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Polities and Power: Archaeological Perspectives on the Landscapes of Early States

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Polities and Power: Archaeological Perspectives on the Landscapes of Early States

Edited by Steven E. Falconer and Charles L. Redman. Pp. x + 277, figs. 11, tables 7, plan 1, maps 18. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson 2009. $55. ISBN 978-0-8165-2603-1 (cloth).

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Theories of urbanization and early state formation have a long tradition in archaeology, geography, and history, and, being heavily vested in the social sciences, often prominently feature social, political, religious, and economic causality. Such studies have rightly been critiqued as decontextualizing (often unwittingly) early polities from their cultural and natural environments. Falconer and Redman challenge the contributors to Polities and Power, whose research ranges across the New World, the Near East, eastern Africa, and the Indian subcontinent, to think outside those traditional boxes and to recontextualize early polities through the medium of landscapes, a concept that the editors conceive of as an “analytically formative context” (3) for seeking meaning. The contributors seek to integrate the interplay, dynamism, and recursive nature of the cultural and natural landscapes into the analyses of early polities. How successful these efforts are is the focus of this review.

After a brief introduction reprising the academic usages of landscape, the editors organize 12 chapters into sections, each containing a primary contribution or two followed by a commentary. These commentaries range from eulogy to critique, expanding on the contributions, placing them in a broader regional perspective, or elaborating on a particular theoretical stance. The volume’s use of autocritique is unique in my experience, and it adds to the work’s overall interest.

Conceptually, the volume’s thematic focus—landscape—has a checkered past, one ranging from environmental determinism to postmodernism. The nature-culture duality, of course, has a long history in western thought. Until recently, the physicality of the landscape has dominated through the environmental archaeologies of the mid 20th century and the strident New Archaeology that neatly eliminated humans from the equation by subsuming them into the broader ecosystem. Recent postmodern contributions have counterbalanced this drift toward environmentalism by theorizing landscape in the lens of cultural perception. Despite claims to the contrary, I have yet to see the emergence of a viable centrist position capable of theoretically reintegrating the physical and cultural conceptual landscape. The contributions in this volume confirm that view.

The tension within landscape studies is nowhere better captured than in Joyce’s critique of Fisher’s “human ecodynamics” approach to Tarascan (Mesoamerican) land use through time—an approach specifically formulated as a response to social-process studies. Rather than forming an integrative landscape approach, Fisher’s analysis clings to the nature-culture dichotomy and is in the tradition of earlier adaptationist studies. While Fisher perceptively documents changing land use through time, he does not succeed in reintegrating the Tarascans with their land.

Aspects of historical ecology and the longue durée are embodied in Sinopoli, Johansen, and Morrison’s discussion of Vijayanagara’s historical and ecological place in the Tungahadra Valley of southern India. Tracking cultural landscape manipulations from ritual Neolithic dung heaps to the 14th-century transformation of this forbidding locale into a 30 km² urban core closely links landscape to social and political infrastructure. This concern for social and political economies is reiterated in Wright’s praise of Sinopoli and Morrison’s earlier research on craft specialization, rural infrastructure and development, and rural-urban interplay.

States often employ monumentally scaled constructions as self-congratulary expressions and as instruments of repression and intimidation. Hasdorf and Schreiber, in complementary articles, explore the issue of monumental multivocality in the Andes. Hasdorf turns functionalist interpretations of complex Inca agricultural technology (e.g., terraces) on their head by positing them as a sculpted landscape tied to the Inca’s ideological and political agendas. By casting them as crafted objects, they gain agency to create and mold the worldview of the residents. While expanding on this theme, Schreiber reminds us not to confuse function with meaning. Terraces and roads no doubt served as powerful metaphors and agents of Incan supremacy but still functioned primarily to increase crop production and facilitate transportation.

Settlement theory and visions of world systems pervade three papers (by Wattenmaker, Falconer and Savage, and Wilkinson) on early polities in Mesopotamia and the Levant. Wattenmaker challenges the view that variations in urban patterns for southern Upper Mesopotamia might be best explained in terms of world-systems core-periphery relationships. She contends that environmental variation is the key determinate in polity development and notes that dry farming and herding created a pattern of evenly matched, widespread polities in the north vs. concentrated mega-polities of the south. The Levant, to some extent, shared somewhat similar patterns of small polities. Falconer and Savage’s extensive statistical manipulation of settlement duration and size infer a Bronze Age landscape characterized by highly fragmented and dynamic polities that lack even subregional integration. They suggest the basal unit of integration in the Levant was the village or household. Wilkinson reiterates the interpretation that polities’ political landscapes depend heavily on the ability of archaeologists to recognize scalar differences in the staple subsistence zone, local administrative control, and widespread political influence of polities.

The indigenous creation of African states is less contentious than a generation ago. Both Kusimba and Killick champion local societies’ self-determination. While Kusimba visualizes the eastern African groups as independent participants in the Indian Ocean trade, Killick sees them as exploited by a dominant world system. Landscape as a theoretical construct appears tangential in these contributions, although the importance of multiscalar levels of analyses is certainly apparent in such intercontinental relationships. Robertshaw’s review of the African chapters is incisive, and his critique raises issues with some theoretical assumptions and data, as well as the interpretations of both contributors—a clear-sighted commentary.

Polities and Power moves our understanding of early state development forward, and in that sense, it is an important contribution to the literature. The emphasis on the analysis and interpretation of polities within a larger cultural and environmental landscape is no bad thing, and it is a much-needed remedy to tendencies to theorize state development in a contextual vacuum. However, a “landscape perspective” as an essential ingredient in this process is somewhat more problematic. The contributors to this volume, in fact, demonstrate the lack of a central theoretical foundation in landscape archaeology. There is no doubt that as a conceptual umbrella that links the myriad landscape-related “archaeologies” (e.g., settlement, agency and perception, multiscalar, contextual, historical ecology) it is useful, but its place as the next paradigm shift on the horizon is yet in doubt.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois
Champaign, Illinois 61820

Book Review of Polities and Power: Archaeological Perspectives on the Landscapes of  Early States, edited by Steven E. Falconer and Charles L. Redman

Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Emerson

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