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J World Prehist (2010) 23:255–269 DOI 10.1007/s10963-010-9039-x



Beyond the Segmentary State: Creative and Instrumental Power in Western Uganda

Peter Robertshaw

Published online: 21 October 2010 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Abstract The concept of the segmentary state was proposed by Southall, based on ethnographic fieldwork among the Alur people of Uganda, and subsequently applied elsewhere, notably to the putative ancient kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara. Archaeological research, summarized here, has demonstrated that ancient Bunyoro-Kitara was not a segmentary state; indeed, neither was the political system of the Alur. The Nyoro state of the nineteenth century shows a complex interplay of political sovereignty and ritual suzerainty and of accommodation and resistance to central authority. This is understood through examination of the concepts of instrumental and creative power, the latter par- ticularly relevant to negotiations concerning the status of women. The archaeological record of this region is then explored for evidence of earlier expressions of instrumental and creative power. Finally, the paper shows how the archaeological record of Munsa is itself an arena for modern political struggles in which protagonists harness different forms of power.


Segmentary state Uganda Power Bunyoro-Kitara


Africa is the cradle of political anthropology. In the words of one commentator, the publi- cation of African Political Systems (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940) ‘at a single blow, established modern political anthropology’ (Lewellen 1983, p. 7). Fortes and Evans- Pritchard identified two types of African political system: stateless societies organized on the basis of kinship, and what they called ‘primitive states’, where administrative organization, centralized authority and judicial institutions superseded kinship as the structuring principles of politics. This typology soon came under fire from other anthropologists. It was noted that there were numerous stateless societies organized on principles other than kinship, for example age sets and secret societies. Similarly, it was strange that no place existed for

P. Robertshaw ( &) Department of Anthropology, California State University, San Bernardino, CA 92407-2397, USA e-mail:



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chiefdoms in the typology, while evidence was also accumulating for variability within state- level societies. One of the first and most important revisions to this simple typology was the addition of the concept of the ‘segmentary state’, which has been described as an ‘oxymoron’ (Marcus and Feinman 1998, p. 7; see below). The concept of the segmentary state was developed by Aidan Southall (1956) in order to characterize and explain the political system he encountered in the 1950s among the Alur, who reside northwest of Lake Albert, which straddles the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Uganda. Since Southall pursued his research in Uganda, he was very familiar with the work in the same country of another distinguished ethnographer, John Beattie. Thus, when Southall looked around for other examples of segmentary states, he did not have to look very far. Although the colonial and immediately precolonial Nyoro state appeared to be much too centralized to fit comfortably within the segmentary state model (indeed, it really was a state!), the historical kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara (Fig. 1) seemed to fit the bill. Bunyoro is that part of Uganda inhabited primarily by the Banyoro, whose (Nyoro) kingdom, ruled by members of the Bito dynasty, was conquered by the British at the end of the nineteenth century but continued to exist as a vassal state during the colonial era (Beattie 1971; Steinhart 1977). ‘Kitara’ has been used both as a geo- graphical term to refer loosely to the region of Bunyoro and as the name of a kingdom of uncertain geographical extent dating approximately to the fourteenth century, as discussed later in this paper. ‘Bunyoro-Kitara’ refers again to the earlier kingdom of Kitara, ruled supposedly by members of the Cwezi (Chwezi) dynasty; the addition of ‘Bunyoro-’ was apparently politically motivated, implying that the later rulers of Bunyoro were the legitimate heirs to the Kitara kingdom (Sutton 1993, pp. 39–41). I use ‘Bunyoro-Kitara’ here for no other reason than that it was the term employed by Southall (1988, p. 56; 1999, p. 33). Bunyoro-Kitara was, Southall claimed (1988, p. 81), a ‘very large, loose, seg- mentary state,’ which he considered to have been ‘held together by ritual suzerainty, with a centralized core’ (Southall 1999, p. 33). According to Southall, Beattie accepted this idea, though Southall notes wistfully that Beattie actually felt more comfortable about applying Weber’s notions of sultanism and patrimonialism (Southall 1999, p. 33). That ancient Bunyoro-Kitara in Uganda has been held up as a fine example of a segmentary state is of more than passing interest to me, since I have been engaged off and on in archaeological research in this very region for many years. I have thus been chal- lenged to examine the applicability of the segmentary state model. In my opinion, the political system of Bunyoro-Kitara was far more complex than a segmentary state. Moreover, the proposal that there was a single, very large, loose state, segmentary or otherwise, is probably incorrect. Indeed, there may have been no state at all, though the likelihood that there was no state paradoxically does not in fact preclude its having been a segmentary state. After briefly outlining the concept of the segmentary state and examining it within the context of its initial application, to the Alur of Uganda, I show why it does not adequately explain ancient Bunyoro-Kitara. However, I do not intend this to be an exercise in destruction. Indeed, I believe that the segmentary state model has been a useful heuristic device, as in the debate over whether the model fits the Classic Maya (Fox et al. 1996; most Mayanists seem to be of the opinion that the segmentary state model is not applicable to the Classic period, but some champion it for the Postclassic in the highlands: Fox et al. 1996; Chase and Chase 1996; Marcus 2003; Sharer and Golden 2004, p. 25). What I intend to do is to meld some of the ideas that exist in the segmentary state model with various other concepts, particularly those of instrumental and creative power. This discussion will lead us towards ‘heterarchy’, but I hope that it will go deeper than the mere application of


