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Friday, March 18, 2011

Social Complexity of the Ancients: A Brief Overview

The Collapse of Complex Societies (New Studies in Archaeology)The concept of isolation is among one of the most significant ideas for social complexity, in that all complex societies were never “truly isolated from each other” . If this was the case, all complex societies would or could have, adopted a similar social organization, with the exception of the people living in Shandong Province as the Dawenkou culture, mentioned as having a limited or different access to resources, therefore aiding to a slight variation in organization.

What some of these societies do have in common, evidently, is there location, approximate in distance to rivers or water resources. However, Huanghe River’s annual flooding aided in rice production, yet the peoples didn’t depend on this resource, since grain millet (tolerant of dry climates) was grown in the same area as well. In actuality, reliance of some kind on agricultural subsistence, whether millet, pigs, rice, corn, wheat, wild plants and animals, chickens, and so on, were all present.

Social Hierarchy

As evidenced in Mesopotamia, the temples which held the gods, and ziggurats, which on many occasions, state officials called home, were clearly depictive of a social hierarchy.

The same can be said for the Erhlit’ou culture, as archaeological evidence consisting of large abodes, middle sized lodging, and small villages, suggesting an administrative hierarchy. Albeit, there’s no written record to suggest this was the actual organization of the site.


 The Roads of Chinese Childhood: Learning and Identification in Angang (Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Angang exhibited another settlement pattern; however, extensive looting has destroyed much of the evidence. What is evident is that there was a central palace, and several specialty workshops for prized items such as jade, bone, and bronze. If there were craftsmen who made these items then there had to be a central area for them to be accommodated. Although, the manufacture of these particular items was watched closely, so it is possible the individuals who made them resided within the walls of the palace.


Crete Greece 

The settlement patterns in Crete were a bit more perplexing considering the peoples were living in small villages without clear evidence for political authority extending beyond the village scale.

At the Palace at Knossos, there’s a series of rooms holding storage jars and documents, as well as a room for rituals by gods and goddesses. A throne room is present at Knossos, however there’s no clear evidence of the type of political unit once present. Furthermore, even the villas situated on the outskirts of Knossos have been rumored to be part of agricultural units, but this still does not indicate a single ruler of the area. The Goddess figurine from Knossos is depicted in artwork elsewhere in Crete and at Knossos and probably represents an important early divinity, similar to the Sumerian relation of king and gods.


Historians believe priests and priestesses of several early city-states played an essential role in ruling in Uruk. Sumerians believed kings derived their power from the gods, and in so doing, were agents of the gods. Therefore, ruling power was primarily in the hands of kings.


Wenke and Olszewski (2007) mentioned that archaeological evident and written documents after the Shang period indicate that Shang society was headed by a king, who ruled through hierarchically arranged nobility (p 446). This is further explained by the relationship between the king and Di (god), mirrored by relationships between the king and his living servants and vassals: as the king served Di, so living people served the king.


The Chinese shared the custom of burials with Mesopotamia, as seen at the Royal Tombs of Ur. Not only were chariots and rice buried with the dead, but ruler’s wives, servants, guards, and other staffs were present as well, to aid him in the afterlife. Oddly, this custom wasn’t widely adhered to in Egypt, as we tend to see more material items: pottery, gold, necklaces, clothing, etc., in the tombs of Pharaohs.

Burials in eastern Crete contained valuable times like gold diadems and other forms of personal adornment. Consequently, the M10 Tomb at Dawenkou exhibited vessels and pig bones from feasting during funerary activities, although the scraps from swine don’t seem like an offering, rather an individual’s attempt to climb the social ladder while erasing someone’s past. Throwing out the garbage per se. Of course, this is not what it seems.

Final Thought

China's political authority consisted of small polities which didn’t span the vast areas like its counterparts in Mesopotamia. Like Egypt, there was evident inequality and large river valleys for trading and irrigation. However, in the case of both Egypt and China, eventually “a geographically large political unit was created. Consequently, social organization in Minoan Crete is poorly understood and within reason. There’s insufficient evidence. Like China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, there was social inequality and some type of political authority. There were no city-states in Minoan Crete, but rather small polities like China. Authority was rumored to be in the hands of elite families and divinities, rather than one single ruler.


Bronze Artifact (Bronze two-sided mask, Late Shang Period (c. 1200-1050 B.C.)
Jiangxi Provincial Museum, Nanchang)


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