Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 6: Art and war

One of the consequences of greater material wealth was the introduction of organised state violence into human affairs. Naturally, war was introduced to art, too — to better understand the art of war, we must begin by examining the nature of war itself.

The main controversy regarding war is whether or not it is an inevitable feature of human societies. The idealist response is to attempt to write warlike behaviour into our DNA, thus making it inescapable. One way of doing this is to stress our close genetic relationship with other animals. But crude analogies with other species, even our closest ape relatives, can only be taken so far — gorillas and chimpanzees are as peaceable as they are combative, and human evolution diverged from the great apes six million years ago. Our evolution owes much more to tool-making and social cooperation than it does to blood-soaked competition. Marxists accept that ‘human nature’ includes the potential for violence among our many behaviours, but we also have the potential to be peaceful; this only raises the question of how these potentials are encouraged by particular conditions. It does not follow that warfare is inevitable.

The ‘killer ape’?

The extreme view is that humans are a species of ‘killer ape’. This was proposed in the 1950s by the Australian anthropologist Raymond Dart with his theory of the ‘predatory transition from ape to man’, in which human evolution was predicated on violent competition. It was later built upon by the American anthropologist Robert Ardrey in his book African Genesis, where he wrote, “man had emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer” whose “natural instinct is to kill with a weapon”. This is the fundamental assumption behind William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies: that civilisation is a veneer that conceals bloodthirsty instincts. In fact, the idea is not, and has never been, taken seriously by anthropologists, as Dart and Ardrey relied upon the misinterpretation of tool and fossil evidence.[1]

Nonetheless the theory that humans have an innate propensity to violent conflict is useful, even necessary, for reactionaries and has persisted to the present, for example in the work of reductive socio-biologists. This persistence gives us absurd statements like this from war historian John Keegan:

Warfare is almost as old as man himself, and reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.[2]

That ‘almost’ is telling. The reality is that for the vast majority of human history there is little evidence for violence between humans at all, let alone war [3]. This is equally true of art. As R. Dale Guthrie pointed out:

Paleolithic art shows no drawings of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Paleolithic skeletons of murderous violence. There is one Magdalenian skeleton from Le Veyrier, France, whose skull is marked with what appears to be a blow. A poorly preserved skull from Boil-Blu, France, likely of Aurignacian age, has a small flint embedded in the temporal bone. However, there are no Paleolithic ‘after-the-battle’ mass burials of warrior-aged males, which are common among later tribal groups.

Is it possible that what we have learned so thoroughly from history — the inescapability of war — is not the whole truth? Is it possible that warfare is not an inherent part of our entire past? That is what I propose.[4]

The period at the end of the Paleolithic during which humans created art lasted at least 30,000 years. So if warfare is so innate, why is it never depicted, especially given that it does appear later on? Its absence is extremely significant, as the Paleolithic was our formative period as a species and generally accounts for all but the last 10,000 of Homo sapiens’ years of existence.

Marxism does not dispute that the potential for aggression and violence is part of our nature as animals, and it would be foolish to claim that nobody in the Paleolithic ever fell victim to it. But there is a difference between acts of murder and warfare. There is no archaeological evidence of warfare before the Mesolithic, nor is war depicted in art, the only record left by preliterate peoples. This poses an insurmountable obstacle to theorists of the right. Even Lawrence Keeley, who dedicates a book to insisting that primitive society was not peaceful [5], offers no unambiguous evidence predating 10,000 years before the present.

If human society has not always practiced war, what changed in human society to introduce it?

The road to war

Paleolithic band societies subsisting from day to day had little material motivation to fight one another. On the contrary, when they were enjoying a small surplus, it was in their interests to share it with other groups, because those groups might help them in return when the circumstances were reversed. This is not to posit a blissful Golden Age, or to claim that violence between groups or individuals never happened in the Paleolithic; it is simply that the systematic group violence characteristic of warfare was unrewarding. There are images in Paleolithic art that represent hunting but that is very different to war, and we see nothing of the violence between human groups that is so prominent in the art of urban societies.

The key change that introduced warfare into human society was an increase in resources, which led to armed competition over them. The Neolithic Revolution produced great stores of food, valuable materials and long-distance trade goods that were worth fighting over. At the same time, it became possible for sedentary people or societies to own land, and therefore also to have it taken from them. This wealth required defending through the construction of forts and city walls — security was another of the various causes of the concentration of people and resources into towns. As early as 8000 BCE, stone walls two metres thick and protected by a trench were built around Jericho. It is in the Neolithic period that we begin to find evidence for systematic violence between communities, for example at Site 117 at Jebel Sahaba, Egypt dating to around 12,000 years ago, or the mass grave at Talheim in Germany dating to about 5000 BCE (though this evidence is not undisputed).

During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, warfare becomes a subject in art for the first time. Rock art in Arnhem Land in Australia from about 8000 BCE shows groups of human combatants. The rock art of the Spanish Levant, which dates to somewhere on the border between Mesolithic and Neolithic, features stick-like figures engaged in various activities including what look very like battle scenes, such as the confrontation between two groups of archers in the cave at Les Dogues.

Archers from Les DoguesImage of apparent combat between groups of archers. From Les Dogues in the Ares del Maestre, Spain. 8000 BCE or later.

As well as possessing a motivation for warfare, agricultural societies with food surpluses, highly skilled specialists, large populations, and strong social organisation had acquired the material basis for sustaining it. The surplus allowed the support of professional soldiers, and advanced techniques equipped them with armour, chariots, bronze weapons and siege engines. About 5000 years ago on the steppes of Asia, horses were tamed and soon became the tanks of ancient warfare. It is important to note however that technological advances were not causes of war: they simply made killing more efficient.

