The Political Dynamics of Information Technology – Writing

Thinking about Writing and Power

Christmas time in my house was an exciting time and a time of anticipation. My mother believed that the anticipation of an event was an important part of the fun. She would write her shopping list and leave it around causally but she would write our names in regular script and her notes in the curious squiggles of Gregg shorthand. My sister and I would find the lists and know that we could expect gifts and try to guess how many gifts, but since we couldn’t read shorthand, we couldn’t tell what they were. My mother was making use of the two major reasons for writing – keeping information private from some people and keeping track of material goods.

Because my mother was an initiate in the particular way of writing (Gregg shorthand) she had power to entice and intrigue my sister and me. It gave the lists the power of mystery. So too, must the initiates of the earliest writing have had the power of mystery and knowledge that brought them close to the gods and placed them above those who could not understand the symbols and what their meaning.

As people interact with a technology they become both more dependent upon that technology and the technology informs their thinking so that their perception of their world changes. For example, the priests who could read and write began to think differently – more precisely and systemically – so that over time their self perceptions would have been different from those who were not literate. And over time, the use of the technology becomes elaborated and changed by the new world view.

This is a positive feedback loop that ratchets technological development and use. For the society too as some technology becomes common amongst the members new possibilities open up as the leaders or decision makers realize they can do new things in both the personal and the social spheres. However, the new perception may not be seen to be tied to the technology instead it seems to the people themselves that they are smarter and perhaps better than others because they perceive things in a new, different and exciting way.

For example, the use of tokens to represent a given quantity of a material thing – a cone for a given measure of oil or a sphere for a measure of grain – presents the user of these tokens with new tools for thinking. So if a person has 5 cones or spheres he or she is, simultaneously, better able to remember, to move the information from one place or person to another, and has alienated (in the sense of making separate from the person) the information as to what the thing is (oil or grain) and its quantity 5.

As with other developments it is almost impossible for us to understand “how it was before…” in this instance, how people could think without the concept of quantity in terms of number.

We can get a hint from ethnography of modern peoples. We know from ethnographic accounts of the Weddas of Shri Lanka that the quantity and the items were inseparable. The Weddas have only four numerical concepts (one, a pair, one more, and many). The way they track a pile of nuts is to make a one to one correspondence with sticks (1 nut = 1 stick) then they indicate the sticks and say they have “that many” nuts. The quantity is not an abstract concept.[1] It is likely that the tokens found at ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites in the mid-east were used similarly.

The notion of quantity being knowable, storable, and transferable is an abstraction that can come about because a person notices that though the tokens for oil and grain are different the tokens can be put into correspondence (1 cone = 1 sphere) and that this correspondence has to do with something beyond the thing being tracked. Ultimately the notion of ‘number’ then becomes abstracted from the thing being counted and can be applied to other things and manipulated separately. This, in turn, gives rise to other kinds of abstraction.

The opposite is also true, until the society evolves to accommodate or take advantage of a technology it remains a “one off” or a curiosity rather than being an important part of the social and material life of the people. The people of Çatalhöyük understood making things out of clay and stone and participated in long distance trade but they didn’t develop or use tokens. Their trade retained the ways of hunter/gatherers: simple barter between individuals or perhaps families. Their sociality was not geared toward specialization or redistribution so there was less need to develop a system of keeping track of transactions.

Historical Method: and Early Texts

Up till now we have relied heavily on archaeological evidence and ethnographic analogy. In many ways we know how limited both of those methods are. With the beginning of writing we have more material but because we live in a very literal culture we may not know how to think about early writings.

Below, I will make reference to things we know from the translation of Cuneiform tablets or the Hebrew testament of the Western Bible that refer to earlier pre-literate times. These early histories and oral traditions were collected as people began to establish city-states and empires. It is likely that the people had already begun to lose touch with their past and to look upon it as a better and different time. But we must always remember that the histories we have were all collected by the priests working in the courts of kings.

There are many motives for kings and priests to collect these histories and traditions.