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J World Prehist (2010) 23:255–269 257 Fig. 1 Uganda, showing the approximate boundaries of nineteenth-century

Fig. 1 Uganda, showing the approximate boundaries of nineteenth-century kingdoms, the region known as Kitara, the homeland of the Alur people, and major archaeological sites

labels. What I wish to emphasize is the oft-neglected importance of creative power, the power that manipulates and invents forms of meaning (Schoenbrun 1999, p. 139 citing Bourdieu 1990, pp. 112–121); in the case of Bunyoro-Kitara, creative power also resonates with gender issues. I also briefly raise the concept of ‘wealth-in-people’. Thus, I seek to analyze, rather than simply describe, power relations. I aim to demonstrate the multifarious and somewhat tentative nature of different forms of authority and control, and the ways in which these may change through time. Finally, I consider how the ideas I have discussed can be applied not only to the archaeology of western Uganda but also to modern-day Uganda. In fact, Uganda’s archaeological record is a vibrant part of modern politics. We can make no clear distinction here between prehistory and history. In order to explore fully the themes of power and the segmentary state, I weave together threads of



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evidence from archaeology, historical linguistics, oral traditions, and classic ethnographies. First-hand written descriptions of Uganda date back only as far as the European quest for the source of the Nile (Speke 1863; Grant 1864); thus, prehistory sensu stricto ended here in the mid-nineteenth century AD. However, investigation of later Ugandan prehistory is supported immeasurably by a rich corpus of oral traditions that were written down both by Europeans (e.g. Fisher 1911; Gorju 1920) and by newly literate Ugandans (e.g. Uzoigwe 1973; Kiwanuka 1971). Historical linguistics adds further insights—for this paper, par- ticularly to our understanding of the nature of power and the exercise of authority (Schoenbrun 1998, 1999). Although not explored here, it also (Schoenbrun 1993a, b; Ehret 1998) sheds light on the region’s economic prehistory (Robertshaw and Taylor 2000), the paleoenvironmental context of which has been quite thoroughly investigated (e.g. Lejju et al. 2005; Ssemmanda et al. 2005; Taylor et al. 1999, 2000).

