Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Possible CEM associated with the HAB at C397

In my last post I suggested that the correct position for C397 (UMME 139) was at 37.085266° N,  22.055458° E

In the same paragraph from Simpson which I quoted earlier we read this:

"About 500 m. to SW and considerably below the site just described, we noted prehistoric sherds about 2.50 m. down from the surface in the sides of a sunken track that leads up in a cleft between two hills to the convent of the Panayia.  The spot is only about 250 m. E of the outskirts of Thouria village.  There is a new concrete cistern about 30 m. to E, with a sluggish spring slightly higher to NE.  Among the most distinctive sherds are a flat ribbon handle of fine pink clay, a horizontal pinched handle of soft reddish brown fabric, and some plain rims and bases of darkish clay.  Several large pieces of thick pithoi might indicate that this was a cemetery.  The pottery seems to belong mainly to MH, but some may be LH.
  The material collected on the habitation site is not closely datable but confirms its use in prehistoric times.  It could have been associated with the "cemetery" below it."[1]

Also in Simpson and Dickinson [1979] this:

"... About 500 m. SW, some MH sherds and others which may be LH were noted about 2.5 m. down from the surface in the sides of a sunken track between two hills on the way to the Panayia convent.  Some large pithos fragments suggest that the track may have cut through a prehistoric cemetery."[2]

So.  From the previously located site move 500 m. to SW (225°) and we should be in the vicinity of the CEM.  Let's look at the map.

This is what it looks like when I apply all of Simpson's constraints.  The large yellow circle is centered on C397 and has a radius of 500 m.   The azimuth line of 225° (SW) is included for reference.

Near where the azimuth line meets the circle I noticed two things.  The first is what appears to be a cistern and 30 m. distant to the left (W) is a road.  Simpson et al. clearly state that their finds were at the side of a road in the (visible) strata and about 2.5 m. from the top.

Here I've zoomed in on that location.  The circle is 30 m. in radius and it is centered on what I consider to be a cistern.  Another meter or two and we're on the roadside.  I propose this as the approximate location for C5407, our supposed CEM.

All of this fits precisely with Simpson's directions - except for one thing.  Where is the convent of the Panayia and does it fit Simpson's text?  This poses a problem because I can find no religious establishment with that specific name.  The two best candidates might be 1) Ayios Vlasios at 37.079550° N, 22.055526° E and 2) another unnamed church at 37.082563 N, 22.058166 E.  The two candidates can be seen in the next photo:

Ayios Vlasios is to the S and connected to C5407 by a driveable field trail.  But it looks like it might be too small to be more than a simple country church.  Here it is in close-up:

The second church complex looks like this:

In this photo I think we have two things.  One is the church itself and the other seems nothing more than tin-roofed farm buildings.  Truthfully these two church complexes both appear to be simple country chapels.

Nonetheless I slightly prefer the second church, the unnamed one, simply because it is reached through a path between hills.  In the next photo I have exaggerated the vertical by a factor of 2 in order to bring this idea out.

This picture shows the entire area.  Our proposed CEM (C5407) is at the lower left.  Ayios Vlasios is at the lower right.  The large complex right in the center looks to me like a private home.  That leaves 'Church 2' at the upper right as the most likely candidate for the convent but -  I am not sure.  The path in red that I have labelled 'trail' is taken from Topoguide.  It is here to emphasize that it is possible to walk from C5407 to 'Church 2' by means of a trail that goes between two hills.

If anyone has more information about these several structures then I would very much like to hear.   For right now I propose 37.081622° N, 22.052162° E (C5407) as the most likely position for Simpson's MH/LH CEM.


Check out my new icons on the website

There is a new database which was delivered on March 21, 2018.  It adds sundry minor corrections as well as nearly fifty new sites in Crete.  The new DB is rev 0055.

If you like these posts then please follow me on Twitter or Google Plus (Robert Consoli).

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If you'd like to have a copy of the Mycenaean Atlas database then e-mail me and tell me what your project involves.  And remember that useful .kml and/or .csv files can be generated directly from all the windows of the website


[1] Messenia III, p. 160, no 79B. 'Ayios Athanasios (Thouria)'.

[2] Simpson and Dickinson [1979]: 164.

McDonald and Rapp [1972]: McDonald, William A. and George R. Rapp, Jr., The Minnesota Messenia Expedition: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Regional Environment, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.  USA. 1972

Messenia III: McDonald, William A. and Richard Hope Simpson. 1969. 'Further Explorations in Southwestern Peloponnese: 1964-1968'.  American Journal of Archaeology. (73:2), pp. 123-177.

