BMCR 2013.10.34

The Construction of Value in the Ancient World. Cotsen advanced seminar series, 5

, , The Construction of Value in the Ancient World. Cotsen advanced seminar series, 5. Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press - UCLA, 2012. xxviii, 612; 24 p. of color plates. ISBN 9781931745901. $65.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Although value lies at the core of many archaeological studies, it is only recently that these have moved beyond the study of coins, weights, and commodities. Anthropology and sociology have traditionally paid more attention to the nuances, and definition(s) of value, drawing on a body of scholarship stemming from the work of Mauss. This collective volume (the proceedings of a seminar held at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA in 2009) is an attempt to delve further into the past meanings, reflections, and – significantly – construction of value, as evidenced largely through archaeological remains. It encompasses diverse contributions from eminent scholars working in many different parts of the world, though the volume is dominated by Andean and Aegean archaeology, reflecting the editors’ own specialisms. The high quality contributions are too many to list here, but we might point in particular to those by John Chapman, Kathlyn Cooney, Thomas Cummins, Colin Renfrew, Chris Scarre and Charles Stanish, as well as those by the volume’s editors, John Papadopoulos and Gary Urton.

The volume’s title makes its position clear: value, as stated in the introduction, is socially constructed, and archaeology, which places such a heavy emphasis on context, is in a unique position to examine this. In addition, many of the papers add an interdisciplinary aspect, focusing also on anthropological, art historical and linguistic perspectives. The aims of the book go further, however, and it argues for a broader definition of value. It is split into four sections, or ‘ways of thinking about value’: place value, body value, object value and number value, reflecting the sessions in the seminar of which it is the proceedings. A fifth session entitled ‘art value’ was, we are told in the foreword, eventually omitted from the seminar and book. Papadopoulos and Urton emphasize in the introduction that the division of the book into different types of value, or ‘values’ is not intended to imply monolithic, or static categories; rather, the book is ‘about values, broadly defined, not just systems of value among material things’.

Not all contributors agree with this definition and division of the material, however, and it could be argued that a broad definition can be as restrictive as a narrow one. Renfrew, in his paper on systems of value, argues that the broadening of the category of ‘value’ to embrace a range of notions may obscure the study of it in its purest form (fungibility). His paper offers a longue durée perspective, and is concerned with the development of systems of valuation in Europe and western Asia, and the relationship between the emergence of complex societies and the ‘prime’ value of objects.1 This may seem well-trodden ground, but it nonetheless raises some interesting questions, most particularly about the definition of value itself as given in this volume. Most early or traditional societies, he notes, had a very limited scope of fungibility. He argues that vagueness or imprecision in the use of the word ‘value’ to apply to a range of disparate concepts and human experiences is a twentieth-century construct, ‘characteristic of the worst of modern capitalism and apparently what is left of communism as well’. He lays the blame for this squarely at the door of Graeber. 2 Papadopoulos and Urton provide a direct answer to Renfrew in the volume’s introduction. They note that, while the cases Renfrew cites – burials in the Copper Age cemetery at Varna, the treasure of Troy (2500 BC), the royal tombs of Ur (2300 BC) and the Mycenaean shaft graves (1600 BC) – are all examples of the high value of gold, he does not consider, for example, the value of the places in which bodies are buried, these ‘highly charged locales’. Similarly, the bodies with which the gold was deposited gave added value to the commodities that were placed with them; the argument, they suggest, is that of the chicken and the egg.

The disagreement between the editors and Renfrew on the definition of value and the structure of the book provides for an interesting discussion on both parts, and one might wish that more collective volumes embraced this sort of internal debate! To an extent, however, the issue is unsolvable: it rests on the inclusivity of one’s definition of value, and while it would be trite to entirely dismiss terminological discussion, much ink has been spent already over whether or not this rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet. Indeed, the editors discuss the difficulty of delimiting the meaning of value, an irreducible term, at some length, and their own position on this has been deliberately constructed. On the other hand, now that the lid has been opened on multiple ‘values’ in archaeological study, there does not seem to be much point in trying to turn the clock back and return to a narrower definition. Renfrew and other authorities on this matter might do better to employ or develop a more restrictive terminology, allowing their specific concerns with fungibility and exchange value to be made clear and distinct.

The other contributions to the volume provide a wealth of case studies, arguments, and disciplinary foci that cannot be explored to their justice in this brief review. As examples, four of them are summarized below: one from each of the categories into which the book is divided. These papers have been selected by the reviewer’s own preferences, and in order to reflect the variety present in the volume.

In the ‘Place Value’ category, Scarre discusses monumentality and landscape in early western European farming societies, focusing on the value of place both for the building of monuments, and as represented by materials brought from a distance. He draws on evidence for ‘pre-megalithic’ landscapes and African ethnographic parallels to argue that the construction of megalithic monuments reconfigured an existing (hunter-gatherer) pattern of landscape beliefs, appropriating the powers of established places to create new places.