First, having a standardized and authoritative history helps meld a diverse population into one people. This has been the immigrant experience in the United States though all of us, except for Native Americans, come from other countries, but our history – the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock, George Washington and the cherry tree, the American Revolution, Lincoln and his log cabin have become part of what we look to as Americans – our ‘common history’ is part of what makes us a people.

Next, if the court and priesthood collects and writes the stories they can use them to legitimate their rule. Like in current day histories the teller of the history gets to put forth the particular ‘spin’ or interpretation of events and thus change how the future will be perceived.

Also, if the stories are left un-collected and un-edited then people from the “out group” may use this omission as rallying points for overthrow of the elite. This has happened in modern times for the Greeks during World War II and tor the IRA in establishing the Irish Free State.

History, as we understand it, as a more-or-less accurate account, is a recent intellectual invention. And now, modern historians are beginning to understand that no account can be completely unbiased. Even the choice of what to include and what not to include is a reflection of the historian’s bias.

The oral traditions and stories of the early city states were collected in the courts of kings so we need to be aware of courtly bias and that the story as written down may not be the way the people initially understood it, or the way we currently understand it. In looking at early histories we have to be like detectives searching for the meaning behind the words.

Evolution of Writing

Information Limit

Before writing and tokens but after the beginning of sedentary villages, the size of the group was limited by people’s memory. People need to know who was participating and pulling their weight and who was not – they had free-rider problem.

The people of Çatalhöyük avoided the free rider problem by restricting the social and economic unit to the family so that everyone in the house knew who was pulling their weight and who was not.

The people of ‘Ain Ghazal used tokens to keep track of material goods as an aid to memory.

Writing made it possible move beyond what people could remember so people could administer a larger territory and to keep track of more people.

Though both Çatalhöyük ‘Ain Ghazal, were abandoned because their land had become depleted. There are other limits to the growth of human groups – a limit on people’s ability to keep track – the information limit of their information technology.

From Tokens to Writing

The tokens found at ‘Ain Ghazal are found throughout the mid-east.

Sometime during the 4th millennium BC, trade and commerce had increased and to the extent that a more reliable way of keeping track of material goods, than memory, even memory with the assistance of tokens, was needed. People needed something that was both more dependable and more permanent than memory.

Initially tokens were used singly, each token standing for a certain thing (e.g. a small cone = a small measure of grain, a large cone = a large measure of grain). Then people began to enclose tokens in clay envelopes or containers. The envelopes were closed up so there could be no tampering with the number of tokens inside. This left the problem of knowing what kind of tokens and how many tokens were inside so people impressed the shape of each token on the outside of the container Figure 1. If there were four cone shaped tokens standing for four measures of grain they impressed a cone on the envelope four times. Then they realized that it was possible to make one impression for the kind of token (cone) and simple marks for the quantity (4).

Figure 1  Spherical “envelope” with the shapes of tokens impressed on the outside.

Eventually people realized that the tokens could be done away with and tablets with marks for the tokens could be used instead.

By the end of the 4th millennium BCE, people were keeping accounts, using a round-shaped stylus impressed into soft clay at different angles for recording numbers. They added pictographic writing using a sharp stylus to indicate what was being counted. In the beginning writing was only for logograms (individual words or meaningful parts of words), but by the 29th century BCE people had developed phonetic elements as well. By 2600 BCE cuneiform had begun to represent syllables of the Sumerian language. Round-stylus and sharp-stylus writing was gradually replaced by writing with a wedge-shaped stylus (hence the term cuneiform) between 2700-2500 BCE. Finally, cuneiform writing became a general purpose writing system for logograms, syllables, and numbers.

Figure 2 shows the evolution of one word – sag (head) – over time. [2]

Figure 2   Stage 1 shows the pictogram from around 3000 BC. Stage 2 shows the rotated pictogram as written around 2800 BC. Stage 3 shows the abstracted glyph in archaic monumental inscriptions, from ca. 2600 BC, and stage 4 is the same sign as written in clay. Stage 5 is from the late 3rd millennium, Stage 6 is the final, simplified sign as written by Assyrian scribes in the early 1st millennium.

