Heterarchies or Hierachies

Posted on May 11, 2016


Videos from TAG:

Traditional models of social organisation and production stress the development of stratification and the emergence of hierarchies of power and settlement; whether for example early Bronze Age elites or later Bronze Age ‘great enclosures’, hillforts versus ‘open’ settlements in the middle Iron Age, the dramatic increase of artefacts and materialities apparently emphasising social stratification in some regions during the later Iron Age, or the development of towns, villas and farmsteads during the Roman occupation. But does the archaeological evidence still support such meta-narratives of social organisation and production? The past 30 years have seen an explosion in the amount of data available to archaeologists in Britain, through the work of extensive aerial survey work such as the National Mapping Programme, the results of developer-funded archaeology, and the results of large-scale research such as EngLaId (the English Landscapes and Identities project) and The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain project. From the prehistoric through to the early medieval periods in the British Isles, this work has all highlighted the much greater inter – regional and intra-regional diversity in settlement forms, burial and ritualised practices, material culture use and production, in some instances expressed at quite localised or smallscale levels. As an alternative to traditional hierarchical meta-narratives, heterarchy (Crumley 2005) is a powerful theoretical concept. It is defined as “the relationship of elements to one another when they are unranked, or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” (ibid: 36). Over the past two decades, heterarchy has been embraced to explain the dynamism of power relationships in world archaeological cultures, where traditional models of social evolution and hierarchy do not work (e.g. case-studies in Mesoamerica, Joyce and Hendon 2000; or pre-Hispanic Northwest Argentina, DeMarrais 2013), though the concept has also been criticised in the past for being too loosely applied and not sufficiently theorised (e.g. Thomas 1994).
The variety of inter-relationships between people, place and materials are increasingly archaeologically visible in the British Iron Age for example. Material culture analyses reveal complex relationships between different crafts and consumption practices – as with the fragmentary and distributed evidence for iron working, absence of standardisation and localised smithing in the middle to late Iron Age in south-east and central England, which has been argued by Ehrenreich (1995) to represent a distributed access to materials and alienable
crafting know-how, and therefore geographically distributed power. Giles (2007: 400) has emphasised how the performance of craft activities and depositional practices enacts the fluid and dynamic transfer of political and ritual authority in social organisation. We have invited papers from all periods which explore alternatives to traditional hierarchical models of development, and which explore or celebrate diversity, fluidity and complexity in social organisation and/or ontology.
Themes which could be explored include:

  • Can diversity of form in the record be equated to plurality of practice?
  • How can we build models of the evidence which make sense of the reality of past ‘messy’ relationships that make up social organisations, and are theories or models of heterarchy useful or appropriate for this end?
  • Is a hierarchical versus heterarchical dichotomy even appropriate, or far too
    simplistic? Did power and authority, structure and agency also vary according to place, context or other factors?
  • What other theoretical models (e.g. Ingold’s meshworks, assemblage theory) might also be helpful for understanding alternative social organisations and ontologies, and their development
  • Can more nuanced ethnographic studies offer any insights?

Crumley, C.L. (2005) Heterarchy and the analysis of complex societies. Archeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 6 (1): 1-5.
De Marrais, E. (2013) Understanding heterarchy: crafting and social projects in pre-Hispanic Northwest Argentina. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 23 (3): 345-362.
Ehrenreich, R.M. (1995) Early metalworking: a heterarchical analysis of industrial organization. In Ehrenreich, R.M., Crumley, C.E. and Levy, J. (eds.) Heterarchy and the analysis of complex societies. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association, 33-39.
Giles, M. (2007) Making metal and forging relations: ironworking in the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 26 (4): 395-413.
Joyce, R.A. and Hendon, J.A. (2000) Heterarchy, history, and material reality. In Canuto, M-A. and Yaeger, J. (eds.) The archaeology of communities: a new world perspective. London: Routledge, 143- 159.
Session organisers: Mhairi MAXWELL and Adrian M. CHADWICK (Glasgow School of Art and University of Leicester)

