An Egyptian tomb relief depicts workers harvesting crops under the direction of an overseer. (The tomb of Nakht, 15th century BC)

The famed soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, beginning “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players,” could serve as a poetic primer on “status and role,” a time-honored concept in anthropology.

A research project led by SFI External Professor Paula Sabloff is, for the first time, applying the concepts of status and role to archaeology as a way to compare and contrast early societies, from Old Kingdom Egypt and Early Dynasty Lower Mesopotamia to the Classic Maya and Aztec.

“The definition of ‘statehood’ is still being debated,” says Sabloff, a political anthropologist. “By comparing a core set of statuses and roles across societies, we hope to find patterns that will tell us more about what it means to be an early state.”

The multidisciplinary work builds on anthropologist Ralph Linton’s 1936 The Study of Man, which proffered that all people have statuses (president, father, or consumer, for example) and each is expected to perform roles (defined as rights, duties, and behaviors) appropriate to those statuses.

To apply Linton’s concept to complex archaic societies, Sabloff paired the statuses observed in a society with social rank. Rulers held the top rank, for example, while slaves were at the bottom. “Rank ordering is the only way to understand that a royal father has different behaviors and duties toward his children than a slave does,” she says.

She also needed to expand Linton’s list of ways people obtain statuses, adding “imposed” to Linton’s “ascribed” (given at birth) and “achieved” statuses. That small addition revealed a range of decision-making freedoms in the society.

Gathering a team of interns and SFI volunteers, Sabloff set to work building a database of statuses and their appropriate roles from the archaeological and historical literature. (In addition to helping Sabloff and the team find patterns of early state organization, the database will be linked with the Evolution Institute’s new Seshat database so anyone can use it.)

The data are still being collected, but insights and patterns related to status and role are already emerging. A recent statistical analysis by SFI Cowan Chair Mirta Galesic and External Professor Henrik Olsson, for example, suggests that Early Dynasty Lower Mesopotamia and the Classic Maya societies might be considered the prototypical early states.

New network analyses reveal that pre-conquest Hawai’i has to be considered an early state, contradicting many archaeologists but supporting leading Oceanic archaeologist Patrick Kirch.

Working with former SFI Research Fellow Skyler Cragg, Sabloff also found that archaeologists who credit warfare as a major enabler of complex societies might be seeing only half the picture. “By studying status and role in the early societies, we see that long-term alliances are a critical part of warfare – either to prevent it or to ensure success in battle by having more troops than an opponent,” she says. “High-rank women help build such alliances through the roles they play as spouses of foreign rulers – spying, advocating, and cementing relations.”

The work supports SFI’s Emergence of Complex Societies project, initiated in 2011 with funding from the John Templeton Foundation.