BMCR 2015.04.37

Archaeology and State Theory: Subjects and Objects of Power. Debates in Archaeology

, Archaeology and State Theory: Subjects and Objects of Power. Debates in Archaeology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. ix, 195. ISBN 9780715636336 $78.00.


In discussing the beginnings of Archaic Greek state-formation, Robin Osborne has recently spoken about the “irrelevance of the polis ” and wondered whether eighth-century Greeks consciously thought about its rise in the same way as modern scholars normally do.1 Bruce Routledge’s book supplies grist to Osborne’s mill and to other avenues of state-formation studies. It is a book rich in theoretical insights, supported via empirical case studies. The book represents a welcome addition to the bibliography.

The core of Routledge’s book contains six chapters, sandwiched between a brief introduction and conclusion.

The introduction, entitled “Orientations,” has an epigraph quoting Michel Foucault on the state as a practice. This quotation sets the tone for the rest of the introduction and for the book as a whole. Routledge begins by reviewing archaeological approaches to the state over the past thirty years, noting three problems encountered by archaeologists. The first is definition. So much of state theory derives from a Western tradition that began in the eighteenth century. For archaeologists this presents a challenge that current definitions do not resolve. Archaeologists have traditionally employed definitions derived from political science and social anthropology. As a result, the state has been defined either too narrowly as a set of institutions or too broadly as a kind of society. Doing so ignores the socially embedded nature of state power and the real limits of state power. Routledge observes, citing Jens Bartelson,2 that “…the definition of the state is not only ambiguous, it is this ambiguity that allows the state to play a central role in political discourse. This centrality, in turn, means that the state both gathers meanings to itself and ascribes them to other terms” (3). Since the state is such a discursive concept, archaeologists are presented with their second problem. Routledge asks, as Osborne before him, whether the absence of this discourse in premodern societies allows archaeologists to speak of the state when those living through it were not themselves doing so. The third problem concerns the “extended neo-evolutionary hangover” that archaeologists have had over the last generation. Routledge finds unsatisfactory the two solutions proffered to the critique of neo-evolutionism: the inward retreat of post-processualists and the proliferation of archaeological studies (on, for example, craft production, feasting, monument construction, and so on) that have shifted focus from what the state was to what a state did. According to Routledge, “If one needs a summary of my argument in this book it is ‘forget the state; focus on state-formation’” (6). This is a point with which few scholars would disagree, but it requires adopting new ways of thinking.

Chapter 1 is called “After (neo-)evolution(ism)”. Here Routledge argues that “…what we frequently call state-formation entails not the formation of an entity, but the configuring of relationships around political authority made transcendent and grounded in violence” (26). The state is, in other words, an effect. He goes on to label this configuration “sovereignty,” devoting the rest of his book to elaborating on this point, especially via a series of case studies that seek to understand how and why such sovereignty came about at different times and places in history.

Chapter 2 focuses on the topics “Coercion and consent”. Routledge begins with “Hobbes’ dilemma” and tailors it to premodern states: how to keep together a collectivity when humans tend to pursue their own self-interest. After exploring various perspectives on how political authority may derive from coercion and consent, he settles on the work of the Italian Antonio Gramsci who developed, in the period between the two world wars, the tools for understanding political authority through the concept of hegemony. This perspective offers the following benefits, according to Routledge: “A Gramscian perspective involves analyzing the formation of hegemony as a social (and indeed cosmological) order through the selective articulation of cultural resources embedded in everyday life, such that specific interests are disseminated as general (and indeed essential) interests…. because both everyday culture (Gramsci’s ‘common sense’) and hegemony are historically constituted, the experience of hegemonic power can be reinscribed into everyday life as a cultural resource” (44-45). In particular, Routledge focuses in on how hegemony selectively uses values, problems, and orientations from everyday life to create an historical bloc composed of these structures and superstructures.

Chapters 3 to 6 deal with case studies illustrating how hegemony has been constructed in particular historical cases. Routledge is appropriately wide-ranging with these cases studies, selecting examples from the Old and New Worlds that span in date from the Bronze Age to the nineteenth century AD.

Chapter 3 is entitled “Hegemony in action. The kingdom of Imerina in central Madagascar” and contains the nineteenth-century case study. As Routledge observes, almost every aspect of Merina royal policy—from state ritual, royal buildings, and royal labour service—was drawn from widely held traditions purposefully selected and transformed to constitute and reproduce its hegemony. While this case study provides a concrete base to illustrate Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, it also reveals its limitations, as Gramsci paid little attention to the possibility of subaltern groups appropriating the same values on which the existing hegemonic order based its claim to power. Merina women transformed royal hegemony into a weapon of the weak by protesting Radama I’s short haircut, styled after those of the British military advisers who helped him establish and train Imerina’s first standing army (58-61). Both the Merina women and Radama I grounded their arguments in the hegemonic language of ancestral tradition. This case study demonstrates that hegemony is a historically dynamic phenomenon not necessarily involving static power structures and not without the possibility of revolution against them by the non-royal masses. The Merina case study shows us the need, Routledge concludes, to move beyond politics.