All non-oriental languages are based on cuneiform.

Theory: Cultural Change and Writing

The Tripartite Elite

The social form that developed with the invention of writing was a class hierarchy, led by a tripartite elite, which was composed of the priesthood who controlled information and access to ritual life, the military that controlled violence, and the executive.

The tripartite elite emerged as the dominant social structure with the rise of complex states. The executive or ruler (king/ emperor/ pharaoh/ etc.) was the decision maker and leader and gave the people a focus for their allegiance.

The information controller generally the priesthood collected and controlled information and kept track of things and people. The priests knew who had contributed and who had not. The priesthood provided both justification and solace for the people in their oppression. It gave them reasons to obey the king, told them the promises of the gods, and led the people’s ritual life.

The group that can use force generally the military held a monopoly on sanctioned use of force. They protected the people and their goods from outsiders and if necessary could be used against the populace to enforce the will of the ruler.

These three arms of dominance – the executive, the information controller and those who wield force – were, and still are, often in conflict with each other each seeking more power, influence and or wealth. But they act together out of a greater self-interest, to maintain control of the lower classes and to maintain the elite’s dominance in relation to other groups.

Rule by the tripartite elite became dominant the form of social organization throughout the world until the fall of Rome. And it is still the form of social and political organization for many people today.

Use of Organized Force

The invention of writing made war for both territory and tribute more practical. Thus, writing allowed one society in an area to become dominant. This dominance was based both on the ability to make war and to keep track of more things and people. This was useful in recording tribute paid by the people who were conquered and in keeping track of who had done military service, what supplies were necessary and where to get them. The earliest writing found by archaeologists is all about transactions.

Once groups of people fighting other groups of people, starts in a region, it rapidly becomes the norm. Andrew Bard Shmookler pointed out in the Parable of the Tribes; if one group in a region becomes warlike then all the groups in the region, regardless of their life ways (Immediate return or delayed return hunter/gatherer, early agriculture or village state) have two choices. The first choice is to remain peaceful. The consequence of this is to be conquered, killed and captured, or retreat. The other choice is to become warlike themselves and fight back which results either in becoming just like their enemies. [3]

In either event, making and defending against war becomes part of what life is. This all stems from the sense of scarcity which prompts people to decide that their lives can be more secure by taking what they want from others. And which also prompts people to defend what they have accumulated against those who would take it away.

The kinds of war a people fight is determined by what kind of scarcity they experience. This is discussed in appendix B.

Class, Food and Priests

For the first users of proto-writing and writing the use of writing is all about an involvement with material goods.  One of the most important material goods is the distribution and sharing of meat. Marvin Harris tells us that the first priesthoods were the people responsible for slaughtering and distributing meat.

In the pre-Hindu period in India, during Vedic times, cattle were slaughtered and consumed; beef was in fact one of the most important foods offered to the gods and consumed by the participants in pre-Hindu rituals. With the passage of time the Brahmans, who were in ancient times the caste responsible for the slaughter of cattle, became the caste responsible for the protection of cattle against slaughter.[4]

This butchering and distribution function was also true of the Celts and the Israelites – priests presided over feasts for whole villages and districts.[5] From the work of the previous chapters we can see this is similar to the feasts held when hunter/gatherers followed the herds of game or when a village celebrated together. But with the important difference of the beginning of a class system – a system of power and control where priests have the power to give and withhold meat – the most desired food – from the common people.

Secret Societies – Information Control

One of the consequences of class differentiation in any society is the need to keep information secret. The elites need to keep the secrets of power from the lower classes. In a small way this was what my mother was doing when she wrote her gift list in shorthand.

