Monday, October 31, 2016


Adam T. Smith, The Political Machine: Assembling Sovereignty in the Bronze Age Caucasus. The Rostovtzeff Lectures. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. xv, 242. ISBN 9780691163239. $39.50.

Reviewed by Geoffrey D. Summers, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago (

Version at BMCR home site


Both size and format of the book under review reflect its origins in the four Rostovtzeff Lectures that its author, Adam T. Smith, presented at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in April 2013. A combination of political theory, material objects and assemblages at the core of archaeology, and a testing bed for explanations in the Caucasus could hardly have been a more fitting subject; Rostovtzeff himself would surely have approved. It should be said at the outset that this is a book focussed on archaeological theory rather than on the archaeology of the Caucasus. The objectives are clearly set out in a 23-page introduction entitled "Reverse Engineering the Polity". The rest of the book is divided into two equal parts. "Part I: The Machinery of Sovereignty" comprises two chapters, "On Assemblages and Machines", and "On the Matter of Sovereignty". These, as the chapter titles indicate, are mostly concerned with theory of things and assemblages and their relationships to the political. "Part II: Assembling Sovereignty" attempts to employ the theoretical ideas explored in Part I in seeking explanations for major stages of cultural and socio-political development in the Bronze age Caucasus as defined by analysis and interpretation of archaeological evidence, with a chapter devoted to each of the Early, Middle, and Late, Caucasian Bronze Ages. Part II ends with a concluding chapter, followed by a bibliography and an index.

On p. ix it is stated that a "central contention of the book is that this work of socio-political reproduction is accomplished in large measure by the operation of material assemblages, what I will call machines", and a couple of pages later Smith poses his central question "What role do material assemblages play in binding political associations, in reproducing the attachments of subjects and sovereigns?" At the end of the first chapter we are given definitions of three terms that recur throughout: sensibility, "the physicality of things"; sense, "a domain of evocation, of signification, where assemblages work to (re) define value"; and sentiment, "the imagined capacity of things". Central to the second chapter is the question "How can we reinsert things into the body politic?" Philosophical engagement from Prometheus to Ian Hodder is invoked to support the importance placed on things and assemblages in reaching understanding of sovereignty and the political, with apposite examples drawn exclusively from Western Civilization ancient, medieval and modern.

The target audience is one primarily made up of American graduates and academics, that is, the sort of people who would themselves have attended the Rostovtzeff lectures. Written in an engaging style, many of the examples chosen to support the emphasis placed on things and assemblages, such as Barack Obama and the lapel flag pin (of which much is made on pages 1-4) that is seen as "a singular instantiation of a spatially and historically complex material assemblage", or the legal and ethical issues surrounding robotic weapons systems, are surely intended to make archaeology relevant to current affairs. It seems to this reviewer that there little of help to students of the Caucasian Bronze Age to be found here.

The theories of things and assemblages propounded in this book make a welcome addition to the growing interest in archaeological and anthropological materiality. What is new in the work under review is an emphasis on assemblages in explanations of political continuity (rather than cultural change). Central to the arguments is the role of these things and assemblages socio-political replication through the long duration of each stage of the Caucasian Bronze Age. Smith himself has elsewhere written about other factors, not the least of which are environment and landscape, but objects or things, alone or as parts of assemblages, are here given priority. In the second part of this work the three divisions of the Bronze Age in the Caucasus, which make up a large part of Smith's own ongoing archaeological fieldwork, are employed as case studies. It is necessary, therefore, to assess how well application of the theories holds up against the evidence. Here there are undoubtedly problems. Some of these, which can only be touched upon in this review, stem from the origins and aims of a book that of necessity restricts accounts of the archaeological evidence in both geographical extent and depth.

