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  • Cited by 50
  • Print publication year: 1989
  • Online publication date: October 2009

5 - The economy has a normal surplus: economic stability and social change among early farming communities of Thessaly, Greece


The subject of surplus may seem out of place in a volume concerned with scarcity, but the two issues are integrally linked. The importance of surplus lies in its problematic relationship with the emergence and maintenance of elites and other non-producing specialists. It is proposed that surplus be viewed as a normal response to the risk of scarcity in certain types of economy and certain types of environment. The changing role of surplus, and the way in which it may be appropriated by an emerging elite, are explored in the particular context of early farming communities in Thessaly, Greece. In conclusion, the Thessalian case is reviewed in a broader context.

Surplus: problems of definition

The traditional view of surplus, and of its relationship to the development of social complexity, is that: ‘Society persuaded or compelled the farmers to produce a surplus of food over and above their domestic requirements, and by concentrating this surplus used it to support a new urban population of specialised craftsmen, merchants, priests, officials, and clerks’ (Childe 1954:30–1). An agricultural surplus was needed to support the full-time specialists who created ‘civilisation’, and in this sense surplus was a necessary precondition of the development of social complexity.

The early civilisations occurred in rather similar natural environments.