Big book, big evil

When James Scott publishes a book, I buy it; I’ve learned a lot from his earlier work, especially Domination and the Arts of Resistance (Yale, 1990) and Seeing Like a State (Yale, 1997), and I’ve also learned a lot from the critical responses to these works (like this 1990 article in American Ethnologist by Lila Abu-Lughod). Scott’s most recent book is entitled Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale, 2017), and I was excited to get it, because most of my research is also about early states, albeit a small group of early states that are, in the grand scheme of things, small potatoes. Nevertheless, I was happy to see in the index that my little corner of archaeology is mentioned in the book. This is what Scott has to say about the Mycenaeans, in the context of a general discussion about states whose inhabitants “voted with their feet”:

As the state was weakened and under threat, the temptation was to press harder on the core to make good the losses which then risked further defections in a vicious cycle. A scenario of this kind, it appears, was partly to blame for the collapse of the Cretan and Mycenaean centralized palatial state (circa 1,100 BCE). “Under bureaucratic pressure to increase yield, the peasantry would despair and move away to fend for themselves, leaving the palace-dominated territory depopulated, much as the archaeological evidence suggests,” Cunliffe writes. “Collapse would follow quickly.”

Cunliffe is the eminent archaeologist Sir Barry Cunliffe, and in a footnote Scott cites Cunliffe’s Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD 1000 (Yale, 2008), p. 238. In that four-page (!!!) section of his book, Cunliffe explains the “collapse” of the polities of the eastern Mediterranean circa 1200 BC as a systems collapse. Cunliffe doesn’t use footnotes, but in his “Further Reading” for this section, he cites for the Aegean N.K. Sandars’ The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean (London 1978), and for the Levantine coast, a 1987 article by Mario Liverani, and a 1995 article by L.E. Stager.

Okay, so there are lots of problems here:

  1. The was no “Cretan and Mycenaean centralized palatial state,” but a patchwork of small, independent states (most all Aegean prehistorians agree, but there is a minority of dissenting voices).
  2. These states didn’t collapse circa 1100 BCE, but circa 1200 BCE.
  3. There is zero evidence that Mycenaean states pressed the core harder to make good on losses which risked further defections. One can posit such a scenario for the Mycenaean world, it is true, and people have posited something similar (such as Sigrid Deger-Jalkotzy in the Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age [2008]). But these are scenarios that have been developed not from empirical evidence, but as general hypotheses that might explain the “collapse.” Some evidence is consistent with this scenario, but I wouldn’t say that the majority of Aegean prehistorians would agree with Scott’s statement. The fact is, our evidence for how hard the palaces pushed their populations is primarily textual, and we don’t have the time depth to understand how hard the population was being pushed (relatively). Absolutely, most people would agree with Oliver Dickinson that “The view that the palaces’ tax demands and forced labour on their construction projects bore heavily on their subjects requires better demonstration than has so far been offered.” (The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age, p. 41).
  4. If you want to talk about the collapse of the Mycenaean palaces, you do not cite Barry Cunliffe, unless you are in some kind of contractual obligation to cite only books published by Yale University Press (this is meant as a joke, but honestly I can’t for the life of me figure out why Cunliffe is cited here otherwise). Barry Cunliffe is an eminent archaeologist, but as our undergraduates all know by the time they’re done taking our courses, some sources are better than others, and a coffee-table book that covers nine millennia in 478 pages without any footnotes is not authoritative. Cunliffe himself, I imagine, would not be comfortable with his book being used in this way (in his preface he apologizes for his selectivity). Cunliffe is not an expert in Mediterranean prehistory, either; his main interests are European archaeology in the 1st millennia BC and AD. And this is illustrated by the fact that Cunliffe’s authoritative source is a book that is a classic that is, however, very much out of date. This isn’t a knock on Cunliffe; his work is generally very good. But it is also general, and I wouldn’t be happy if an undergraduate in my Aegean Bronze Age class cited him on the causes for the Mycenaean palatial collapse. (For that, you should read Eric Cline’s 1177 BC [Princeton, 2014] as well as Oliver Dickinson’s The Aegean from Bronze Age to Iron Age [Routledge, 2006]).

Why am I so worked up about this? I’m not opposed to such big histories necessarily. Callimachus might have been; my title comes from his dictum μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν, better translated “a big book is a great evil” (fr. 465 Pfeiffer), probably in a poetic context. But such books do need to be carefully researched and vetted by experts, especially if arguments are meant to be supported by historical and archaeological evidence.

I do think that it is important that Scott get these details right. It’s fine to theorize that many states collapsed because small losses were compounded by the center, pressing its core harder. I’m sure that this has happened in the past. But Scott’s claim here is that his theories have empirical backing. Otherwise there would be no point in invoking the Mycenaeans or citing Cunliffe; you could just assert it, probably with some adverb like “surely” or “no doubt” that would set off the BS alarm bells in my brain. But if you’re going to claim that your work is empirical, then you need to be right, or at least, you need to be up-to-date. Some day in the future I suppose Scott could be proved correct, but it’s hard to understand how that might be when he’s essentially relying on ideas about the Aegean Bronze Age from the 1970s. Looking at the pages where Scott talks about the Greek world, I see misunderstanding after misunderstanding.

At some point in the future, I’ll read all of this book. Scott is smart, and I’m sure that it will give me good ideas. But Scott is not an archaeologist: he’s trained as a political scientist. And I don’t see any evidence (from the stuff that I know) that he’s bothered to learn enough to know what he’s talking about. As political science, maybe it’s useful. As history, I fear that it is bunk.

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