The most recent volume of the American Journal of Archaeology has a really excellent Forum entitled “Redistribution in Aegean Palatial Societies” co-edited by Michael Galaty, Dimitri Nakassis, and William Parkinson. To be clear, I’m not a Bronze Age-ologist, so I have to admit that many of the technical aspects of the various arguments escaped me. The main emphasis of the was a re-evaluation of the idea that Bronze Age Aegean “palaces” served as centers for elite redistribution of goods. The argument that Bronze Age Aegean authorities occupied the central nodes in a redistributive economic system relied on parallels with temple economies in the Near East. More recent archaeological work and a closer scrutiny of the texts available from the Bronze Age Aegean has called this interpretation into question.
The most interesting thing for archaeologist who do not specialize in the Aegean Bronze Age is that argument advanced in the introduction (and throughout the short, focused papers) that Bronze Age economies were, in fact, far more complex than the redistributive model would allow. In fact, Galaty, Nakassis, and Parkinson make the identify the core issue with applying models of redistribution to the Bronze Age Aegean not so much in the model itself, but in the problems associated with applying any economic model which is abstract by definition to “real” historical circumstances.
Their cautious approach continues a larger trend in reconsidering ancient economies with an eye toward revealing more complex kinds of economic, political, and social relations than unitary models would allow. In Late Antiquity, for example, traditional arguments for the central position of urban centers (or for the rural estates of elite landowners) have given way to more nuanced readings of the Late Roman economy that have recognized activities that range from large-scale state sponsored economic activity to small-scale, highly-local exchange. The relationship between economic behaviors on these different “levels” (for lack of a better term) will increasingly require scholars to recognize different economies with different goals, patterns of behavior, and social rules.
Two donor inscriptions from Grado
The donation of money to the church, for example, may well represent a different social activity for a poor farmer or a middling town dweller than for a powerful and wealthy member of the local elite. The former donated money with the hope of earthly or heavenly salvation; the latter may have functioned in the traditional of elite euergetism. The ritual context of economic activity as well as its social function within a particular community represent only one way in which unitary models of the ancient economy have come into question. The practices that produced the archaeological and textual evidence for economic activities also has come under scrutiny. The economic behavior recorded in a text, for example, need not represent the same kind of activity (with the same kind of social or political function) as the practice that produced the text which commemorated it. Archaeologists often study the evidence that is both evidence for other economic activity as well as evidence of that activity and these two social practices can differ.