The Segmentary State

In his book, Alur Society (1956), Aidan Southall defined the segmentary state based on six overlapping characteristics. These are: (1) territorial sovereignty is recognized but limited and essentially relative, diminishing from the center outwards, often shading off into a ritual hegemony; (2) there is centralized government, yet also numerous peripheral foci of administration over which the center exercises only a limited control; (3) specialized administrative staff exist at the center, but they are repeated on a reduced scale at all the peripheral foci of administration; (4) monopoly of the use of force is successfully claimed to a limited extent and within a limited range by the central authority, but legitimate force of a more restricted order inheres at all the peripheral foci; (5) several levels of subordinate foci may be distinguishable, organized pyramidally in relation to the central authority. The central and peripheral authorities reflect the same model, the latter being reduced images of the former; and finally (6) the more peripheral a subordinate authority is, the more chance it has of changing its allegiance from one power pyramid to another; thus, segmentary states are flexible and fluctuating (Southall 1956, p. 248). In later publications, Southall dispensed with this attribute list, preferring to define the segmentary state far more simply as ‘one in which the spheres of ritual suzerainty and political sovereignty do not coincide. The former extends widely towards a flexible, changing periphery. The latter is confined to the central, core domain’ (Southall 1988, p. 52). While this latter definition is certainly easier to remember, it is an oversimplification of the original, a problem which Southall circumvented by describing in some detail the segmentary state of the Atyak, the ruling clan of the Alur. Certainly, the short definition leaves the reader unclear why such a state was termed ‘segmentary’. The crucial idea was that similar political powers are found at both central and peripheral nodes of power and are ‘exercised within a pyramidal series of segments tied together at any one level by the oppositions between them at a higher level’ (Southall 1956, p. 260). What is also not clear from either definition is that the Atyak achieved domination without the advantage or application of force, but rather from ‘the impact of belief in more potent supernatural power’ which provided the Atyak with notable rainmaking skills (Southall 1988, p. 58). In other words, this was an example of creative, rather than instrumental, power. Southall believed too that the Atyak were not able to develop a single, centralized polity because of environmental and economic factors, notably their reliance on foot transpor- tation in hilly terrain, and an absence of markets. These factors seem to have been


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operative in Bunyoro-Kitara also, where they were probably exacerbated by low popula- tion densities. Was the so-called ‘historical kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara’ a segmentary state? Certainly, Southall’s identification was in tune with the prevalent interpretation of the historical traditions in the 1950s. A relatively literal reading of the royal traditions encouraged the view that the predecessor of the Nyoro kingdom of the nineteenth century was the Kitara (or Bunyoro-Kitara) state. This state was said to extend out from the Kitara region across a vast area of central Africa: Ogot (1984, pp. 503–504), for example, in the UNESCO History of Africa, refers to it as a ‘loosely organized empire’ of the late four- teenth century AD. The rulers of this supposed empire were members of the Cwezi dynasty, who in this interpretation were deified either then or later and contacted via spirit- mediums, some of whom resided at well-known shrines (see, e.g., Oliver 1953). These shrines are generally located on hilltops; they are sometimes associated with a natural feature, such as the impressively large tree at Mubende Hill (Lanning 1966), but at other places the only visible indication of a shrine is an accumulation of potsherds, as for example at Lusiiba Hill (personal observation, August 1994). The capital of the Cwezi-ruled state was thought to have been the large earthworks site of Bigo (Posnansky 1966, p. 5; 1969; Oliver 1977, p. 632), which was the largest of about fifteen earthworks sites scattered through Bunyoro-Kitara (Fig. 2). These earthworks are characterized pri- marily by ditches (trenches) up to four meters deep, which often extend for several hundred meters and enclose a hill or an area of land. Many ditches are crossed by earthen cause- ways, while a couple of sites possess artificial mounds apparently associated with the ditches (see Robertshaw 2001 for an overview). It seems entirely reasonable that Southall, armed with these traditions and interpreta- tions, would identify the Cwezi-ruled state, that is, the historical kingdom of Bunyoro- Kitara, as a segmentary state, though nowhere, to the best of my knowledge, does he himself present any evidence to support this interpretation. However, we may surmise that he considered the political sovereignty of the Cwezi-ruled state to coincide with the distribution of earthworks, while the distribution of Cwezi shrines perhaps indicated the sphere of ritual suzerainty. Unfortunately, more recent analyses of the traditions and new archaeological research have undermined both the interpretation of a Cwezi-ruled state or empire and its identification as a segmentary state. Recent research has demonstrated four things. Firstly, the Cwezi are not firmly iden- tified with the earthworks (Robertshaw 2002; Schmidt 1990). Ascription of the major earthworks at Bigo to the Cwezi has been shown to be most likely a twentieth-century invention of Baganda, members of a different kingdom from that of the Banyoro, moving into this region and searching for a way to explain the existence of the earthworks (Schmidt 1990, pp. 256–264; Sutton 2000, p. 4). Other earthworks sites are identified with a figure named Kateboha (Lanning 1955, 1959), a personage who does not feature in the traditions of the Cwezi associated with the royal court of Bunyoro (Uzoigwe 1973; Tantala 1989). Secondly, the earthworks cannot be viewed as the major centers of a single state-level society. Elsewhere I have argued that Bigo, the site usually identified as the capital of this proposed state, may have had only a small resident population. Moreover, there are at least two other sites with earthworks (Munsa, Kibengo) comparable in size to Bigo, suggestive of the existence of three contemporary polities (Robertshaw 2002). Thirdly, at least some of the shrine sites with which Cwezi personages are associated date, in terms of their archaeological contents, earlier than the construction of the earthworks. Two shrine sites (Mubende Hill and Kasunga) firmly identified with the Cwezi were most likely first occupied about the fourteenth century AD (Robertshaw and Taylor 2000). A few Early