Simpson, Richard Hope and O.T.P.K. Dickinson,  A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol. I: The Mainland and the Islands, Paul Åströms Förlag, Goteborg. 1979.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The MH/LH Site 'Ayios Athanasios' (C397) near modern Thouria

A correspondent recently asked me for more detail about C397 which McDonald and Simpson identified as a potential habitation site near a church of Athanasios near Thouria in Messenia.  This gave me a chance to rethink my placement of this site; it's a good example of the hideous mess that a sketchily written description and slip-shod maps can create.  First let's go to the record:

In Messenia III we read this: "A small round knoll with a little barn on its summit rises about 200 m. NE of the chapel of Ayios Athanasios (bearing from the site to the chapel 225 degrees).  The modern village of Thouria (to be distinguished from ancient Thouria #78), on the main highway about 2 km. S of classical Thouria lies some 700 m. to SW of the site (bearing to the village church 257 degrees).
Obsidian chips and a few sherds of coarse "oatmeal" ware occur on the W terraces below the barn.  The total extent of the settlement was probably not more than 100 m. N-S by 60 m."[1]

In McDonald and Rapp [1972] it appears in Register A as site no. 139: "Thouria: Ayios Athanasios, 800 m E; 200 m NE of chapel of Ayios Athanasios.  Low knoll (barn on summit).  HAB. CEM? Frags. of obsidian; ..."[2]  There's a little more in the notice but that gives the gist of it.

This little 'settlement' reappears in Simpson and Dickinson [1979]: "A small settlement (maximum 100 m. N-S by 60 m.), marked only by obsidian and coarse pottery, on a hill c. 200 m. NE of the chapel of Ayios Athanasios and c. 800 m. E of modern Thouria village."[3]

Lots of good consistent information.  What are we looking for?

a. 200 m. NE (45 degrees) from the chapel of Ayios Athanasios.

b. From the village church of Thouria it is on a bearing of 77 degrees.

c. About 700 m. NE of modern Thouria.

Where is 'Ayios Athanasios' and where is the 'village church' of modern Thouria?  If we knew those things then we could find the site.

We should consult a map at this point in order to see where we are.

Modern Thouria and region.  From Topoguide

Here is the modern town of Thouria which is just a few km. NW of Kalamata in Messenia.  North of the town is a church labelled 'Aghios Athansios' (Arrow A).  This is too far north of Thouria to be the Ayios Athansios referred to by Simpson et al.  The church intended by our authors to be understood as Ayios Athanasios is at arrow B and I'm going to show that that must be the case in just a moment.  I should just say here that I have not been able to find the specific name for that church (B) from any of the sources that I have consulted.

Now let's take a look at the town of Thouria itself.  Perhaps we can identify the other 'village church' that Simpson mentions.  In this image from Google Earth I have marked three  prominent churches in modern Thouria.  The one to the left (C) is Hagiou Athanasiou (yes, another) and the one to the right (A) is Hagioi Theodoroi Thourias.  I have not been able to find the name of the large cemetery church at B.

I list the positions of these churches in tabular form:

A. Hagioi Theodoroi Thourias, 37.084460°,  22.051255°
B. Unnamed, 37.085319°, 22.047446°
C. Hagiou Athanasiou, 37.084310°, 22.047087°

Which of these did Simpson refer to when he talked about the bearing from the MH site being 'to the village church 257 degrees'?

In this next picture I've drawn 77° (257 - 180) azimuths from each of the three churches.

Simpson's 'Ayioi Athanasioi' at B

We know that the site is on one of these azimuth lines.  It must also be 200 m. to the NW of a church called 'Ayios Athanasios'.  The only church structure that fits that 200 m. constraint is at B.  Here is what it looks like when we put it all together:

Here I assemble all the constraints.  The church intended by Simpson et al. to be understood as 'Ayios Athanasios' is at B.  The circle is of 200 m. radius and centered on B.  The straight line from B is on an azimuth of 45° (NW).  These three constraints, the straight line constraint from Hagioi Theodoroi at A, the straight line constraint from the church of 'Ayios Athanasios' at B, and the distance constraint (the circle) centered on B, all come together at C where I've placed the site with high confidence.

How do I know that the church at B is what Simpson and others intended to be understood as 'Ayios Athanasios'? 

I don't. 

But it's the only church that fits the constraints.  Informants tell me that there are at least four churches in the Thouria region that are named for the saint.  Whether the church at B really bears that name is uncertain.  It may actually bear that name (or may have in the 1950's - 60's) or Simpson may have been misinformed about it.  If any of my readers know more about this then I would very much like to hear.  In the meantime that's my story for C397 and I'm sticking to it.