Some African societies of the 19th and early 20th centuries created their own writing systems scripts not based on the standard western alphabet. This gave the users of these scripts a way of keeping information secret, hidden from the colonial powers. According to their originators the scripts were given by a god who insisted on privacy. [6]

This same logic was probably in force when the early village states began to keep writing private from the lower orders. It also gave them control over the stories, rituals and traditions that governed the religion of the people. The desire for privacy was also important in the early development of writing and occurred in societies that were already developing a class structure.

Class Distinctions

To recap where we are thus far, class distinctions imply:

  • the need of members of one class to keep information private from members of other classes,
  • the use of information to maintain class and individual dominance, and
  • the implied or actual use of force

Application: Sumer and Israel

Sumer

In the region around Sumer there were a number of different peoples with different ways of getting their living, nomads, farmers, some more organized than others, some of whom had the notion of tokens, and envelopes of tokens, and trade. If they had gotten to the city stage they cities often battled others for control of land and water. For protection, people in all stages of development turned to war leaders.

In each city, the leader was responsible for maintaining the city walls and the irrigation systems. The leader led armies in war and enforced the laws. Initially the leader was a religious and secular leader – there was no distinction made between them. As government grew more complex, leadership became more formalized and hereditary. Kings employed priests and scribes to carry out administrative functions such as collecting taxes and keeping records. The ruler also had religious duties. He was seen as the chief servant of the gods and led ceremonies designed to please them.

Israel

Many of us are familiar with this same kind of progression from the Bible. First there were the twelve tribes of Israel and there were judges or leaders who emerged to tell the people God’s will and to judge amongst them but the people clamored for a King so they could be like other peoples and the prophet Samuel appointed Saul but Saul wasn’t able to establish a dynasty instead David became King after Saul. The scribes in the court explain that he became king because the Lord’s favor fell upon him. Yet the book of Samuel is an account of how David waged war against people in the region and was able to establish his kingdom and a hereditary monarchy.

This is the progression from herding peoples united by an alliance under individual charismatic leaders and finally one charismatic leader who becomes king but doesn’t manage to establish a dynasty and is followed by the founder of the dynasty.

From our discussion of method above we have to remember that the oral accounts were written down by the scribes of the royal court. Scholars believe the earliest written accounts were collected under David’s son Solomon.

Discussion

To recap, the emergence of complex states is made possible by the invention of writing. It facilitates war, makes the administration of large geographic areas possible and gives the god-king or representative of god access to knowledge and power. It helps the elites keep control over the lower classes.

Gender – from Kin to Kings

Women loose status and power in the transition from kinship organization – like Çatalhöyük – to kingships like the city-states of Sumer the birth place of true writing.

Christine Ward Gailey wrote about this phenomenon in Tonga during the 19th century. She documents the loss of women’s power and suggests that the reason for this loss is that a kingship is formed out of a collection of related kin groups. The kin groups are natural groups that have the possibility of becoming subversive to the central power of the king and women are often respected counselors and leaders of kin groups.[7]

This is supported in the ethnography of Native American tribes who were governed by a group of elders of both genders. And in what we can tease out of the writing, inscriptions, and archaeology of the earliest traditions of the people of the mid-east where writing was invented this also holds true. Although the role of women is downplayed we can get some idea of the early roles of women in the stories collected by priests and scribes serving in the courts of kings. For example the kin groups that preceded the kingships were led by women as well as by men.

Sumer

At first writing was probably a skill of upper class men and women alike. In Sumer the one of the most notable priestesses of the goddess Inanna was Enheduanna, the sister of the King Sargon, who wrote poetry in honor of the goddess.  Sargon himself was said to be the son of a priestess. Writing was taught by the priests. At first it was taught to both upper class boys and girls but over time as women began to lose status and power more and more of the students were boys.

In Sumer the gods were primarily women and women were priests of both male and female gods.

There is also a traditional story from the king list which indicates that women were rulers. It takes place around 2573 BCE before Sumer was a great city and empire. A woman tavern keeper became king and a new dynasty was founded by her as ruler of Kish.