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260 J World Prehist (2010) 23:255–269 Fig. 2 The locations of earthworks and shrines in Bunyoro-Kitara

Fig. 2

The locations of earthworks and shrines in Bunyoro-Kitara

Iron Age sherds dated on typological grounds to the late first millennium BC or early first millennium AD were found at the Mubende Hill shrine (Robertshaw 1988), but the earliest settlements with archaeological features at both this site and Kasunga date to about the fourteenth century. In contrast, AMS and luminescence dates demonstrate that the earth- works at both Munsa and Kibengo were probably constructed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, while those at Bigo may be contemporary with these sites or a century or so older (Robertshaw 2001). Finally, although some shrine sites are identified in the oral traditions as capitals (see e.g., Lanning 1966; Tantala 1989), archaeological surveys and excavations have revealed no evidence that these sites were larger or richer than con- temporary settlements (Robertshaw 1994, 1999a, b, 2003; Robertshaw and Taylor 2000). In place of the Cwezi empire, historians have offered a variety of interpretations, most of which suggest that the Cwezi were the rulers of several, possibly contemporary small chiefdoms that preceded the Nyoro state encountered by the British in the nineteenth


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century (e.g. Berger 1980; Berger and Buchanan 1976; Tantala 1989). A more radical interpretation argued that the Cwezi have always been spirits but were euhemerized in order to legitimate the rulers of the later Nyoro state (Wrigley 1958). Similarly, the larger earthworks, now divorced from the historical interpretations of the Cwezi, may represent the centers of competing polities that were larger than those earlier polities centered on the Cwezi shrines. The major earthworks were perhaps the centers of complex chiefdoms, financed by surplus agricultural production (Robertshaw et al. 1997; Robertshaw 1999b, 2001, 2003; Robertshaw and Taylor 2000). Thus, it seems difficult to fit either the Cwezi shrines or the earthworks into the mold of the segmentary state. Moreover, at a theoretical level, it has been remarked that the segmentary state is an oxymoron since a state that segments would not seem to fit the usual definition of a state (Marcus and Feinman 1998, p. 7). Indeed, Southall (1991, p. 91) himself admitted that ‘ it [the Alur state] was hardly a state, hardly a two class society, and it could not prevent secession’. However, this admission did not stop Southall from touting the value of the concept in a later article (Southall 1999). Now I turn to the nineteenth century to examine the political system of Bunyoro around the time of British contact, in order to show the complex interplay of political sovereignty and ritual suzerainty and of accommodation and resistance that characterized this period. This examination takes us beyond the segmentary state and into the exploration of other concepts that I then apply to the archaeological record of earlier centuries in this region. Both the nineteenth century case study and the archaeology of earlier times reveal the flexible, dynamic, competitive, and tentative nature of the exercise of authority based on both instrumental and creative forms of power. The fact that the centralized authority of the nineteenth-century Nyoro state was circumscribed in various ways, even under the pow- erful monarch, Kabaleega (Kabarega), who brought the breakaway Toro kingdom back under Nyoro control by force of arms (Steinhart 1977), indicates that the identification of polities in prehistory as ‘states’, ‘segmentary states’, ‘chiefdoms’, etc. is but a first step in their investigation.

