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Classical Art: A Portal To The Past

21 Jul

During a Sunday house clean-up my parents found my copy of Classical Art: From Greece to Rome by Mary Beard and John Henderson (2001), a lovely introductory book on art (including architecture, portraiture, and sculpture) from the classical ages of ancient Greece and Rome, sitting somewhat unloved on a bookshelf.

The book contextualises the main masterpieces of the periods, their form, origin and meaning, and explores their influence on the history of art within Western culture, and the origins of art history more generally.  Further to this the publication manages to present an impressive array of information from the archaeological, historical and geographical contexts of the art works, and provides a thorough grounding on the various examinations and interpretations of the motives and representations of why and how the art was produced.  It is, if I may borrow one more review trope, also a thought-provoking piece, not content to provide an overview of the art context and the constant cannibalization and exploration of those forms that went before (Roman of Greek art, Renaissance of Classical, etc.), but one that questions the reader’s understanding of what they think they knew of Western culture and the differences in social structure and expression.

mummy of artemidorus2

The well decorated mummy case and detail of the portrait of Artemidorus, from Roman-period Haware, Egypt, AD 100-120. Artemidorus was a male individual who was aged between 18-21 years old at the time of death, based on CT scans of his skeletal remains in the coffin. His impressive funerary artefacts and context helps to highlight the mix of cultural styles present during this period and location – the coffin details traditional Egyptian funerary motifs and symbols, the individual has a Greek name, and the portrait is Roman-style in style. As Beard & Henderson (2001: 232) highlight, the rituals of death and burial have preserved a wonderful collection of  personal portraits in funerary contexts (on coffins, etc.) from Fayum and other areas of the Roman province of Egypt, where this style of commemoration was practiced. However, it is debated whether these portraits, as a whole, capture the person at the age at death or, as in some cases, represent the individual at a different point in their life. The face, and the head, are strong focuses of artwork, both sculpture and portraiture, in the ancient Roman world.  The Roman period Egyptian tradition of painting portraits on linen and wood echoes vibrantly across the centuries due to the vitality and likeness of the person’s image. As Beard & Henderson comment, ‘the challenge to figurative art is to metaphorize human beings convincingly’ by using whichever medium (marble, wood, or pigment on wood and linen, etc.), and that ‘the ideology of the portrait depends on this ability to carry (the) conviction’ of its representation (2001: 233). Image credit: the British Museum (main) and Invision Free (inset).


I got a copy of the book for a module I studied in my first year at undergraduate level, one entitled cities and civilizations if I remember correctly, that studied the origin and influence of art at certain periods in European history (the Geek and Roman classical worlds, Gothic architecture in Western Europe in the Medieval period, the art of the Italian Renaissance, etc.).  It was an enlightening module, one that made me think deeper on the artistic expression of society within a cultural milieu.

Towards the end of the publication there is a fascinating discussion on the use of the portrait in forming an image of an individual, in this case the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as described in a series of pen portraits and dialogues by his pupil Plato.  Socrates, who died (in the words of Plato) a ‘martyr for the truth’ in Athens in 399 BCE, has become of the most sought after face of Antiquity when, after comparing the many statues of him that survive (which include the ‘type A’ and ‘type B’ heads from Italy and the damaged statues from Athens), that at least one of these portraits ‘taps into first hand acquaintance with the fifth-century guru’ (Beard & Henderson 201: 236).

Socrates pupil Plato posits, in a pen portrait that emphasizes each aspect of his master throughout his dialogues that, ‘feature by feature’, sets him apart from humanity and creates the paradox of Socrates, the ‘wisest of men’, compared with the bestial nature of his physical representation.  The last point concerns the nature of reality and its images; that Plato encourages us to ‘imagine what Socrates was like, but at the same time radically undermines the status of anything in our visual world‘ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237, emphasis mine).  The authors indicate that this is the paradox on coming face to face with one of the most ‘individual physiognomies of them all, yet also being confronted with a portrait  that was designed to remind us just how contested the relationship is between how people look (or are made to look) and how they ‘really’ are’ (Beard & Henderson 2001: 237).

