Metal Production in the Land of the Golden Fleece: Economic Organization and Technological Change in the South Caucasus, 1500-500 BC
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CitationErb-Satullo, Nathaniel L. 2016. Metal Production in the Land of the Golden Fleece: Economic Organization and Technological Change in the South Caucasus, 1500-500 BC. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractAnalyzing the causes and consequences of technological change is essential not only for the reconstruction of ancient social dynamics, but also for understanding how present-day societies confront the process of innovation. A central issue in the study of innovation is the effect of existing sociotechnical systems on the development of new technologies. In studying the emergence of iron technologies in the Near East, many scholars have theorized about the relationship between bronze and iron, comparing their relative geological availability, organization of production, and modes of distribution in an attempt to explain the rise of iron. The Caucasus is an ideal place to explore the impact of a well-established, large-scale bronze industry on the development of iron technology. Drawing on both social constructionist approaches to technology and theories of innovation diffusion, this dissertation considers whether established traditions of metallurgical practice engendered conservatism, or whether the existence of communities of metalworkers skilled in pyrotechnology stimulated the emergence and spread of iron.
Field survey, test excavation, laboratory analysis, and museum research were undertaken to explore how bronze production influenced the adoption of iron in the southeastern Black Sea region, known as Colchis by the ancient Greeks. Field survey of metal production landscapes revealed a highly dispersed distribution of small copper and iron smelting sites. Radiocarbon dating of these sites showed that copper smelting remains clustered in the period 1300-800 BC, while the earliest direct evidence for iron production comes from the mid-late 1st millennium BC. A detailed reconstruction of the technologies of iron and copper smelting, based on optical microscopy (reflected and transmitted light), scanning electron microscopy, and chemical analysis (SEM-EDS, pXRF, and WDS-XRF), highlighted specific techniques in the practice of copper smelting that would have facilitated learning and aided the spread of iron technologies. The integration of spatial and chemical data using GIS showed that there was little direct coordination of production activities between sites. The highly dispersed character of all stages of bronze production suggests that, in spite of its large aggregate scale and shared technological koiné, the industry operated in the absence of an overarching authority. This mode of production contrasts with other areas of the Near East, where contemporary copper smelting landscapes show a correlation between centralization, scale, and top-down control.
These results have significant implications for the rise of iron. A reexamination of its chronology in Colchis shows that iron was adopted following a massive expansion of bronze production. The existence of a community of practice based on common traditions of bronze manufacturing likely inhibited the early spread of iron in the region, but resulted in relatively rapid adoption once it was accepted as a culturally appropriate material. During the 8th-6th centuries BC, centralization of social networks through collective grave rituals and the emergence of sanctuary sites created an environment of elite competition and public display of metal wealth, accelerating the adoption of new metals. The result is that the earlier tradition of bronze production was neither purely inhibiting nor purely encouraging of innovation. Rather, its influence shifted, perhaps abruptly, sometime after 800 BC. Traditions of technical knowledge facilitated the rapid spread of iron use, but these effects were contingent upon important shifts in broader social and ritual practices. This research demonstrates that the influence of complex technical systems on innovation is not constant, and that seemingly minor shifts in social relations can abruptly alter the pace and pattern of technological change.
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