Reorganization after Collapse

adaptive cycleIn Science (Jan 5 2007), Kathleen Morrison reviews After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies. The book sounds interesting. It is an edited volume focused of the neglected phases of reorganization and growth that have follow civilization collapse:

Glenn Schwartz’s introduction to After Collapse points out, however, not all of these phases have been equally well studied. Studies of state collapse and of the initial development of complex societies have continued to be counted among the big questions of archaeology. Why the regeneration of complex societies after episodes of collapse has not, to date, been a major focus of research can be attributed to an archaeological obsession with origins and in particular with “primary states,” those six places where complex polities developed without prior organizational models. The diffusionary logic that the idea of the state was somehow a sufficient condition for the emergence of complex polities has been long discredited, yet for some reason archaeological disregard for so-called “secondary state formation” has continued. Not only do the vast majority of cases of state development fall under this rubric, but so do instances of regeneration after collapse. Hence, the reasons for underanalysis of this important process are, if not clear, at least explicable. What all this suggests is that the examples presented in After Collapse have the potential to inform on processes of state (re)formation more generally; addition of these important cases can only add to our understanding of state generation as well as regeneration.

Schwartz notes that the study of state regeneration is, in large part, a study of “dark ages,” a term that, besides encoding value judgments developed under conditions of centralization, also refers to the paucity of textual information for periods after collapse. The negative valences of terms such as dark age and even collapse certainly reveal viewpoints firmly invested in text-based history (no period is darker than any other to an archaeologist) and in social hierarchy (what falls apart in a collapse are often structures of inequality). Archaeology, however, is well situated to address issues of change where texts disappear.

Here it is worth clarifying what contributors to this volume mean by collapse. As Schwartz enumerates, collapse “entails some or all of the following: the fragmentation of states into smaller political entities; the partial abandonment or complete desertion of urban centers, along with the loss or depletion of their centralizing functions; the breakdown of regional economic systems; and the failure of civilizational ideologies.” Note that this definition refers only to the collapse of complex political structures and that death and destruction are conspicuously absent. Although the focus of After Collapse is decidedly on continuity and renewal, archaeological studies of collapse itself have always recognized that civilizational traditions and peoples rarely disappear.

What, then, causes state regeneration and how does it proceed? Are, as Schwartz asks, such processes simply replays of earlier developmental episodes? Or are new strategies and trajectories involved? One might think, given the popularity of climate- and resource-oriented explanations for collapse, that many scholars would place regeneration at the feet of climatic amelioration or environmental regeneration. However, with the exception of Ian Morris’s careful exposition of the transitions from Mycenaean (Late Bronze Age) Greece through the Greek Dark Ages and on to the Classical Period, contributors to this volume have surprisingly little to say about environmental conditions. Perhaps this is because the Greek case, like the Classic Maya, is an example of what Bennet Bronson in this volume calls “genuine regeneration,” not simply the shift of a political or economic center but a transformation of the entire system. Indeed, the differences between Classical and earlier periods are profound (with perhaps little more than the memory of a lost heroic age linking them)–a shift even more substantial than that seen in the Maya region, albeit one covering much longer periods of time.

Contributors analyzing other regions (including Egypt, Peru, Cambodia, and Bronze-Age Syria) favor either Bronson’s “stimulus regeneration,” state building explicitly based on a hazily understood model distant in space or time, or his “template regeneration,” a revival process based on fully understood, well-recorded models, often states close to the revived polity in space and time. Although both of these terms evoke the language of early 20th-century diffusionism, they at least have the advantage of stressing the ways in which regenerating polities make use of existing models of and ideologies for systems of structured inequality.

While After Collapse also asks when regeneration might not appear, the volume presents only one such counterexample, Kenny Sims’s analysis of the upper Moquegua Valley, Peru. There complex political forms failed to regenerate after the fall of the Tiwanaku and Wari empires. Sims argues that restriction of local residents to client status and, at best, mid-level positions within the Wari administration left them without the wherewithal to (re)generate a centralized state. The general enthusiasm for Bronson’s memory and knowledge-oriented categories might reflect the selection of cases themselves, few of which are examples of more radical collapse, in which depopulation as well as deurbanization took place.

In many ways, both the strengths and weaknesses of After Collapse reflect larger trends in archaeology. Contributors carefully consider how, precisely, people managed (or failed) to regenerate a complex polity after a political collapse, including some interesting considerations of the ways in which collapse presented opportunities for previously marginal elites to become the central players in regenerated regimes. However, there is disappointingly little willingness to consider why, specifically, complex polities (re)emerged–to address the origins of the secondary state, to use the jargon. This is an important question, with implications for state formation in innumerable cases, well beyond the sample of collapsed polities. If, for example, as Lisa Cooper, building on the arguments of Yoffee and Adams, suggests of Bronze-Age Syria, village-based organization was actually more stable in the long term than urbanism, then perhaps the formation of a complex polity might itself constitute “collapse.” Such a perspective, suggested only half-seriously in Yoffee’s closing remarks, might actually be salutary in finally purging the discipline of its rise-and-fall thinking. This could bring us one step closer to using the great strength of archaeological research, its immense time depth, as a serious guide for contemporary considerations of the sustainability and continuity of civilizations in the face of rapidly changing natural and social conditions.

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