The Creation and Division of Wealth and the Long-term Consequences of Inequality: Views from Archaeology

This project is seeking to advance systematic understandings of the long-term causes and consequences of economic inequality using the archaeological record of house sizes. A working group of ten collaborators is pursuing three interrelated initiatives. First, they are working to complement existing information on inequality with data from regions not previously synthesized to provide a more complete description of the processes of economic differentiation. Comparing these will then allow us to sharpen explanatory models for the rise of inequality. Second, they are developing detailed high-temporal-resolution trajectories of economic inequality in especially well understood regions to describe its dynamic relationships with political organization, violence, population size, and other key contextual variables. Where possible we will also systematize information on wealth creation, since a given degree of wealth differentiation might be experienced quite differently in a context of general prosperity than in situations of widespread poverty. Third, they are examining the degree of correlation of house-size distributions with household wealth and income in contemporary societies where we can control for potentially confounding factors such as local variation in prices and incomes. When archaeological proxies for key social processes can be shown to reflect the same processes in contemporary societies, it increases the value of archaeological data and interpretations for people today.

Intellectual Merit

The project will test the validity and limitations of house-size distributions as proxies for income or wealth inequality by investigating relationships among these factors in contemporary societies. It will also provide a more complete global picture of broad patterns in wealth inequality beginning in the Neolithic that expands on previous syntheses and supports deeper comparative analysis into its evolution. The project will develop finer-grained time series for societies having detailed archaeological evidence, supporting analyses into the dynamics of inequality through time within societies, and its direct and indirect social, economic, and cultural effects.

Broader Impacts

Archaeology’s unique ability to examine social processes over the long term will further public understanding and debate about social inequalities today—a fraught topic regularly occupying the front pages of our daily newspapers. The project will develop and examine a unique approach to synthesis via working groups, developed specifically for our discipline, which we predict will support greater participation by women, underrepresented minorities, and cultural resource management professionals, who are often excluded from research though they command substantial amounts of primary data. The large corpus of well documented data on inequality we produce will be deposited in tDAR, enhancing infrastructure for research and education. A popular volume on the prehistory of wealth inequality—informed by this project, but not funded by it—will complement CfAS webpages and professional publications to reach a wide variety of audiences.

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