In Later writings the position of women degraded, as the laws and reforms of King Urukagina of Lagash. He abolished the former custom of polyandry (women having more than one husband). If a woman took multiple husbands she would have her teeth bashed out with a clay tablet (note the use of tablets which were used for writing as a weapon against women). To be fair to Urukagina the same reforms exempted widows and orphans from taxation and ruled that a rich person had to pay a poor person in silver for goods purchased and that the rich person could not force a poor person to sell. [8]

These laws suggest some interesting things. First, women had taken more than one husband in the past (the use of the word former is interesting here) and some were evidently doing so still or a law would not have been necessary.  Second that taxation weighted heavily upon widows and orphans, which in turn, suggests that enough women continued to maintain their own establishments after the death of their husbands and so did not have to seek the protection of another husband or return to the house of their father. Finally, that the abuse of the poor had reached a point that the king felt it necessary to intervene.

Israel

In the Hebrew testament of the Western Bible Deborah is one of five women prophets. The book of Judges says:

Deborah, a prophetess, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading Israel at that time. She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites came to her to have their disputes decided.[9]

From this we can also see that one of the major functions of a leader was to keep internal peace by adjudicating disputes.

But a judge was also a war leader. Deborah appointed Barak to lead her troops against the Canaanite army led by Sisera. But Barak was afraid to go without Deborah. As a result Deborah sent a woman, Jael who killed Sisera by pounding a tent peg through his head as he slept. [10]

Although this story appears in the Hebrew testament for the most part women are portrayed as needing the help of god in order to become mothers.

In addition Israelites are continually portrayed as monotheists who may backslide once in a while but are basically devoted to the one, invisible God. However, Susan Niditch has shown that figurines have been found on archaeological sites through out the area. Figurines associated with fertility, and so used by women, along with other gods. They are found from the earliest times right up through early Christian times and the fall of the temple (70 CE).[11]

Discussion

In both of these accounts there is a reason for the writer to downplay the role of women since the stories were collected by members of the elite which, by the era of kings, was dominated by male leaders and a male priesthood.

Biblical scholars tell us the stories of the first five books Hebrew testament come from a number of different sources. The oldest source, J (ca 10th century BCE), was probably a scribe in court of Solomon.[12]

The Sumerian story comes from the list of kings and the laws as written down by court scribes.

So it seems that part of the function of the priesthood in an emerging kingship is to:

  • Refashion the stories and traditions handed down from the kin tradition so that they support the king,
  • Downplay the role of the individual and of women
  • Standardize the stories so that everyone can be united in what they believe and how they practice.

This last is important for any ruler who wants to create a city-state out of a group of kin group. Having similar religious stories, beliefs and myths serves to unite a people in the same way as having public ritual buildings and public rites and rituals.

Democracy, Information and War

Having just said tripartite elite organization was the dominant form of organization the reader may well ask about how I explain the Greek democracy and the Roman republic.

First the democracies of Greece and Rome are democracies of the land owning elite. Second they eventually give way to emperors. But, none-the-less that they arise at all needs some explanation.

Both arise in similar situations. The founders of both had been ruled by empires which collapsed or were overthrown. Greece was part of the Mycenaean Empire and Rome was originally a colony of the Etruscan Empire

Greece.

Runnels and Murray write of the Mycenaean Empire.

The Mycenae’s Empire was both cosmopolitan and glamorous, if rather unsophisticated. Judged by the only available standards, namely longevity and geographical spread, the Mycenaeans were the most successful of the Greek Bronze Age cultures. For more than 500 years they dominated the Aegean, waging war against their neighbors and trading with distant realms.[13]

They were immortalized by Homer in his account of the Fall of Troy. Their empire disappeared and was succeeded by a dark age from 1100 BCE until 800 BCE.  This was a true dark age. It was the decline of urbanized culture on the Greek mainland, the loss of trade with Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Egypt and the destruction of many of the artistic and architectural elements left from Mycenaean culture because the great craftsmen died and their skills were not passed on to the next generation.

