Articles of interest
27th March 2023
Book in Focus
Bronze Age Egypt and Globalisation
By David A. Warburton
Globalisation and World-Systems
I am quite surprised whenever I come across something like an Atlas of Innovations where there is a map of Prehistoric halberds restricted exclusively to Europe – when everyone should know that people in China had a long tradition of using such implements. And yet, as the map shows, apparently not everyone is interested: not even those who should be. The same applies when I come across an account of global economic history that begins with European voyages of exploration – detailing when Europeans discovered the markets of Asia and brought an end to the overland Silk Road with sailing vessels. Thus, “globalisation” was part of an economic change whereby Europe gradually became a part of economic history: in other words, it was not the beginning of economic history.
Obviously, it is true that things only got truly “global” in recent centuries with imperialism after these voyages, but it is also equally obviously to say there was extensive contact within Eurasia before the Europeans arrived and before real globalisation began. Evidently, not everyone is so keen to proclaim that there was something before Europe, and thus defining the global as being truly global was one way to avoid stressing non-European contributions. Yet, by making an archaeological distribution map that included Eurasia, whilst giving the impression that something not distinctly European is an exclusively European phenomenon, hints at a very peculiar mindset. However, this is the current trend.
I still think it is strange to think of “globalisation” when it is not really global, but somehow the term is evidently used today as if connections between different regions in the distant past are automatically global. Perhaps this is because the world was not supposed to be interconnected before the Europeans arrived and connected the dots. Archaeologists lived in closed systems (i.e. academic departments) before “interdisciplinary” activities became popular and archaeologists wanted to edge their way in.
My own role in Archaeology is primarily concerned with the period before the Romans and in Egyptology much further back. Thus, no one would turn to me and ask me to write about “globalisation” as we really understand it today, in the sense of truly global interconnections. Yet I was an obvious candidate for their focus since I felt as at home digging in Switzerland, Syria or Yemen, and much the same when dealing with Celtic artifacts or talking about Japanese architecture – things that are quite different from writing about Bronze Age Egyptian economics, politics, religion and language. An academic expert in different areas, operating in a world of intense competition and specialisation, is obviously an oddity and only occasionally turns out to be useful.
[An unfortunately but necessary interruption for a clarification: the Bronze Age in the Near East lasted from roughly 3500-1200 BC. The Near Eastern Middle Bronze Age (roughly 2000-1500 BC) is the predecessor of the Late Bronze Age world (ca. 1500-1200 BC), the time in which Egypt became a major international player. The Middle Bronze Age in Central Asia dates back earlier, and the Late Bronze Age in Europe comes later. The term “Bronze Age” is rarely applied to China although it probably produced far more beautiful bronzes than anyone else, and its Shang Dynasty Civilisation started during the Near Eastern Bronze Age. As such, my chronological frame of reference deals only (and very roughly in terms of accurate dates!) with the Near Eastern Bronze Age.]
But what can one say honestly about Egypt in the Bronze Age?! The fact is that in the second half of the second millennium BC, Egypt was a pivotal member of the world’s oldest international political constellation and was thus central to a political and economic “world-system” before the world was global. Obviously, in this sense, the process of globalisation is a long, drawn-out affair because the idea of a “World-System”, which includes all of the major actors, goes back to an era before important political entities were present all around the globe. Even at that time, in the late second millennium BC, China was beginning to grow, but it was not tightly bound to the members of the Bronze Age Near Eastern system that had been developing since the later fourth millennium BC.
From archaeological sources, it is well known that, at earliest, the third millennium Near Eastern system included regions from Mesopotamia and the Gulf, Iran and Central Asia, and even reached the Aegean, the Levant, Egypt and Nubia. However, first of all, at the earliest stage not all of these member regions were as closely bound as they would be during the tight international community of the late second millennium BC, and second of all, even for the third millennium BC, there is still debate about where the textually known names of these various regions belonged. Thus, we can confirm that the rulers of the Akkadian Empire marched as far as Anatolia in the West, as well as the Gulf and Iran to the South-East, and that they traded with the Indus Civilisation as well. However, we cannot really identify exactly how and where interactions took place on a routine basis, except for some clearly localised places such as Ebla in Syria and Anshan in southern Iran.
The political and economic world of the Near East in the first half of the second millennium – after the collapse of the Ur III Empire and the Indus Civilisation – was fragmentary in comparison with that of the third millennium and the late second millennium BC. And thus, Hammurabi’s Babylon was but a shadow of the empires that came before and after.
During the many long centuries between the establishment of the first state in southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC and the destruction of Babylon by the Hittites in the middle of the second, Egypt had gradually established itself as an independent state in Africa and remained largely aloof from Mesopotamia. Only in the aftermath of the Hyksos occupation of northern Egypt did Egypt come into close contact with the powers of the Near East.
In this sense – although a late-comer to the tightly knit Near Eastern World that had been gradually developing for two millennia – one can justifiably treat Bronze Age Egypt as a member of the world’s first easily recognisable political World-System. This is the condition through which I found a justification for writing a book about Ancient Egypt and globalisation.
When I set about this, I figured that one should provide a context so readers could understand what archaeologists and philologists think about that world. I have tried to keep that limited to details of which there could not be a great deal of debate. And yet, almost everything I say is contentious, including the very calendar dates that are essential for anyone to understand what was going on.
At the same time, I also figured that one could see how Ancient Egypt contributed to the real globalisation of our own global world.
Having studied Egyptology at the University of Basel, Switzerland, David A. Warburton has advanced degrees in Near Eastern Archaeology from the Universities of Berne, Switzerland, and Paris I, France. He has participated in archaeological fieldwork in Egypt, France, Iraq, Switzerland, Syria, and Yemen, as well as having taught Egyptology and Near Eastern Archaeology at public universities in Austria, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Germany, and Switzerland. Among other things, he is the author of State and Economy in Ancient Egypt (1997) and Egypt and the Near East (2001), and editor of The Earliest Economic Growth in World History (2022).
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