The military historian Richard Gabriel concluded: “This period saw the emergence of the whole range of social, political, economic, psychological, and military technologies that made the conduct of war a characteristic element of human social existence.”[6]

It would be wrong to claim that no hunter-gatherer society ever engages in warfare. Whereas anthropologists tend to subscribe to the view that warfare emerges with the development of surplus wealth through agriculture — also the traditional Marxist view — recent research has provided evidence of warfare between some hunter-gatherer societies. This is taken by the right as proof that anthropologists have been deluded and that peaceful human societies have indeed never existed. A response to this was offered by the anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, who follows archaeologist Robert L. Kelly [7] in observing that we may differentiate between ‘simple’ hunter-gatherer societies, which are “nomadic and egalitarian”, and ‘complex’, which are socially stratified and share features with sedentary societies, such as storing food, higher populations and permanent settlements.

Evidence suggests that the simple tends to precede the complex, and archaeologically speaking, complexity is very recent... Warfare is rare among simple egalitarian hunter-gatherers and pervasive among complex hunter-gatherer societies.[8]

Our thesis that competition over resources was a major cause of warfare still stands. Hunter-gatherers go to war for a variety of reasons, including slaving, territorialism, rights to fishing and hunting, and population pressure, most of which are ultimately conflicts over resources.

An additional defence of the materialist position was made by the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson in his excellent article The Birth of War:

It looks as if, all around the world, what has been called primitive or indigenous warfare was generally transformed, frequently intensified, and sometimes precipitated by Western contact... Indigenous warfare recorded in recent centuries cannot be taken as typical of prehistoric tribal peoples.[9]

Conflicts that have been recorded by modern anthropologists, most notoriously the disputes among the Yanomami people of the Amazon recorded by Napoleon Chagnon, can not be taken as straightforward evidence of “the natural human condition of eons past” because external interference has altered social behaviour. Ferguson concludes for example that the Yanomami conflicts “seemed to have been fought over access to steel tools and other goods distributed by Westerners”. Extrapolations of the results of contemporary ethnographic research into a generalised ‘human nature’ must be made with appropriate caution and with regard to all the available evidence.

Marxist theory, which has traditionally rooted warfare in the surpluses of the Neolithic Revolution, can acknowledge that hunter-gatherer societies also experience war. The Neolithic Revolution is especially significant, however, because the societies that did not embrace it were marginal to the broad development of human history. The existence of armed conflict between modern ‘complex’ hunter-gatherer societies does not prove its existence among the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, so the argument remains that war is not an innate human behaviour but historically conditioned.

Class and war

Some of the roots of class society lie in the resolution of disputes and crises. To take the example of Sumer: whereas decisions used to be taken by councils of elders, around 2800 BCE the Sumerians began to elect a lugal or ‘big man’ with special executive powers in order to resolve particular crises, such as wars. The more endemic warfare became, the longer the lugal remained in power and gained authority through his influence over the military and other social forces. Once he began to hand his position down to his children, monarchy had been born. Later, these monarchs sought to increase the extent of their wealth and prestige through success in war. As Childe wrote, “military conquest is one means of assuring the accumulation of a surplus of wealth.”[10]

Command of material resources and the promotion of war went hand-in-hand, therefore, with the development of class society. This was summarised by Engels:

The military leader of the people, rex, basileus, thiudans — becomes an indispensable, permanent official. The assembly of the people takes form, wherever it did not already exist. Military leader, council, assembly of the people are the organs of gentile society developed into military democracy — military, since war and organisation for war have now become regular functions of national life. Their neighbours’ wealth excites the greed of peoples who already see in the acquisition of wealth one of the main aims of life. They are barbarians: they think it more easy and in fact more honorable to get riches by pillage than by work. War, formerly waged only in revenge for injuries or to extend territory that had grown too small, is now waged simply for plunder and becomes a regular industry. Not without reason the bristling battlements stand menacingly about the new fortified towns; in the moat at their foot yawns the grave of the gentile constitution, and already they rear their towers into civilisation. Similarly in the interior. The wars of plunder increase the power of the supreme military leader and the subordinate commanders; the customary election of their successors from the same families is gradually transformed, especially after the introduction of father-right, into a right of hereditary succession, first tolerated, then claimed, finally usurped; the foundation of the hereditary monarchy and the hereditary nobility is laid.[11]

Leaving aside Engels’ rather crude comment about ‘barbarians’ who don’t want to work, this is an accurate account. So it is unsurprising that monarchs take pride of place in the works of art celebrating success in war.

Pharaoh Ahmose I fighting the HyksosPharaoh Ahmose I fighting the Hyksos.The Pharaoh is portrayed several times larger than both his enemies and his own troops, emphasising his exceptional status. You can see a similar image of Tutankhamun in battle here.

The new state structures created by class society provided the basis for the organisation and promotion of warfare, and saw a shift of allegiances from clans to state. This was assisted by the rise of organised religion, with the priesthood providing ideological justification for conflict by asserting the aristocracy’s divine imperative. If the cosmic order declares in favour of a war, who will dare to challenge it? No ruler explicitly declares a selfish class interest as their motivation for a war — the toiling majority who make up the soldiery stand to gain little or nothing from it, so the reasons are presented in terms of collective security, benefits and necessity. This practice continues today.

Another aspect of state structure was a coercive apparatus of which soldiers were an essential part — as Engels put it, “a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people’s own organisation of themselves as an armed power.”[12] Lenin famously commented:

Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc, at their command.[13]

In Mesopotamia and Egypt we see the first armies in history. An inscription records of Sargon of Akkad that “5,400 warriors ate bread daily before him”, a probable reference to a standing army. With such armies the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and many other cultures began creating the first empires. In China, evidence like the defensive walls at Taosi dates war to at least the third millenium BC, and war consolidated the early dynasties. In Mesoamerica, some Olmec iconography may represent war, but the evidence is clear from 700 BCE with the fortifications, weapons and war images of the Zapotec.

In this context, neighbouring hunter-gatherer societies were either conquered or had to adopt the new mode of production themselves in order to survive.[14]

Marxism is sometimes misleadingly described as thinking that war is a result of class society (by Wikipedia, for example). In reality, Marxism recognises the totality of conditions — resources, dynasticism, religion and many other things play a role. Class is one of the most fundamental factors, which in turn conditions others. But it is contrary to Marxist theory to assert that war, or any other thing, can be reduced to class alone. Otherwise, explaining the existence of war in stratified but non-class hunter-gatherer societies would be impossible.