Necessarily this raises the question of what is captured by art, how and why?  What are these representations of and in what context are they represented?  These are basic questions that a researcher must always bear in mind when dealing with both the artistic artefacts and documents of the past.  For the archaeological researcher they too are fine guiding questions to consider when analyzing the physical material remains of the historic and prehistoric past.  How are they represented and why?

24/07/15 Update

By happenstance I have come across a lovely cheap paperback book of Socrates’ Defence by Plato in the Penguin Little Black Classics series earlier today, in which Plato recreates the dialogue of Socrates defending himself at trial in 399 BC.  Socrates’ Defence is taken from Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates.

The Little Black Classics series covers many renowned writers, bringing their fiction or non-fiction work, or extracts of their work, together in small volumes at affordable prices (in the UK they retail at only 80p or $2 CAN.  I shall update this entry as soon as I’ve read it and had time to digest it.  Perhaps unwitting the above fits quite nicely into my current long read (books that I am taking my time with), which include Albert Camus’s The Rebel and The Myth of Sisyphus.


Beard, M. & Henderson, J. 2001. Classical Art: From Greece to Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Plato. 2015. Socrates’ Defence. St Ives: Penguin Classics.

Guest Post: An Archaeologist, an Anthropologist and an Anarchist Walk into a Bar… by Stuart Rathbone

3 May

Stuart Rathbone is a field archaeologist with considerable experience in the UK, Ireland and the United States of America in excavation and project supervising a number of important prehistoric and historic archaeology sites.  In conjunction with field work, Stuart has also held academic positions and writes regularly on a broad range of topics in archaeology for varied audiences.  Stuart has recently left the role of an archaeological project officer, based in the Orkney islands in northern Scotland with ORCA, to pursue an archaeology career in the United States.  His Academia profile, with links to Stuart’s published papers, can be found here.  A previous These Bones of Mine interview, on the nature of archaeological field work and the issues surrounding this, can be found here .  He also runs the Campaign for Sensible Archaeology group on Facebook and is also quite fond of hardcore jungle music.

There are many different ways of classifying societies based for instance on levels of technology, on economic organisation, on the size of their area of influence and so on.  A very fundamental scheme is to divide societies into those that are organised hierarchically and those which are organised anarchically, i.e. without a hierarchic class or power structure.  Anarchic organisation has long been recognised but it took a surprisingly long time for anthropologists and archaeologists to develop a convincing understanding of them.  The ‘segmented lineage systems’ that were the focus of research by the likes of Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s and Meyer Fortes between the 1930’s and 1950’s represent early attempts to understand how complex societies could exist without obvious hierarchical power structures (Evans-Pritchard 1940; Fortes 1945).  Reading these accounts it becomes clear that a major problem was the frequent presence of defined leaders within societies that were not organised hierarchically.

A major breakthrough occurred when Harold Barclay developed his ‘limited leadership’ model which highlighted the widespread phenomenon of anarchic communities that utilised leaders with very defined levels of power and authority, whose rewards from claiming the leadership role are rather difficult to determine, and who are essentially beholden to the collective will of their community (Barclay 1982; 1986; 1989).  The existence of a chief in the limited leadership model is more akin to a spokesman than a ruler.  The leader must discuss with the group to gauge the collective feeling and then present what has essentially already been agreed to as the leaders decision.  With no equivalent to a police force or military guard to call on to enforce their will limited leaders have little individual power.  Attempts to take actions against the prevailing mood fail, and the leader ends up undermined and in danger of ridicule or dismissal, and, in extreme cases, in danger of being killed.  Similarly attempts by such a leader to consolidate their power or to exploit the power they have by claiming too many rewards will likely lead to their expulsion or death.  As William Geddes pointed out in regards to the Dayak tribes of Borneo, “the Dayaks are anarchists” who are led by the nominal headman “only when they agree to be led” (Geddes 1957).

