1 Housework and Domestic Craft Production: An Introduction

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  • 1Housework and Domestic Craft Production:An Introduction

    Kenneth HirthPenn State University

    Households are,without question, themost important so-cial units in human society. They are interactive socialunits whose primary concern is the day-to-day well beingof their kith and kin. Households reproduce themselves andprovide their members with the economic, psychological,and social resources necessary to live their lives. Althoughhouseholds vary enormously in size and organization, theyare the fundamental social settings in which families are de-fined and cultural values are transmitted through a range ofdomestic activities and rituals. Despite their many functions,it is the range and productivity of their economic activitiesthat determine the success, survival and well being of theirmembers. Households are the primary production and con-sumption units in society and provide the vehicle throughwhich resources are pooled, stored, and distributed to theirmembers. Survival and reproduction is their business andthe work they do determines their success.

    This volume is about prehispanic households and thediversity of work that their members engaged in both forthemselves and the household as a whole. It focuses onone of archaeologys most visible dimensions of house-work, how craft production was incorporated into the workregimes of ancient Mesoamerican households. Our interestin this subject stems from the strong disjuncture that ex-ists between ethnographic and archaeological research onhouseholds. While archaeologists have a long-standing in-terest in the household and household archaeology (Ash-more 1981; Blanton 1994; Lohse and Valdez 2004; Sheets1992; Tourtellot 1988; Webster and Gonlin 1988; Wilk andAshmore 1988), households are often treated as stable andunchanging domestic entities because of the way we are

    forced to study them methodologically. Nothing, of course,could be further from the truth.

    Recent ethnographic research has demonstrated thathouseholds are highly dynamic and plastic social units thatcan change their composition and work regimes quickly(Wilk 1984; Wilk and Netting 1984). Robert Netting (1989,1993) has shown that households are flexible, motivated, andinnovative social units that can intensify production on theirown initiative when economic conditions permit or requirethem to do so. While archaeologists recognize that house-holds were important social institutions, they usually are notseen as a source of innovation or long term social change(but see Lohse and Valdez 2004). Archaeologists often turnto models of political economy to explain economic inno-vation and change (Brumfiel and Earle 1987; DAltroy andEarle 1985; Earle 1997; Freidel et al. 2002; Rathje 1972,2002). Archaeology as a discipline has been slow to recog-nize the dynamic nature of household production for tworeasons. The first is the long recognized inability to studyhouseholds in short-term temporal segments that can becorrelated with meaningful episodes within the domesticlife cycle (Haviland 1988; Hirth 1993). Without the abil-ity to see the household in short time (Smith 1992) itis hard to evaluate how households respond to new condi-tions as flexible adaptive units. The second is the absenceof a dynamic theoretical model of domestic economy andhousehold behavior that archaeologists can use to interpretmaterial remains. It is this second issue that this volumeseeks to address.

    The dimension of domestic economy examined here isthe role of craft production in household work strategies.

    ARCHEOLOGICAL PAPERS OF THE AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION, Vol. 19, Issue 1, pp. 112, ISSN 1551-823X,online ISSN 1551-8248. C 2009 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1551-8248.2009.01009.x.

  • 2 Kenneth Hirth

    Domestic production in its simplest form is the productionof goods for self consumption. This type of ad hoc do-mestic production is not the focus of this volume. Instead,we are interested in the production of craft goods intendedfor exchange and consumption outside of the householdswhere they were produced. This form of activity is oftenreferred to as specialized craft production (Clark 1995; Fladand Hruby 2007; Rice 1981; Wailes 1996). It is special-ized in the sense that craft goods were produced for a spe-cific purpose beyond the household ranging from exchangeand gift giving, to meeting broader social, political or ritualneeds. While craft production can occur in a range of do-mestic, public, and special purpose contexts it is only theformer that supplies information about the household econ-omy. In general, archaeologists identify specialized craftproduction in domestic contexts when production residuesfrom the goods produced exceed what would be expected forauto-consumption and internal use (Clark 1995:279; Clarkand Parry 1990:297; Costin 1991, 2001; Inomata 2001:322;Schortman andUrban 2004). Thismicro-view is a useful andpractical way of identifying the production of craft goods indomestic settings that are intended for export.