Writing had been important in the Mycenaean culture but it was not practiced after the collapse of the Empire. It seems that many Greeks returned to a nomadic life in small tribal groups and entire villages were abandoned. Some people migrated to the islands of the Aegean. And possibly some of the Mycenae’s warriors became part of the “Sea People” who had contributed to the fall of the empire and continued to terrorize the area.

The fall of the Mycenaeans was so devastating that people almost completely lost the ability to write the old Mycenaean script (Linear B). By the time writing was re-established in Greece it was a different script based on cuneiform.

Victor Davis Hanson writes of agrarian development in Greece as it emerged from the Dark Age that followed the collapse of the Mycenaean Empire:

Polis values were firmly established during the eighth and seventh centuries [BCE] in many areas of Greece – primarily to serve agrarian “well-to-do, but also remarkably egalitarian” interests, that is, the interests of the hoplite georgoi.[14]

The fall of the Mycenaean Empire left the now agrarian aristocracy without protection from raiders. This gave rise to the volunteer infantry. Davis writes:

There mere threat of agricultural devastation was usually enough to draw the farmers out, to marshal their phalanx, and to try the issue decisively… the entire development of infantry battle served to perpetuate the enhanced position of the farmer within the Greek city-state.[15]

It is this ability to marshal land owners that gave the Greeks their military supremacy.  Herodotus writes of the Athenians:

So, the Athenians had increased in greatness. It is not only in respect to one thing but of everything that equality and free speech are clearly a good; take the case of Athens, which under the rule of princes proved no better in war than any of her neighbors but, once rid of those princes, was far the first of all. What this makes clear is that when held in subjection they would not do their best, for they were working for a taskmaster, but, when freed, they sought to win, because each was trying to achieve for his very self.[16]

Politically, the citizens participating in Greek democracy were related to one another by friendship, blood or family ties. As boys, they grew up together. As grown men, they served together in war, debated in public assemblies and elected one another as magistrates and cast their votes as jurors for or against their fellow citizens. In the society of the polis all free-born, land owning men were intimately and directly involved in politics, justice, military service, religious ceremonies, intellectual discussion, athletics and artistic pursuits. [17] Slaves, free-born men who did not own land and all women were excluded.

Rome

Rome was similar. It was a colony of the Etruscans There is controversy at to whether the Rome owed its entire development as a city to the Etruscans or if its development was due to a combination of Greek, Etruscan and native Latin influences. Regardless, before the Etruscans, Rome had been a primitive village of mud huts – perhaps like ‘Ain Ghazal or Çatalhöyük.

It became a city under the Etruscans and the last king of Rome, before the establishment of the republic, had an Etruscan name. He was overthrown by the leading aristocratic families. Tim Cornell writes:

The last king, L. Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud, 534-509 BC), was a tyrant pure and simple…he seized the throne by force after murdering his father-in-law Servius. He was cruel and capricious, but also flamboyant and successful. Under his rule, Rome became the dominant power in central Italy, and its prosperity was reflected the monumental development of the city… Tarquin was expelled from the city by a group of aristocrats who set us a republic in his place.[18]

Once Rome had gained its independence, it attacked their former masters which hastened the fall of their empire. Then in 474 BC, Latin Italy led by the city of Syracuse decisively defeated the Etruscans at Cumae[19] and the Roman republic, led by the patrician Senate, began its conquest of Italy and the world.

Greece and Rome

In both the Greek and the Roman cases upper class, land owing, people, who had known what it was like to be ruled by a foreign power, became independent. However, they still had the problem of how to defend themselves against external enemies. Participation in both the Greek democracy and the Roman republic was limited to male land owners and both were states that had landless common people as well as slaves and of course women. The land owning aristocracy had to maintain their dominance over the lower non-land-owning classes, women, and slaves.

This gives us a pattern. A group of well off people who know what tyranny is like and who have the problem of their own defense and the desire to enlarge their own territory and/or wealth but are unwilling to have a king put over them. They invent a way to govern themselves and wage war without a king.

