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Material Wealth? New Approaches to the Archaeology of Social Inequality and Complexity
September 2, 2023 @ 8:30 am - 5:00 pm
Over the last decade, social inequality has emerged as a major research area in the historical sciences. New methods for assessing wealth and living standards from the archaeological record have been developed, from the use of Gini coefficients on artefactual and architectural data to bioarchaeological approaches to health and wellbeing. These have been marshalled to make comparisons at a variety of geographical and temporal scales, and to discuss the causes and consequences of inequality in a wide range of societies. Through this work, a series of tensions have emerged. Broad scale studies covering long periods and large areas have recognised a general trend towards increasing inequality over time, often correlated with societal scale and levels of social development (broadly conceived), leading some to argue that complexity and inequality are functionally linked. However, more detailed studies have identified significant variability within this general trajectory, including cases where inequality is low despite high levels of material wealth, population and/or population density, and periods where inequality has decreased.
In this session we seek to deepen understanding of relationships between inequality, scale, living standards, and institutions. All of these are contested concepts, and data relating to them are not straightforward to extract from the archaeological record. As a result, we also focus on methodological innovation. We seek papers which address one or more of the following questions:
What are the strengths and weaknesses of quantitative approaches to inequality, such as Gini coefficients or cumulative distributions based on specific measures?
What are good proxies for measuring living standards within and between societies?
What social mechanisms have been responsible for increasing or reducing inequality in past societies?
Are there general relationships between societal scale, social development, and levels of inequality? How strong are these relationships?
What are the long-term consequences of social inequality for human societies?