A second very important model was developed by the French anthropologist Pierre Clastres (Clastres 1977; 2010).  Whilst Clastres covers some of the same ground as Barclay, in particular demonstrating eloquently the dangers of a limited leader in over extending their authority, the main thrust of his work is his notion of the ‘Society against the State’.  Clastres argues that the constant levels of warfare seen amongst many ‘simple’ societies should not be seen as an unfortunate social factor restricting the development of more complex social forms.  Rather Clastres proposes that it is a deliberate strategy that has developed specifically in order to stop societies adopting hierarchical forms that would ultimately lead to state formation.  In this model warfare is a vital process that is used specifically to maintain individual and community autonomy, at the cost of forfeiting whatever benefits hierarchical organisation might bring.  Interestingly this model interferes with the commonly used social evolutionary schemes, such as the influential model promoted by Elman Service that sees society progress from band to tribe to chiefdom to kingdom before arriving at the ‘goal’ of statehood.  Instead Clastres model divides all societies into States and Societies against the State which are not stages in a linear progression.  Instead societies switch between the two forms, with the switch to hierarchical organisation often triggered through outside influences.  A switch from hierarchic to anarchic forms can occur through various circumstances, either violent resistance, migration or through social collapse.


Typical ideas of social evolutionary progress as promoted by the likes of Elman Service and Colin Renfrew.

The work of both Clastres and Barclay remained somewhat peripheral until quite recently when a number of researchers began building on the foundations they established.  Recently David Graeber, Charles Macdonald and Brian Morris have all produced interesting work that explores different aspects of anarchic anthropology (Graeber 2004; Macdonald 2008 & 2009; Morris 2005).  In 2012 Bill Angelbeck and Colin Grier published a paper that represented the first time that archaeological data was explicitly examined from an anarchic perspective (Angelbeck & Grier 2012).  The paper reviews historical records of the Coast Salish Indian groups of the pacific coast of North America and identifies a complex limited leadership system that boarders on being a class structure.  The ‘inverted pear shaped model’ takes anarchic organisation to the very limit.  The majority of each group belonged to an ‘elite’ class that are supported by a tiny lower class stratum consisting of war captives held as slaves, and outcasts from other groups.  A clear leadership strata was present, but these positions were held by merit and the boundary between the ‘elite’ majority and the leadership group was permeable in both directions depending on performance.  The paper goes on to examine archaeological data from the Salish Coast area over a two thousand year time span.  The authors identify a repeating pattern of shifts between hierarchical organisation and anarchic organisation with periods of increased warfare apparently preceding each shift towards anarchic conditions.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

The curious inverted pear shaped social system of the Coast Salish groups.

At the start of 2015 Robert Bettinger published a book length account of Californian societies based on a large review of archaeological evidence (Bettinger 2015).  The narrative describes a gradual reduction in social group size, linked to developments in technology and changes in the environment.  Bettinger argues that these changes led to the widespread and prolonged existence of small non-hierarchical social groups he characterises as ‘orderly anarchy’.  A symposium was organised at the 2015 Society for American Archaeologists conference to discuss the implications of Bettinger’s work and this suggests a widening interest in the archaeological use of anarchist theory.

Anarchic Archaeology in Britain and Ireland

Given the much greater separation between archaeology and anthropology that exists in Britain and Ireland than is found in America and Europe it is perhaps unsurprising that developments in anarchic anthropology have attracted little attention.  Earlier this year I published a short paper that might represent the first attempt to produce an anarchic archaeology in either Britain or Ireland, although there may well be earlier examples that I am not aware of (Rathbone 2015).  My ongoing research is attempting to fuse the developments in anarchic anthropology with ideas and theories culled directly from political anarchist literature.  Anarchism as a political movement developed in the mid-19th century and there is a vast body of anarchist literature, a substantial proportion of which deals with an anarchist reading of history and archaeology.  This material can be quite wayward and is often an unrealistic reading of the data.  Nevertheless anarchist history is interesting in that it offers different interpretations of well-known events, presents different motivations for why things may have occurred, offers sympathetic accounts of groups and individuals widely criticised in main stream history, and looks at topics that attract little interest elsewhere.  In addition to anarchist history I have been attempting to understand anarchist political theory with the aim of seeing if any of the numerous proposals (and the smaller number of real world examples) of how complex societies can operate in the absence of centralised government might have useful applications in archaeology.  Whilst this is all very much a work in progress, here I want to present four examples of how such a fusion of anarchism and archaeology might be usefully applied, two dealing with prehistoric subjects and two dealing with the post-Medieval world.