The art of war in early civilisation

We cannot of course survey the depiction of war across all cultures, so I will simply look at a few important examples. We have already mentioned the Standard of Ur, whose ‘war’ panel depicts chariots and troops from an unknown campaign.

Standard of Ur, war panelThe ‘war’ panel from the Standard of Ur. Sumer, ca. 2500 BCE.

Sumer, never a unified state like Egypt or Assyria, was in a constant state of competitive warfare, with each city fighting one another or making temporary alliances for control of access to water, or to the systems of dams and irrigation canals that had been dug in the fertile valley. The prisoners taken in war became slaves. On the bottom strip of the Standard, four-wheeled wagons drawn by horses ride over the bodies of their enemies, in the earliest known depiction of the martial use of the wheel; on the middle strip, we see troops in metal helmets herding prisoners; and on the top strip, the king stands amidst his forces as prisoners are led to him.

Another of the early artistic testaments to war in Mesopotamia are the steles. We have referred already to the Victory Stele of Narâm-Sin. Another is the Stele of the Vultures, a stone monument built in about 2450 BCE for King Eannatum of Lagash. At this time, the dominant rivalry in Sumer was between the city states of Lagash and Umma, who fought one another over rights to irrigation from the Tigris. The Stele celebrates a victory of Lagash over Umma, with the monarch himself in a wagon brandishing weapons.

Stele of the VulturesSection of the now fragmented Stele of the Vultures, made of carved limestone. Photo: Eric Gaba.

The Stele shows us that the Sumerians fought in disciplined formations — phalanxes with an eight-man front. In other words, these were trained, professional soldiers.

Among Mesopotamia’s most impressive illustrations of war are the extraordinary friezes of the Assyrians. At its height, the Assyrian empire controlled an area from Egypt and the Mediterranean to the entirety of Mesopotamia. The kings of Assyria ordered impressive sculptures to record their battles. Success in war was a matter of great pride to them, as Georges Roux observed:

Scores of reliefs, obviously intended to illustrate the written descriptions that ran endlessly on orthostats, on steles, on monoliths, on mountain rocks and around statues, represent soldiers parading, fighting, killing, plundering, pulling down city walls and escorting prisoners.[15]

The Assyrians mastered the art of the relief, a technique which they may have acquired from the Hittites of Anatolia. Using slabs of stone either imported or mined from local hills, Assyrian artisans used great precision and an excellent sense of design to carve decorative friezes into the walls and corridors of their buildings. Although highly stylised, they are full of movement and closely observed detail. The scenes depicted concentrate upon the king and his exploits in hunting and war, and function as a kind of propaganda to inspire admiration and fear in the ruled.

Assyrian battle sceneAssyrian battle scene. Photo: Kaptain Kobold (flickr).

Roux adds that alongside this parade of kings, slayings and humiliations of enemies, another kind of subject matter can be seen:

In this series of pictorial war records without equivalent in any country, among this almost monotonous display of horrors, must be set apart some reliefs which have no parallel in the inscriptions: those that show soldiers at rest in their camps and under their tents, grooming horses, slaughtering cattle, cooking food, eating, drinking, playing games and dancing. These little scenes, teeming with life, give the tragedy of war a refreshing human touch. Through the ruthless killer of yore emerges a familiar and congenial figure: the humble, simple, light-hearted, eternal ‘rank-and-file’.

The few surviving examples of mural painting, such as those from Tell Ahmar, suggest that the Assyrians were skilled too in this technique, which would have decorated almost all public buildings. These reliefs were not surpassed until those of ancient Greece, but the parallel reveals one of the Assyrian works’ most striking characteristics: none of the many human beings depicted in these friezes possesses individuality. Every face, whether of a king hunting lions or of a dying soldier, is identical — characteristic of the static art of early despotism.

The Assyrians built a big military empire, but their own turn came in 612 BCE, when their capital city of Nineveh was so completely destroyed by the Babylonians that it never recovered. None of the conquering peoples who marched one after another across the Fertile Crescent were able to impose their rule for more than a few centuries.

We could look at countless further examples of war in the art of ancient civilisation, from the prisoners of war depicted on murals at the Maya site of Bonampak to the Terracotta Army of China. What these works have in common is they are the product of a particular set of material conditions predicated upon agricultural surpluses and class-based state societies.


The idea that we cannot help fighting each other may seem convincing after the brutality displayed by Homo sapiens in two World Wars, Vietnam, etc. But many other species of animal kill each other much more frequently than humans, who, in view of their supposed aggression, are in fact extraordinarily co-operative and sociable. The existence of peaceable communities like the Mbuti of the Congo belie the claim that all humans are warlike (again, with the caveat that to be without war does not mean to be without violence altogether). The key consideration is how certain of our potential behaviours are encouraged and directed by society.

As with all theory, our explanation of war depends upon the political position of the theorist. Supporters of capitalist society like to suggest that war has always existed, because it is part of ‘human nature’ to compete violently with one another. From this perspective, one avoids confronting war’s roots in class, inequality and imperialism. But one would then have to argue that warfare ‘must’ have existed in the Paleolithic and that the missing evidence has either perished or is still awaiting discovery. Needless to say, this is of no scientific use. We could as easily claim that the ancient Egyptians bred brontosauruses and that we just haven’t found the bones yet. In order to understand history and human society as they actually are, we need to take a more scientific approach. For Marxists, there is no ideological obstacle to accepting the actual historical record.

Contrary to those who see us as ‘killer apes’, the evidence — or absence of it — encourages the conclusion that warfare is a comparatively very recent development based on concrete changes in material conditions. Overwhelmingly, warfare arises as a result of conflicts over resources, whether among some complex hunter-gatherer societies or in urban societies with large surpluses of food and wealth, more technologically efficient ways of killing people, and above all a ruling class that was the main beneficiary from organised violence. The legacy of art supports this.

As the practice of war is historically conditioned, there remains the possibility that further changes in those conditions could eliminate war altogether. This is only utopian if one believes in a fixed and eternal human nature unaffected by its environment.

