. Middleton
School of History, Classics and Archaeology
Newcastle University

Book Review of Social Theory in Archaeology and Ancient History: The Present and Future of Counternarratives, edited by Geoff Emberling

Reviewed by Guy D. Middleton

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 3 (July 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1223.middleton

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