Identifying state formation

I suspect most archaeologists would be comfortable with the idea that anarchic groups were present throughout the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods when we suspect only small mobile hunter gather groups were present.  On the other hand it is clear that several centuries before the Roman invasion of Britain state formation had occurred across large areas and that a reasonably stratified society was in place.  What can be gleaned from the proto-historic accounts relating to the Late Irish Iron Age also indicate that the county was dominated by a number of small states with each community enmeshed in a complex network of obligations and responsibilities to their states rulers.  An important question is therefore whether we can identify the process of state formation somewhere between the onset of the Neolithic period and the end of the Early or Middle Iron Age.  It would seem likely that such a process would be complex and occur in different parts of Britain and Ireland at different times.  This may not have been a simple evolutionary process along the lines of Service’s model.  Instead we might find a repeated flipping between anarchic ‘anti-states’ and hierarchical states.  Such a process could explain the oddities in the settlement patterns where we can observe repeated failed attempts at introducing villages to areas dominated by dispersed settlements (Ginn & Rathbone 2012; Ginn 2013; Rathbone 2013a, Rathbone 2013b & 2015).  Each location where villages began to develop could mark the beginnings of a transition towards hierarchical organisation.  The abandonment of villages in a given area might mark a society rejecting the existence of the hierarchies and choosing to return to an anarchic state.  If so we might expect to find evidence of increased violence coinciding with the end of village life at a particular time and place.

Central to the ‘Society against the State’ model is the use of violence between neighbouring group as a method to stop the formation of hierarchical power structures.  Violence is also a common feature within non-hierarchical groups where consensus building and sanctions such as taboos, gossip and mockery have failed to resolve a problem.  Contrary to the utopian visions of political anarchists it seems that when no method to exert authority exists and an impasse in opinions has been reached violence may be the only solution.  Steven Pinker has explored the level of violence in societies across a great span of time and demonstrated rather convincingly that as hierarchical control expands the aggregate level of violence declines (Pinker 2011).  Pinker argues that as state authority has spread across the world and states have claimed ever increasing levels of control over their populations the effect is a drastic reduction in overall violence that he dubs ‘the civilising process’.  Despite the ability of modern states to kill tens of thousands of people in a matter of moments, the monopoly they have claimed over the application of lethal force has led to ever decreasing death rates.  It would seem therefore that decreasing levels of violence can be directly related to the development of hierarchical authority.  There have been numerous attempts to determine the level of violence present at different points in the archaeological record but it remains a difficult task given the incomplete nature of the burial record.  However it does seem that actual skeletal evidence of violence is most common in the European Early Neolithic period and declines after that point, although both the Late Bronze Age and Late Iron Age do seem to also be particularly violent periods (Heath 2009; Rathbone 2015).

This is clearly not the place to present a full interpretation of several millennia’s evidence.  Instead a few elements from a single time period, the Early Neolithic, are offered as an example of how such analysis might proceed.  Martin Smith and Megan Brickley’s study of the skeletal remains from Early Neolithic long barrows revealed a high level of violence that is certainly consistent with anarchic societies (Smith & Brickley 2009).  Similarly the number of Early Neolithic enclosures in Britain that seem to have been attacked by massed forces are exactly what we might expect among neighbouring anarchic societies.  Recent C14 analysis suggests that the use of large long houses in the Early Neolithic came to an abrupt end around 3600 BC.  Jessica Smyth has detailed the high proportion of Early Neolithic longhouses that were burnt down, but favours this as a ritual burning at the end of the occupation (Smyth 2010 & 2014).  However such burning is consistent with anarchic violence and the number of arrowheads and axes associated with these buildings may be more important in terms of their relationship with violence rather than ceremony.  This evidence would be consistent with a widespread implementation of ‘the Society against the State’ and the far less impressive settlement pattern that follows the Long House horizon may therefore mark a shift to smaller anarchic communities.

Anarcho-Federalist Henge Builders?