C397 is placed at 37.085266° N,  22.055458° E
Church at B, 'Ayioi Athanasioi', is at 37.084185° N, 22.053902° E

I haven't updated my on-line database to reflect this new information since March 21 so the online description of C397 won't agree with this post quite yet.  I won't update the DB for another couple of days.

Simpson and others have thought also to identify a cemetery nearby.  I'll deal with that next time.


Check out my new icons on the website

There is a new database which was delivered on March 21, 2018.  It adds sundry minor corrections as well as nearly fifty new sites in Crete.  The new DB is rev 0055.

If you like these posts then please follow me on Twitter or Google Plus (Robert Consoli).

You can e-mail me (and I hope you will) at  bobconsoli   at

And please remember - Friends don't let friends use Facebook.

If you'd like to have a copy of the Mycenaean Atlas database then e-mail me and tell me what your project involves.  And remember that useful .kml and/or .csv files can be generated directly from all the windows of the website


[1] Messenia III, p. 160, no 79B. 'Ayios Athanasios (Thouria)'.

[2] McDonald and Rapp [1972], p. 288. This is Register A, UMME no. 139.

[3] Simpson and Dickinson [1979], 163, no. D 139 'Thouria: Ayios Athanasios'.

McDonald and Rapp [1972]: McDonald, William A. and George R. Rapp, Jr., The Minnesota Messenia Expedition: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Regional Environment, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.  USA. 1972

Messenia III: McDonald, William A. and Richard Hope Simpson. 1969. 'Further Explorations in Southwestern Peloponnese: 1964-1968'.  American Journal of Archaeology. (73:2), pp. 123-177.

Simpson, Richard Hope and O.T.P.K. Dickinson,  A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol. I: The Mainland and the Islands, Paul Åströms Förlag, Goteborg. 1979.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reader reacts to my remarks on Scott

A correspondent has written me about my blog post reviewing Scott's Against the Grain.

"I suppose the main point about grain is that it can be stored for some (long) time given the right conditions. The same might be said for beans and most pulses. All that needs to be done to keep this form of "preserved wealth" is to keep it dry. Tubers like yams and potatoes cannot be so easily stored for more than (say) one season and so represent a very temporary form of wealth.
But, to be honest, a goat is almost as useful as a sack of corn. It keeps itself "fresh" and can even grow in size while waited to be "liquidated". If anything one might hypothesise that herding as much as grain production was the genesis of tax collection. "

My reply:

Thank you for your letter.  You've given me an opportunity to restate some things.

There is much in Scott's book that is quite correct.  He is right that early state formation is associated with transfer of goods from producers to a new consumer class (whoever they are).  He is right that grains make good candidates for such a transfer.  He is right that very often outsiders forcibly appropriate wealth from communities of producers but by stating that robbery is the origin of the state misses 99% of what we can know from historical examples.

If the business model of a gang of bandits consists of stripping communities of their wealth then the likelihood of the appropriators now becoming governors is quite small.  If Scott doesn't believe this then he should show us how bandits form a state.  I'm sure that this has been possible under some circumstances and I would read Scott on this subject with great interest.  As yet he has not told us how this works.

By emphasizing grains he misses the fact that wealth transfer can consist of products from the entire ecosystem.  It doesn't have to be just food stuffs.  He misses the appropriation of subsistence as well as luxury goods.  States sometimes emphasize one over the other and this can have implications for state formation.  But a discussion of this is absent in Scott.  He also misses the larger picture of how human associations change in a way such that the result is what we identify as a 'state'.  He never discusses the well-documented fact that the state does not spring de novo from a group of villages but goes through a long process of intermediate transformations; rank societies both achievement and hereditary are found more often in the historical record than states.  Scott omits this.    To him it's all the same - the State is a protectionist gang.

You seem to emphasize the idea that certain goods are more collectible because they are less perishable.  Why would you (or Scott) think that?  If appropriable goods are perishable then why wouldn't tax collectors come more often?  Or does Scott suppose that tax collectors in ancient Mesopotamia always came once a year on April 15?   I don't want to promulgate 'Just So' stories but I really cannot see the force of the argument from perishability.