Bunyoro in the Nineteenth Century

In the Nyoro state of the nineteenth century, as reconstructed by John Beattie (1971), all political authority was regarded as belonging to, and allocable by, the king (mukama) alone. Political authority was delegated by the mukama, usually in the form of grants of estates. There was a limited number of great chiefs (bakungu), who ruled over large areas subdivided amongst lesser chiefs (bakongole). Chiefs had the right to collect tribute from the people on their estates, some of the tribute being passed on to the mukama. Chiefs also supplied men for work at the palace and for military service when needed. Thus, preco- lonial Bunyoro has been described as possessing a ‘tributary mode of production’ (Steinhart 1981), similar, but not identical, to medieval European feudalism (Beattie 1964, 1971, pp. 145–148). The staple crop was finger millet (buro), supplemented by a variety of other crops. However, pastoralism, the subsistence occupation of the nobility, was the proclaimed Nyoro ideal; most royal rituals involved cattle and the ceremonial drinking of milk (Roscoe 1923). The borders of the Nyoro state were fuzzy and fluid, the authority of the mukama declining with distance from the capital. There were no roads and no attempts to connect chiefs’ residences with the capital. Thus, to maintain his authority, the mukama insisted



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that his chiefs occupy residences at the capital. He would also frequently tour parts of his kingdom, receiving tribute and providing feasts (Beattie 1971). Princes, and often princesses, were also granted estates and concomitant political authority. As might be predicted, succession was usually a bloody struggle between rival princes that plunged the country into a period of lawlessness, which paradoxically rein- forced the importance of the kingship as the ‘indispensable condition of security and national well-being’ (Beattie 1971, p. 111). Indeed, the king was symbolically identified with the country, but he was not divine. Nor indeed was the king considered to be an intermediary with spiritual powers over and above the kingship, though he would employ his own spirit-mediums. Thus, Beattie (1971, p. 106) concluded that ‘ritual and ceremonial clustered about the Nyoro kingship because it was the center of secular power, rather than the other way about’. If we end our description with Beattie’s work, it would appear that both political and ritual power were centralized in the Nyoro state and that both sorts of power declined with distance from the capital and with the time that elapsed between royal tours. However, this reconstruction, at least as presented here, fails to mention two important items. First, there is ample evidence that powerful princes sometimes succeeded in breaking away from weak kings and establishing their own states. The most notable example of this process was the secession of the Toro state from Bunyoro in the 1830s (Steinhart 1981, p. 133). The second item that complicates Beattie’s reconstruction of the Nyoro state is the presence of other nodes of power within the geographic region of the Nyoro state. These other nodes represent neither the abodes of great chiefs nor breakaway segments of the state. They are instead centers of ritual (creative) power that are sometimes, but not always, associated with a particular clan. These centers are the Cwezi shrines, some half-dozen or so of which are scattered across Bunyoro-Kitara (Fig. 1). While archaeological research indicates that these shrines were mostly likely first occupied about the fourteenth century AD (see above; Robertshaw and Taylor 2000), resident at these sites in the nineteenth century were priestesses or priests, with their attendants, who were spirit-mediums who communicated with particular Cwezi deities. Each site was in fact dedicated to a particular deity. Mubende Hill, for example, with its spectacular shrine tree, was (and is) identified with Ndahura, the supposed founder of the Cwezi empire and a deity associated particu- larly with war and smallpox. Each successive priestess who cared for the shrine took the name of Nakahima, Ndahura’s senior wife (Lanning 1966). Another shrine, Kasunga, was dedicated to Ndahura’s mother and served by a male guardian. Some shrines are identified with particular clans: the shrine of the Cwezi Mulindwa at Rutoma Hill was (and is) cared for by the Yaga clan, who also looked after Mulindwa’s royal regalia. Similarly, the shrine at Masaka Hill was under the stewardship of the Moli clan, who were renowned blacksmiths (Lanning 1954). Although all these shrines, par- ticularly that at Rutoma Hill, fell within the boundaries of the Nyoro state of the nineteenth century, the guardians of each of them enjoyed considerable independence. Indeed, the historical evidence indicates that the Yaga and Moli clans presided over relatively inde- pendent chiefdoms, whose rulers were sent occasional gifts by the mukama of Bunyoro. It is also claimed that the mukama would not visit these shrines during his tours of the state and thus presumably he did not obtain tribute from the associated chiefdoms (Berger and Buchanan 1976, pp. 56–61; Lanning 1954). These chiefdoms were then akin to mini- segmentary states, for their leaders exercised political and economic authority within a local area, while their ritual authority was more widely acknowledged within Bunyoro. However, there were no segmented offshoots from the centers of these polities.