Chapter 4 tackles this subject and is called “Beyond Politics. Articulation and reproduction in Athens and the Inca Empire”. Routledge starts by arguing that political power comprises much more than politics and in doing so seeks to understand how things “hang together” in specific historical contexts in relation to hegemony and sovereignty. Inspired by Actor-Network Theory (ANT),3 Routledge says that “Power, therefore, is not merely reflected or ‘materialised’ in matter. Power is a quality of networks linking humans and non-human actors as mediators or intermediators in a chain of interactions” (72). In adopting ANT, he sets out to merge it with the historical component of Gramsci’s historical bloc, using the two case studies of Classical Athens and the Inca Empire. “In both cases,” as he points out, “my concern is to show how hegemony weaves political power into the material interdependencies of objects, identities, technologies and life-ways. For the sake of brevity and comparability, in both cases I will emphasise relational networks involving politics, gender, domestic groups, labour and a single category of material culture” (73-74). The Inca Empire fused the domestic and political domains, whereas Classical Athens depended on their sharp distinction. The Athenian household became the locus for the reproduction of male citizenship, dependent relationships, labour, and gender, so as to assert hegemony by reinforcing the elements excluded from and included in the city’s civic politics. The Inca rulers for their part fused together particular practices, orientations, and values shared in common by the different peoples of the Andes. The pan-Andean practice of labour service became the focus of attention. Before the Incan conquest, extended kin groups provided their labour for collective tasks for the whole community. This practice could take symmetrical and asymmetrical forms; in the case of the latter, the heads of the groups supplied food and beer to reward their labourers. Inca rulers seized on its asymmetrical version, redeploying it on the conquered for labour projects based in their subjects’ local communities.

Chapter 5 addresses “Spectacle and routine”. Routledge first argues that visible power was necessary for premodern states because they knew little of their subjects. State authorities had limited direct interpersonal interaction with and knowledge of their subjects, being ignorant of many details of their everyday lives. While some readers may not completely agree with this viewpoint, they will more readily agree with Routledge’s next point. Spectacle and routine were required as part of the social performance of political authority, which had to inscribe itself onto public spectacle in order for that authority to be reproduced. The remainder of the chapter illustrates this nexus by considering Mayan rulers, who put themselves at the centre of key rituals, especially reproducing stable water supplies, and so emphasized their centrality in the universe.

Chapter 6 is called “Routine lives and spectacular deaths. The Royal Tombs of Ur” and picks up where the previous one left off by inquiring how the spectacle of violence can be made into a routine and employed as part of the social performances of hegemony (127-56). Most of the chapter is devoted to discussing the various interpretations of the symbolism and meaning found in these tombs. Routledge believes that the burials may have involved feasting and were representations of the emphasis being placed on the exclusivity and the reproduction of class divisions in society (145-48). The wealthy households maintained sizable numbers of dependents via routine distributions of rations, a social ritual being emphasized now in death.

In the “Conclusion: The hazardous necessity of comparison,” Routledge sums up his results. He reminds us that the state is an effect, adding that “…its solidity and the smoothness of its surfaces depends [sic] directly on our forgetting the practices, strategies and technologies through which this state-effect is constituted. A large part of this book has been about keeping this state-effect in view, crossing our eyes, as it were, in order to see clouds of dots instead of solid shapes. This focus is narrower than and rather different from what is usually discussed in literature on the archaeology of the state” (157). Using the analogy of a comic book, he sees the pictures on the pages as composed of dots, instead of taking for granted their solidly coloured pictures, as is normally done in studying the state. He adopts a comparative method, not so much to reveal universal principles (although comparativism is still regarded as important to enunciate similarities and differences to reveal the diversity of the human experience), but to stimulate discussion across specific contexts in order to fill out, modify, and challenge the concepts presented in his book.

As stated at the outset, this book is a most welcome addition to the bibliography on state-formation, for two main reasons. First, it contains a wide range of case studies from several different temporal and spatial historical contexts. Second, Routledge fills a gap in the current archaeological literature, providing some much-needed theoretical orientations to move the subject forward from its current scholarly trajectories, just as Robin Osborne has recently pleaded for in future discussions of Archaic Greek state-formation. It is a must-read for all readers interested in state-formation.


1. R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC, 2 nd edition (London and New York: Routledge, 2009) 128-30. Cf. also R. Osborne, “Greek Archaeology: A Survey of Recent Work,” American Journal of Archaeology 108 (2004): 88, 91.

2. J. Bartelson, The Critique of the State (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001) 11.

3. J. Law, “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity,” Systems Practice 5 (1992): 379-93; B. Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Both items are cited in Routledge’s text and bibliography.