Scott never really does characterize specific tax-collecting practices.  He has created a tax straw-man and he uses it to avoid the real questions about the complexities inherent in all human associations.  The formation of societies above the tribal level is a complex one with many variations.  The best discussion of such topics is Flannery and Marcus [2012], The Creation of Inequality.  (And please Google the many reviews of this work.)  This is what discussion of the State looks like when one is not grinding an ideological axe.  I cannot recommend it enough.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Correspondent Comments on the Suitability of Pleiades Data for Scholars

A friend of mine replied to my post on the inaccuracy and unsuitability of Pleiades data for scholarly work.  (

I reproduce his letter here:

"Pleiades isn't structured to provide a single, accurate set of coordinates, though I think it hopes to evolve in that direction. Its most useful role currently is as a set of identifiers that allow links to superior gazetteers. For example, the huge error for ancient Messene is the result of displaying a calculated representative point that includes one spurious DARMC location (from the modern village of Messene), in addition to a mildly inaccurate DARMC location plus a very accurate DARE location. (DARE has assimilated a bunch of Google Earth-validated ToposText points for Greece, and from other sources as well, but uses Pleiades IDs as an easy pivot to other resources). Some of the tools Pleiades funding has produced for the purpose of improving its data are not being used very much -- one problem being a technological gap between laborious on-the-ground collectors ... and people who automate things."

Now I look at it piece by piece (original letter in red, my replies in black)

"Pleiades isn't structured to provide a single, accurate set of coordinates,"

So then where do we go from here?

" ..., though I think it hopes to evolve in that direction."

Spoiler alert: they're not going to. This would involve an enormous amount of work - actual scholarship. They're not going to commit to this because they think that this can be done on the cheap - through copying other data sets or through crowd sourcing. That's not the way that any of this works. My experience with them is that they will correct an error if you bring it forcefully to their attention but not otherwise.

"For example, the huge error for ancient Messene is the result of displaying a calculated representative point that includes one spurious DARMC location (from the modern village of Messene), in addition to a mildly inaccurate DARMC location plus a very accurate DARE location. (DARE has assimilated a bunch of Google Earth-validated ToposText points for Greece, and from other sources as well, but uses Pleiades IDs as an easy pivot to other resources). "

You've explained Messene but what about all the other errors? Nor have you questioned my estimate that approx. 1/3 of Pleiades has serious errors. What you're describing sounds like a real incestuous tangle. I don't even want to get into unpacking this beyond saying that topographical accuracy does not come from copying other data sets. It's like the old saw about buying a used car: you're just buying someone else's problems.

" Some of the tools Pleiades funding has produced for the purpose of improving its data are not being used very much -- one problem being a technological gap between laborious on-the-ground collectors (like me) and people who automate things. "

Sounds like you're describing Recogito. Is that what you mean? Are there other tools that they support? I tried out their conversion tool Geocollider. It failed miserably.

Everything about Pleiades/Pelagios/Peripleo is sham.  The Barrington Atlas data was useful for its printed purpose but now they're trying to roll that data over into the digital world where its approximative nature makes it unfit for use. And they've wrapped the whole thing up with bad and outmoded ideas - not from scholarly practice, from anthropology or toponymy or history or classical studies or any other relevant discipline - but from computer science. None of what they're doing (crowd sourcing and linked data) has anything to do with any scholarly practice or purpose but this is what they're selling and they're getting pots of money for it. In the end actual scholars wind up exactly where they started - having to do the topography of the Mediterranean from scratch. I actually know a fellow (from a very prestigious school) who's preparing a study of Mediterranean habitations. I was shown one of his spreadsheets and it was stuffed with errors since he had relied on Pleiades. In fact that's where my blog post came from.

I've asked myself what their game is. I suspect that what they want is to license their data (or perhaps their follow-on project Pelagios/Peripleo) to schools for so much per seat and deny access to non-customers. That's a time-honored approach in Computer Science. First get a lot of contributors to fork over their work for nothing under the name of something noble-sounding like 'Open Data' or the 'Semantic Web'. Second, license the whole to third parties and keep all the money.

Although I'm not sure that they can really carry this out successfully because it's the Underpants Gnomes business model.


DARE: The Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire.

DARMC: The Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations.



Underpants Gnomes:

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Icons for the Mycenaean Atlas Project

Three years ago when I first began to develop the Atlas of theMycenaean Bronze Age, I had an image in mind of a landscape scattered with icons that indicated what was found where.  I wanted a picture of the landscape of the Bronze Age.  Of course the work of specifying actual locations for Bronze Age find spots came first.  And up until now the web site has simply displayed orange paddle icons for any find whether it was a palace or a single potsherd.  It looked like this:

Not very helpful to be confronted with a map that was thickly populated with this icon because each icon had to be clicked on before you could tell even roughly what it was.

Now I’m pleased to announce that I have implemented a full range of pictorial icons that give some idea what a particular find is.  First is the ‘habitation’ icon

Currently this will be used to designate any habitation, house, building, palace, etc.

The artifacts icon will be used to symbolize any site from which the most significant finds consist of more than sherds.  So axes, blades, figurines, pins, loom weights, etc. will be symbolized with this:

This icon depicts a sword, an ax-head, and a psi-figurine.