The monumental construction projects that form such a prominent part of Late Neolithic archaeology are often described as being the work of a specialised ‘ritual elite’ capable of designing and project managing such great undertakings.  In fact much of the language used in discussions of this phenomenon seems curiously anachronistic, with terms like engineers, architects and man hours appearing jarringly misplaced.  Whilst clearly large scale projects involving sizeable groups of people, the evidence to support the presence of these ‘ritual elites’ is curiously absent.  In general the monuments are not associated with either large settlements or large elite residences, and the designs of the monuments themselves seem ill-fitted to be used for the aggrandisement of particularly powerful individuals or groups.  If an elite was really present they seem remarkably restrained in terms of their desire to emphasise their personal power and authority.  There has been little discussion of the mechanisms through which an elite could coerce a large workforce into undertaking decades long construction projects without leaving any obvious traces of a military force or an economic system that would allow for suitable payment of a willing workforce.  The monumental complexes certainly provide ample evidence of an ability to co-ordinate a large number of people working on a significant task, and an ability to utilise resources drawn from a considerable area.  In the 1970’s there were important debates about the existence or absences of elites throughout the prehistoric periods of Britain.  This seems to have reached somewhat of an impasse and a default position of accepting the presence of elites was adopted in lieu of a better explanation (Parker Pearson 2012).

Two areas of anarchist theory seem to offer useful lines of research.  The first is the idea of the anarchist federation which was initially promoted by Pierre-Joseph Proudhoun and enthusiastically taken up by Petr Kropotkin amongst many others (Marshall 2008).  In the anarchist federation individual groups co-operate in order to undertake tasks that would be beyond their own abilities.  The federation is organised in such a way that the individual groups retain most of their autonomy and only grant the federation the authority to organise for the specific agreed tasks.  Whilst a fully developed federation might superficially resemble a hierarchical power structure the emphasis on consensus building and the limitations placed on the power of its members mean it operates quite differently.  A large number of autonomous groups living over a considerable area might form such a federation in order to accomplish specific tasks, such as the monumental religious building projects seen in the Late Neolithic.  Interestingly there is a significant decrease in the skeletal evidence for violence in the Late Neolithic (Heath 2009).  As explained above this could have resulted from a more authoritarian political structure, but it could potentially have derived from the presence of a non-hierarchical structure that allowed neighbouring groups to co-operate without surrendering their autonomy, thus reducing the need for constant aggression.

Nick Card has suggested that variations in the individual buildings within the oversized settlement at the Ness of Brodgar in the centre of Orkney might indicate that each building belonged to a particular group living in a particular part of the archipelago that came to gather at the site for seasonal gatherings (Card 2013).  The use of distinctive architectural differences between the buildings could have been used to signify the autonomy and independence of the different communities whilst residing in such close proximity.  The colossal construction projects undertaken in the area around the settlement would be a testimony to how successfully such a federation could operate.  Based on a series of early C14 dates it has been suggested that Orkney may have been the origin of the religious practices that came to dominate much of Britain and Ireland during the Late Neolithic.  If this is correct then perhaps the key to the successful spread of the ‘Orkney style’ was not the content of the ceremonies or the design of the monuments, but the development of social schemes that allowed larger scale communal projects to be undertaken without necessitating the surrender of individual and group autonomy to an elite strata that might trigger violent resistance.

The second part of anarchist theory that seems useful in this area is the idea of ‘zerowork’ as promoted by Bob Black in his highly influential essay “the abolition of work” (Black 1986).  This line of argument has considerable ancestry within left wing writing and elements of it can be found in Paul Lafargue’s “the right to be lazy”, in Bertrand Russels, “In praise of Idleness” and even George Orwell’s “Down and out in Paris and London” (Lafargue 1907; Russel 1935; Orwell 1933).  The central theme is that much work is essentially pointless, once you remove the need to generate an excess of wealth to be turned over to an exploitative elite.  If the need to generate surplus profit is removed the overall workload on a society would be vastly reduced.  With an overabundance of labour the remaining work could be evenly shared out between the whole group leading to a vastly reduced amount of work hours for each individual, and given that the work had an obvious utility and was not of an arduous length, work would be transferred into something far more enjoyable, akin to a form of play.  The principles of zerowork do seem to have some justification in the anthropological and archaeological record; it has been repeatedly suggested that the shift to agriculture from hunting and gathering or horticulture can be identified with a large decline in the health of a population and a considerable increase in work hours (Diamond 1987).  Furthermore many accounts of traditional societies clearly demonstrate that many tasks were infused with a very un-work like sense of fun and play, and many societies that were not part of a developed economic system seem to have spent much of their effort creating surpluses in order to throw feasts and parties (Metcalf 2010).

