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Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations [Paperback]

Norman Yoffee
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Book Description

13 Jan 2005
In this ground-breaking work, Norman Yoffee shatters the prevailing myths underpinning our understanding of the evolution of early civilisations. He counters the emphasis in traditional scholarship on the rule of 'godly' and despotic male leaders and challenges the conventional view that early states were uniformly constituted bureaucratic and regional entities. Instead, by illuminating the role of slaves and soldiers, priests and priestesses, peasants and prostitutes, merchants and craftsmen, Yoffee depicts an evolutionary process centred on the concerns of everyday life. Drawing on evidence from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and Mesoamerica, the author explores the variety of trajectories followed by ancient states, from birth to collapse, and explores the social processes that shape any account of the human past. This book offers a bold new interpretation of social evolutionary theory, and as such it is essential reading for any student or scholar with an interest in the emergence of complex society.

Product details

  • Paperback: 292 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (13 Jan 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0521521564
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521521567
  • Product Dimensions: 25 x 17 x 1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 163,145 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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'Myths of the Archaic State clears away the cobwebs of an earlier generation of anthropological thought and, in its strongest moments, points toward a new configuration of global history.' Science

'Norman Yoffee identifies a series of what he terms 'myths' in archaeological thought, and then proceeds to demolish them one by one, using an astonishing array of case studies, from Mesopotamia to Chaco Canyon. His book is provocative, inspirational, transformative, and so full of small (and weighty) gems that it is a pleasure to read.' Katharina Schreiber, University of California, Santa Barbara

'A highly stimulating book that expounds a clear line of argument while maintaining an entertaining line of discourse. Yoffee has written a superb and exciting book that will provoke thought and discussion wherever it is read.' Roger Matthews, Institute of Archaeology, University College London

'Norman Yoffee has written an elegant witty, and substantive critique of neo-evolutionary theory in archaeological anthropology.' Philip Kohl, Wellesley College

'I strongly recommend Myths of the Archaic State to anyone interested in social evolution.' David Webster, Pennsylvania State University

'Profoundly interesting volume.' Bruce Trigger, McGill University

'… a very valuable and up-to-date contribution to one of the major research topics in the history of humankind.' Journal of Comparative Human Biology

Book Description

Norman Yoffee challenges the classical archaeological theory that a state's evolution reflects universal forces by presenting more complex models for the evolution of civilizations. A ground-breaking work that challenges the definition of the prehistoric state, explores questions of agency and examines the new direction that archaeological theory is taking.

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There is an irony in beginning a book on the "evolution of the earliest states and civilizations" with an apology for using the term "evolution." Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
By RobW
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I found this book really helpful in its consideration of the transition from relatively egalitarian societies to ones that are economically stratified and socially differentiated. Largely theoretical discussion is complemented by some detailed analysis, e.g. concerning the status of female roles.

There are many provocative statements that prompt further thought, e.g. "Wealth makes a reversion to what went before almost unthinkable" (page 40). A longer work would, no doubt, expand on its argument in support of such assertions. However, I appreciated the brevity and sharpness of the work as a whole.

Very strongly recommended.
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Amazon.com: 3.2 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent discussion of recent change in archaeological theory of state development 19 July 2007
By Atheen M. Wilson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a superb book, but it really isn't quite what I had expected from the title. I had expected a more cut and dried account of early state development in a variety of world venues as extracted from recent archaeological studies. Certainly the more recent technological developments in the procedural side of archaeological endeavors has produced abundant new results, as the new research on Mellart`s old site at Catal Hoyuk indicates.The Leopard's Tale: Revealing the Mysteries of Catalhoyuk

Instead the author Norman Yoffee, a professor of Near Eastern Studies and Anthropology at the U of Michigan, gives a very thorough account of what has transpired with respect to the theory and practice of archaeology particularly in the field of interpretation of research results. His focus, as the title indicates, is on city, state and civilization development, and he presents considerable amounts of new information on a variety of cultures.

To begin with, in his chapter entitled, The Evolution of a Factoid, he covers neo-evolutionism and processualism in archaeology and discusses what these theories attempted to do and why they failed. He notes that archaeology has been, at least in the US, a sub-department of anthropology in most university settings. According to Professor Yoffee, this history created a perceived need to justify archaeology as a "legitimate" subject of study, particularly scientific study, by adopting some of the theories and research modes of the parent department. While this was productive of a healthy and vigorous field of enquiry, especially in the first half of the 20th century, over the years since that time, new questions which are not well answered by the old theories have arisen which challenge how the past is interpreted and demand a new framework to explain them.

To illustrate both the issues that highlighted the need for restructure and his own suggestions for a new theory, the author looks at various interpretations of social/political development as viewed from earlier perspectives and why they do not work. He notes especially a general failure in definitions, particularly in that of pre-state societies formerly termed "chiefdoms." He also clarifies rudimentary definitions of "state" and "civilization," particularly the difference between them and what each says about a particular society.