Cemeteries will be symbolized with this icon:

Chamber Tombs will by symbolized like this:

…and tholoi like this:

Mounds, tumuli, and magoulas are symbolized with a mound icon:

Generalized vases finds are depicted like this:

Sites that are characterized principally by sherds use this icon:

Now that I have them displayed it appears that the quality is poor and the images blurry.  Remember that the originals are 32 pixels square and have been grossly enlarged to be visible in this post.   They look much better when displayed on the map.  Here's a map of Achaea with all the icons showing:

I think this makes a nice addition to the site and gives it a more intuitive appearance and feel.

There are some cautions:

First, many sites can be characterized in a multitude of ways.  Sites can be habitations, have mounds of sherds, and incorporate burials.  What icon do I use in that case?  I have attempted to use an icon that accounts for the preponderant importance of the site.  In the previous case I would use a habitation icon since the idea of habitation is probably the most important thing about that site.  There are, on the other hand, many sites which are indicated by an abundance of sherds and which are thought to have been sites but with no other evidence than the just sherds.  In that case I would probably use the sherds icon.  

So the icons are just indicators.  They're an attempt  to make the landscape more intuitively understandable but keep in mind that a single icon cannot and will not fully characterize the site. 

Aside from that the new icons operate in exactly the same way that the old ones did.  They feature tool-tips and an info box with a link to a full page report on the site.  There are still a few of the old orange paddle icons around.  These are for sites such as caves, wells, walls, etc. for which no new icons have been designed.

There have been no icon changes for the modern features.  They are still shown by a red paddle with an 'F' on it.

Here's another example - a map of the Argolid and southern Attica in the LHIII:

Software elements on the website have been updated to support the new icons.

In addition to the icons there is a new database which was delivered on March 2, 2018.  It adds sundry minor corrections as well as thirty new sites, primarily in Crete.  The new DB is rev 0053.

If you like these posts then please follow me on Twitter where I am @Squinchpix

On Google Plus I am     Robert Consoli

You can e-mail me at  bobconsoli   at

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If you'd like to have a copy of the Mycenaean Atlas database then e-mail me and tell me what your project involves.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Some notes on James C. Scott: Against the Grain

‘If you take a walk,  I'll tax your feet.
'Cause I'm the taxman, …’
George Harrison

Calvera: If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.
The Magnificent Seven

‘Property is theft.’

James C. Scott is one of our most prominent anthropologists.  He has had a long career researching the life-ways of peasant culture and the various methods that traditional farmers employ to resist the encroachments of the state.  His earliest field-work (1970's) was with rice cultivators in Burma and in Viet-Nam.  Now in his eighties, he has produced a book, Against the Grain, which amounts to a distillation of his entire scholarly experience.[1]

Hawaii's O'o bird.  Taxable!

In sum, this book is an examination of the formation of the earliest states in the fertile crescent around Uruk.  He attempts to find similarities between these proto-states and other state societies.  He thinks to have found certain consistent factors in state formation; the most important of which is the presence and cultivation of one or other of the cereals.  He clearly feels that grain is the culprit behind what he sees as the coercive tax-gathering state.  Remove cereals, restore a broader ecological range of food alternatives and the state must fall.  This is his thesis: cultivation choices are the major factor in determining political forms.

It seems, therefore, that we could look to Scott for a description of how states come into being and, indeed, he is always on the edge of providing such an explanation.

But he never actually does.

If we examine the way in which he uses the word ‘state’ we see the problem.

‘…virtually everywhere, it seems, [the] early state battens itself onto this new source of sustenance.’[2] 

The source of sustenance in question is that clutch of concentrated cereal-oriented Mesopotamian riverine settlements that have formed on rich alluvial land.

‘The state form colonizes this nucleus as its productive base, scales it up, intensifies it, …’[3]  

The ‘nucleus’ here is, again, the settlements already alluded to.

Do you see?  The state ‘battens itself’ onto pre-existing agricultural settlements.  Or the state ‘colonizes’ an agro-nucleus.  The state ‘scales it up’, ‘intensifies it’.  Scott really should be more forthcoming with his pronouns.  In his mind the state is an external actor.  Like a ravening lion it seizes on these innocent settlements as though they were so many sheep.  But we are not told what this actor is or where it comes from.  They are elites.  That’s all he knows.

The reason for this curious omission is that Dr. Scott doesn’t really care how the state came to be.  He is an anarchist.  He opposes the State.  For him the State is literally a bunch of gangsters[4] who, given the right opportunity, will convert settlements into states that they might more easily rob them.  Against the Grain is not an anthropological but a moral case against those early state-forming elites who subjected mankind to misery in perpetuity so that they can exploit and grow rich.