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The case of Mubende Hill is slightly different: although the shrine was highly venerated and its guardians allowed considerable autonomy, being carefully avoided, for example, by both sides during conflicts between Bunyoro and Buganda (Berger 1981), the kings of Bunyoro sought to legitimize their status by holding coronation rituals at the shrine (Berger and Buchanan 1976, pp. 54–56; Lanning 1966). Therefore, the distribution of power in nineteenth century Bunyoro was complex. The Nyoro state laid claim to both creative and instrumental power, the latter being power that secures outcomes through the control of people’s actions (Schoenbrun 1999, p. 139 citing Blanton et al. 1996, pp. 2–3 and Roscoe 1993, pp. 112–114). The state simultaneously acknowledged, or at least permitted, other nodes of creative power within its borders. For those of us with Western, materialist preconceptions, it is difficult to conceive of the independence, political as well as ritual, permitted to the guardians of the Cwezi shrines. We seem comfortable with the notion of instrumental power, but we are less convinced by creative power. Yet, as David Parkin has remarked, ‘power rests not simply on the acquisition of land and material objects but rather derives from unequal access to semantic creativity’ (Parkin 1982, p. xivi). Power can be conceived of as existing of its own accord; in other words, power is out there somewhere and can be acquired by contact with spiritual forces (Colson 1977). The two forms of power are intertwined to some degree since instrumental power is created within a moral universe of semantic power.

