Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 2


Ancient Egypt & the Mayas

Paul T. Nicholson & Ian Shaw (eds.)
Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp702, £95.00

Grant D. Jones
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom
Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998, pp568, £14.95

BRUCE Trigger has shown (Early Civilisations, Cairo 1993) that there are two basic models for the emergence of ancient civilisation and ordered class society, the self-contained territorial or imperial state, and the city state. In very different ways, and in widely differing geographical and temporal contexts, these two splendid books have a great deal to say on the internal social, economic and political structures of both of them.

The main aim of Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries is to replace the previous standard textbook by Lucas as revised by Harris with a far more comprehensive treatment, in which ‘new technological and socio-economic questions are now being asked of the archaeological data’ (p. 1). Drawing on the skills of over 30 specialists in their different fields, the result is a book that will dominate its subject for years to come.

The first thing to hit us is the extent of control exercised by the state over what would appear to be the simplest and most basic production. With stone and other minerals, ‘the king seems to have operated a virtual monopoly on the quarrying and mining of many raw materials’ (p. 5); as opposed to faience, glass appears to have been ‘a royal monopoly throughout the New Kingdom’ (p. 196), and ‘ivory-working would have been carried out under centralised control, whether in temple or p–alace workshops’ (p. 328). Egypt’s home-grown wood is so poor that the royal monopoly on logwood trade from abroad must have amounted to much the same thing. Whereas pottery for household use was a village craft, there was an ‘apparent centralisation of production or distribution’ of some types of pottery during the Old Kingdom, which ‘broke down with the political fragmentation of the First Intermediate Period, and that regional styles developed, which appear to correspond to known political boundaries of the period’ (p. 138), which Dr Bouuriau has elsewhere shown was also true of the Middle Kingdom and the Second Intermediate Period, at least as regards types intended for funerary use. There is also some evidence from the New Kingdom that the state may have attempted to keep some sort of control over the supply of copper, since the royal necropolis workmen of Deir el-Medineh had to account for the exact weight of copper tools issued to them at the end of the job. It is thus of some interest that when in the first millennium BC iron production increases dramatically in the rest of the Near East, ‘the exception appears to be Egypt’, and ‘the supremacy of iron weapons over copper-alloy ones has been seen as a major factor in the Persian conquest of Egypt’ (p. 168).

As to personal consumption, whereas ‘beer was brewed at domestic level by most Egyptians for daily use … wine appears to have been largely produced for royalty, the upper classes and the funerary requirements of the élite’ (pp. 577–8), even if ‘on special occasions, common people also enjoyed wine’ (p. 578). Unlike wheatfields, vineyards were walled (p. 582), and apart from a Third Dynasty notable called Metjen, and some of the suppliers of wine to royal palaces at Malkata and Amarna, ‘the wine-making facilities themselves were primarily owned by the king or members of his family with little record, to date, of the private ownership of vineyards’ (p. 578). And whilst the mass of the population appears to have eaten meat, fish or fowl ‘at least once or twice a week’ (p. 669), the meat from large animals ‘was not a regular item in the diet of most Egyptians’ (p. 637). Most of the professional butchers named in inscriptions ‘were either associated with the pharaoh or with a temple. It is possible that professional butchers only existed in conjunction with these two institutions, as they were responsible for the provision of most of the country’s meat supply.’ (p. 669)

However, Egypt’s economy was based upon cereals, which Rome was careful enough to earmark as its own after its conquest of the country. Here the writer notes that ‘textual sources indicate that much of the land was owned by the state and temples, though private individuals could also rent and own land’ (p. 515), even if we may doubt whether ‘most of the harvested grain belonged to the state and not to the individual farmers who had to relinquish much of their yield to the granary system’ (p. 528), a more reasonable estimate of the tax/rent yield being about 30 per cent (cf. Revolutionary History, Volume 2, no. 4, Spring 1990, p. 48). Nonetheless, the extent of bureaucratic control over grain production can only be compared with the modern European Union. One of the most common motifs in tomb reliefs shows the beating of peasants to extract the surplus, ‘scenes in New Kingdom tombs tend to emphasise the assessment of cereals for taxation purposes’ (p. 527), and ‘prior to the harvest, cereal fields were also surveyed using pre-measured cords to determine the amount of tax to be paid on the estimated yield, later to be compared with the actual yield after threshing. Textual sources indicate that this task was conducted by a government body known to have existed since at least the Second Dynasty.’ (p. 520) ‘Artistic and textual evidence show that, after the winnowing and sieving operations, grain was measured using containers of known quantity and the amounts were then recorded by scribes prior to grain storage’ (p. 527), notes Dr Murray, and ‘archaeological evidence indicates that large storage facilities were attached to temples and palaces’ (p. 528). Needless to add, the two examples of temples she cites, the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu (p. 527), were both walled, the latter massively so, and the arrow heads dug in its west gate show that it was subjected to a siege at the end of the Twentieth Dynasty. For the whole social and economic system depended upon this central control of the cereal surplus, since ‘emmer was the primary cereal used for the payment of wages and taxes at that time’ (p. 512), and ‘emmer and barley formed an integral part of a complex administrative system of wages and taxation which played a critically important rôle in the development and relative stability of the economically successful Egyptian state throughout this time’ (p506). So whilst ‘possible episodes of famine in ancient Egypt have been documented … other sources also indicate that for the most part, the state and temple system of grain storage was sufficient to feed the population during lean years’, and ‘the ancient Egyptian hierarchy of grain storage was one of the many secrets of its success as a cereal producer’ (p. 528).

