ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 56, December 2000


Once again economists are seen clutching their Nobel Prizes. These guys are everywhere. They advise governments, they are always there behind the scenes introducing some new scheme, and they are laden with honours.

Everyone takes everything to do with economics incredibly seriously. News readers put on serious voices for the pound against the dollar or for the FT index, while inflation and interest rates, etc, make headline news. In an economic crisis - of which there are plenty - we even get TV fireside chats from the Chancellor.

Archaeology, on the other hand, carries much less weight in the news. Nor does anyone in power want us as eminences, either gris or multi-coloured sweatered. Mind you, the sort of advice a minister would get from an archaeologist might be a bit gloomy: `Don't worry, it'll end up as dust whatever you do', or `I couldn't really say until several more thousand years have passed'. No one wants our predictions for what will happen next week given that we are still assessing the impact of replacing hunting and gathering with farming.

And what sort of rewards do archaeologists get? Trifling stuff compared to economists. But though we don't really want honours or to roam the corridors of power, it sticks in the gullet that economists should enjoy their place in the sun when they have got everything so plainly wrong. At least, virtually nothing from archaeology supports their theories.

Take supply and demand. How does that fit in with the production of metalwork in prehistory? A goodly part of supply got slung in the nearest river while several tons were buried. As much food production went to placate underground gods as went on the daily meal. You couldn't possibly interpret a causewayed camp as a place where entrepreneurs made sales pitches to gobstruck locals, having sussed that batons de commandement were out and petit tranchet derivatives were in - or where the locals made it known that they particularly wanted more red ochre. What about buying and selling? Through time the majority of people have been giving things away and forming obligations by doing so, rather than sticking price labels on them and asking a middleman to deal with it. Even when we get to money economies, it was never just a matter of the smiling retailers and consumers we see on TV adverts today. At the Roman market place, for instance, buyers and sellers often played games of chance to see whose side the gods were on rather than arguing the fair price, while later in the medieval period conducting business needed the blessing of the church.

And then there's that real non-starter, the profit motive. Apparently in money economies we spend all our time trying to amass money. This is nonsense - we actually spend our time getting by.

In the past there's barely a glimpse of a profit motive till the end of the Middle Ages. Look at our fields. According to the economists' theory we should find bigger farms swallowing up smaller ones. Or we should see where a Neolithic proto-capitalist decided to start growing a better crop to put one over on his dreary old tradition-encrusted neighbour.

Instead some of the earliest fields were laid out together along the same grid and everywhere it's clear that fields supported communities not farmers. When you get to the medieval common field where everyone had little strips here and there, it's obvious that it was cooperation rather than profiteering that brought home the soya bacon substitute. The name of the game was doing what the ancestors did, not managing your portfolio.

But the economists' view is too well entrenched to be budged. Their Invisible Hand will continue to point them towards Whitehall and the White House while ours points us back to the palaces of the past to muse amongst the ruins.

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