    It is important to consider the broader behavioral di-mensions of domestic craft production. What does craftproduction reflect about the internal economic strategiesof households and the wider patterns of household inter-dependence? A working assumption of this volume is thatmuch of the specialized domestic craft production found inMesoamerica provided important economic contributions tohousehold subsistence budgets. While craft production mayalso have provided social status and meaning for individualcraftsmen (e.g. Helms 1993), that is not the dimension ofcraft production explored here. The raison detre of this vol-ume is to bring this economic dimension into sharper focusand explore how craft production for exchange contributedto, and was incorporated into, normal household subsistenceactivities.

    The production of craft goods for exchange was animportant and specialized activity within the householdswhere it was practiced. Nevertheless, few of the authors inthis volume use the terms specialized or specialization todescribe it. The reasons for this are varied, but in the ecolog-ical and evolutionary literature specialization is often usedto describe the focused exploitation of a narrow suite ofresources and/or the intensification of economic activities.While domestic craft production certainly reflects the in-tensification of work it does not represent a narrowing ofeconomic activities from the perspective of individual pro-ducers. In Mesoamerica, craft production was often addedto domestic work regimes without changing its other sub-sistence activities. As a result its appearance often reflects

    an intensification, amplification and diversification of do-mestic work schedules rather than a narrowing of economicactivities within the household.

    In a recent publication on craft specialization Flad andHruby (2002) distinguish between what they call the pro-ducer and product views of specialization and this dichotomyis especially appropriate here. If domestic crafting for useoutside the household is examined from the producer view,then its place as a specialized activity remains murky sinceit is often only one of several economic activities used tosupport the household. However, if it is viewed from theproduct perspective then its role as a specialized activityis clear. The product perspective is concerned with wheregoods are produced and how they circulated throughout soci-ety. The presence of a few households producing and supply-ing craft goods for the society as a whole certainly qualifiesas a specialized activity from the perspective of commoditycirculation. It reflects a level of economic interdependencebetween households that Durkheim (1933) characterized asorganic solidarity.

    Conceptual issues aside, what is examined here is theintensification of domestic crafting for purposes of exchangeand its effect on the economic wellbeing of the individualsand households that practiced it. It is a specialized activityfor the products produced, but in most cases was only one ofa suite of economic activities contributing to the householdsoverall economic wellbeing.

    The Volume Goals

    The contributions in this volume all focus onMesoamerica (Figure 1). That is a practical matter because itis an area with excellent information on domestic craft pro-duction. Domestic craft production appears in some areas ofMesoamerica coincident with sedentary agricultural com-munities (Boksenbaum et al. 1987; Clark 1987; Balkanskyet al. this volume) and continues as themainmode of produc-tion through the development of ranked and state level soci-ety.While the analysis of craft production employs examplesfromMesoamerica, the discussion of the domestic economyis applicable to most ancient sedentary societies in both theNew and Old Worlds. Small scale domestic craft produc-tion for exchange is one of the hallmarks the Mesoameri-can economy (Feinman 1999). This is because a range ofsurplus production including craft goods was bought andsold in marketplaces across many areas of Mesoamerica.This gave households a ready outlet to sell small quantitiesof craft goods and other resources to consumers at the re-gional level. Even though households are fully capable ofdistributing craft goods through trade networks outside the

  • Introduction 3

    Figure 1. Regions inMesoamerica discussed in this volume. 1) Tarascan region, 2) Basin ofMexico, 3) Tlaxcala, 4) Morelos, 5) Valley of Puebla, 6) Mixteca Alta, 7) Valley of Oaxaca,8) Gulf Coast Region, 9) Motagua Valley, 10) Copan region

    marketplace (Longacre and Stark 1992; Stark 1992), themarketplace concentrated demand and made it easier forproducers to reach potential buyers. While a number ofresearchers have associated the development of craft pro-duction with the appearance of cities and urban markets(Braudel 1986; Childe 1950; Pirenne 1974), craft produc-tion in Mesoamerica occurred in both urban and rural areas(Brumfiel 1986, 1987; Hicks 1982). Certainly the market-place was an important factor in stimulating the expansionof craft production at the regional level, but it does not byitself explain why the locus of production remained in thehousehold.