Iceland

This same pattern repeats itself in later times (10th century CE) in Iceland though without the threat of an outside enemy. Iceland was settled by people who fled the tyranny of King Harald the Fair-haired who was uniting Norway. They established themselves in Iceland in extended family groups headed by a patriarch, who commanded the loyalty of free-born men and were served by slaves brought in from Ireland and Scotland.

There was no central executive power and because laws were enforced by the free-born people they were plagued by blood-feuds. They didn’t want to establish king and they were jealous of their own power and autonomy and yet knew some kind of order needed to be established. They created a council called an Alting that met every year and any free born land holding person could bring grievances to be judged. Local courts called Tings met to deal with smaller disputes. Laws were not written down, but were instead memorized by an elected Lawspeaker. The Alting is sometimes considered the world’s oldest existing parliament.

Like Greece and Rome the time of the commonwealth was a period of growth. Icelandic settlements from that era have been found in Greenland and Canada. It was also a time of poetry. The Viking sagas are the stories of the explorers and settlers’ exploits that were collected later by Snorri Sturluson. But like Greece and Rome Iceland during the commonwealth period was a stratified society

Also like Greece and Rome the time of the commonwealth ended once some landowners became more wealthy and powerful and were able to exert their own power over the group. In 1220 Snorri Sturluson became a vassal of Hákon, King of Norway and eventually, after decades of fighting, the Icelandic chieftains accepted the sovereignty of Norway and signed a covenant (the Gamli sáttmáli – Old Covenant), establishing a union with the monarchy. [20]

Discussion on Greece, Rome and Iceland

Though these three groups seem have an egalitarian organization they actually are only egalitarian for the elite members of the upper classes. Under closer examination they have much in common with each other and with the tripartite elite which is the rule of post-writing cultures.

All three are all societies with a well defined hierarchy consisting of free-born land holding upper class, free-born worker class and slaves. In all three instances, the democracy that is set up is a democracy of the wealthy and emerges because no one person or group can establish themselves at sole ruler. And in all three groups the elite have known what it is like to live under a colonial power or a tyrannical king.

It is interesting to note that with the loss of empire there may be a loss, or a decreased use of writing. In both the Greek and Icelandic cases when empire is lost writing disappeared

The Greeks stopped using Linear B with the fall of the Mycenaeans. When they were ready to build their own empire they adopted a different script one based on cuneiform. That they changed scripts suggests that Linear B was completely lost and that writing had to be re-introduced though not reinvented.

In Iceland the Tings and the Alting were presided over by a Lawspeaker and the first code of laws, as well as the Icelandic sagas were not written down until the end of the commonwealth period. This suggests that writing was lost or at least not in general use. It is also suggestive that Snorri Sturluson, who signed the pact that made Iceland a vassal state to the King of Norway, was also the person responsible for collecting and writing down the sagas. He obviously saw the value of a written record and it suggests that he knew that an era was passing and possibly, that he wanted to have his version as part of the official history of Iceland.

The loss of writing suggests that the major reason for using it remained administrative and economic. Small groups, like the men of the land owning aristocracy of Athens, don’t need to keep track with written records. It was, once again, possible to know who owed what to whom, to track participation and avoid the free-rider problem with personal knowledge.

It also seems that direct democracy works best when the social group is small and people are known to each other personally. All three of the seeming exceptions to rule by the tripartite elite are actually democracies for a small elite. As states become more complex the administrative load becomes larger then writing, hierarchy and the tripartite elite take over.

Summary and Conclusion

Looking to the beginning of the entire section on writing we see once again that people make choices based on their cultural psychologies. The people of Çatalhöyük chose to keep the egalitarian nature of the hunting and gathering life style even though were a culture of scarcity that valued material goods, had become sedentary, and eventually had become completely agricultural.

The people of ‘Ain Ghazal, starting from more or less the same position – hunter/gatherers who had become sedentary – developed a different kind of society. They based their choice on the group practice of ritual. They became specialists and distributed tasks throughout the group. They developed some kind of class structure, and eventually found it convenient to use tokens to help them keep track of goods.