Hierarchies or heterarchies of settlement and social organisation in landscapes

The evidence from National Mapping Programme and other aerial photography rectification, geophysical survey and extensive commercial developer-funded archaeological investigations indicates that during the later Iron Age and Romano-British periods, there was often marked diversity in settlement size and form, not just between different areas, but at an intraregional
level too. Settlements ranged from small individual enclosures, some of ‘D-shaped’ or ‘banjo’ form; through to larger ‘ladder’, ‘clothes line’, ‘agglomerated’ or ‘nucleated’ enclosure groups, villas, and small towns. Though some diachronic trends are apparent, it is nonetheless clear that this diversity did not simply reflect chronological differences.
What does this evidence therefore represent? Is such variety a product of hierarchical social structures, from small family groups in individual farmsteads through to wealthier individuals and communities in larger settlements; or were these relatively heterarchical rather than hierarchical societies, with a much ‘flatter’ social structure? Are such binary distinctions too
simplistic, and what can the evidence for agricultural and craft production tell us? Can social differentiation be simply ‘read off’ from material remains, and is ethnohistoric evidence from
medieval and contemporary ‘peasant’ or small-scale societies of any relevance? Were factors such as seasonality, locale, gender and other social differentiations also important, and the impact of the Roman conquest? This paper critically interrogates the evidence for hierarchies and heterarchies for the later Iron Age and Roman periods in northern England.

Adrian M. CHADWICK (University of Leicester)

Institutionalization as a form of social organization

Understanding how societies develop through time remains to this day one of the central aims of archaeology. In this effort, many ideas pertaining to sociality have been put forward. However, as Timothy Webmoor and Christopher Witmore have pointed out (2008), after several decades of research into social behaviour, we have fallen into a theoretical bog where the term ‘social’ has lost most of its original meaning. We have yet to understand, as Richard Sennet puts it, what it means for people to be ‘together’ (2012). The idea commended in this paper is that a society is ultimately a combination of institutions that are formed when people reach an agreement on how to act. Based on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Vincent Descombes, I will argue that societies develop through triadic relations in which at least two individuals establish a social relation by agreeing to a third element: an institution of meaning (Descombes 2014). Essential to this argument is the Wittgensteinian notion of ‘rule-following’ where one can only be part of an institution if one knows how to behave according to certain rule. In archaeology, this would translate into an approach that seeks to reconstruct the institutions where hierarchical and/or heterarchical development is facilitated. For instance, it is only possible to have a hierarchical development if a given society has institutionalized ranks of authority: for a person to be recognized as a king there must be an agreement to recognize the rule of one person over its subjects, i.e. a monarchy. With regards to heterarchy, one would need to recognize those institutions that do not necessarily lay claim over power and authority, like the institutions of craftsmanship. While there are limitations to the notion of institution of meaning, it manages to reduce the “messiness” that is the link between the free-standing agent and the structures that organize societal life. Furthermore, it ultimately extends the term ‘society’ to signify not just a collective of individuals but to a deeper understanding of what it ultimately means to be together.
Descombes, V. (2014) The institutions of meaning. Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press.
Sennet, R. (2012) Together: The rituals, pleasures and politics of cooperation. London: Penguin Books.
Webmoor, T. and Witmore, C.L. (2008) Things are us! A commentary on human/things relations under the banner of a ‘social’ archaeology. Norwegian Archaeological Review 41 (1):

Artur RIBEIRO (University of Kiel, Germany)

The significance of the landscape: towards a non-hierarchical approach to heritage protection

Heritage agencies usually approach the protection of archaeology in terms of individual sites that are determined to be of particular significance. In England assessments of significance depend on various hierarchical processes: categorising a site or monument, defining its boundaries and determining its importance. This tends to produce an atomised view of archaeological landscapes, juxtaposing a few scheduled sites with a mass of undesignated archaeology, which is not representative of the ways those landscapes were inhabited in the past. The concept of ‘national importance’ is often applied in a way that pays little attention to the heterarchical relationships implicit in the creation of local context or character. Such hierarchical landscapes of heritage protection might seem largely irrelevant to academic narratives of past landscapes, but they matter because they are instrumental in planning policy and development control, often determining the nature of our interventions in those landscapes.
Drawing on the results of a recent project in Wiltshire, this paper begins to explore the application of more heterarchical ideas to heritage protection in a landscape context. I will suggest that a contextual approach could be developed on the basis of a better articulation of local character and place, reflecting changing patterns and perceptions of landscape, combined with a more sophisticated understanding of significance. This could in turn lead to planning tools that are more commensurate with the past social organisations reflected in the archaeological record.