But who were these elites?  How did they come to gain control over free peasants and convert them into slaves of the grain?  Why were they able to maintain their power?  And what happened on those frequent occasions when the elites lost their power and the State disintegrated?  Why did all this happen?

We are not told.

We are given the after-picture.  Scott suggests that there are characteristics that, when we find them – or most of them – together, we may infer the presence of a state.  Scott explains here:

“…, ‘stateness’, …, is an institutional continuum, less an either/or proposition than a judgment of more or less.  A polity with a king, specialized administrative staff, social hierarchy, a monumental center, city walls, and tax collection and distribution is certainly a ‘state’ in the strong sense of the term.  Such states come into existence …”[5]

All these things might very well be found in conjunction with states and much ink has been spilt debating which of these is ‘essential’ for inferring the existence of a state.  

And yet this only answers a ‘what’ question.

To the question of ‘why did the state originate as a model for human association?’ there is no answer.   For Scott it’s all just a criminal conspiracy. 

As I mentioned above, the most important requirement for state formation, according to Scott, is the presence and cultivation of cereals: wheat, barley, oats, rice, rye.  These are the culprits.  As he says

‘…only the cereal grains can serve as a basis for taxation: visible, divisible, assessable, storable, transportable, and “rationable.”’[6]

and ...

‘The fact that cereal grains grow above ground and ripen at roughly the same time makes the job of any would-be taxman that much easier.  If the army or the tax officials arrive at the right time, they can cut, thresh, and confiscate the entire harvest in one operation.  For a hostile army, cereal grains make a scorched-earth policy that much simpler; they can burn the harvest-ready grain fields and reduce the cultivators to flight or starvation.  Better yet, a tax collector or enemy can simply wait until the crop has been threshed and stored and confiscate the entire contents of the granary.’[7]

And even though many societies grow tubers – potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), taro (many varieties but basically Colocasia esculenta), sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas), yams (Dioscorea spp.) – such crops cannot be the foundation of state societies because they are not suitable for tax collectors.  Scott gives these reasons:

“Such crops ripen in a year but may be safely left in the ground for an additional year or two.  They can be dug up as needed and the remainder stored where they grew, underground.  If an army or tax collectors want your tubers,  they will have to dig them up tuber by tuber, as the farmer does, and then they will have a cartload of potatoes which is far less valuable (either calorically or at the market) than a cartload of wheat, and is also more likely to spoil quickly.”[8]

And this: "History records no cassava states, no sago, yam, taro, plantain, breadfruit, or sweet potato states."[9]

And: “It follows, I think, that state formation becomes possible only when there are few alternatives to a diet dominated by domestic grains.”[10]

So Scott’s thesis is that the natural characteristics of the several tubers make them unsuitable for the tax collector and, as a result, cannot be the basis for a state.  He claims priority for this thesis.[11]

Scott’s thesis is interesting, deeply researched, it appears to explain a great deal …

and it is stone-cold false. 

Are there state societies (or even hierarchical societies) based on tuber crops? 

Of course there are.

Scott’s inability to see this follows directly from his lack of interest in explaining the rise of state societies in the first place.    Instead of an explanation involving people's decisions and how they adapt their associative practices to specific ecologies, he substitutes a crude deterministic theory about crops and their putative socio-political effects.[12]  He trims off the troubling anomalies and … presto change-o … we have a new theory of states.  In order to support his deterministic theory of state formation he tries to fit the crop to the tax-collector and is forced to make ludicrous assumptions about how tax collectors really go about their work. 

But tax-collectors don’t work the way Scott thinks they do:

‘Hawaiian scholars David Malo and Samuel Kamakau described the system of annual Makahiki tax collection, when an image of Lono was carried in a clock-wise procession around the island.  As the Lono image entered each ahupua’a territory, two poles were set in the ground; the distance between the poles was close for a small ahupua’a, farther apart for a large territory.  The gap had to be filled, from pole to pole, with baskets of sweet potato, calabashes of poi, pigs, dogs, bark-cloth, fishnets, fine mats, and other offerings.  If the konohiki or ahupua’a manager failed to make sure that his people filled the space between the upright sticks, then the chiefs attending the Lono image would order the territory to be plundered.  As Kamakau drily remarked, “Only when the keepers [of the image]  were satisfied with the tribute given did they stop this plundering.”' [13]

The first thing that strikes us when we compare Scott’s simplified ideas about tax collection and Kamakau’s description of the Hawaiian system is how limited Scott’s conception is.  It's not just that tubers were the basis of Hawaiian taxation.  The Hawaiian system levies contributions from the entire ecosystem; not just products of the ground but hand-manufactures as well as products from the forest and ocean.  And there is another division in the Hawaiian system which is invisible in Scott.  The Hawaiians not only levy necessities but items of high status: feathers from the  ‘o’o and mamo birds as well as fine handicrafts in the form of malos, woven mats, skirts, and a wide variety of tapa cloths.