In proposing his own theories of state development and archaeological interpretation of data, ie. social evolutionary theory, he uses information drawn from the Mesopotamian region (of which he has personal knowledge), Egypt, the US Southwestern and Mississippian cultures, the Maya, and early China. This makes for a colorful and enjoyable illustration of the author's theme. His use of Santa Fe Institute's multidisciplinary research on complex systems and self organizing criticality, etc. was particularly interesting, as I had read a recent book Complexity: Life at the Edge of Chaos which included archaeology in the SW in this way. His citation of Per Bak and his "sandpiles" how nature works: The Science of Self-Organized Criticality (Copernicus)certainly suggests that the author is very well read and enjoys a cross-disciplinary perspective. (From the latter, since other specialties can be daunting to tackle, one can presume he is also both curious and courageous.)

My favorite chapter is "New Rules of the Game." In the section "The Game of Archaeological Neologisms," the author notes that it has become fashionable to create new "types" of archaeological enquiry. As he writes: "The basic rule of the game was to proceed down the alphabet adjectivizing the common noun 'archaeology.'" He cites a number of examples, including "analytical archaeology," "behavioral archaeology," "cognitive archaeology," "demographic archaeology," "economic archaeology," etc. and notes that, "Having found a suitable modifier to 'archaeology,' the idea was to write a book on the neologism, hold a conference on it, or at the very least contribute an article to a jounal with the neologism as its title (pp. 181-182)." Since I have discovered this trend myself in my reading, I found his assessment very amusing and aware. My favorite of this type of book is Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods.

Those who are looking for a procedural book will be disappointed, since the author specifically states that this is not possible in so short a volume nor is it his intension. One book that covers this topic from the perspective of the geology of riverine sites, which are the focus of some of the author's illustrations, is Alluvial Geoarchaeology: Floodplain Archaeology and Environmental Change (Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology), which, though fairly technical, covers considerable information regarding fluvial sites, their interpretation and their problems. Some of the type sites in this book are the same as those used by Professor Yoffee. In general, texts on procedures in archaeology are difficult to recommend, because the discipline has gotten very specialized; as the author himself notes, it requires more than one book to cover the subject.

For the non-professional interested in the topic of how cities, states and civilizations developed, this might be more than you bargained for. While the author does an excellent job of discussing the developmental trajectory from "bandishness"--to use his term--to state, his main objective is to clarify theory. Certainly if you have not studied anything of the areas that he discusses, the book will make an acceptable starting point, since he describes his type models adequately but not dauntingly so. Furthermore, the presentation on theory will give the beginner a better feel for what can and cannot be said about a past society from its material remains, something not always clearly noted in more general discussions on ancient society.

For those who, like myself, have taken archeology and anthropology some time ago and want an update, this is a superb book, since it covers a lot of ground. It makes one realize how much even the Past has "changed." I will make a point of saying, however, that the author has an incredible vocabulary, both professional and personal, and there are places where a good dictionary will be helpful--and this from a person who is considered to have a good vocabulary herself!

For the student, the book certainly provides a good overview of the changes in archaeological theory over the past century. The type societies are well described and the bibliography is extensive and thorough. Because of the nature of the topic, however, many of the citations are drawn from 20th century books and journals (including one from my history master's advisor, Tom B. Jones). With some exceptions, the range of topics in the bibliography focus, as would be expected, on the author's main theme, so they may or may not be a good starting point for a course research paper; whether they are or not will be determined by the subject of your paper.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Myths of the Archaic State 14 July 2011
By Lauren Astafan - Published on Amazon.com
This book was required reading for my Archaeology of Complex Societies class in Spring 2009. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Professor Yoffee's book and felt that it was an excellent choice for the course content. He is funny and amusing, all the while explaining the theories in an easily intelligible style that made it easy to read. I unfortunately sold this book back at the end of the semester and regret the decision because I would like to reference it for the Humanities class I will be teaching in the upcoming school year. If this is going to be a textbook for you and you enjoy the subject matter, I doubt you'll be disappointed. As for casual reading, it would be an ambitious project without much background in the subject matter, but it would be highly enlightening and worth the effort.
16 of 38 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Misleading Title 29 May 2007
By John A. Maxwell - Published on Amazon.com

It contains very little material on it's nominal subject; almost all of the content is of the form "So-and-so theorized such-and-such, but This-other-fellow contradicted him, saying this-and-the-other."

Actual facts, raw data, etc. are very sparse.

If a history of the academic squabbles in the fields of archeology and historic anthropology is what you're after, by all means, get this book; I'm sure you'll be delighted. If you're actually interested in the evolution of early civilization, look elsewhere.
2 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's an Okay Textbook 21 Nov 2009
By Francesca Vanderbilt - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I had to buy this for a class, and we certainly used it, but I never used it for reference material for papers--too dense--unfriendly writing style.
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