Prehistoric Poliorcetics: Fortified Communities Found In Siberia Date To 8,000 BC
Primitive castle-builders used ditches and palisades
An archaeological survey conducted in 2019 discovered ten Stone Age houses in what is now West Siberia. One group of “pit-houses” was surrounded by a ditch-and-palisade construction. Resembling other communities uncovered in the region, the “Amnya complex” will “contribute to the critical re-appraisal of narratives of linear pathways to social change increasingly explored in both scientific and popular debates,” according to Antiquity.
Stratigraphic evidence from the house pits points to the repeated destruction of the settlement by fire, a phenomenon also observed at other early enclosed sites in the region and thought to be connected to violent conflict.
The authors of this paper are convinced that their findings are a study of territoriality and violence in what would have been productive lands, year-round, for ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherers. Their argument is explicitly political, pointing to the arguments of the late anthropologist David Graeber as they replace the “evolutionary” view of prehistory (read: capitalism and the state) with a “diversified” (read: communist and stateless) view of prehistory.
I kid, I kid. Sort of. What’s really happening here is the New Diffusionist view of human history. Which, you know, fine. Bring on the science that shows me humans built boats before we were humans, the science that shows humans built wooden structures before we were humans, the science that shows humans were in the Americas thousands of years before we imagined. But the authors ought to run their work past a military historian for comment.
“Research on defensive architecture has traditionally fallen within the remit of studies of agricultural, pre-state and state societies,” they write. This is true, but only of archaeology, which is to say the academic study of prehistory, which is not always good at recognizing defensive planning. For example, the Amnya Complex is not as old as Göbeklitepe. Only recently have archaeologists realized that the clustered houses of Göbekli Tepe, which is more than a thousand years older than Amnya, have shared blank outer walls for mutual defense. Walls close out the world in any era.
Where the authors have at least begun from an understanding that abundance created the possibility of social inequality, and therefore violent conflict, they err by assuming that the academy has settled on state formation as the only possible way to explain the appearance of fortifications.
On the contrary, in his 1992 book The Medieval Siege, historian Jim Bradbury writes that “that the emergence of 'castles' was in most cases simply the improvement of the defences of existing defended residences.” We moderns are the ones who see a strict separation of public and private property. Things were different, then.
Put another way, people invented walls to protect their private property, often with the aid of a community, but then human ingenuity outran any single person or family’s or clan’s ability to cope with change. Despite the authors’ best efforts, they are showing us an evolutionary development.
Economic historians may refer to primitive fortifications as a form of insurance value. In the military history biz, we call this a “military revolution” story and argue about what constitutes a revolution versus an evolution.
Fortification-building may simply be another part of the original human toolkit, like seafaring and house-building, that has advanced far beyond its origins. Examples of ‘comital castles’ from Medieval Europe are not far advanced from prehistoric ditch-and-palisade structures. Many 17th century fortified manors also stood on top of older motte-and-bailey constructions.
A man’s home is his castle, Sir Edward Coke declared in 1644. That same year, parliamentary troops were repulsed in another bloody attempt on the fortified manor known as Basing House, home to the Marquess of Winchester. Standing on a natural site to command a major crossroad, the manor grounds appear to have been inhabited since the Stone Age and were first fortified during the 13th century with a motte-and-bailey castle. Dirt ramparts and a broad ditch reinforced the obsolete brick walls in the 17th century, making Basing House a small, yet formidable artillery fortress during the English Civil War. When a real army did show up with a real siege train, however, Basing House was doomed. Any small castle was doomed. No man’s castle could withstand a determined attacker forever, especially if they had powerful guns. During the 17th century, European aristocrats altogether stopped building personal castles for defense, as there was no point anymore, and competed instead at building castles for show — palaces. The age of Versailles loomed. Crenellations and battlements became aesthetic elements while the machicolations for arrowfire disappeared, as there were no ememies under these towers and walls. The private defensive castle vanished, the centralized state rose, and the decline of European aristocracy began. Cannons had resolved the motte-and-bailey arguments of provincialism. The metropole had conquered.
“The complex may have been structured as a fortified ‘citadel’ with a type of outer ‘bailey’,” the authors of the Antiquity article write. “Located in the northern taiga of the Lower Ob’ region, the settlement occupies a sandy spit above a marshy river floodplain” — ideal for a defended point of control, if someone were centralizing authority with a local fortification.
Difficult to approach by stealth using a large force, or without getting wet, or getting past all the other houses on the promontory first before reaching the largest, which lay at the tip of the promontory, enclosed by the banks and ditches, this was a primitive gated community, not a commune.
“Ten further house pits, located approximately 50m to the east, comprise the open settlement of Amnya II,” they observe, because successful communities will always outgrow their walls in a generation or two, while there are always slaves and servants to house. Humans were a form of wealth, in this world, but defenses are always in limited supply, with the highest demand only when it is too late to construct them.