This is what taxation looks like in an actual society, not in the abstract state of Scott’s imaginings.

In the light of this his image of tax collectors digging up their own tubers looks strange and perverse.  Why would Scott ever have thought such a thing?

And what about Scott’s idea that tubers cannot be the foundation of a state because they cannot be stored?  Taro, yams, and sweet potatoes were all subject to appropriation during the Makahiki.   Taro (Colocasia esculenta) was the primary food crop in ancient Hawaii.  The plant (either wet-land or dry-land) produces a tuber (a corm) after 9 months to 2 years of cultivation. When the large corm is harvested the tough rind is scraped off and the rest is baked in a Hawaiian oven (imu).  After cooking the meat is ground and mashed (with a minimum of water) into a thick paste that the Hawaiians called pai’ai.   To prepare it for eating a portion of pai’ai would be mixed with water to a desired consistency.  This poi was then consumed.  Pai'ai could be stored in calabashes, wrapped in ti (Cordyline fruticosa) leaves, or placed in baskets.  It is in the form of pai’ai, which keeps indefinitely, that taro would have been presented to the royal tax-gatherers.[14]

So Scott’s idea that tubers cannot form the basis for taxation or a state is simply false.

Nor can Scott and his supporters claim that ancient Hawaii was not a state.  In fact Hawaii, though ethnographers often overlook it, is of extreme interest.  It was one of only five or six places in the world where, with no models to follow, a true monarchy developed.[15]  More than that, unlike other primary kingships, Hawaii’s system survived until contact by modern explorers in the late eighteenth century.  And its customs, moeurs, and folk-ways could still be researched and voluminously recorded in the early nineteenth century by young western-educated Hawaiian students.  It’s no exaggeration to say that we learn more about the process of earliest state formation from Hawaii than any other culture complex. 

A shame that this did not come to Scott’s attention.


[1] For Scott’s early intellectual development and his anarchist outlook see the deeply appreciative review of Against the Grain in The Nation.  Samuel Moyn, “Barbarian Virtues”, October 5, 2017 (  And with interesting remarks about Pierre Clastres and his influence on Scott.

[2] Scott [2017]  122.

[3] idem.

[4] 268, footnote 23.  ‘My view, …, is that the state orginated as a protection racket in which one band of robbers prevailed.’    And see Moyns review alluded to in footnote 1.

[5] 23.

[6] 129.

[7] 130.

[8] 130.  And see Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale Agrarian Studies Series, [2010] esp. 195 ff. “In general, roots and tubers such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cassava/manioc/yucca are nearly appropriation-proof.  After they ripen, they can be safely left in the ground for up to two years and dug up piecemeal as needed.  There is thus no granary to plunder.  If the army or the taxmen wants your potatoes, for example, they will have to dig them up one by one.”

[9] 21.

[10] 22.

 [11] In footnote 23, pp. 268-9.  And at this point Scott appeals for support to J. Mayshar et al. [2015]  who have entertained a similar thesis. (See Joram Mayshar on for a downloadable version of this paper).  Indeed they do make similar claims: ‘…this theory also explains why complex hierarchies did not develop among non-storing societies, whether foragers or tuber-dependent farming communities’, 19.  Their thesis, like Scott’s, is false.

[12] To see how this might be done see Flannery and Marcus [2012] ‘The Rise and Fall of Hereditary Inequality in Farming Societies’, 187 ff.  Beginning on 187 they discuss a scenario involving a clan that becomes dominant.  On 191 ff. they discuss what happens in a society (in Burma, I’m surprised that Scott seems not to have heard about it) that cycles between regimes characterized by hierarchy and equality.  On pp. 199 they discuss a case of inequality arising from debt slavery.   The arguments of Flannery and Marcus may convince or not.  Either way, unlike Scott, they do grapple with the problems of how inequality, social stratification and, ultimately, the state come into being.