The Late Neolithic monument complexes have produced extensive evidence for feasting at a quite excessive scale.  Traditionally these have been seen to be feasts that took place once the construction phase was completed.  A zerowork interpretation would turn this idea around and see the monuments as something that happened as a side effect of communities getting together to hold feasts.  Rather than attempting to calculate the number of ‘man-hours’ that it would take for a group to complete a construction project perhaps it would be better to try and estimate the number of parties that had been held.  Alex Gibson has argued that timber circles were seldom ‘completed’ and that the building process was what was more important than the finished product, which might conform better to zerowork rather than modern notions of a construction project (Gibson 1998).

The recent discoveries at Durrington Walls would certainly make an interesting example to review in terms of Anarchist Federations and Zerowork; not only was there evidence for co-operation of communities from a wide area, the settlement evidence does not so far support the presence of a defined elite, and the associated animal bones assemblage not only suggests feasting on a phenomenal scale, it is clear that the feasting at the site had begun long before the construction of the main bank and ditch (Parker Pearson 2012).

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

The author, centre, on a recent trip to the Arbor Low henge and stone circle in Derbyshire, accompanied by Gareth Evans and Sarah Harrison. Co-incidentally Gareth is a practicing anarchist whilst Sarah runs a very hedonistic bar.

Island Paradises

Islands have special characteristics that have long made them the focus of Utopian thinkers, from Plato to Huxley.  During the development of travel writing and antiquarian investigations during the 18th and 19th century the accounts of the Atlantic Islands around the coast of Britain and Ireland often fall into two camps, those that are horrified by the primitive conditions and those that idealise the rugged isolation and the simple lifestyles of the islanders (O’Sullivan 2008).  Recent archaeological accounts of the Atlantic Islands have presented rigorous re-evaluation of the isolation of island life, contending that the islanders were neither peripheral people nor particularly isolated from the contemporary world (Flemming 2005; Dwyer 2009).  Flemming’s review of St Kilda seeks to reduce the isolation of the island and show that despite the distances involved St Kilda was part of an aristocratic territory, entangled in local politics and in particular subject to enthusiastic taxation and rent collection.

The political organisation of the St Kildans is particularly interesting.  The morning meeting, dubbed ‘the parliament’ by 19th century visitors, involved all the men on the island gathering to discuss any issues and make plans for the days activities.  The ‘parliament’ had no formal offices and each man had an equal right to speak an equal vote.  Apparently the woman of the island organised their affairs through a similar meeting, although this features far less prominently in the literature.  According to Tom Steel when there were no tasks that required urgent attention the meeting could last all day, breaking only for lunch, as the men essentially slacked off and gossiped (Steel 1975).  The resources of the island were shared out equally among the community and many aspects of life were subject to communal ownership. A nominal leader, the maor, was a non-hereditary title awarded through merit.  The maor had some ability to resolve disputes but the principle duty was to take the lead during climbing expeditions.  The maor also had the unenviable task of conducting negotiations with the Steward during the annual visit to collect tariffs.  The maor was expected to represent the islanders wishes to such an extent that the steward would strike him three times about the head with a cudgel in a ritualised act of violence.

Despite the predatory relationship with the adjacent state it seems very clear that St Kildan society was organised anarchically, complete with a limited leader.  The relationship with the neighbouring state was clearly exploitative but the St Kildans did receive goods and equipment from the state that they were not able to provide for themselves.  In addition they were able to actively resist the state to some degree. Flemming includes several brief description of such resistance; when a taxman attempted to apply a new tariff he was driven off by the men of the island, when a policeman arrived to arrest a suspected sheep thief the islanders formed a protective cordon around the man and the attempt was abandoned, when the islanders refused to renegotiate a measurement of corn being taken from an advantageously worn vessel, the way the islanders habitually disguised the quantities of various resources from state officials and, more sinisterly, several tales of suspected spies being murdered to protect the islanders privacy and secrets.

