Differentiating things: the materiality of ancient economies-1.

First a short point of vocabulary: in this blog, the term “ancient” must be understood as referring to all coetaneous societies having developed through the 2nd and 1st millennium BCE in Europe, the Mediterranean or the Near East, regardless of their practice of writing.

Archaeology of ancient economies focuses on patterns, i.e. on repetitive behaviours, resulting in the replication of significant and meaningful aspects of the material record. As such, archaeological analyses has a predictable tendency to emphasize regularity in practices, rather than specific, local traits. Such widely spread and acknowledged practices can be referred to as “institutions”.

Institutions of trade have come, over the last decades, under thorough scrutiny by the archaeologists. Many hypothesis have been made around the possible use of money different in shape from the coins familiar to numismatics. The existence of large-scale weight-systems has long been hypothesized, and more recently demonstrated for different contexts. Metrology as a whole is a hot and enduring topic, especially regarding Near Eastern archaeology.

One significant trait allow for differentiating the different clusters which practices are submitted to our analysis into two different groups.

The first one would regroup policies where common rules, enforced by third-party arbitration, regulate trade. These rules are often explicitly formulated as laws. A common system of measurement –a standard metrology- allows for a swift process of evaluation by the protagonists of the transactions or by the authorities, often in relation with a tax-system. Retro-control, using official sets of weights or capacities, is possible in order to ensure the sincerity of the different protagonists. Complaints are submitted to authorities and processed by judges or courts. These formal institutions allow for anonymity in transactions. Trust proceeds from the capacity of the system to prevent or to punish fraud. In this blog, we will name this trust rooted on the existence of formal institution systemic trust.

The second group would regroup policies where commonly accepted social practices regulated trade. Social adequacy, a sense of honour or prestige, ensure for the sincerity of the protagonists. Social disapprobation and exclusion from trade networks may sanction insincerity. In that case, institutions of trade are informal and their legitimacy lays in shared practice. Trust lays in the reputation of the different protagonists: we will speak of interpersonal trust. Obviously, the substance of these two groups is rather theoretical. In reality, most trading systems were not that monolithic: interpersonal trust is often present even where formal institutions regulate trade, and metrology can exist even where written law is absent. Yet defining them as such allow for defining a range of possibilities, and archaeological analysis for defining the position of the different system observed between these two extremes.

Alexis GORGUES


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Alexis Gorgues (October 9, 2020). Differentiating things: the materiality of ancient economies-1. TIE : Trade, Institutions, Economics. Retrieved July 13, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/urf3


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