Jonathan LAST (Historic England)

Making meta: towards ontological heterarchy

Heterarchy is usually associated with the organisation of social relations. In this paper, however, I will draw on the concept to think through how it can allow us to explore the existence of multiple ontologies in the past. Rather than past communities possessing a single dominant ontology (animism, totemism or whatever) this paper will develop the idea that multiple ontologies co-exist, and critically that in many contexts they exist in relations of heterarchy. Peeling back the layers of these ontologies will reveal the processes of assemblage through which these differences emerge.

Oliver HARRIS (University of Leicester)

Ever increasing circles. Revisiting prehistoric enclosure sites in central Portugal

In the last 15 years an enormous increase in data, principally generated from developer-led archaeology, has resulted in a far more detailed and complicated picture. Until 1997 only two Chalcolithic ditched enclosure sites were known – now over 30 have been identified. This new evidence highlights the impressive diversity in the character of these sites, ranging from small short-lived single ditched enclosures to large, long-lived multiple concentric- ditched enclosures, including several ‘mega-sites’ over 500 hectares in extent. They are found in a range of locations including hilltops, plateaus and valleys, whilst internal features indicate they served a wide variety of functions including activities of a domestic, ritual and funerary nature. Detailed suites of radiocarbon dates demonstrate that some were single phased sites, while others attest to intermittent or continuous activity that may have spanned 1500 years or more, from 3300-1800 BC.
Usually amalgamated under the term ‘povoada fortificada’, it is time to abandon this unhelpful label as it masks the rich diversity that the enclosure tradition encompasses. Ditched and walled enclosure sites were not regionally discrete, and some sites combined both stone and ditch architecture; furthermore the enclosing element was not primarily for defensive purposes. This paper will focus on the Alentejo region of central Portugal, where extensive excavations in advance of the Alqueva dam project revealed a diverse range of enclosures and associated sites dating from the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze Age. By tracing the emergence and development of these sites, and celebrating the wide range of practices they encompass, we can move beyond the interpretation that they simply represent hierarchical societies. Instead, I will explore aspects of their development and transformation to highlight the tangled meshworks they were embedded in, and how social relations were expressed in and between these sites.
Blance, B. (1961) Early Bronze Age colonists in Iberia. Antiquity 35 (139): 192-202.
Kunst, M. (1987) Zambujal, Glockenbecher und Kerblattvertzierte Keramik aus der Grabungen
1964 bis 1973. Mainz am Rhein: Phillip von Vabern.
Sangmeister, E. and Schubart. H. (1971) Escavações na fortificaçaõ da Idade do Cobre do Zambujal, Portugal. O Arqueólogo Portu.

Catriona D. GIBSON (University of Wales)

Heterogeneous heterarchies? The dynamics of power in the Iron Age North-western Mediterranean

Linear socio-evolutionism is a powerful trend in Iron Age Western Mediterranean archaeology. It is often, maybe always, assumed that local polities were engaged in a convergence process which would forcefully bring them to fit in the city-state model, rooted
in the Eastern and Central Mediterranean areas, through the classical evolution from Complex Chiefdoms into Archaic States. In this process, native ‘elites’ are thought to play a fundamental role, especially through their coercive capacity which enables them to maintain themselves at the top of the social hierarchies. These hierarchies are tacitly described as quite rigid in their structure all throughout the period. The funerary record provides good hints for such long-term stability – from the 6th century BC to the end of the 3rd century BC, grave goods emphasize rank and gender identities in a rather homogeneous fashion, and highlight the dominating position of (supposedly) male warriors.
Yet, settlement archaeology provides an interesting alternative insight. In some sites, domestic architecture suggests the existence of a rather static hierarchy, while fluidity seems to prevail in others. This situation appear even more diverse if we compare the time span within which each process can be observed: strong hierarchies mainly characterize short-lived settlements while fluid situations, ensured through competitive processes, mainly in the sphere of armed violence and, maybe more typically, in the craft area, prevail in those settled
for a long time.
In this presentation, I will propose that the contrast between hierarchy and heterarchy – used here in its political sense – is to be considered in a chronological perspective. At a given moment, it seems likely that a native community appeared to us as well as to itself as strongly hierarchized. But this short term hierarchy appears also as the result of a long term heterarchical process, whose dynamics I will analyse.