Other Atlantic islands also seem to have aspects of anarchic organisation, particularly the presence of limited leaders such as the Rí Thoraí (king) of Tory Island, County Donegal and the ‘Kings’ of the Blasket Islands, County Kerry and the Inishkeas, County Mayo, which seem to be perfect examples of rulers without power.  At present it is not clear how many of the small Atlantic Islands had anarchic political structures and when these individually came to an end.  Although technically owned by large landlords, it seems that many of the smaller island communities were largely left to organise themselves as long as they continued to pay their annual dues.  Had they offered strong resistance to the state authorities they would surely have been harshly sanctioned and the same sort of compromise was used that we see in place with the essentially anarchic Anabaptist communities in North America (Shuster 1983).  The small Atlantic islands might therefore be seen to lie somewhere in between what Hakim Bey has defined as Temporary Autonomous Zones and Permanent Autonomous Zones (Bey 1985 & 1993).

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo.  We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

A secluded harbour on the remote island of Inish Turk, County Mayo. We know that in the post Medieval period many of the Atlantic Islands were involved in smuggling, but how many of them might have been the locations of truly anarchic societies?

Pirate Utopias

The anarchist idea of pirate utopias seems to have derived from the writing of William S Burroughs, who developed a whole pseudo mythology based on the account of Captain Misson found in “A general history of pirates” published in 1724 by Captain Charles Johnson (suspected to be a pseudonym of either Daniel Defoe or the publisher Nathaniel Mist).  The account details the apparently fictitious life of Captain James Misson, the ‘articles’ under which his ship sailed and the colony they founded on the coast of Madagascar, Libertaria.  Piracy is a complex subject that has many incarnations around the world, and was often a state sanctioned or sponsored activity.  The anarchist interest in pirate utopias principally focuses on the ‘golden age of piracy’ in the late 17th and early 18th century and centres on the possibility of pirate crews that rejected state authority, organised themselves in a manner consistent with anarchist principles and established communities where they were free to create their own ‘lawless’ anarchies.  Whilst this might seem a ridiculous fantasy, especially given the suspect nature of the original source material, there may be something to it.  Peter Lamborn Wilson has argued that the story of Captain Misson may indeed be fictitious but given how little critical commentary it attracted at the time it was presumably consistent with some common understanding of pirate enclaves (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  In fact the ‘articles’ under which Misson sailed and Libertaria functioned are a reflection of the wide spread codes of conduct used amongst pirates that were indeed referred to as articles.

In the Bay of Honduras these rules of conduct and obligations were eventually formalised by a British Naval officer in 1765 and this version is referred to as Burnaby’s Code.  Crucial to the anarchist reading of pirates, Burnaby’s code operated without empowering individuals with titles such as magistrate or judge, it was an example of a formalised collective justice (Finamore 2006).  The archaeology of piracy is in some regards a new subject, leaving to one side the hunt for the wrecks of known pirate vessels, few of which have been successful until very recently.  A limited amount of work has been undertaken on pirate settlements and the results of some of this work are rather surprising.  Lamborn Wilson has written at length about the history of the Pirate Republic of Salé, a large settlement located across the river from Rabat in Morocco (Lamborn Wilson 2003).  Whilst Salé may have been a pirate utopia of sorts, it is hard to see how it may have operated in a manner consistent with anarchist principles, particularly given the role it had in the slave trade.  It seems that Salé is best regarded as a curiously late example of a European city state which depended on piracy to support its economy.  Ultimately Salé may not pass muster, but historians and archaeologists have been able to locate more convincing examples of pirate settlements that fulfil the utopian requirement to a reasonable degree.

A large number of settlements were established by English pirates along the coast of Belize as the golden age of piracy came to its end.  These settlements relied on trading contraband logwood and the settlement of Bacarades, located along the Belize River, is unique in that it has been subject to detailed archaeological investigation (Finamore 2006).  The archaeological research agreed with historical accounts that describe these settlements as consisting of dwellings of only the most simple forms. Nonetheless the range of artefacts present, and in particular the misappropriation of fine goods, especially ceramics, seems to represent an enactment of Hakim Bey’s  notion of ‘radical aristocracy’ (Bey 1985).  Historical accounts suggest the life of cutting logs may have been tedious and dull in the extreme but the one of the main aims of the work seems to have been to provide alcohol for communal drinking, something entirely akin with traditional anarchic horticultural and hunter gathering groups.