However suggestive all this may sound in the context of Marx’s theory of the Asiatic Mode of Production, Wittfogel’s further development of it into the hydraulic theory receives no support from the available evidence. Agreeing with Butzer’s book of 1976, Dr Murray holds that ‘throughout the Pharaonic period, the construction and maintenance of the irrigation system evidently remained a local responsibility rather than one controlled by a centralised administrative body’ (p. 515):

Geomorphological and climatic evidence … indicate that there was little need for artificial irrigation during much of the Old Kingdom … In the various textual sources for the Old Kingdom, no mention is made of the use of canals for irrigation purposes … nor is there evidence directly related to the bureaucracy of irrigation in the more than 2,000 administrative titles known from the period … It is not until the Middle Kingdom that terms directly related to irrigation first appear, and two types of land, low-lying and high-lying, are distinguished. (p. 515)

So the massive power of the Egyptian state would seem to have rested upon tight control exercised over the labour of others, rather than on any contribution it may have made to the wealth of society on its own account.

It is only when societies organised on divergent social and economic lines come up against each other that they become aware of just how deeply different they are. In that sense, the whole of the modern science of anthropology is a by-product of missionary endeavour and imperial conquest. Now here, for the last time in history, we have a close encounter between an imperial power and the last of the ancient tribal/city states. The second book under review is an impressive piece of documentary and anthropological research into the last Maya polity to resist the Spanish conquest. Whereas the Aztec and Inca were overthrown comparatively easily, the Maya put up a stiff resistance to the first attacks on Yucatan, and this last Maya state, the Itza with their capital at Nojpeten (known as Tayasal in the older literature) did not fall to the Spaniards until 1697. A by-product of this is a wealth of material about Maya society that takes us right to the heart of tribal and city state organisation in Central America, which this analysis has put to excellent use.

The Itza appear to have emigrated from Chichen Itza to Guatemala about 1461, to be followed by their Kowoj neighbours from Mayapan in about 1520–43, shortly before the Spaniards arrived. They first made the acquaintance of European power when Cortes passed briefly through their land in 1525, but by skilful methods of conquest, domination, diplomacy, and by exploiting the native opposition to the encomienda system and the jungle terrain they managed to maintain the full apparatus of a Maya tribal city-state for another 170 years. So whilst the Spanish motives in all this are all too obvious, Professor Jones’ ‘major challenge’ was ‘to understand the Itzas as independent actors who faced would-be Spanish conquerors with strategies of self-preservation developed over nearly two centuries of European domination of the lands surrounding Itza territory’ (p. xxi). He points out:

Even as early as their first encounter with Europeans in 1525, the Itza rulers at Nojpeten pursued aggressive political and military strategies that protected them against the colonial conquest methods that had been so successful through most of the rest of the Americas. Their principal strategy was to create a wide buffer zone, which they accomplished by punishing those native peoples living along their frontiers who accepted Spaniards in their midst and sometimes by incorporating such groups into a wider alliance by engaging them as rebels against the colonies. (pp. 58–9)

‘The Itza were not, therefore, naïve “untouched” native peoples’, he concludes, ‘their historical experience with Europeans emerges instead as a series of encounters, often violent, that demonstrated a sophistication achievable only through long-term, intensive study of the European enemy.’ (p. 59) The end only came when the king, Ajaw Kan Ek’, tried to come to terms with the Spaniards to stave off a challenge to his own authority from the chief of the northern Itza province, allied with the Kowojs (pp. 167–75), ‘intrafratricidal succession to the Itza rulership that turned brother against brother in a struggle against acceding to Spanish demands’ (p. 45). We need hardly add that the result of their final defeat was a 88 per cent drop in population during the first decade of Spanish rule (p. 68).