The third chapter, "The Civilization Machine in the Early Bronze Age", is concerned with the Kura-Araxes culture, also known as the Early Trans-Caucasian, which lasted for more than 1500 years and, at its greatest extent, stretched from the Caucasus to the Levant and from the Upper Euphrates River to the shores of the Caspian Sea. Readers wishing to learn more about this extraordinary phenomenon are referred to the collection of papers in Paléorient 40.2 (2014), which is devoted to Kura-Araxes studies.1 The most striking aspect of Kura-Araxes is, as Smith correctly emphasises, its conservativeness and homogeneity over time and space. Smith is concerned with explaining this through the study of assemblages of things that range from architecture to symbolic designs on ceramics. Much that has been written about this topic in the past has focussed on both the origins of the culture, a subject about which there is not yet full consensus, and on the role of migration in explaining its spread. Smith rejects the widely, but not universally, held view that the spread of the Kura-Araxes culture is to be explained by large-scale migration. The major reason adduced by Smith for rejecting such migration is based on population dynamics which, it is suggested, cannot account for large scale migration in the Early Bronze Age. The problem with such a rejection is that some explanation for the uniformity and conservativeness of the cultural assemblage has to be sought. Smith struggles to convince that other peoples were entirely sucked into the Caucasian culture, and that this is demonstrated by the assemblages of houses, hearths, pottery and other objects. In Northwestern, in every instance known so far, Iran the Kura-Araxes arrives fully fledged following a hiatus at the end of the Late Chalcolithic. Even as far south as the Amuq Plain, at Tabara el Akrad, the full cultural assemblage of ceramics, portable hearths and other objects appears to arrive undiluted.2 Smith follows the general consensus that the bearers of this culture rejected the central characteristics of more complex Mesopotamian civilizations, including urbanism, organized religion centred on temples and priesthoods, and highly stratified societies. Furthermore, he accepts the suggestion that narcotic and hallucinating substances were important in maintaining cohesion, and that this is reflected in shamanistic-looking designs on ceramics and in metalwork.3 Perhaps, but this reviewer maintains a healthy scepticism in the absence of firm archaeometric evidence. The thorny and much discussed question of Kura-Araxes culture and language families is not discussed. A final comment to be made on chapter three is that commencing the Early Bronze Age as early as 3,500 BCE may fit very well in the Caucasus, but in Anatolia, Iran and Northern Mesopotamia it is still accepted that the Late Chalcolithic extends to about 3,100 BCE. This difficulty, if nothing else, demonstrates how inappropriate the terminology of the Three Age System has become.

With chapter 4 "The War Machine in the Middle Bronze Age", geographic scope is more closely restricted to the Caucasus. According to Smith, the huge changes that took place following the disappearance of the Kura Araxes culture came about rapidly as the result of an influx of new peoples with an entirely different mode of existence based on pastoral cattle-breeding. This rapid change heralded a millennium in which evidence of permanent settlement of any kind is apparently absent. Violence, it is noted, is displayed through weaponry, pictorial representation, and human sacrifice in elite kurgan burials. One major outcome was "territorialisation". Another, Smith claims, was the inability of the war machine to replicate itself as a result of its inherent violence.

Transition into a period characterised by fortified citadels with surrounding settlements and the emergence of political and territorial sovereignty is the subject of chapter 5, "The Political Machine in the Late Bronze Age." The civilization machine and the war machine of the earlier parts of the Bronze Age are, according to Smith's thesis, incorporated into the new political machine, not replaced by it.

The concluding chapter starts off with the self-immolation, in 2010, of Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia and the way in which his fruit cart "changed the course of history" (186). The purpose is to show that the reproduction of a political machine through collaboration of assemblies and assemblages can be forestalled by human agency. The next example, located in the Caucasus, describes the exploitation of Urartian iconography in architectural embellishment and the marketing of cigarettes in post-Glasnost Armenia. Here the claim is made that that the Armenian sense of a nation had survived throughout the Soviet era and did not need to be reinvented. What of language and the Armenian diaspora? Furthermore, Smith recounts that at the Urartian capital of Tushpa, by the modern city of Van in Eastern Turkey, Urartian iconography is forcefully invoked to promote both Turkish and international tourism without any reference to things Armenian, the latter beginning only in the Christian period. The final paragraphs relate the comic Armenian fable of "Brother Axe" in which an object, the axe, is seen anthropomorphically. This reviewer found it a struggle to relate any of this to the archaeology of the Caucasian Bronze Age.

