The Seriation of Western Civilization
19 March 2015
At least four times in the history of our planet, civilization has independently emerged, and we possess a fairly detailed archaeological record of a complete series in each of these four cases of the development from the most rudimentary settled agriculturalism up to a fully developed and articulated agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This is by no means an exhaustive account of terrestrial civilization. Civilization, like life itself, is a branching bush that, once started, repeatedly bifurcates and diverges in unprecedented ways from its root stock. There are other forms of civilization, and probably other instances of independent origin. I suspect, for example, that in the Western hemisphere that a complete and independent seriation of civilization occurred at least twice, and perhaps more than twice.
Today I will not consider the phenomenon of civilization taken whole, but I will rather consider the seriation of Western civilization in isolation. As a westerner myself (well, sort of a westerner, as my people are all Scandinavian, and Scandinavian civilization, i.e., Viking Civilization, was subsumed under an expanding Western Civilization), I am understandably most interested in Western Civilization, but Western Civilization should also be interesting to anyone who studies civilization as such, due to its many unique features. I have commented elsewhere that it is today considered in bad taste to compare civilizations; nevertheless, I must run the risk of doing so in order to freely and openly discuss the features that differentiate western civilization from other civilizations — and also those features that mirror other civilizations. What makes Western Civilization unique are those unprecedented historical mutations that did not occur in other civilizations — viz. the Age of Discovery, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution — and which we then compare with other civilizations as a baseline for reference.
To spell out a bit of my conceptual framework explicitly, a cluster (as I use the term) is a geographical region comprising several closely related civilizations that have been the result of idea diffusion from a common source (or originating more-or-less simultaneously). This is a synchronic conception. A cluster contains several series. A series is a sequence of civilizations in time, related through descent with modification, more or less laid end to end, and inhabiting more or less the same geographical region or geographical trajectory. Civilizations in a common series are related by inheritance. This is a diachronic conception. Civilizations in a cluster are synchronically related to each other; civilizations in a series are diachronically related to each other. Thus from the West Asian Cluster there emerges the series that becomes western civilization as it projects itself along a continual western trajectory out of Mesopotamia and the Levant.
Civilizational series admit of what archaeologists call seriation. In so saying I am using the term more comprehensively that is usual. Seriation has been defined as:
A relative dating technique in which artifacts or features are organized into a sequence according to changes over time in their attributes or frequency of appearance. The technique shows how these items have changed over time and it is a way to establish chronology. Archaeological material, such as assemblages of pottery or the grave goods deposited with burials is arranged into chronological order. The types that make up the assemblages to be ordered in this way must be from the same archaeological tradition and from a single region or locality. Once the variations in a particular object have been classified by typology, it can often be shown that they fall into a developmental series, sometimes in a single line, sometimes in branching lines more as in a family tree. The order produced is theoretically chronological, but needs archaeological assessment. Outside evidence, such as dating of two or more stages in the development, may be needed to determine which is the first and which the last member of the series.
Kipfer, Barbara Ann, Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology, New York: Springer, 2000, p. 505
It is atypical to apply seriation to an entire civilization, and in fact it could be said that I am misusing the term, as the definition above cites “artifacts or features,” and a civilization is neither an artifact or a feature in the usual senses of these terms, but includes both of them and more and better besides. The power of seriation is that once you have an understanding of a developmental sequence, you can “connect the dots” when a people have moved location, identifying when a particular developmental stage terminates at one location and then picks up again at another location. Such a developmental trajectory moving ever westward characterizes the origins and development of western civilization.
In my post on The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State I noted that I called the many civilizations having their origins in Mesopotamia and the Levant the West Asian Cluster. Western civilization has its earliest origins in the West Asian Cluster, and in the earliest years of the rudimentary civilization that emerged here we find a network of family resemblances that overlap and intersect (to borrow a Wittgensteinian phrase). The earliest known site in the West Asian Cluster that has clear evidence of large scale social cooperation, and therefore can be considered a distant ancestor to civilization — proto-civilization, if you will — is Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Anatolia. Thought to be a ritual center predating even settled agriculture (specifically, Prepottery Neolithic A, or PPNA), the site has impressive megalithic architecture. Let us take this as the point of origin for civilization in the West Asian Cluster — it is our best scientific knowledge as of the present for the origins of our civilization.