Women and Heterarchy

Women in the Nyoro state, and even more so in neighboring Buganda, with the exception of a few royals, tended to be regarded as commodities; all women in Bunyoro, for example, were said to belong to the mukama and so he was never obliged to marry (Beattie 1971, p. 142). Women’s low status seems paradoxical in light of their particular importance in Bunyoro both as reproducers of children in a region with high infant mortality rates and as the backbone of a subsistence economy that was founded upon the labor-intensive culti- vation of finger millet. However, the explanation for their status may likely lie in the fact that many women may have arrived in Bunyoro as war captives (see Robertshaw 1999a, b for further discussion). Women were not, however, passive in accepting their arduous and humble lot. Instead, many of them harnessed the creative power of the Cwezi cults by being initiated as spirit-mediums. Thus, many of the shrine sites were centers not simply of creative power but also of women’s resistance, at least at a symbolic level, to the Nyoro state and perhaps to male hegemony. Further evidence of this is provided by the identi- fication of the shrines primarily with agricultural pursuits, the work of women, rather than with the primarily male realm of cattle-keeping. Archaeological excavations at two of the shrines have uncovered numerous grain storage pits and grindstones but little or no evi- dence of cattle enclosures. Thus, the creative power attached to the Cwezi shrines was also used in negotiations concerning gender (see also Schoenbrun 1999). One wonders why powerful kings like Kabaleega would tolerate what might be per- ceived as the underlying threat to their authority posed by the Cwezi shrines. To put it another way, why was there so much accommodation between the different nodes of power? A number of studies have suggested that the development of social and economic complexity may occur without a concomitant elaboration of hierarchical relations of power. This perspective is identified by the use of the term ‘heterarchy’ (Ehrenreich et al. 1995), which has been defined as ‘the relation of elements to one another when they are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different



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ways’ (Crumley 1995, p. 3). Thus, heterarchy emphasizes the flexibility of social, economic, ritual and political organization within society. Therefore, there can be several co-existing power hierarchies within a society, but in this Ugandan case, ‘heterarchy’ would seem to be a label that describes rather than explains the situation. Perhaps a more useful heuristic device in this instance is the concept of ‘wealth-in-people’ (Nyerges 1992). Material wealth (wealth-in-things) may not have been particularly valuable in tropical Africa, where potential agricultural land was generally abundant but labor was often in short supply. In this context, those who wished to become powerful by controlling a surplus of resources needed to attract followers to produce that surplus for them. Thus, a wealthy man or woman was one who had many dependents and extensive networks of social relations; characteristically he or she may have been little better off in material terms than some of his or her dependants (McIntosh 1999, p. 16). Wealth-in-people also implies that power was predominantly exercised by consensus rather than by coercion, particularly in the common situation where a leader’s followers could be said to possess the option of voting with their feet. Given these circumstances, it would seem a better strategy for a mukama to accommodate alternative nodes of power within his broad jurisdiction than to risk running afoul of the power of the Cwezi cults, the adherents of which included not only those who dwelt at the shrines but also itinerant mediums who might act as catalysts of disenchantment with the state as they plied their trade (Berger 1981). The foregoing reconstruction of the geography of power in nineteenth century Bunyoro is founded upon ethnography, oral tradition and history. Now we may ask whether there are indications of similarly complex patterns of instrumental and creative power in the history and archaeology of earlier centuries.

Instrumental and Creative Power in Ancient Bunyoro-Kitara

The site of Munsa, located in the very heart of ancient Bunyoro-Kitara, boasts an extensive system of earthen ditches, construction of which began probably in the late fifteenth century (Lanning 1955; Robertshaw 1997). The presence of huge pits, interpreted as having been used for grain storage, indicates that construction was likely financed by surplus agricultural production. Indeed, one interpretation of the ditch that encloses an extensive area around the site is that it was excavated to keep elephants out of agricultural fields (Robertshaw 2001, p. 27). However, it is also noteworthy that the faunal remains from the center of the site overwhelming belong to cattle; thus, then as in later times, the elite may have used cattle as symbols of prestige. The site, however, has a longer history than the period of the earthworks. Indeed, the center of the site seems to have been the focus of iron-working activities in about the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and there are even older burials. Thus, we can suggest that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries instrumental and perhaps also creative power stemmed from control of iron production. The presence of this earlier settlement and/or manufacturing center may also imply that the later earthworks were designed to incorporate the creative power immanent in the earlier occupations of the site. Munsa, therefore, is likely to have been the center of a small but growing polity in the fourteenth century, which became one of three large polities, each centered on an earth- works site, that are scattered across Bunyoro-Kitara (Robertshaw 2002). However, the hegemony of Munsa was potentially challenged not only by the inhabitants of Bigo and Kibengo, the other two large earthworks, but also by the inhabitants of Kasunga, a site located only about 12 km, as the crow flies, from Munsa.