[1] See for example Boyce Rensberger, ‘The Killer Ape is Dead’ (1973).
[2] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994).
[3] This may of course simply be down to the incomplete fossil record, and the difficulty of interpreting both the causes of injuries and the purposes of tools — but the fact remains. A number of skeletons from the Mesolithic and Neolithic, by contrast, have been found with injuries from projectiles and other instruments.
[4] R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005).
[5] Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilisation (1997).
[6] Richard A. Gabriel, The Great Armies of Antiquity (2002).
[7] Robert L. Kelly, The Foraging Spectrum Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (2007).
[8] Douglas P. Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace (2007).
[9] R. Brian Ferguson, ‘The Birth of War’, Natural History July/August 2003.
[10] Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[11] Engels, Chapter 9 ‘Barbarism and Civilisation’ from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Vladimir Lenin, from Chapter 1 of State and Revolution (1917).
[14] This is the probable reason why the hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into the present tend to be those who live in isolated locations, such as the island of Australia or the Amazon rain forest.
[15] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised 1992).

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 5: The role of the artist

The advent of civilisation had important consequences for the role of artists within society. We should begin by comparing the artists of the Urban Revolution with those of the Paleolithic, but this is difficult because we know so little about Paleolithic artists and their social role. It is likely that they were completely integrated into their communities, as I argued in a previous article, where I said: “Art in hunter-gatherer society, besides being the product of labour, was and is a social activity in which all participate. For these people, dances and storytelling were not solitary acts of contemplation or self-expression but rituals that bound together their communities... The community was paramount, for in these times being cast out of it literally meant death; binding communities through culture gave adaptive advantage.”

Although society in primitive communism shared tasks much more than in subsequent modes of production, artists may to some extent have been excused from food-gathering in order to develop and apply their skills. In a subsistence economy this would not be taken lightly, which suggests that artists enjoyed a special position in the community, if not necessarily a privileged one.

The artist after the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions

After the Neolithic Revolution, the expansion of production led to the creation of new artistic needs and the emergence of artists as specialists who practiced their skills as a trade. Arnold Hauser wrote of this transition:

The maker of pictures of spirits, gods and men, of decorated utensils and jewels emerges from the closed milieu of the home and becomes a specialist whose trade is his livelihood. He is no longer either the inspired magician or the merely nimble-fingered member of the household, but the craftsman, carving sculptures, painting pictures, shaping vessels, just as others make axes and shoes, and he is hardly more highly esteemed than the smith or the shoemaker.[1]

As we have seen, early civilisation produced works of art and architecture on a greater scale than had ever been possible before: in architecture, palaces, temples and pyramids; in sculpture, colossal stone images of gods and kings; in painting, huge and complex decorative schemes portraying every aspect of life, both real and mythological. These required considerable organised labour. The artist specialist, freed from food production by the agricultural surplus, was now employed in workshops that gradually grew up around the temples, busily producing conventionalised works to a very high standard. Many works therefore were collective products made by several artists.

Concentrations of labour were not necessarily an entirely new development. The sheer height of some Paleolithic parietal art means that scaffolding or platforms of some kind must have been used, and at Lascaux one can see holes in the walls for such platforms — this is evidence that a certain level of social organisation was required. The art historian Paul Johnson even proposed that during the Magdalenian period there may have been some kind of studio system:

[Assistants] mixed the paints, some of which had to be used quickly before they dried, filled the lamps or held the torches, put up and secured the scaffolding, and made the brushes, from twigs, feathers, leaves and animal hairs, to the satisfaction of the master. These assistants graduated into painters themselves. It is not going too far to speak of a studio system as the basis of Magdalenian art... The quality and consistency of the best painted work in caves, and the evidence of the time, expense and skill required to produce them, does suggest that artists needed the collective support of something very like a studio.[2]

Such systems, if they existed, would not have compared to the workshops of ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where pottery, glass, metals, textiles and other materials would have been worked with the greatest skill by groups of trained specialists. This specialisation flowed from, and was dependent upon, the economic and technical innovations of the Neolithic, as illustrated by Gordon Childe writing about evidence from Ur:

Goldsmiths can now make wire and solder; they produce delicate chains and elaborate ornaments in granulation and filagree work. The copper-smith is master of the hammer and of casting, and is probably employing the cire perdue process. And so he can provide his fellow-craftsmen with a variety of delicate and specialised tools — axes, adzes, chisels, gouges, drills, knives, saws, nails, clamps, needles and so on. Jewellers can now pierce the hardest stones and engrave them for seals. Sculptors are beginning to carve vases and statuettes out of limestone and even basalt. The carpenter, besides boats, chariots, and couches, fashions harps and lyres. Naturally there are professional musicians to play upon them; these actually take their places in the tomb beside their royal masters.[3]

Artistic skills had never been so diverse and sophisticated. At the same time, because they lived upon the social surplus, these artists had become dependent for their livelihood and sustenance upon those who controlled food distribution, namely the privileged classes.

Class society

The Neolithic and Urban Revolutions also saw the concentration of land, wealth and power into the hands of a small minority of aristocrats, who used luxurious and monumental architecture and artworks to demonstrate both their power and their high level of culture. Size and luxuriousness signalled the wealth of the state, its ability to deploy mass labour, and the legitimacy of its ruling class. It was wise to invest some of the booty from conquests on public works, and public ceremonies and rituals — such as the New Year festival in Babylon — were useful for orchestrating popular support. Some monarchs also liked to fill their palaces with looted artifacts, demonstrating the range of their power and linking it to a venerable tradition. The royal palace was the finest residence in the city, host to music played on the harp and lyre, recitals of epic poems, and performances of hymns.

The art of ancient society expressed the worldview of that society, but above all “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” (Marx)[4]. Despite technological innovations, the growth of trade and contact with other civilisations, the hierarchy was conservative and needed to make its predominance seem eternal, leading to an emphasis on stasis, permanence and a geometrical sense of order. Art was to be kept within strict conventions.

The consequence of class society for artists was a change in their social role. Whereas Stone Age art served the entire community, artists now owed service to the monarch, and their work had to flatter and immortalise him or her in paint and stone. Artists carved friezes depicting monarchs’ victories in battle; engraved stelae with their declarations; sculpted their stylised likenesses for statues; wrote and performed songs in their palaces; designed and stitched their costumes; built their tombs, painted their walls, and crafted grave goods to be buried alongside them.

