Sunday, November 14, 2010

Collapse and Measurement

A lot of historians and archaeologists have a bad habit of measuring civilizations by the art and monuments they produce.  A civilization that leaves a lot of visible traces and/or a collection of impressive art is called 'developed' and 'advanced' and lack of these signs is seen as evidence of a primitive or failed civilization.  This kind of thinking was more common in the past, but it still persists among some people.  It could happen because people see societies as symbols, rather than really thinking of what it would be like to live in them.  It could also happen when they identify with the upper class only.  But if you think about what really makes a civilization good, and apply Rawls's veil of ignorance, it quickly becomes apparent that, ceteris paribus, you would much rather be a peasant in a civilization where the ruling class does not levy crushing taxes to build massive pointless monuments to their own vanity.

A closely related problem is the glorification of state power and administration.  Way too many people see a large central government as a marker of a good civilization.  The reality is that, in most cases, the government mainly existed as a tool to extract wealth from the common people for the benefit of the elite.  The best that could be said for most of them was that they prevented anarchy and protected the people from even worse governments and outsiders.

To be fair, in the past the monuments and government records were all we had.  But now we can use modern forensics methods to measure the quality of life of the average people.  By analyzing bones, we can learn about diet, health, and other parts of their lifestyle, and see which civilizations were actually good at allowing people to live a good, prosperous life.

Here's a good article that, among other things, touches on this issue:

Societal collapse is a slippery concept that defies a strict definition. Renfrew contends that it involves the loss of central administration, disappearance of an elite, decline in settlements, and a loss of social and political complexity. Collapse implies an abrupt end rather than a long, slow devolution.

Think about that in modern terms.  If a civilization like North Korea turned into a civilization like Switzerland, it would be defined as a 'collapse'.  We know from modern economic studies that a clustering of the population in one big city that is also the center of government is a sign of stagnation and oppression.  Healthy countries are ones where the population is spread out into more areas, as people focus their activity on generating wealth from the environment rather than seeking political favors and handouts.  It makes sense to assume the same about the past.

An increasing number of Egyptologists also now posit a more complicated and drawn-out decline—and one that ultimately had limited impact on the population. Miroslav Barta of Charles University in Prague notes that by the 25th century B.C.E., important changes in Egyptian society were already afoot. Smaller pyramids were built, nepotism within the royal families diminished, royal princesses married nonroyals, and the move from a centralized, pharaonic kingdom to a more regionalized structure was well under way.

All of these things are what I would call 'progress'. 

"There was no collapse," he insists. While the unified state disappeared and large monuments weren't built, copper continued to be imported from abroad and the concept of maat or kingship continued to be used at a more local level. "The peasants may never have noticed the change," he adds.

As long as there is trade and economic activity, that is a sign of a healthy society.  Wealth and prosperity come from the size of the market, not the size of the political unit.

Like the end of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the close of the classic Maya period around 900 C.E. has long been a poster child of collapse. Huge cities in the northern highlands were abandoned, monumental architecture ceased, and royal inscriptions halted. ...
But Elizabeth Graham, an archaeologist at University College London who works in the lowlands of Belize, says "there's not a blip" in the occupation of the Maya areas she has dug along the coast, which lie about 300 kilometers from major inland centers to the north. ...

Coastal sites like Lamanai and Tipu were admittedly smaller than the great inland cities, but Graham says there is no sign of crisis there at the end of the Classic period. Skeletons show no increase in dietary stress, populations seem constant, terraces and check dams are maintained, and sophisticated pottery continues to be crafted. The drying of the climate doesn't appear to trigger any societal rupture.

Basically, the people and real economic activity were just as healthy as before, and less wealth was being wasted on monuments.  That could be a sign of a revolution that deposed a predatory elite and instituted a system of local autonomy.  And of course, such an event would be recorded by royal scribes as 'anarchy' and 'ruin'.

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