The kind of social organization, we see at ‘Ain Ghazal eventually became dominant and develops further. As villages grow to cities and as cities grow larger into city-states they have more ambitions they develop a more structured class systems – the tripartite elite consisting of the information controller (priests, scribes) executive (king, emperor, pharaoh) and sanctioned use of force (police, military).

During this kind of social transition from kin groups in small villages to kingships in city-states women loose power and class hierarchy, and slavery* are established.

For empires to exist writing of some sort is necessary. Though Inter group violence – war – seems to emerge with the invention of scarcity but for empires to function they need a way to administer the empire – to keep track of people and things.

Once city-states are established they become ambitious and war against each other over land and natural resources. Once war is introduced to an area it becomes necessary for all groups to become war like or perish.

If one of those states had writing and the others did not, then, all other things being equal, the city-state that has writing became dominant in the area. They could become dominant because they were better able to administer armies, track tribute, land, supplies, taxes and service to the state. Empires cannot function without some kind of writing and the tripartite elite organizational form becomes dominant.

When Empires fail, are overthrown, or dissolve and no one person has enough power to take over the role of king the members of the elite return to a more egalitarian social form for themselves, while continuing to dominate the lower orders. But like other egalitarian social forms, this kind of rule is limited to small groups. When the ruling elite becomes large and unwieldly, then city-states and empires find it necessary to establish a kingship again.

So despite the fact that writing is a wonderful invention and one that we appreciate it is clear that it started in the service of commerce and was used, at least in part, by members of the elite to administer and wage war and control the lower classes. Even the collection of oral traditions can be used by the scribes and elites in the service of the king or ruling class and so their testimony is suspect.


* This may take the form of serfdom, villienage, and wage or economic slavery


[1] Schmandt-Besserat, D.
1992 How Writing Came About, Austin: University of Texas p.112

[2] Borger, R.
2003 Mesopotamisches Zeichenlexikon, Münster quoted in Wikipedia :http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform_script#Pictograms

[3] Shmookler, A.B.
1995 The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, State University of New York Press

[4] Spronck, B.
1987 Marvin Harris: Explains The Unexplainable, Aurora Online http://aurora.icaap.org/index.php/aurora/article/view/53/66

[5] Harris, M.
1998 Good to Eat: Riddles of Food and Culture IL: Waveland Press p.51

[6] Cooper, R.
1991 The Influence of Language on Culture and Thought, Cooper, R.L. and Spolsky, B (Eds) Mouton de Gruyter NY p.219-225.

[7] Gailey, C. W.
1988. Kinship to Kingship: Gender Hierarchy and State Formation in the Tongan Islands Texas Press Sourcebooks in Anthropology, No 14

[8] Al-Zubaidi, L
2004. Tracing Women in Early Sumer, in Ungendering Civilization, Pyburn, A (ed) Routledge

[9] Defeat of Sisera. Judges 4:4,5 New International Version

[10] Ibid. 4:1-23

[11] Niditch, S
1998 Ancient Israelite Religion, Oxford University Press NY

[12] Bloom, H and Rosenberg D.
1990 The Book of J, NY Vintage,

[13] Runnels, C. and Murray, P.
2001 Greece Before History: An Archaeological Companion and Guide, Stanford University Press, CA p.115

[14] Hanson V.D.
1999  The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization, University of California Press, Berkley. P. 124

[15] Ibid. p. 143

[16] Herodotus
1987 The History, David Grene (trans.) University of Chicago, IL. Book V:78 p.389

[17] Kreis, S
2000 The History Guide http://www.historyguide.org/

[18] Cornell, T.
1995 The Beginnings of Rome: Italy From the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (Circa 1,000 to 264 B.C.) Routledge History of the Ancient World, NY Routledge p. 120 – 121

[19] Livy Hist. II,14 & Dionysius of Halicarnassas VII, 5&6

[20] Karlsson, G.
2000 The History of Iceland, University of Minnesota Press