Two portraits of kings. Left: Stone panel of the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III, ca. 728 BCE. Right: Colossal statue of Ramesses II from the temple at Luxor; photo from the Flickr account of u07ch.

This does not mean, of course, that all art was directed to glorifying the aristocracy. Pottery, ceramics, figurines of household gods, murals in homes, songs and so on continued to be produced in their thousands that were heavily influenced by social conditions but made no overt reference or homage to the ruling class. Nonetheless the aristocracy had a control over resources and labour completely disproportionate to its numbers: the ultimate expression of this was perhaps the Great Pyramid of Khufu, which used 2.3 million blocks of stone weighing an average of 2.5 tons each, and took twenty years and thousands of labourers to build, simply to provide a tomb for the monarch. The most magnificent artistic achievements of early civilisation — the pyramids and ziggurats, the colossal statues, the gorgeous palaces and temples — were dedicated to the kings who embodied the ruling class, and to gods whom those kings used for legitimisation.

The artists themselves, by contrast, were considered manual labourers, a status that would not be challenged until the Renaissance. Hauser argued that the privileged classes “made the artists into their helpers but not their allies.”[5] The Egyptologist Jaromir Malek observed:

The social standing of craftsmen and artists was only slightly better than that of peasants. They were entirely dependent on the establishment to which their workshop belonged and were not free to leave, although they were able to use some of their time to make and sell goods as a form of private enterprise. There were no independent artists who made their living solely by selling their works.[6]

Malek writes about ancient Egypt, but this would be a fair generalisation for the early civilisations. This does not mean that nobody in the ruling classes became an artist, or that skilled craftspeople could not command respect: some ancient Egyptian artists could afford their own tombs. It also did not necessarily apply to all the arts equally: the ancient Greeks for example assigned Muses to poets and musicians, but did not consider painters and sculptors worthy of the honour.[7] But broadly it is more accurate to think of them as ‘artisans’, i.e. skilled labourers, rather than ‘artists’ in the modern sense. This is not intended as any kind of slur — Bronze Age artists produced works of art of extraordinary quality.

The social versus the individual

As servants of their noble patrons, artists were not expected to ‘express their feelings’ as individuals, although this does not mean that no feeling was expressed. For most of art history, it was highly unusual for artists to sign their work, or for their names to come down to us at all (exceptions include the Attic vase painters or the Egyptian sculptor Thutmose). Because it represented the most central, and sometimes sacred, beliefs of the community, the work was more important than the craftspeople who made it. Whereas technical excellence in the reproduction of established conventions was highly valued, personal expression was not. Ancient artists often seem to have held attitudes towards the fate of their work which are hard to understand today — the surrendering of pieces of fabulous craftsmanship to tomb burials being an obvious example.

This corporate attitude, which persisted until the Renaissance, is very different to our modern conception of the artist, whose creative motivation comes from within him- or herself. That view is heavily influenced by bourgeois individualism and thus ultimately conditioned by the capitalist mode of production — i.e., it must be seen historically. Hauser observed:

The compulsion under which the artist has to work in [ancient] society is so relentless that according to the theories of modern liberalistic aesthetics all genuine cultural achievement should have been fundamentally impossible from the outset. And yet some of the most magnificent works of art originated precisely here in the Ancient Orient under the most dire pressure imaginable. They prove that there is no direct relationship between the personal freedom of the artist and the aesthetic quality of his works. For it is a fact that every intention of an artist has to make its way through the meshes of a closely entwined net; every work of art is produced by the tension between a series of aims and a series of resistances to their achievement... Even in the most liberal democracy the artist does not move with perfect freedom and unrestraint; even there he is restricted by innumerable considerations foreign to his art.[8]

Marxists certainly desire complete freedom for art. But history has demonstrated that artists can produce outstanding work without political or creative freedom — we have no evidence of attempts by artists to épater le pharaon! In reality, a contradiction has always existed between freedom and compulsion. This is a complex question, which we shall explore another time.


Taking the norms of one’s own time as absolutes is always a mistake. Artists are located in history, and the work they create is profoundly conditioned by social and productive forces.

The early phase of civilisation was hugely inventive, prompting some of the most important innovations in history. But the pace of change in the ancient world was still far slower than our own. The ready availability of cheap labour gave little incentive to increase efficiency, and the value placed upon continuity by the hierarchies of class society put a brake on challenging new ideas. Thus it was possible for a society like ancient Egypt to produce art in the same style for three thousand years.

Nonetheless, the advance from hunting and gathering to sedentary agricultural society was one of the most profound in history and created a new relationship between artists and society. We must wait until the Renaissance before we see a comparable shift in the role of the artist.

[1] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).
[2] Paul Johnson, Art: A New History (2003).
[3] V. Gordon Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[4] Marx and Engels, ‘Proletarians and Communists’, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).
[5] Hauser, The Sociology of Art (1974).
[6] Jaromir Malek, Egyptian Art (1999).
[7] We see something of this attitude to this day in the snobbish distinction between ‘art’ and ‘crafts’, a distinction that would not have been understood by the ancients.
[8] Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol. 1 (1951).

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 4: Writing and literature

One of the many ground-breaking inventions of early civilisations was a method of recording spoken language: writing. This began as an indispensable bureaucratic tool, but was quickly put to cultural use. It is only because of writing that early literary works like the Epic of Gilgamesh have survived.[1]

Systems of writing were created in several cultures independently of each other. The various controversies over what constitutes early writing and what does not, such as the Vinča symbols excavated in the Balkans, needn’t concern us here. The first undisputed writing system seems to have appeared in Mesopotamia in around 3500 BCE. Egypt may have developed its own script independently, or it may have borrowed the idea from Mesopotamian cuneiform — there is a debate about which came first.

Two other centres of independent development were China (about 1200 BCE) and Mesoamerica (500 BCE). The Indus Valley civilisation (in what is now Pakistan) used a script from about 2600 BCE, but the surviving examples are only used for short inscriptions and they have never been deciphered.