Illustrations are poorly reproduced and over-reduced. For instance, the details described on one map (fig. 14, p. 112) are not visible even with the aid of a magnifying glass, and arguments concerning developments in arrowheads are diluted by reproduction at different scales (fig. 32, p. 143).

The Political Machine surely succeeds in bringing the political back into the mainstream of archaeological theory. Smith's provocative work will be studied by all interested in ontology and the epistemology of things, and by archaeological theorists. Because of the ideas propounded and theories proposed, despite its sometimes too brief overviews of evidence related to the Caucasian Bronze Age, it will be of interest to archaeologists concerned with the Caucasus and its southern neighbours.

Table of Contents

Preface ix
Introduction: Reverse Engineering the Polity 1
The Conditions of Sovereignty 4
Machine Politics 7
Bodies and Things 11
Into the Caucasus 16
Schematic 20

Part I: The Machinery of Sovereignty

Chapter 1. On Assemblages and Machines 27
Things and Objects 29
The Exile of Things 33
Nature Morte 40
The Assemblage Assembled 43
The Efficacy of Machines 48
Sense, Sensibility, and Sentiment 54

Chapter 2. On The Matter of Sovereignty 59
Sovereignty Disassembled 61
Prehistory and the Political 64
Archaeologies of Sovereignty 67
Assembly and Assemblage 72
Origin Myths 73
Wayward Things and the Dual Sovereign 78
Exit Objects 1: Liberal Theory and Things 81
Exit Objects 2: Marx and Matter 83
Sovereign Matter, Governmental Machines 86
The Sovereign Conditions 91

Part II: Assembling Sovereignty

Chapter 3. The Civilization Machine in the Early Bronze Age 97
The Kura-Araxes 102
Sensibility 105
Sense 110
Sentiment 122
An Early Bronze Age Public 125

Chapter 4. The War Machine in the Middle Bronze Age 127
The Caucasus in Transition 130
Sensibility 138
Sense 144
Sentiment 148
Territorialization and Contradiction 151

Chapter 5. The Political Machine in the Late Bronze Age 154
The Caucasus at the Beginning of the Late Bronze Age 157
Sensibility 165
Sense 171
Sentiment 178
The Enduring Political Machine 183
Conclusion 186

Erebuni-Yerevan 188
Brother Axe 194


1.   "The Kura-Araxes culture from the Caucasus to Iran, Anatolia and the Levant: Between Unity and Diversity" Paléorient 40.2 (2014) Thematic issue Coordinated by C. Chataigner and G. Palumbi.
2.   Hood, S. 1951 "Excavations at Tabara el Akrad, 1948-49". Anatolia Studies 1, 113-147.
3.   Sagona, A. and Sagona C. 2009 "'Encounters with the Divine in Late Prehistoric Eastern Anatolia and Southern Caucasus" in Sağlamtimur, H., Abay, E., Derin, Z., Erdem, A. Ü., Batmaz, A., Dedeoğlu, F., Erdalkıran, M., Başturk, M. B., and Konakcı, D. (eds) Studies in Honour of Altan Cilingiroglu A life dedicated to Urartu on the Shores of the Upper Sea, pp. 537-63. Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat. Sagona, C. and Sagona A. 2011 "The Mushroom, the Magi and the Keen-sighted Seers" in Tsetskhladze, G. R. (ed) The Black Sea, Greece, Anatolia and Europe in the First Millenium BC, pp. 387-436. Leuven: Peeters.

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