constituting political authority in ancient China & Mesopotamia

“Once upon a time, the editorial page of the New York Times set the political agenda for the U.S.,” began the old man. That sounds like a highly undemocratic fairy tale in this Age of Digg (AD). Today, Google is offering Australian Federal Election tools, Youtube is running You Choose ’08, Yahoo is mashing up its own efforts, and the political clout of dailyKos appears to be rapidly approaching that of AARP. A significant share of persons appear to be highly interested in discussing politics with other like-minded persons. They now have much greater capability to do that.

The rise of civilizations in ancient China illustrates the importance of communication. The development of enduring social stratification among lineages living in the same location, the organization of lineages into geographical units and large warrior groups, and the development of writing all emerged in ancient China by the Longshan period 5000 to 4000 years ago. Rather than being a result of developments in productive technology and trade, these developments seem to have been products of the emergence of socially recognized, highly valued communications capabilities.[1]

part of Liu Ding from Shang Dynasty
Kings in ancient China emerged as those persons with special capabilities for communicating with ancestors and spirits. Kings had the right family connections and reputations for merit. More importantly, however, they performed rituals offerings, read oracle bones, and possessed elaborately designed bronze tripods (dings, also transcribed as tings). Dings were expensive and scarce. They embodied animals that, used skillfully, were apparently powerful means for communicating with ancestors and spirits.[2] Persons who sought effective communication with ancestors and spirits had to serve the king.

New findings hint that exclusive communication capabilities may also have been important in the rise of cities in northern Mesopotamia. Tell Brak in northeastern Syria, which eventually became the ancient city of Nagar, developed as a city from about 6200 years ago. A high-density central region developed, but so did “clusters of occupied space interspersed with vacant zones.” The total settlement area was nearly twenty times larger than other settlement areas of the time.[3]

Subsequent development expanded outer settlements inward. The researchers who documented these developments observed:

The spatial separation between settlement clusters suggests social distance between discrete subcommunities. … At Brak, clustering may have resulted from maintenance of social distance by immigrant groups. Existing social mechanisms may not have been able to sustain increased density in a nucleated form.

The researchers suggest that urbanism at Brak was “at least in part the unintended result of the actions of autonomous and nonhierarchically ranked groups.”[4]

Tell Brak clearly was a center of trade and industry. The central mound included large industrial structures. One building in the central mound contained “grinding stones, big ovens, basalt pounders, carefully crafted stone and bone tools, flint and obsidian blades, mother-of-pearl inlay, and clay spindle whorls.” A structure from about a century later contained piles of obisidian imported from Anatolia, as well as imported jasper, marble, serpentine, and diorite stones.[5]

But Tell Brak was more than just a center of trade and industry. Archaeologists found a “unique stone chalice”: “a chalice with a white marble base and black obsidian bowel held together at its seam with bitumen.”[6] An excavation in 1937-38 uncovered what’s called the “Eye Temple”:

The temple, built ca 3500–3300 BCE, was named for the hundreds of small alabaster “eye idol” figurines, which were incorporated into the mortar with which the mudbrick temple was constructed. The building’s surfaces were richly decorated with clay cones, copper panels and gold work, in a style comparable to contemporary temples of Sumer. [Wikipedia]

Tell Brak became a highly stratified ritual center in addition to being a center of trade and industry. While the Eye Temple is dated much later than the growth of the city, it may have had significant but yet undiscovered antecedents.

Like the development of civilization in ancient China, the development of Tell Brak may have depended on widespread interest in gaining access to scarce communication capabilities (persons and technologies). Small groups might hear accounts that a person or persons at Tell Brak could communicate with spirits whom members of the small group themselves could not contact. They might go to Tell Brak to investigate, settling close enough for observation and investigation, but not so close as to create friction in ordinary communication with the strangers living there.

owl-shaped ancient Chinese bronze zun
Shared interests and new communications capabilities together seems to have reshaped cities and civilizations. Discussing politics using web-based communications technologies can have a large effect on political authority.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1], Chang, Kwang-Chih (1989) “Ancient China and its anthropological significance,” pp. 155-66 in C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, ed., Archaeological thought in America Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Chang, Kwang-Chih (1983) Art, myth, and ritual: the path to political authority in ancient China. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

[3] Ur, Jason A., Philip Karsgaard, and Joan Oates (2007) “Early Urban Development in the Near East,” Science v. 317 (31 Aug) p. 1188.

[4] Id.

[5] Lawler, Andrew (2007) “Murder in Mesopotamia?” Science v. 317 (31 Aug) p. 1165.

[6] Id.

