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What we really know about the past
This blog is meant to serve two purposes. The first is to give me practise writing for a wider audience, something I believe is missing from my academic training. This will not involve writing at a grade 4 level, but it will (hopefully!) be a straightforward discussion of ideas, written as plainly as I can. This is what i want to practise, as I think there is always a need for those who can express complicated ideas to a general, albeit educated, audience.
This blog is not meant to reach those with any specific training, but it will encourage thoughtful reading. With this in mind, I’ll make you a pact: I won’t speak to you like you’re an idiot and I will try to provide publicly accessible information so you don’t have to take my word for anything I say. In exchange I ask you to excuse the mad ramblings of a tangentially motivated half-assed archaeologist.
The oh-so-clever reader will see that I mentioned two purposes in the very first sentence, and then promptly forgot to explore number 2. This is probably because I’m a bad writer- hence the need for the primary purpose. That second purpose is still hanging in a pregnant space, waiting for elucidation. Its a simple purpose, though complicated in execution. It has do to with my love of tangents, and the problems with causation.
Their is very rarely a single causes for anything. This is not a big revelation. Most of us understand this, but we rarely talk about it. It is far easier just to name a single cause and focus on it. It is easier to offer short, concise answers than it is to acknowledge a variety of incredibly complicated inter-connected variables.
It’s like the Simpsons episode where Apu is going through his American Citizenship test.
He’s asked: “What was the cause of the Civil War?”
“Actually, there were numerous causes. Aside from the obvious schism between the abolitionists and the anti-abolitionists, there were economic factors, both domestic and internat–”
The Proctor interrupts, “Wait, wait… just say slavery.”
“Slavery it is, sir.”
We are all guilty of just wanting someone to say slavery. Simple answers are better. Easier to understand and fit in our world view.
Perhaps you have seen this:
Funny, and you know…. horrible….. a small joke at the expense of thousands and thousands of humans who lived a short, painful existence, but that’s kind of what the internet is for! Right 4chan?
Okay….. don’t go to that site. Moving on….
The thing is, the statement in that image up there…. it’s not true.
Or maybe it’s not.
Last January (2010), a few news agencies, including the BBC and Reuters, reported that ‘new tombs’ discovered beside the pyramids of Khufu and Khafre contained the graves of workers responsible for the construction of the Great Pyramids. They also did not look like the tombs of slaves. They were well constructed, located close to the pyramids, and contained evidence that the people buried din them were well-fed and healthy. One such tomb even contained a written reference to the interned as the ‘friends of Khufu’.
So wait? Slaves didn’t build the pyramids?
Not according to some researchers.
Interesting and ground breaking right?
Nope. It’s not even a new idea.
Besides being reported long before 2010, the idea of labour as a kind of state tax has been used to explain numerous ancient monuments. The construction of Maya temples for example. The practise of feeding groups of workers in exchange for their labour a common cultural practise. In fact anthropologists refer to it as a Labour or Work Feast. This practise is well documented in Indonesia, Ethiopia, and many other places.
So, the Pyramids were not built by slaves, but rather some ‘happy-to-help” Egyptians who were well-treated and well-fed?
Maybe it was a social obligation, one that they were not compensated for, but would be socially punished if they didn’t participate. Like the social pressures involved in the Finnish Talkroot or a good old fashioned barn-raising.
But at least they weren’t slaves, right?
It’s possible they were. Slavery is well document in many cultures. The Chinese had slaves. The Aztecs. The Egyptians likely did too. The thing is, the idea of slaves is a tricky one. We tend to think of slaves in the sense of African American slaves and southern plantations. But slavery, though common place, takes many different forms.
In Central Mexico a captured warrior was made a slave, but not their children. They could also be freed if they were treated badly. Or even if they escaped, according to a 1860 Spanish scholar. In China, slaves were treated well, even equally in some respects. The same goes for slavery by Indigenous groups on the Northwest coast of North America. They were not free by any stretch of the imagination, but according to an Englishman named John R. Jewitt (who was a slave himself), they were well treated.
Then there is the idea of Corvée, or labour required of low status people, imposed on them by a ruler of some kind. Sucks really, but it is technically not slavery, as the people are not property. It has also has a long history of use in Egypt, right up until the late 1880s.
So maybe the guys who built the Great Pyramids were free, and happy to provide a work force in exchange for being well-fed and housed. Maybe they were owned- but taken care of. Perhaps they were socially or cultural obligated to become a “friend of Kahufu”.
So which one is it?
The truth is we don’t know.
And the reason we don’t know is complicated.
First, we run into a common fallacy: False Dichotomy.
The pyramid builders don’t have to be slaves or free citizens. Maybe they were both, or maybe neither.
That sucks as an answer right?
Human culture is dynamic, adaptive and variable. It is also subject to our own personal interpretations. A Marxist archaeologist is going to view the relationship between the ‘friends of Khufu’ differently than an Processualist.
Don’t worry about those terms, they’re just jargon. (There I go, already breaking my promises!)
In reality, no two archaeologists are going to view Khufu’s Super Friends in the same way. And that’s fine. It’s how we get new ideas.
So, if you like to view modern civilization as the pinnacle of cultural evolution (which is fine by the way- if maybe just a little Victorian) you probably tend to imagine life in the past as “nasty, brutish, and short”.
Or maybe you’re disenfranchised with western ‘civilization’ and prefer to view the past as a paradise we have abandoned for the Luciferian promises of technology and easy living (also fine- though maybe just a little Puritan). In that case you might like the idea that human beings don’t need to stand on the backs of the weak in order to build something as monumental and everlasting as the Great Pyramids.
You are both probably right. Which is kind of a cheat. But don’t stop arguing about it.
These debates help us ‘peel back the onion‘, as Richard Feynman would say. I think we should all try to follow in the intellectual footprints of the great Feynman, and admit we don’t know if that intellectual onion even has a central core under all its layers.
Nor should we care.
Just keep peeling.
N.B: Is it wrong that I’m happy I got to write about Richard Feynman, The Great Pyramids, and the Simpsons into my very first post? Yes? Fine. Screw you- I’m going to keep doing it and being happy about it. Because I’m right and you are wrong.