Why synthesis? Why inequality?

The themes and issues that the Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis is focused on today (inequality, migration, responses to perturbations, comparative governance) illustrate the challenges we as archaeologists face in trying to measure and compare human behaviors. There are issues with sampling, appropriate indices, comparability, and defining analytical units. If you approach these decisions, just from the data/bottom up, the impediments for systematic, synthetic considerations of human cooperation in the past seem stiff, if not insurmountable.

Given these investigatory struggles, it is fair to ask, why is this kind of collaborative and comparative effort–synthetic archaeological cooperation and investigation–worthwhile? To answer that question, I’d like to focus on just one of CfAS’s themes, assessing inequality in the past, the analytical partnership to which I belong.

Obviously and rightfully, inequality is a fundamental concern today. By one account, eight men own as much as half the rest of the global populace. That seems neither healthy nor resilient. And yet, there are markedly different degrees of wealth and income measured for the array of nations across the globe. So, disparate distributions of wealth seemingly are not preordained or inescapable. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask, why and how is this relevant for archaeology? In what ways can archaeology inform, and possibly guide, how can we conceptualize and address this issue? What questions do we want to answer?

At the outset of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Thomas Piketty (2013) wrote: “The distribution of wealth is one of today’s most widely discussed and controversial issues. But what do we really know about its evolution over the long term?” Unfortunately, in my view, the short answer is not nearly enough, especially in regard to the deep past and regions for which we lack ample or relevant written texts. On a positive note, of late, some small steps have been and are being taken (e.g., Kohler and Smith 2017).

But Piketty’s question (what do we know about historical patterns of inequality) is itself critically revealing, as so much about how we frame, envision, and investigate inequality in the past is rooted in and underpins how we think about these phenomena in relation to more recent times. Over my academic lifetime, there has been anything but consensus regarding how we see inequality in the past in relation to the present. Generations ago, when I was in graduate school, the dominant narrative was neoevolutionary, related to modernization or developmentalist theories in other social sciences, and the basic view for urban societies in the archaeological past was that they were despotic and highly unequal (with the exception of Athens and early Rome). At the same time, the general notion was that subsequent to the “Enlightenment” and with economic growth and education, inequality would be tempered moving forward.

Decades later, about the time that the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama (1992), declared “The End of History”, a position that he subsequently revoked, the changes in the present and recent past raised serious challenges to the future of progress and promise envisioned by mid-twentieth-century modernization theories.

More recently, a different view of inequality in the past versus the present has been put forth in Walter Scheidel’s (2017), “The Great Leveler”. Scheidel argues from a Malthusian perspective that inequality will keep increasing with societal scale, a trend disrupted only by major catastrophes, such as war, pandemics, political collapse, etc. So here we have two widely impactful views that basically are diametrically opposed on the issue of directionality of change for inequality between past and present. One sees inequality increasing over time, while the other views the inequities and power concentrations of the past fading with a more “enlightened” future.

The historian, Timothy Snyder (2018), describes and categorizes these two linear conceptions of past-present-future change in two ways. Modernization views have an air of inevitability—if technological advance and economic growth are fostered, inequality will fade. Alternatively, Scheidel’s Malthusian trope takes an eternal slant—no matter what we do, we are doomed to ever-increasing inequality or disaster of one form or another. Yet, despite their clear opposition, both of these frames in the uniform and linear transitions they outline minimize the role of historical data/comparison and therefore, in a sense, also negate human agency.

As Snyder (2018) noted: “Inevitability and eternity translate facts into narratives. Those swayed by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history.”

In actually, I see shifts in inequality as neither a linear phenomenon nor even strictly culture-bound, such as the broadly held view that postulates entirely distinct temporal paths for the West vs. the Rest. Rather, based on the collaborative research that I have conducted to date (with different sets of colleagues), when you actually collect, compare and review the data, wide disparities are evidenced in the degrees of inequality across both time and space in the past — much like there are widespread disparities in inequality both within and between nations and regions today, in the present.

With the historical granularity of archaeological and historical data that we now have, there is no reason to be tethered to unsubstantiated notions of progressive, linear, uniform, or inevitable trajectories from the past to the present. A third framing that my colleagues and I have begun to outline is to see degrees of economic inequality as causally linked to a suite of institutional factors, and these must be looked at relationally, that is patterned relations or what some have referred to as social mechanisms. What institutional conditions promote or depress inequality in specific contexts?

This means, for each specific historical context, inequality, as a social phenomenon, is not finite or fixed but must be assessed comparatively as differentials in access across component social units, such as households. My own hypothesized expectations see degrees of equality having a relationship to a suite of factors—including scale, governance (collective––distributed power vs. autocratic––personalist), and how governance and institutions are financed (what Blanton and Fargher [2008] define as internal vs. external resources).

So, as we have seen in comparisons to date (e.g., Kohler and Smith 2018), center size alone does not account for degrees of inequality, so other organizational/institutional factors likely were involved. In prehispanic Mesoamerica, for example, Classic Maya centers, are often smaller, yet their metrics for inequality tend to be higher than those for larger Mesoamerican centers, such as Classic-period Teotihuacan and the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan (Kohler and Smith 2018).

These preliminary findings provide one illustration that we archaeologists have much to learn and lots of work to do, especially if specific data sets are to be assessed comparatively with adequate samples. Inequality is by definition, relational as both Karl Marx and Charles Tilly have observed. Tilly (2000) wrote: “Inequality is a relation between persons or sets of persons.” While Karl Marx (1893) was on mark when he opined: “A house may be large or small; as long as the neighboring houses are likewise small, it satisfies all social requirements for a residence. But let there arise next to the little house a palace, and that little house shrinks into a hut.”

So, if we endeavor to understand degrees of inequality and how it shifts over time, we must gather and compare those data from many contexts and nested scales to isolate the conditions that promote inequity and those that can mute or depress it. History’s lessons are important both to identify the fostering conditions and to more accurately define historical foundations that we now realize were not uniform for the past in general or even for the history of one cultural region.

Finally, if we recognize that inequality will neither magically/inevitably recede nor eternally grow (barring unwanted disasters like plague and war), then we also must come to grips that when it comes to the present there are actions and institutions that we, as citizens, can take to foster and promote change and modify the status quo. History rhymes and so there are lessons to absorb and inspire, but to earn and learn them we must keep doing the work.


Blanton, R. and Fargher, L. 2008. Collective Action in the Formation of Pre-Modern States. New York: Springer.

Fukuyama, F. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press.

Kohler, T.A. and Smith, M.E. (editors) 2018. Ten Thousand Years of Inequality: The Archaeology of Wealth Differences. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Marx, K. 1893 [orig. 1847]. Wage-Labour and Capital. London: Twentieth Century Press

Piketty, T. 2013. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Scheidel, W. 2017. The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Snyder, T.D. 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Tim Duggan Books.

Tilly, C. 2000. Relational Studies of Inequality. Contemporary Sociology 29(6):782–785.

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