COB-15: young government leaders

Naturing leaders is important for any bureaucracy. This month the Carnival of the Bureaucrats encourages government bureaucrats to join Young Government Leaders:

YGL is a professional organization of young men and women employed by the Federal Government. Our mission is to educate, inspire, and transform the current and future leaders of the Federal Government. … Our organization is committed to serving as a coordinated voice for the current and future generations of young government leaders by providing a community of leadership through professional development activities, networking opportunities, social events and seminars.

YGL’s About Us page adds:

This organization will advocate for the unique needs of young government employees and provide value, structure, resources, and a voice to the next generation of Federal Government employees.

Here at the Carnival of the Bureaucrats, we have been providing a voice to all bureaucrats. As numerous studies submitted to federal government agencies indicate, Federal Government employees are especially important bureaucrats. We are proud to support the Young Government Leaders in that organization’s ongoing efforts to further our common mission of advancing and deepening our efforts to highlight the importance of skilled and talented bureaucrats taking the initiative to create next-generation networks and bureaucracies for twenty-first century communication needs.

The form for joining YGL is available online. The FAQ page describes qualifications required for membership:

Young Government Leaders (YGL) does not have a specific age limit to be eligible for the group. YGL identifies potential members as those that identify themselves as “young government leaders.” Generally, our members range from 22-40, but we accept members of all ages.

Thinking of oneself as a young leader can be self-affirming and empowering. Everyone should take that first step to joining Young Government Leaders!

Among other entries this month, Goddess discusses workplace burnout. She remarks, “What’s really the cause of workplace burnout? Here’s how to tell if you are symptomatic and how to do something about it!” Burnout could happen to young government leaders. Don’t let it happen to you!

TinkerX discusses writing, which is a bureaucratic function second in importance only to attending meetings. The author produces hand-crafted love sonnets, wedding toasts, previous life bios for cats, long, harsh insults, as well as short insults. At least some bureaucrats would like to deploy on occasion a long, harsh insult, but professional bureaucratic decorum prohibits said deployment.

Eric Michael Johnson at The Primate Diaries explains The Downstream Effects of Biopiracy. The header for this blog depicts a primate typing on an old-fashioned typewriter. Given the history of insulting bureaucrats as hidebound buffoons (which I believe are related to baboons), I initially decided to reject this submission as violating the spirit of Rule 6 of the Carnival of the Bureaucrats’ regulations. However, on reconsideration, the image at issue appears to refer to the creator of the blog. It does not appear to be intended as an insult to bureaucrats. Thus this submission has been tentatively accepted into this month’s Carnival.

Matt Waite at discusses the development of project ideas. He declares, “A demo gets a lot farther than a memo.” This silly idea probably comes from Mr. Waite’s youthfulness. With more experience in a traditional media bureaucracy, Mr. Waite is sure to learn that only editing memos advances one’s career further than writing them.

That concludes this month’s Carnival of the Bureaucrats. Submit your blog article to the next edition using our Carnival submission form. Submissions should conform to the Carnival regulations. Past posts and future hosts can be found on the Carnival index page.


ballerina vision

The elegance and base allure of this pencil drawing appealed to my impure heart. The drawing appeared as shown above in the Art for Justice section of Washington’s finest paper, Street Sense. But the drawing had been accidentally cropped on the left. In the original drawing, the full reflection of the dancer is visible to the left, as well as further to the left the right side of a piano.

The artist, Thomas, is a prisoner in the Wende Correctional Facility in New York State. That’s a maximum security prison that imprisons only men. On the back of the drawing, he explained it this way:

different points of view, back view, and reflection in mirror, front view, also, exercise in light and darkness (value scale) and shadows!

That, for most of us, is a true depiction of the human psyche.

ballerina reflections

strength of memory

On September 11 in Arlington, Virginia, John Bul Dau spoke about the torments he experienced in Sudan and about his efforts to help others in Sudan have a better life. Many persons at one time or another have agonized, “How can I go on?” Mr. Dau offered an unforgettable testimony of perseverance through dire circumstances, unfathomable injustices, and great suffering.

Mr. Dau immigrated to the U.S. five years ago as a young man. He moved from a Kenyan refugee camp teeming with tribal brothers with whom he had endured long, brutal treks and years of communal living, to apartment living and to working with a middle-aged woman in a factory in Syracuse, New York. Isolation and loneliness, that American nightmare, could have overwhelmed him.

Mr. Dau said that now, here in America, he is living the American dream. Here he has bodily safety, sufficient food, basic health care, and the opportunity to attend school. These are goods that he, like many persons around the world, lacked. But there’s more. Mr. Dau formed a foundation that built a 13-room medical clinic in Duk County, in the state of Jonglei in southern Sudan. His foundation is now working to fund and build five additional health and education facilities in Sudan.

Yorktown High School students, who hosted Mr. Dau’s talk, are contributing to the effort to build a school in Sudan. If you too want to contribute, go to the John Dau Sudan Foundation website.