Archaeology Workshop, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University. October 8, 2015
In early October, a group of archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists got together at the School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography at Oxford University for a workshop organized by the Seshat: Global History Databank. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the best ways to use archaeological material as a source of historical information to test predictions about the past. In attendance were historians of the ancient Mediterranean and the Middle East, experts on pre-Columbian central America, and the Far East. Also in attendance were archaeologists engaged in work on the important Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in modern Turkey, one of the world’s most well-preserved and studied pre-historic communities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Seshat project is collecting information on a large number of societies that have existed throughout human history from around the globe covering a wide array of topics: the evolution of social complexity, the role of ritual systems in promoting social cohesion, the deep-seated origins of modern disparities in economic performance, etc. To a large extent, the project makes use of historical records. These include sources such as the writings of philosophers and the literate elite of the societies who commented on the nature of political rule or how the different social classes interact, the archives of the ruling administration detailing the procedures of governance, or scraps of information from private individuals like business contracts or deeds of sale that shed light into the inner-workings of historical economies.
But what happens when we want to explore really ancient societies, those that existed before the widespread development or adoption of widespread writing systems?