But most interesting for us here must surely be Chapter 3, Itza Society and Kingship on the Eve of the Conquest (pp. 60–107). For although Maya society is now finally coming into closer focus with the progress made in the decipherment of the script, the monumental records of ancient states only identify so much of the social structure as can serve as a mark of status. Here the detailed Spanish reports show that although the Itza were exogamous, marrying out of the male line (p. 78), and ‘patrilinear descent remained the most important organizing principle’, they also brought from Yucatan (pp. 79–8) ‘a complex lineage system that stressed both maternal and paternal links’ and ‘a limited form of matrilinear descent may have constituted the critical marker of the nobility’s right to rule’, whereby ‘the ruling Kan matrilineage controlled, at least symbolically, the governance of the capital and four territorial quarters that were also associated with the four quarters of the capital’ (p. xxiii, cf. p. 75).

This city, Nojpeten, with a population of about 5,000 (p. 67) and a temple tower apparently copied from the Castillo at Chichen Itza (p. 74), was divided into quarters, echoed by the present street plan of Flores (pp. 68–9), which corresponded to the four cardinally arranged provinces, the capital itself counting as a fifth. Each province, including the capital, was governed by two rulers, four of whom represented their respective territories and resided in the four divisions of the capital, with the members of each pair standing in a ‘senior-junior relationship with one another’ (p. 60). Each of the four territories in turn had at least one provincial capital in it (p. 64). The whole structure was firmly grounded in and sanctioned by ritual, reflecting ‘an association of territory with a quadripartite cosmos and the four associated cardinal directions, the year-ending and year beginning rituals associated with the cardinal directions, and a host of other cosmological and ritual meanings’ (p. 94). The governing council consisted of the king, his junior priestly partner, the senior and junior partners representing the four provinces, the representatives of the main urban centres within them, and some of the leaders of the tribes they dominated (p. 83).

What is interesting here is not so much how closely this political set-up resembles other states in central America – not only in neighbouring Yucatan (p. 96) and Akalan (p. 31) as might be expected, but from as far away as Tenochtitlan (n2 p. 441) – but the strange echoes we seem to have from the city state organisation of classical Greece, not so much in the more compact Dorian cities, but such as ancient Athens before the reform of Cleisthenes. Here also were four basic Ionian tribes, divided into three phratries made up of clans and guilds. The number of clans was fixed when the city state was set up, membership of them was hereditary, land ownership was vested in the clan, and each phratry and each clan formed a state within a state, with its own rituals. There were smaller centres outside the main city (the later demes), and territorial divisions, even if they did not fit the tribal patterns. Particular families had vestigial royal rights, there was a governing council, and a rotating system of the central city administration, as in Maya Yucatan (p. 96).

What must remain uncertain, however, is how much of the Itza social and political structure was inherited from the Classic period of the Maya, and how much of it is due to innovation or reversion once that society collapsed. The succession in Classic Maya society clearly came down through the male line, even if ‘some recent research, however, suggests that matrilinear principles may also have been at work in succession to office in the Maya lowlands from Classic through colonial times’ (p. 78). The late Linda Schele and David Freidel argued that the ‘dissolution of the kingship into a council of nobles’ which happened towards the end of the histories of Tikal, Copan and Yaxchilan, was a ‘fundamentally new and revolutionary definition of power and government for a people who had acknowledged sacred kings for a thousand years’ (p. 105). So the problem about what is new and what is old in this remarkable tribal/city state system still remains to be solved.

In the end, a Marxist must ask the question: which of these two models, the self-contained territory or the city state, laid the basis for further human social and economic development? A simple answer would be that whereas Spanish imperialism brought an abrupt end to the last of the Maya city states, the Chinese empire lasted almost to modern times. The city state of classical Greece, which succeeded a society of the palace-distribution type, did indeed develop into a slave society, a much more dynamic social structure, only to be gobbled up by the Hellenistic monarchies and the Roman empire. The city states of ancient Mesopotamia, on the other hand, more or less formed part of one empire or another from the time of the First Dynasty of Babylon onwards. And neither of them can be said to have laid any of the real basis for the rise of feudalism. This alone should put us on our guard against linear theories of human development, whether it be the sophistication of Kautsky’s views or the bonehead crudity of Stalin’s.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 17.10.2011