Abstract symbols were being painted on rock as early as the Paleolithic, but there is no reason to believe that they represent a system of writing.

Peña EscritaPaleolithic rock art from Peña Escrita in Spain. Stylised imagery such as this may be one of the precursors of writing. Photo: Rafaelji.

Writing emerged in the wake of the Neolithic Revolution, and this is no coincidence. Advances in productivity and social organisation meant that large quantities of food and goods were being produced, stored and centrally distributed. Goods were being traded with other cities and the early state required tribute and taxes. Organising these transactions for populations of thousands of people demanded something more reliable than the memories of administrators. Priests needed to know who had paid their dues to the temple; storekeepers needed to record incoming and outgoing goods; farmers, craftspeople and merchants wanted to manage trade and debts. Needs varied across cultures, but in a more complex society, a record-keeping system was required to store information in permanent form.

The scripts that eventually resulted were built on the basis of already existing pictographic and other systems including Neolithic proto-writing. For example, in China, geometric symbols that may prefigure writing have been found at sites like Damaidi and Jiahu; and the Sumerians used clay tokens in different shapes to count agricultural goods and manufactures.

Writing in Mesopotamia

The early Sumerians put these tokens into clay vessels to keep them safely together, but hit the problem that once the vessel was sealed, there was no way to know what tokens were inside. Their solution was to inscribe pictures of the tokens onto the surface of the vessel to show its contents, and in time the tokens themselves became unnecessary. The Sumerians then devised the method of making marks in tablets of clay using a reed stylus, then baking the tablets to make the records permanent.

To begin with, their script used pictographs (aka pictograms), or simple representations of particular objects or people, together with numerical signs. By the middle of the third millenium BCE, the pictographs were becoming more and more abstract, coming to represent sounds instead of symbols, or a mixture of both. As Gwendolyn Leick explained:

The principle by which a form of writing based on symbols without phonetic characteristics may be converted into a system of writing that can also reflect parts of speech (phonemes) is quite simple. It is based on the fact that, in every language, there are words with different meanings that sound the same, such as ‘bee’ and ‘be’ or ‘dear’ and ‘deer’ in English. In Sumerian, many words were apparently monosyllabic, and quite a few consisted of just one vowel sound. The word for ‘water’ was ‘a’... The archaic sign for water consisted of two parallel wavy lines...

In Sumerian, any time the sound ‘a’ needed to appear in writing, two wavy lines were used, and context would make it clear whether it was meant to be read as ‘water’, a grammatical component or a syllable in a compound word. This principle, known as homophony, was the main structural device in the adaptation of the archaic cuneiform system for specific languages.[2]

Around 3000 BCE, we see the appearance of a cuneiform script which is one of the first forms of true writing. Cuneiform was written using a triangular stylus that left wedge-shaped impressions — the name comes from the Latin cuneus or ‘wedge’. This form of writing made neat marks without the ridges pushed up in clay by a pointed stylus, and was much faster as it required fewer strokes. It was to spread throughout Mesopotamia and was later adopted for their own languages by other peoples such as the Babylonians and Persians.

Sumerian cuneiformPart of an inscription in Sumerian cuneiform, 26th century BCE.

At around the same time, the use of writing was expanded to include not just accounts and contracts but historical, literary and other subjects. This was a remarkable turning point. For millennia, stories had been a uniquely oral phenomenon, recited or sung by poets and passed from the memories of one generation to the next, undergoing subtle changes in the process. Now, ancient stories could be preserved. Hundreds of thousands of tablets have survived from ancient Mesopotamia, thanks partly to the excellent preservative properties of baked clay and partly to their being collected into libraries, for example at Sultan Tepe and the Assyrian cities of Nineveh, Assur and Nimrud. The literary works preserved include The Legend of Narâm-Sin, The Curse of Agade and the Tale of the Poor Man of Nippur. The most important however is the cycle of poems that belong to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This heroic story exerted a powerful influence upon later myths, such as the Bible, until the age of Greece and Rome.

Another interesting work is the Nin-me-šara, one of several hymns by the Akkadian priestess Enheduanna. Enheduanna is noteable as the first female writer in history, and the first writer to be known by name.

Writing in Egypt

The Egyptians believed that writing was a gift from the god Thoth — the term ‘hieroglyphs’ comes from the Greek hieros, meaning ‘sacred’, and glypho, ‘inscriptions’. Although the idea of writing may have been imported from Mesopotamia, hieroglyphs were not. As in Mesopotamian cuneiform, hieroglyphs represented a mixture of pictographic and phonetic meanings. As in Hebrew, only consonants are written, which means that the vowel sounds provided today don’t necessarily tell us how the words were originally spoken.

As well as hieroglyphs, which were used for inscriptions in temples and tombs, the Egyptians used a ‘hieratic’ script for everyday uses such as letter-writing and keeping accounts.

Egyptian hieratic scriptEgyptian surgical text in hieratic script dating to 1600 BCE, written on papyrus.

This was simply a handwritten form of the hieroglyphs, which became increasingly cursive until its replacement in around 600 BCE by a ‘demotic’ script which bears very little visual resemblance to hieroglyphs at all. The meaning of Egyptian scripts was a puzzle until the discovery in 1799 of the Rosetta Stone, a granodiorite stele that conveniently listed a text in both hieroglyphic and demotic scripts alongside a translation in a known language — ancient Greek.

The text on the stone is a decree regarding taxes and temples, but alongside the scientific, administrative and other texts preserved from ancient Egypt there are also works of literature. These are of many kinds, both religious and secular, dating from the Old Kingdom to the period of Greek and Roman dominance, after which the ancient period of Egyptian civilisation died away. There are mythological stories like the Legend of Osiris and prose works like The Story of Sinuhe. There are religious texts, such as inscriptions found at pyramids, tombs or coffins, or the Book of the Dead. Poems that have survived range from the Pharaoh Akhenaten’s Hymn of the Sun (also known as Hymn to the Aten) to intimate love poems. There is also a wealth of proverbs, fairy tales, plays and songs — even an ancient version of the story of Cinderella. The works that have survived are evidence that the Egyptians created an outstanding literary tradition.