If the port of Salé seems little different to a hierarchical city state and the logging camps along the coast of Belize ultimately seem a little dull, the settlement created by English pirates on St Mary’s Island off the east coast of Madagascar really does seem to meet every expectation of a pirate utopia (de Bry 2006).  In a secluded bay on the islands western coast numerous pirates were resident between the 1680’s and the 1720’s including the well-known Captain William Kidd.  The base was used for activities across the Indian Ocean, and during the monsoon season many pirates spent extended stays at the settlement.  As with the Belize pirates the dwellings were generally of the simplest kind, but the pirates apparently fulfilled every stereotype when it came to bedecking themselves in flamboyant clothes, gold and jewels, another enactment of the radical aristocrat theme.  Eventually a merchant based in the settlement, Adam Baldridge, made enough money to construct a sizeable dwelling on Ils des Forbans (Pirate Island), a small islet located in the centre of the bay, which apparently really was underlain by a mysterious system of tunnels that have yet to be explored!  The settlement on St Mary’s Island so closely resembles the anarchist idea of Libertaria it is difficult not to think that this may have been the real world source for the fictional Captain Misson.  One interesting element of the Misson story is the friendly relationship established with the native groups around Libertaria.  Remarkably St Mary’s even lives up to this and the pirates routinely married local Malagasy women, who they draped with “gold, diamonds, sapphires and rubies”.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

The real Pirate Bay? Google Earth image of the bay on St Mary’s Island (Ile Sainte-Marie in Madagascar) which was home to a large pirate enclave. Ils des Forbans can be seen in the centre of the bay.

Moving away from exotic locations half way around the world, Connie Kelleher has examined the archaeological remains of pirate communities along the coast of County Cork (Kelleher 2009 & 2013).  These pirate settlements were initially occupied by English pirates and their families who had relocated from Devon and Cornwall after piracy was outlawed in England at the start of the seventeenth century.  The pirates operated with the tacit approval of the crown, and the pirate settlements were essentially an early stage in the Munster plantation.  Acting in a semi-official capacity and not beholden to the indigenous Gaelic Lordship whose authority had finally collapsed after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, these pirates enjoyed a rather privileged and secure position.

It could be argued that the close links to the crown removes them from the anarchist ideal, but on the other hand the lack of persecution can actually be seen as adding to the utopian nature of the occupation and they might therefore represent Permanent Autonomous Zones (PAZ).  This official sanction is quite different to the traditional forms of piracy previously operated by the Gaelic Lords around the Irish coast, and from similar forms operating around the Scottish coast.  Gaelic piracy was organised and controlled by hereditary aristocracies and does not therefore meet the anarchist ideal, despite the romanticism attached to characters such as Grace O’Malley, the so called Pirate Queen of Clew Bay.  Furthermore the West Cork pirates operated under the same sorts of codes of conduct utilised during the Golden Age of piracy.  Each crew operated individually but the codes provided a format through which they could combine forces for more ambitious projects, returning us again to the idea of anarchist federations.  The numerous remains of the pirate occupation that Kelleher has recorded may therefore represent the most extensive remains of a pirate utopia that have so far been the subject of archaeological examination.


Obviously what has been presented above are merely brief summaries of complicated arguments.  They were not intending to convince anyone that these anarchic interpretations were correct, rather the intent was to demonstrate how much potential anarchic approaches might have for a whole range of topics. Each of the examples discussed here is worth a much fuller examination, and as it happens I am currently working on a book that will explore many aspects of anarchic anthropology, anarchic archaeology and various aspects of political anarchism that might be usefully appropriated.  These examples will be explored in that book, alongside many others, although serious questions remain as to whether I can ever find a publisher for such an unruly tome.  In the meantime I hope you have enjoyed this brief introduction to the subject and that some of you might also consider hoisting the black flag over your areas of interest.

Learn More


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