Posted by: Johan Normark | May 21, 2009

Non-Mayanist quote of the day: on ecological explanations for change in pottery

“trade disruption with natural resource-producing hinterland areas during a Dark Age (caused by depressed ecological conditions and climatic conditions) forced the shift in pottery design rather than the introduction of the potter’s wheel and the need for less skilled labor that caused the lowering of quality, as Braudel (2001) has explained along anthropogenic grounds.” (Chew 2007:27)

Sing Chew proposes that World Systems have undergone several Dark Ages. As one example he uses a simultaneous change in design of pottery in Egypt and Mesopotamia around 3200 BC.  The design went from being colourful to becoming plain and utilitarian. Braudel suggests it had to do with mass production and with the introduction of the potter’s wheel. However, the potter’s wheel was only introduced to Egypt around 2600 BC. In order to explain the simultaneous change Chew argues that trade disruptions with resource producing hinterlands during the Dark Age (that had been created by ecological and climatic conditions) forced the change in pottery design (p. 27).

I am not an expert on a Mesopotamia and Egypt but I feel this ecological explanation is squeezed into Chew’s made up arborescent model. Why cannot there be a change in taste that is wide spread and need these changes have the same origin? I am not all against World System theory (as I once was), but it is far too generalizing and it too often seeks explanations on just the World System level, not from the connected parts. Indeed, there are processes going on that we may not understand if we only focus on a small area, but by using a World System as the basis for a study one does not acknowledge that the World System just is a high, but less dense, level of assemblage. There were connections between different areas but these were not the most necessary connections and I doubt that changes in ceramic design indicates ecological degradation (but I am not suggesting that ecological degradation did not occur).

Chew, Sing C. (2007). The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation. Lanham: Altamira Press.



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