    The goal of this volume is to generate a better under-standing of the prehistoric domestic economy and how craftproduction functioned within it. The central focus of thevolume revolves around three primary questions or themes.First, how did crafting fit within the production goals andobjectives of prehispanic households and their members?Second, was the production of wealth goods controlled byelites in Mesoamerican societies or were these goods alsoproduced and distributed by non-elite households throughindependent commercial networks? Finally, are there betterways to conceptualize and model domestic craft productionthan the traditional approaches currently in use in archaeol-ogy? The contributors of this volume address these questionsin different ways as they explore the role of craft productionin the prehispanic domestic economy.

    The first question is concerned with developing a con-ceptual model of domestic economy that archaeologists can

    use to study households using archaeological techniques.This is a fundamental question not just forMesoamerica, buteverywhere where domestic craft production is found in thepre-industrial world. The volume uses a case study approachto examine the range and scale of domestic craft activity andwhat it tells us about levels of specialization inMesoamerica.As mentioned above, the marketplace provided opportuni-ties for households to engage in a diverse array of productionactivities. But domestic craft production developed long be-fore the earliest suspected appearance of marketplaces inMesoamerica (Blanton 1983; Feinman et al. 1984). Whilemarkets certainly increased the opportunity for householdsto produce and sell craft goods, similar forms of craft diver-sification also existed in early non-market economies.

    The second issue examined here is how domestic craftspecialists were integrated into Mesoamericas broader po-litical economy. Were non-elite artisans involved in funda-mental ways or was the political economy a separate sectorof the economy as it apparently was in the Andean region(DAltroy and Earle 1985)? A considerable amount has beenwritten about wealth goods in Mesoamerica and how im-portant they were for elite to control (Aoyama 1999; Ball1993; Brumfiel and Earle 1987; Demarest 1992; Fash 1991;Inomata 2001; LeCount 1999; Masson and Freidel 2002;Rathje 1972; Reents-Budet 1998). Despite years of researchand focused excavations on elite structures in many areasof Mesoamerica, the actual empirical evidence for elite in-volvement in wealth good production remains meager. Theavailable evidence is beginning to suggest that a significant

  • 4 Kenneth Hirth

    percentage of wealth goods were produced in non-elite do-mestic contexts outside of the direct control of Mesoameri-can elites. If this is true then the important question becomeshow finished goods were concentrated in elite hands throughmobilization, tribute, or commercial activities. Although amore comprehensive treatment is not possible here, sev-eral of the volume contributions suggest that independent,non-elite artisans were involved in the production of wealthgoods both near the source of raw material (Rochette, chap-ter 13) and far away (Hirth et al., chapter 11). Consideringhow widespread this practice was and what it may implyabout the organization of prehispanic political economy isa separate topic that needs more lengthy treatment than canbe attempted here.

    The third and final objective of this volume is to developa better conceptual understanding of domestic economy andwhere craft production fits within it. Craft production wouldnot be practiced if it did not contribute to the economicgoals and/or the social obligations of the household. Theprimary objective of households is to reproduce themselvesand they employ a variety of subsistence strategies in doingso. Minimizing risk and maintaining access to both sub-sistence and social resources is fundamental to householdsurvival. Diversification of production strategies is one waythis is accomplished (Halstead and OShea 1989; Messer1989; Sahn 1989) and craft production provides a means tothis end.

    Archaeologists also need better concepts for describ-ing and examining the structure of craft production in pre-industrial households. The current concepts of full- andpart-time craft production are not useful in this regard andactually hinder, rather than help, our understanding of do-mestic craft production (Schortman and Urban 2004). Thereason is that full- and part-time craft production are definedby the amount of time that artisans spend on their work. Thissays very little about the actual importance of craft produc-tion within the households that practice it. Using the samerationale it could be argued that a dedicated Iowa farmerwith a 500 acre farm is only a part-ti...


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