World-System Research and Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors (Part I)

By Juan Manuel Tebes
Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina
Universidad de Buenos Aires
January 2011

World-System Research, Transregional Flows and the Ancient World

World-System theory developed out of the interest in explaining the complexities of the rise of market capitalism in the modern world (Wallerstein 1974). In its pristine version, the Wallersteinian model focused attention on the relationships between a developed, manufacturer core and the underdeveloped, raw-material-providers peripheries. In short, the core obtained low-cost raw materials from the peripheries, manufactured them, in turn selling them again to the peripheries; this was a totally asymmetrical relationship beneficial for the core. This model was slowly yet comprehensively adopted by scholars studying the ancient world (Rowlands, Larsen & Kristiansen 1987; Chase-Dunn & Hall 1991; Chase-Dunn & Anderson 2005; Frank 1993) and, more precisely, the ‘Uruk’ / ‘Mesopotamian’ (Algaze 1993; Edens 1992), ‘Nilotic-Levantine’ (Flammini 2008) or ‘Mediterranean’ World-Systems (Kardulias 1999). However, it was clear from the beginning that the ancient World-Systems were structured quite differently than their modern counterparts. Most remarkably, Kohl pointed out that the technological gap between ancient cores and peripheries was not as large as in modern times, while ‘peripheral’ societies had more options in front of the cores (Kohl 1987: 16).

Understandably, studies on the Bronze-Iron Age World-System have focused particular attention on the flows of goods between the constituting parts, fueled by the expansion of the interregional exchange networks (Sherratt & Sherratt 1991; 1993; 1998; Sherratt 2003). Since transregional flows of goods are one of the most noticeable features in the archaeological assemblage, the influence of trade on the local societies’ socio-political structures can be easily overemphasized, leading to what has been called a ‘new diffusionism’ (Renfrew 1986: 6; but see Champion 2005: 9-10). Stein expressed the view of many in warning against the trend of uncritically applying a theory to ancient societies for which the original model was never projected and in placing interregional interactions and culture contacts as the raisond’être of most social changes (Stein 2002: 903). In order to overcome these flaws, Stein proposed an alternative “Distance-Parity Model” (Stein 1999) combined with Cohen’s (1971) and Curtin’s (1984) “Trade-Diaspora Model”. Moreover, flows of the kind not easily reflected in the archaeological evidence have been traditionally set aside, and investigation about the flow of cultural, religious, political and philosophical ideas is normally absent in World-System research – with important exceptions, such as Crowley’s research on the transference of artistic motifs in the Bronze Age (Crowley 1989) and the studies on elite emulation in the Levant during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages (Higginbotham 2000; Flammini 2010).

However, Word-System theory is a model that can accommodate the growing evidences of interregional contacts between areas far apart in antiquity, in periods as early as the late fourth millennium BCE (Algaze 1993), as well as providing a framework for long and short-term socio-political fluctuations inside the World-System’s boundaries (Frank 1993). More to the point, long-term processes of emergence and collapse of peripheral polities fit into the expected outcomes of the relationships between centre and periphery (Kristiansen 1991). An important point is that ancient core-periphery relationships do not always fall into a core-driven model, because while both entities can be linked by a relationship of hierarchy with “political, economic or ideological domination between different societies”, they can also be related by differentiation, with “different levels of complexity and population density” but no domination (Chase-Dunn & Hall 1991:19).

World-System and Anthropological Approaches to Ancient Israel’s Southern Neighbors

The history of ancient Israel’s southern neighbors – for our purposes, those societies living in the Syro-Arabian periphery, that region comprising the arid, fringe areas of the modern states of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia and forming part of the Mediterranean World-System since the Late Bronze Age – has been traditionally a secondary field of study in the historiography of the ancient Near East, due both to the chief interest in the urban societies of Mesopotamia and the Levant and the relative lack of written and archaeological sources for the region. As a result, the history of the local communities was studied as an appendix of the history of the neighboring sedentary states, either as merely recipients of the urban societies’ military campaigns or as an inexhaustible source of successive “waves” of migrations of Semitic peoples. During the last decades the historical interpretations of the Late Bronze-Iron Ages Syro-Arabian periphery has shifted significantly. New models of interpretation have been applied, most importantly those drawing from the World-System model and on anthropological studies on tribal societies.

World-System research has touched only superficially the topic of the relationship between the ancient Mediterranean center and the Syro-Arabian periphery, while the systemic flows are seen as only one-way – moving from the Mediterranean center to the Syro-Arabian periphery. Consequently, except for the movements of high-price commodities such as the south Arabian incense, little is known about the intricacies of the economic and cultural flow from the Syro-Arabian area to the Eastern Mediterranean region, hereas socio-political and cultural developments among the Syro-Arabian communities are traditionally perceived as mere reflections of the fluctuations in the centers.

In the late second millennium BCE the Syro-Arabian periphery incorporated into Mediterranean World-System through the exploitation of “enclave” mining enterprises at the Wadi Arabah and, particularly, the extension of the Mediterranean interregional exchange networks into the area (Liverani 1987: 73; Knauf 1992; Sherratt and Sherratt 1993: 364), as a result triggering a series of local socio-political fluctuations. The local, essentially tribal societies, evolved through series of phases of chiefdom-formation and posterior dissolution (Tebes 2008). A first period corresponded to the development of stateless hierarchical societies from the 11th to the 9th centuries, triggered by the exploitation, processing and transport of the Arabah copper and the provision of labour force for the copper mining. The most noticeable phenomenon was the development of chiefdom polities in the Beersheba valley (the Tel Masos “chiefdom”: Finkelstein 1988; Tebes 003), Faynan (Levy & Najjar 2006) and the “oasis urbanism” in the north-western Hejaz (Parr 1992: 42). The incorporation of the area into the commercial networks of the Eastern Mediterranean, visible in the distribution of Eastern Mediterranean wares in Late Bronze Palestine and Transjordan (Leonard 1987: 261-266; 1994; Killebrew 1998; van Wijngaarden 2002: 31-35, 99-124) caused the penetration of an “international iconography” (Caubet 1998: 109–110) visible in the local material culture. The second wave was characterized by the establishment of the trade networks of the south Arabian incense which caused the formation of local polities throughout the trade routes in the central Hejaz, southern Transjordan and Syria, from the 9th to the 6th centuries BCE (Eph‘al 1982; Edens & Bawden 1989; Byrne 2003; Tebes 2007).

Another line of research draws chiefly from anthropological studies that stress the predominately tribal nature and the nomadic, agro-pastoral economy of the societies living in these arid, fringe areas, particularly in Iron Age Transjordan (e.g. LaBianca & Younker 1995; Bienkowski & van der Steen 2001). While these studies are a like a breadth of fresh air among more traditional researches that saw the local polities as nation-states with bounded territories, and correctly focus attention on kin-based organizations as the social and economic units of that time, they nevertheless suffer from an excessive (one even dares to say “anthropological”) interest on the tribe as the skeleton from which to analyze the evidence, as if the local societies were living in one limited, frozen period of time, with no changes in their social organizations, let alone the formation and demise of entire political structures. In this sense, they are almost non-historical approximations. Admittedly, one important factor for this state of affairs is the almost total lack of local textual sources, so the tribal organizations appear as timeless and with no “history”.

It seems therefore that a more dynamic approach is needed to accommodate the growing archaeological evidence of social and political fluctuations in the autochthonous societies.


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