There are other reasons for building walls. “Ostensibly defensive architecture, as the long-term construction of space, can likewise have parallel functions, serving as landmarks in collective memory and identity,” the authors note. True, and this is visible in art, for example Simone Martini’s Guidoriccio da Fogliano at the Siege of Montemassi. As it is a large indoor fresco, we might even compare it to a cave painting. Statehood has evolved out of some sense of shared identity, often civic in scope, for as long as there have been cities and states.
“Increasing political differentiation is not necessarily accompanied by greater wealth inequality, however, and defensive architecture can also be coordinated without a centralised authority.” The latter statement is true. For example, the Italian bourgeoisie could organize republican defenses without princes, since architects could be hired from a ready market. It is also true that political differentiation — diversity, or complexity, choose your term — does not necessarily create inequality or conflict. Where the authors go wrong is to treat wealth inequality as the only kind of inequality that ever creates a conflict.
Blood feud, wife-stealing, raiding, and even ideological conquest are all far older than written words, meaning older than history. Status is a resource. Historically, men have fought for status and then blamed other causes for their wars.
Military history offers an “evolutionary view” of primitive poliorcetics: family-sized groups invented protective construction before agriculture; successful communities developed more elaborate defenses as the Neolithic farming revolution spread through the Old World; those advances accumulated in the hands of all actors, public and private, until the advent of gunpowder artillery and globalization made them hideously expensive.
Thereafter, fortification for gunpowder warfare required the intervention of large, centralized actors — states and other entities with access to capital, such as the East India Company. As early gunpowder fortification appeared in northern Italy first, spreading through Europe, western examples are all classified as trace Italienne.
Instead of this picture, which is focused on explaining the state, the authors of the paper see a cultural toolkit that diffused over this region and others (“diversified”) simultaneously in prehistory. “The world's oldest-known promontory fort: Amnya and the acceleration of hunter-gatherer diversity in Siberia 8000 years ago” has not abolished property. Rather, the authors relocate the concept of property before the invention of farming, and suggest experiment and development took place before the famous river valley civilizations.
“Working towards the creation and defence of fortified settlements would have enabled the development of stronger group unity and internal cohesion,” they note. Again this is partly true; the wealthy citizens of London built the largest city walls in Europe over just seven months in a fit of Puritan piety. Building walls is totally a bourgeois thing, you see. It requires organization. Anyone who argues otherwise has never built a large fortification.
The proletariat can be recruited for throwing up barricades or digging countermines or emergency ramparts, indeed they can be coerced or enticed to build entire fortresses, but the common folk never really organize things.
Professionals draw plans. Supervision is required. The more advanced the threat, the less democratic your defenses will be. Walled London featured guardhouses, gates, river chains, and chain-posts to shut down any riots in the city streets. Walls mark the boundaries of control as well as safety.
From their first appearance, then, whenever the heck that was, walls and ditches were of course property themselves, and high-visibility property, for that matter. Conspicuous consumption has its purposes.
At Amnya I, the largest house in the community is at the safest point of the defensive plan, commanding the surrounding real estate. The architecture speaks to hierarchy and ownership. There is no primitive Marx to be seen here. Amnya I stands claim to the rich lands around the Amnya complex. It was meant to be seen.
All defensive fortifications exist to manage risks; the layout of the complex is consistent with risk management in a world of raiding activity. An attacker must either storm the complex to risk high casualties, or lay siege to it for some length of time, consuming more lives and resources than any battle. Primitive cities and states understood that their walls could not stop a determined enemy with unlimited resources. Princes and armies preferred to take a city all at once, by storm, if they could. Thus, defenses served to buy time for both sides to mitigate risk.
This transactionalism in siege warfare (“poliorcetics”) predates the invention of money or capitalism. Both of those things were arguably invented to make transactional disputes more peaceful. To quote myself again:
Leaders fight over hierarchies and resent humiliations by one another all the time. Unfair systems of exchange, or perceptions of unfair exchange, create enmity. We are used to thinking of Assyrians as bloodthirsty, for example, and they could be, yet this reputation is overblown. They preferred siege to battle because it turned a war into a haggling session at the souk. The final result depended on how both leaders managed risks.
The authors of the Antiquity article postulate that the “8.2 ka BP cooling event,” which finally ended the Paleolithic ice ages, made the lands around the Amnya complex productive year-round. Abundant fish and game protein, pottery for storing food, trade goods such as antler horn, and access to neighbors with other resources: these advantages led to something like civilization, except there were no taxes yet. At least not the kind we can see in archaeology, as with coins.
Taxation is of course theft by the state. It is also a hallmark of civilization. Indeed, taxation is how civilization solved the problem of its own defense. Abundance creates inequality that invites theft and violence against the whole community. Prior to the invention of money, societies used systems of labor taxation to construct defenses. Conscription to defend the walls is also a form of taxation. Theft is much older than taxation, indeed taxation evolved out of the need to protect property from theft.
The fortification of personal property thus developed (“evolved”) in tandem with fortification for collective defense at every stage of culture, whenever populations and resources became concentrated. Control, even centralized control, as well as local leadership — chief, prince, or committee — have always been parts of the ‘toolkit’ that cultures develop in response to threats of attack. We need not problematize this understanding of our poliorcetic past. The present model works just fine.
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