Several hundred miles west of Göbekli Tepe is Çatal Hüyük, a famous Neolithic site often identified as the first urban settlement on our planet. (According to Google Maps it takes 138 hours to walk the 670 km from one site to the other. If one could walk 8 hours per day, it would take 17 days to make the journey. If you walked fast, you might make a round trip in one moon.) Çatal Hüyük has been extensively studied, though not fully excavated, and while the life of the people would have been extremely rudimentary by the measures of what we call civilization today, it nevertheless possesses all the essential elements of civilization: an urban settlement supported by agricultural suburbs, with division of labor, art and religion, and trade with neighboring peoples.
The next famous site on this westward trajectory is that of Pločnik in present-day Serbia. The settlement (perhaps town) of Pločnik represents what is called the First Temperate Neolithic. In other words, the techniques of farming in Mesopotamia and the Levant that characterized the agricultural revolution as it was first realized in this cluster were adapted for use in a temperate climate, and this both demanded and inspired further technological innovations. Pločnik may be the first site at which extractive metallurgy was practiced with the production of copper and bronze implements and decorative items.
If you look at the relationship of Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik on a map, you will see that the path takes you through Thrace and present-day Bulgaria. When I noticed this, I did some research to find out about Neolithic archaeology in Bulgaria, and, sure enough, there were remains of the right age located almost exactly between Çatal Hüyük and Pločnik, so that one can literally see in the archaeological remains of material culture the trajectory of peoples as they emerged from subtropical climate of Mesopotamia and passed through Anatolia on their way north and west.
As settled agriculture gained a foothold in the Balkan Peninsula, the region was a quiet backwater for thousands of years as spectacular civilizations still known for the monumental architecture rose and fell in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Anatolia. Little of note seemed to be happening as a result of the humble farming communities of the First Temperate Neolithic in the Balkans, until a new kind of civilization took shape in Greece. The Greeks, never shy to own their accomplishments, knew that they had created a new kind of civilization very different from the Persians on their border, whom they repeatedly and heroically resisted.
The cultural heritage of Greece, and especially the art, architecture, philosophy, and literature of Athens and Attica was projected back into West Asia by the conquests of Alexander the Great, but Alexander died young, and while the impress of Greek civilization can still be detected in West Asia where Alexander’s troops marched all the way to India, the tradition of Greek civilization was taken in another direction once again farther West, when Roman power emerged as the dominant political regime in the Mediterranean Basin. When Alexander’s unsustainable empire was divided after his death, Greece proper, with all its rich cultural traditions, was conquered by the Romans, who had a great enthusiasm for Greek civilization. It became a fashion among wealthy collectors to seek out the finest examples of Corinthian pottery, in a way that is precisely parallel to the tastes of antiquarians in our own time.
The Roman Empire represents the greatest spatial expansion and the longest temporal duration of the civilizations directly derived from the West Asian Cluster, with the possible exception of Islamic civilization, but in each of these cases there is a question as to what constitutes “direct” derivation from the West Asian source. Only with the collapse of Roman power in the west and the admixture of elements from the West Asia Cluster with indigenous European cultures do we see the emergence of a distinctly western civilization. Rather than ex oriente lux, a light from the east illuminating western barbarism, we have in occidente lux, the ancient light of eastern civilization given new life as it enters into Europe. And by this time in history, the original five clusters of civilization had repeatedly bifurcated and had begotten a range of mixed civilizations that were to confront western civilization as it began its relentless global expansion.
When Roman power collapsed in the west, the empire divided and civilization bifurcated. In the east, the empire became more Greek in character, and Byzantine civilization emerged. In the west, those traditions transmitted from Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Greece, and the Roman Mediterranean once again migrated further west and in so doing found themselves in the midst of the inhospitable barbarism of Western Europe. For all Europe’s early productivity of what archaeologists call “cultures” (and which I would call proto-civilizations, if not civilization simpliciter), Europe did not make the breakthrough to civilization proper, but had to wait for the examples of the West Asian Cluster to show it the way to civilization by way of idea diffusion (which I would now, following Cadell Last, prefer to call idea flow).
In the farthest western peninsula of Eurasia Western Civilization finally took on its definitive and distinctive form as a new civilization arose and became what we now call medieval Europe. But this was not the end. At the farthest western edge of this western peninsula of Eurasia, on an island jutting into the Atlantic, the industrial revolution began in the final quarter of the eighteen century, and this was to inaugurate an entirely new kind of civilization — industrial-technological civilization — that is even today consolidating its planetary expansion. This industrialized civilization leapt over the Atlantic Ocean and found in North America especially fertile soil in which to grow, and so Western Civilization continued in its westward migration. Now that industrial-technological civilization has expanded on a planetary scale, civilization has nowhere to go but upward and outward. When this happens, another novel form of civilization will take shape.
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