The Egyptians exploited a new material which was much better for writing than clay tablets. The papyrus plant was used for various things, such as mats and even boats, but by laying strips of the plant’s pith side by side and beating them flat, the Egyptians created a smooth surface which could be written upon with ink (giving us our modern English word ‘paper’).

Writing in the Americas

The only part of the Americas to develop writing independently was Mesoamerica, a region stretching from Mexico down to Nicaragua and Costa Rica, which was home to a number of pre-Columbian cultures such as the Maya and the Aztecs. Like civilisation itself, writing arose considerably later than in Africa and Asia.

Like Egypt, the Mesoamerican cultures used pictographs, many of which bore a stylised resemblance to real objects. The first examples appeared in the Olmec culture, who created giant stone heads of their rulers which, although facially very similar, were marked with unique symbols. These symbols are thought to be a kind of name-tagging — it seems that Mesoamerican writing was first used for political-religious purposes rather than accounting. A more substantial set of symbols was discovered on the Cascajal block, a small stone tablet engraved with 62 signs resembling those used in Olmec art — if genuine, this would be the earliest writing system found in the Americas.

Cascajal blockSymbols on the Cascajal block, ca. 900 BCE. You can see a photo of the block here.

Around 500 BCE, writing systems were created by various Mesoamerican cultures, principally the Zapotecs and Maya. These were well established by the late Pre-Classic period (400 BCE–200 CE). Several other cultures, such as the Mixtecs and Aztecs, acquired writing systems in the Classic and Post-Classic period which lasts until about 1500. The most developed of these scripts was the Mayan. Not only was this the longest-lasting writing system with a tradition lasting 2000 years, it is one of the most aesthetically striking scripts, and has the additional advantage of having been deciphered. Maya writing is hieroglyphic, organised as glyph blocks arranged on a grid, and is a highly complex mixture of logograms (representing a word or morpheme) and syllabograms (representing sounds).

An unusual case was the Incas of what is now Peru, who despite being a highly developed urban culture seem not to have developed a system of writing (the so-called ‘Inca paradox’). Archaeologists have yet to account for this — suggestions that the Inca system of knots tied into strings, called khipu (see image here), represent a form of writing are not yet widely accepted. Nonetheless the Incas had an oral tradition, some of which was recorded after the Spanish conquest.

The arrival of Spanish invaders had terrible consequences for Mesoamerican writing. Associating native scripts with paganism, the conquistadors systematically collected and burned manuscripts. Colin Renfrew wrote, “in the Americas, although there was indeed literacy among the Maya and the Mixtec of Mexico, the surviving texts are so few, after the severities of the Christian missionaries and the Inquisition, that the full light of history cannot be said to shine until the arrival of the conquistadores themselves.”[3] But the devastation was not total. Native Americans continued to write their own languages using the Latin alphabet. This helped to preserve many literary works which would otherwise have disappeared; others survived because they were engraved as inscriptions onto stelae or other structures.

Dresden codexPart of the Dresden Codex. Created in the 11th or 12th century CE, it is believed to be a copy of an older work.

Mesoamerican writings cover religion, astronomy, royal lineages, history, and a range of mythic and other literary works. One of the highlights is the so-called Dresden Codex, a Mayan astronomical text that may be the oldest known book of the Americas.

Literary texts that have survived from pre-Columbian times include the mythological narratives of the Popol Vuh, created by the K’iche’ (also written Quiché) Maya; the Aztec poems attributed to Nezahualcoyotl; the Mayan dance drama Rabinal Achi; and the Quechua-language poems of the Incas.

Writing in China

Chinese myth holds that writing was invented during the reign of the Yellow Emperor by a historian named Cangjie, who had the idea of imitating animal tracks to form written symbols. It first appears in China with the ‘oracle bones’ found at the prehistoric cemetery site of Anyang. Dating to the Shang dynasty at around 1200 BCE, the bones were inscribed with pictographic characters used to try to divine the future. These characters represent a developed script and are the ancestors of modern Chinese writing, revealing a continuity unique in the world.

Oracle bone, Shang dynasty. Photo: Dragonbones.

The development was not however straightforward and unilinear. Several scripts existed simultaneously in different parts of China, and even related scripts had idiosyncracies of their own. A key moment came in 221 BCE when China was unified under the Qin dynasty, whereupon the script used by the Qin was adopted for official writing.

Chinese script up until the 1920s was logographic, meaning that each character represents a spoken word. These characters, known as hanzi, began as pictures of the object referred to, and gradually became more and more stylised, while characters were sometimes combined to create new ones. Today there are over 50,000 characters, but for everyday use one only needs to know about 3000 to read the majority of texts.

The early Xia and Shang dynasties have no literature as such. Recorded literature begins in China during the Zhou dynasty from ca. 1027–256 BCE. In this period were written the Five Classics, a Confucian canon of poetry, history and ceremonial texts. One of these is the Shi Jing, sometimes translated as the Book of Songs, a collection of 305 poems that may have been composed as early as 1000 BCE. One of the four sections is about everyday peasant life, and another two about court life. Another of the Classics is the famous I Ching or Book of Changes, a system of divination dating to 800 BCE.

Writing and class society

Writing was a response to, in Childe’s words, “the peculiar practical needs of the urban economy” [4], and went hand in hand with a bureaucracy of scribes and administrators. It was also a social invention: its signs, and the meanings attached to them, were conventions accepted across a society. This required a system for teaching those conventions — i.e. schools — and these, as institutions within class society, were tied in to the class structure. A Sumerian who trained as a scribe in the edubba or tablet house, a school attached to the temple, was doing more than learning a set of signs. He was acquiring a place among the privileged classes.

Also, scripts like the Mesopotamian and Egyptian were complex systems that mixed pictographic and phonetic signs together, using special markers and dependent upon context. A full understanding of the complexities of these systems was limited only to high-ranking scholars, as Childe pointed out:

Under these conditions writing was inevitably a really difficult and specialised art that had to be learned by a long apprenticeship. Reading remained a mystery initiation into which was obtainable only by a prolonged schooling. Few possessed either the leisure or the talent to penetrate into the secrets of literature. Scribes were a comparatively restricted class in Oriental antiquity, like clerks in the Middle Ages...