[13] Kirch [2012] 232.  More detail in Malo [1951] 141 ff. ‘Concerning the Makahiki’.  Also in Kirch [2010] 62-63.  And see Kamakau [1964] 20-1 who gives a more expanded list than Kirch’s:  ’pigs, dogs, fowl, poi, tapa cloth, dress tapas (‘a’ahu), ‘oloa tapa, pa’u (skirts), malos, shoulder capes (‘ahu), mats, ninikea tapa, olona fishnets, fishlines, feathers of the mamo and the ‘o’o birds, finely designed mats (‘ahu pawehe), pearls, ivory, iron (meki), adzes, and ‘whatever other property had been gathered by the konohiki, or land agent, of the ahupua’a.’  Iron items (meki) would be post-contact, during the reign of Kamehameha I.
    The Tongan inasi and the Hawaiian Makahiki have their roots in the proto-Polynesian first-fruits festival.  See Kirch [2017] 194, 214, 255.  Items appropriable in the Tongan inasi listed in Clark [2014], p. 10494, 'Imported items included yams, ...'.

[14] MacCaughey [1917] 76,  “…and pounded into a starchy paste, pai-ai.  In this form it kept indefinitely,”;  Bryan [1915] (no page numbers) “, '...; or made into good-sized bundles wrapped with ki leaves.   In this way the paiai could be kept for months at a time and was often shipped from place to place.”   Ki is the ti plant (Cordyline fruticosa).  Also cf. Huang et al. [1994] 45 and Greenwell [1947] passim.  For photographs that show the hand manufacture of poi see this.

[15] Followed closely by near-kingships and proto-kingships in the Society Islands, Samoa, and Tonga.  See Goldman [1970], on Tonga 279, on Samoa 243, and on the Societies 169.  


Bryan [1915]:  Bryan, William Alanson, B. Sc.,   Natural History of Hawai`i; Being an Account of the Hawaiian People, the Geology and Geography of the Islands, and the Native and Introduced Plants and Animals of the Group.  The Hawaiian Gazette Co., Ltd.  (no page numbers) 1915.  Online here:

Clark [2014]: Clark, Geoffrey R., Christian Reepmeyer, Nivaleti Melekiola, Jon Woodhead, William R. Dickinson, and Helene Martinsson-Wallin. 'Stone tools from the ancient Tongan state reveal prehistoric interaction centers in the Central Pacific', Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (111:29), 10491-10496, July 22, 2014.  Online here.

Flannery and Marcus [2012]:   Flannery, Kent and Joyce Marcus.  The Creation of Inequality; How our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire.  Harvard.  2012.  ISBN:  978-0-674-06469-0

Goldman [1970]:   Goldman, Irving   Ancient Polynesian Society   The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.  1970.   ISBN: 0-226-30114-1.

Greewell [1947]: Greenwell, Amy B.H.   ‘Taro: With Special Reference to Its Culture and Uses in Hawaii’, Economic Botany (1:3), 276-280, 1947.  Online:

Huang et al.[1994]: Huang, Alvin S, See Y. Lam, Tracey M. Nakayama, Hui Lin  “Microbiological and Chemical Changes in Poi Stored at 20° C”,  Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (42), 45-48, 1994.   Online here.

Kamakau [1964]:  Kamakau, Samuel Manaiakalani.   M.K. Pukui (trans.)   Ka Po’e Kahiko: The People of Old.  Bernice P. Bishop Museum Special Publication 61.  Honolulu, Hawaii.  1964.   ISBN: 978-0930897819

Kirch [2010]: Kirch, Patrick Vinton. How Chiefs Became Kings; Divine Kingship and the Rise of Archaic States in Ancient Hawaii.  University of California Press. 2010.   ISBN: 978-0-520-26725-1.

Kirch [2012]:   Kirch, Patrick Vinton. A Shark Going Inland is My Chief; The Island Civilization of Ancient Hawai’i.  University of California Press. 2012.    ISBN: 978-0-520-27330-6.

Kirch [2017]:  Kirch, Patrick Vinton   On the Road of the Winds; An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact.  University of California Press. 2017.  ISBN: 978-0-520-29281-9

Malo [1951]:  Malo, David,  Nathaniel B. Emerson (trans.).  Hawaiian Antiquities; Mo’olelo Hawai’i.  Bishop Museum Press. 1951.    ISBN: 978-0-910240-15-4.

Mayshar et al. [2015]:  Mayshar, Joram and Omer Moav, Zvika Neeman, Luigi Pascali.  “Cereals, Appropriability and Hierarchy.”  Discussion Paper No. 10742, August 2015.  Centre for Economic Policy Research. London, UK.

MacCaughey [1917]: MacCaughey, Vaughan.  The Food Plants of the Ancient Hawaiians”, The Scientific Monthly (4:1) 75-80, 1917.  Online:

Scott [2010]: Scott, James C. The Art of Not Being Governed, Yale Agrarian Studies Series, 2010.  ISBN: 978-0300169171

Scott [2017]:    Scott, James C.   Against the Grain; A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Yale University Press, 2017.    ISBN:  978-0-300-18291-0