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The Rise of the State in Europe

Our Ancestors the Europeans

The question of the birth of the State has for a long time suffered a penury of documentary sources. Now archeology is stepping in to fill the gap with more precise information.

The birth of the State was a long and complex process and not easy to study. For one thing, historical sources (documentary by definition) appeared at the same time as the State, since writing is essential to this form of organisation. For another, ethnographic observations were overtaken by the process of acculturation in those non-European societies where the movement towards complex organisation was the  most advanced. It is in fact archeology that is currently supplying the decisive details on the subject; the degree and scale of political integration, the economic foundations and the nature of power in a society can all be got at through observing spatial configurations of sites. Collecting this information, however, entails excavation of large sites and intensive coverage of a chosen region.

Using conventional methods, archeologists have brought to light social hierarchies as portrayed by the scale and pomp of buildings and tombs. They have detected States by pointing up the existence of an administration through inventories, seals, letters of trade, coins, etc. But if the chronology of State-building events is now well established, the understanding of what caused the rise of the State is not yet at that point. Work has been undertaken in the valley of the Aisne to learn more about the cause of the State, by linking preventive archeological excavation sites with programmed digs.

Scientists are probing the evidence provided by the traces of all occupation of sites, including the humblest dwellings, over a long time frame, and are finding that the State emerged well before Roman influence took hold. The State arose through a remarkably discontinuous process based on an a priori intensification of agriculture. The local economic tissue, adapted to specific bio-climatic conditions, was the basis for establishing cities and for the maintenance of the apparatus of State government. In this way, a chronology of the emergence of the State in Europe has been established.




Patrice Brun
Senior scientist at the CNRS
Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité
CNRS-Universités Paris I et X

Jean-Paul Demoule
Professor at universities
Archéologies et sciences de l'Antiquité
CNRS-Universités Paris I et X

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