Craft Specialization

A Primer on Craft Specialization

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Craft specialization is what archaeologists call the assignment of specific tasks to specific people or subsets of people in a community. An agricultural community might have had specialists who made pots or knapped flints or tended crops or stayed in touch with the gods or conducted burial ceremonies. Craft specialization allows a community to get large projects completed-wars fought, pyramids built-- and yet still get the day-to-day operations of the community done as well.

How Does Craft Specialization Develop?

Archaeologists generally believe that hunter-gatherer societies were/are primarily egalitarian, in that most everyone did most everything. A recent study on modern hunter-gatherers suggests that even though a select portion of the community group goes out to do the hunting for the whole (i.e., what you would imagine would be hunting specialists) when they return, they pass the knowledge ​on, so that everyone in the community understands how to hunt. Makes sense: should something happen to the hunters, unless the hunting process is understood by everyone, the community starves. In this way, knowledge is shared by everyone in the community and no one is indispensable.

But, as a society grows in population and complexity, at some point certain kinds of tasks became overly time-consuming, and, theoretically anyway, someone who is particularly skilled at a task gets selected to do that task for his or her family group, clan, or community.

For example, someone who is good at making spearpoints or pots is selected, in some process unknown to us, to dedicate their time to the production of these items.

Why is Craft Specialization a "Keystone" to Complexity?

Craft specialization is also part of the process that archaeologists believe may kickstart societal complexity.

  1. First, someone who spends their time making pots may not be able to spend time producing food for her family. Everybody needs pots, and at the same time the potter must eat; perhaps a system of barter becomes necessary to make it possible for the craft specialist to continue.
  2. Secondly, specialized information must be passed on in some way, and generally protected. Specialized information requires an educational process of some kind, whether the process is simple apprenticeships or more formal schools.
  3. Finally, since not everyone does exactly the same work or has the same lifeways, ranking or class systems might develop out of such a situation. Specialists may become of higher rank or lower rank to the rest of the population; specialists may even become society leaders.

Identifying Craft Specialization Archaeologically

Archaeologically, evidence of craft specialists is suggested by patterning: by the presence of differential concentrations of certain types of artifacts in certain sections of communities. For example, in a given community, the archaeological ruins of the residence or workshop of a shell tool specialist might contain most of the broken and worked shell fragments found in the whole village.

Other houses in the village might have only one or two complete shell tools.

Identification of the work of craft specialists is sometimes suggested by archaeologists from a perceived similarity in a certain class of artifacts. So, if ceramic vessels found in a community are pretty much the same size, with the same or similar decorations or design details, that may be evidence that they were all made by the same small number of individuals-craft specialists. Craft specialization is thus a precursor to mass production.

Some Recent Examples of Craft Specialization

  • Cathy Costin's research using examinations of design elements to identify how craft specialization worked among Inka groups in 15th and 16th century AD Peru [Costin, Cathy L. and Melissa B. Hagstrum 1995 Standardization, labor investment, skill, and the organization of ceramic production in late prehispanic highland Peru. American Antiquity 60(4):619-639.]


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