Among the papers presented in ‘Body Value’, Cooney investigates changing values among Theban elites in Twentieth and Twenty-First Dynasty Egypt, via the treatment of the body after death. Responses to the devastating societal collapse at the end of the Late Bronze Age are manifested in the increased value of the mummy itself (rather than the coffin and other trappings) as a commodity; an idealized, crafted object, the result of ‘skilled application of resins, oils, and other substances to human flesh and bone’. Following Graeber,2 Cooney considers social, religious, and economic values to be of equal weight to one another. She concludes that shifts in funerary materiality – usually considered by Egyptologists in relation to internal religious factors – must also be considered in the light of these additional (social and economic) factors.

In the category ‘Object Value’, Cummins delves into culture clash in late fifteenth and sixteenth century Mexico and the Andes, comparing the evidence from texts and material goods to explore the effects of the bringing together of two worlds (Europe and the Americas) with different numerical, ethical and economical values. The ensuing contrast between values, he claims, throws them into sharp relief, and demonstrates the cultural dependence of values, which become entangled in objects. He cites the evidence of bilingual dictionaries, which at first glance seem to reflect surprisingly similar definitions of value (summation and esteem) in both Spanish and Quechua, yet which can, upon further investigation, be seen to reflect the cultural imposition of European values. For example, the Aztecs already understood certain materials as commodities with a market value, but changes to the market itself (greater demand) meant that monetary value for the first time outstripped social values.

Finally, among the papers presented in ‘Number Value’, Chemla uses the examination of different methods of grain measurement in early imperial China to challenge the belief that, ‘once numbers and measuring units have been defined, their use to express numerically an amount of things is straightforward’. Through the mathematical examination of historical sources, she demonstrates the existence of two contemporary yet distinct practices for measuring and expressing the value of grain by means of the same kinds of numbers and measuring units. It is thus vital, she notes, that historians consider diversity of practices as well as units in determining and expressing the material value of things.

The black and white figures, and the color plates at the end of the book, are sufficient for its format. Regarding edition and presentation, the reviewer hopes that the doubling up of a number of pages and subsequent loss of some pages from Kosiba’s paper is not an error that has been repeated in the final print series.

In summary, the volume provides ample food for thought, as well as a large selection of contributions on a diverse range of themes. Individual papers may be of interest to those within their particular discipline, but the book’s real value – if the reader will excuse the term – lies in its comprehensive picture of the current state of the art, the opportunity for comparison of similar themes in the archaeology of different regions and time periods, and the overarching narratives winding their way through the separate papers. In short, it is a vital addition to the library of anybody studying the archaeology of value.

Table of Contents

John K. Papadopoulos
Gary Urton
Part I Place Value
Significant stones, significant places: monumentality and landscapes in Neolithic western Europe, Chris Scarre
The negotiation of place value in the landscape, John Chapman
Spare values: the decision not to destroy, Susan E. Alcock
Emplacing value, cultivating order: places of conversion and practices of subordination throughout early Inka state formation (Cusco, Peru), Steve Kosiba
The revaluation of landscapes in the Inca Empire as Peircean replication, Charles Stanish
Part II Body Value
Objectifying the body: the increased value of the ancient Egyptian mummy during the socioeconomic crisis of Dynasty 21, Kathlyn M. Cooney
From value to meaning, from things to persons: the grave circles of Mycenae reconsidered, Sofia Voutsaki
Dressing the body in splendor: expression of value by the Moche of ancient Peru, Christopher B. Donnan
Interpreting the Paracas body and its value in ancient Peru, Lisa DeLeonardis
The value of chorality in ancient Greece, Leslie Kurke
Bodies and their values in the early Medieval West, Patrick J. Geary
Part III Object Value
Systems of value among material things: the nexus of fungibility and measure, Colin Renfrew
Money, art, and the construction of value in the ancient Mediterranean, John K. Papadopoulos
The construction of values during the Peruvian Formative, Richard L. Burger
Bronze, jade, gold, and ivory: valuable objects in ancient Sichuan, Rowan Flad
The value of aesthetic value, James I. Porter
Light and the precious object, or value in the eyes of the Byzantines, Ioli Kalavrezou
Figurine fashions in formative Mesoamerica, Richard G. Lesure
From rational to relational: re-configuring value in the Inca Empire, Tamara L. Bray
Competing and commensurate values in colonial conditions: how they are expressed and registered in the sixteenth-century Andes, Tom Cummins
Part IV Number Value
Equivalency values and the command economy of the Ur III period in Mesopotamia, Robert K. Englund
Constructing value with instruments versus constructing equivalence with mathematics: measuring grains according to early Chinese mathematical sources, Karine Chemla
Recording values in the Inka Empire, Gary Urton
The varieties of ancient Maya numeration and value, David Stuart
Calculative objects: sustaining symbolic systems in the ancient Mediterranean, Melissa A. Bailey


1. As defined by Appadurai, A. 1986 The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2. Graeber, D. 2001. Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our own Dreams. New York: Palgrave.