Writing was, in fact, a profession, rather like metallurgy or weaving or war. But it was a profession that enjoyed a privileged position and offered prospects of advancement to office, power, and wealth. Literacy came thus to be valued not as a key to knowledge, but as a stepping-stone to prosperity and social rank.[5]

He goes on to quote an Egyptian document that illustrates the ancient attitude to literacy, in the form of wise advice to a young person deciding on their future:

Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind and be a magistrate of high repute. The scribe is released from manual tasks; it is he who commands... Do you not hold the scribe’s palette? That is what makes the difference between you and the man who handles an oar.

This privileged status accorded to scribes seems to have existed in all early literate societies — in some cases to the point of jealously handing literacy down from generation to generation within families.

Elitism features not only in the act of writing but in literary production too. Although literacy had a huge potential for education and passing on knowledge, ancient society was not willing or able to introduce it on a mass scale. Only much later did literacy become widespread, and even today, the production of literature continues to be dominated by people from privileged classes.


It is interesting to reflect that probably 99% of the humans who have ever lived were unable to read or write, and never had any need to. Yet the usefulness of the invention was such that it spread across nearly every civilisation. Where it was not invented independently, it was adopted and adapted, each culture shaping it in its own way. Childe commented:

The invention of writing... really marks an epoch in human progress. For us moderns it seems significant primarily because it offers an opportunity of penetrating to the very thoughts of our cultural ancestors, instead of trying to deduce those thoughts from their imperfect embodiment in deeds. But the true significance of writing is that it was destined to revolutionise the transmission of human knowledge.[6]

At the same time, it shows the unevenness of such processes: the lack of writing in cultures like those of the Inca and Moche, which could otherwise boast all the social and productive achievements of early civilisation, shows that mechanical readings of the base-superstructure relationship are never adequate. Reality is always more complex.

Further reading

Read Mesopotamian texts here and here.
Read Egyptian texts here.
Read the Popol Vuh or a selection of pre-Columbian poetry.
Read the Shi Jing or Book of Songs.

[1] How one defines ‘literature’ is of course a complex question in itself, which we will discuss another time.
[2] Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (2001).
[3] Colin Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[4] Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists leads surge in popularity for leftwing books

I reproduce an article originally published in The Guardian.

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
Saturday 2 May 2009

If you want a fast-paced thriller to read this bank holiday, then Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not going to fit the bill. Yet the bulky novel, once known as “the painter’s bible” and written in 1910, is leading an unlikely surge in the popularity of classic leftwing titles.

Sales of the book received a boost last year, following a star-studded Radio 4 serialisation of the work that featured Bill Bailey, Timothy Spall, Johnny Vegas, Paul Whitehouse and the MP John Prescott in a cameo role. This year, in the midst of dire economic forecasts, the book is still confounding expectations, peaking at number six in the Amazon Movers and Shakers list.

“It has really surprised us,” said Simon Winder, a publishing director at Penguin. “We sold many more than usual of our Penguin Classics edition last year, with sales going up from about 3,000 a year to more than 5,000, and this year it is carrying on the same way. It is incredible for such a serious classic. And there are several editions out there from other publishers, too.”

One of the key chapters in the novel, which tells the story of a group of painters and decorators in Edwardian Hastings, is called ‘The Great Money Trick’ and sees the hero, Frank Owen, try to demonstrate the hollowness of the capitalist system to his workmates. Ironically, the author, who died of tuberculosis three years before the book was published in 1914, now appears to be pulling off an unexpected ‘money trick’ of his own.

Last month, on the anniversary of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ publication, the actor Ricky Tomlinson caused another spike in sales when he praised the book on BBC1’s One Show. The star of The Royle Family, a former builder and a political activist, believes Tressell’s message is still relevant. “Nothing’s changed. People are still getting killed in the building industry. There’s hardly any safety work, hardly any hygiene conditions. Toilets are as rare as rocking-horse shit,” he has written.

Tressell was the pen name of Dublin-born Robert Noonan and his book is based on his own work as a signwriter and decorator. In the summer of 1910 Noonan left Hastings for Liverpool, intending to sail for Canada, but he was admitted to hospital and died early the next year. The heavily edited novel that was eventually published three years after his death had lost much of its revolutionary politics but sold quite well for a while. The aftermath of the slaughter of the first world war and the publication in 1918 of an even more stringently edited edition made the book popular once again among the working classes.

The historian Tristram Hunt, who edited the Penguin Classics edition, argues that the novel, although long-winded, will always appeal to those whose lives are dominated by the search for work: “It takes a bit of work, there is no doubt about it, but it is a rewarding read and at a time when more and more people are going to be unemployed or lacking work, people are turning to this book again. It is a celebration of work and of the self-fulfilment work can give,” he said.

Hunt, who has just published a biography of one of the architects of communism, Friedrich Engels, points out that copies of Tressell’s work are borrowed at least as often as they are bought. The writer Alan Sillitoe, he said, once recounted being handed a copy in Malaya by a Glaswegian radio operator who told him it “won the ‘45 election for Labour”. Hunt sees the fresh hunger for Tressell’s work as “part of a wider trend”. “There is lots of other leftwing theory out there which is selling well, and we are also seeing sellout meetings about communism being held at Birkbeck college.”

Other titles doing well at the moment include Signet Classics’ Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine, and Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism by Ronald J Pestritto, from American Intellectual Culture.

“People are craving something,” said Winder. “We have really noticed it with our Great Ideas series too. We are suddenly selling oodles of them. An author like Ruskin, for example, is suddenly very popular. We seem to have accidentally radicalised a whole generation of students, which wasn’t a deliberate plan at all. We are still selling things like Rousseau’s The Social Contract and the Communist Manifesto too. There is no way you would have thought this five years ago — it would have been a joke. There is thirst for political ideas, particularly from the left.”

The manuscript of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been in the care of the Trades Union Congress since 1958 and can be seen on the TUC History Online website.