Scottish hillforts – hierarchies or heterarchies?

Studies focusing on the Iron Age of Scotland continue to see social structure in hierarchical ways, where hillforts are interpreted as being at the top of a social triangle, with smaller sites, often in low-lying positions regarded as being of lesser social status (e.g. Banks 2002; Harding 2004; Ralston 2006). When one examines settlement sites in detail, however, particularly in terms of their size, shape, form and entrance orientation, a different pattern of social structure begins to emerge, especially when the artefacts used and created at these sites are considered (Murtagh 2014). As a result social hierarchy, as traditionally understood, becomes difficult to sustain, and consequently new ways of exploring social structure needs to be examined. In this paper the ways in which things, be they the trees used to construct palisades, the rocks used to construct houses or the stones used to make jewelry, help assemble communities (Harris 2012; 2013) will be explored. By thinking about material and communities in these ways, new ways of understanding how power and status were negotiated during the Iron Age can be advanced, and different social structures imagined.

Banks, I. (2002) Always the bridesmaid: the Iron Age of south-west Scotland. In Ballin Smith,
B. and Banks, I. (eds.) In the shadow of the brochs: the Iron Age in Scotland. Stroud: Tempus, 27-35.
Harding, D. (2004) The Iron Age in Northern Britain. Celts and Romans, natives and invaders. Oxford: Routledge.
Harris, O.J.T. (2012) (Re)assembling communities. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 21: 76-97.
Harris, O.J.T. (2013) Relational communities in Neolithic Britain. In Watts, C. (ed.) Relational archaeologies: Humans, animals, things. London: Routledge, 173-189.
Murtagh, P.J. (2014) Materiality, community and identity: The Iron Age of west central Scotland. Unpublished PhD thesis: Durham University.
Ralston, I. (2006) Celtic fortifications. Stroud: Tempus.

Paul MURTAGH (Northlight Heritage)

Messy materiality take 2

Two TAGs ago I presented a paper on messy materiality in the context of the South-East Scottish Iron Age. In a nutshell it was argued that Iron Age worlds were composed not of material categories, but of messy conglomerations of ‘stuff’, and that world-views were based on cosmologies of transformation. Since then, and with recent events in our own contemporary worlds, I have felt compelled to re-visit these ideas; but more specifically focusing on the question of how can we envision social organisation in such contexts? I will also use this paper slot as an opportunity to try and reflect on the previous papers in this session.
Recent political events such as ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘the Arab Spring’ have brought to the fore tensions between formalised economic structures and new emergent liberal global identities and relationships. National and regional identities are being re-negotiated as a result of events in Europe questioning traditional centralised political structure, for example in the context of the recent Scottish Referendum. Therefore, we live in an era in which familiar structures of society and social relations are increasingly being questioned and re-defined. This is in part due to the ever expanding world of the internet creating new types of disembodied social relationships and encouraging multiple identities, with smart technological developments allowing the immediate sharing of ideas, information and products. As a result, our traditionally more rigid structures of social and economic networks are being unravelled and re-woven. In the European Iron Age (c. 800 BC to 800 AD), well established, rigid networks of social, political and economic relationships came under similar strain and were subjected to radical change, leaving distinctive material traces. Specifically, the Late Iron Age in Northern Britain was a period of huge social upheaval subjected to successive campaigns by the Roman army and its final withdrawal from the northernmost part of the region in the first few centuries AD.
Is heterarchy a useful concept for making sense of messy materialities?

Mhairi MAXWELL (Glasgow School of Art)

Introduction to Heterarchies or Hierarchies



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