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In the twentieth century, Kasunga was a Cwezi shrine site with no permanent inhabitants. Archaeological excavations, however, reveal that the site was first settled around the four- teenth century (Robertshaw and Taylor 2000). Unlike Munsa there was little evidence for iron-working at this time. Instead there are numerous grain storage pits and apparently hundreds of grindstones. While Kasunga may have been simply an agricultural village within the Munsa polity, it is also possible that it was a ritual center even at this early date. Not only do the traditions identify the site as the so-called palace of the mother of the Cwezi hero, Ndahura, but also several bodies found tossed within one of the storage pits together with grindstones and broken pots are indicative of ceremonial activities and/or conflict. Furthermore, the pits that characterize the archaeology of both excavated Cwezi shrine sites, Mubende Hill and Kasunga, may have been equally, if not more, important as foci of ritual activity than as grain-storage pits, their usual archaeological label. These pits vary in size and shape; while they could certainly have been used for grain storage, they possess other more puzzling attributes. As first noted by Marshall (1953) and reported by Lanning (1966, p. 158), these pits, which were cut into the laterite that underlies the topsoil in this region, commonly exhibit shallow circular depressions in the center of the base of each pit. Found at the base of each pit are grindstones, sometimes broken, as well as sherds, often rims, of large ceramic vessels, though rarely all the sherds that comprise a complete vessel. The fill of each pit is often comprised of alternating bands of decomposed red laterite and black organic sediments, presumably midden debris, that together create a striking collage of color. Of course, this may represent merely a gradual filling of each pit, during which episodes of midden (black) deposition are capped with (red) laterite, perhaps to mask the stink of rotting trash. However, the fact that human skeletons are sometimes included in the episodes of pit fill, along with the partial vessels and grindstones, encourages us to view these pits as having ritual/symbolic functions beyond their use for grain storage and subsequent rubbish disposal. Andrew Reid (1996, p. 625), noting the artifacts found at the base of these pits, suggested that grain-storage pits were ‘ritually decommissioned’. Per- haps this ritual identification can be taken further in the light of recent studies of the aesthetics of ritual deposition of artifacts, faunal and human remains, in Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain (Bru¨ck 1999; Pollard 2001). If an analogy with British archaeology is too farfetched, there is evidence of the ritual use of pits in Bunyoro itself. Pits were part of the paraphernalia, together with a variety of artifacts and sacrificed animals, of rain-making rituals conducted in patches of forest outside settlements (Roscoe 1923, pp. 29–32). Moreover, one of the houses in the king’s royal enclosure contained a deep pit, said to be a reminder to the king of the time when his predecessors lived on grain stored in pits. If a person entered this house without permission, ‘he or she was killed at once and the body thrown into the pit’ (Roscoe 1923, p. 82). Thus, Kasunga may have been a site of creative power that stood in opposition to, or in uneasy coexistence with, the nearby center at Munsa. It is also noteworthy that Kasunga continued to be occupied even after the digging of Munsa’s ditch systems. Therefore, interlocking geographical networks of different forms of power may have a history spanning the last millennium in Bunyoro-Kitara, as indeed David Schoenbrun (1999) has argued from linguistic data.

Creative Power in the Present

My excavations at Munsa in 1995 aroused considerable interest both nationally and locally in Uganda. For they occurred at a time soon after the president of the country had decided



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to revive the ancient kingdoms of western Uganda, including Bunyoro, as cultural and, to a much lesser degree, political entities. The kingdoms had been ‘abolished’ in the 1960s by the first independent Uganda government, an action that had deeply offended the royalist Banyoro. Thus, the restoration of the kingdoms in the 1990s provoked a surge of pro- government sentiment and a renewed interest in history. This was encouraged by President Museveni who embraced the notion of an ancient pan-Ugandan Cwezi kingdom as a source of national pride. The President himself was said to have a keen interest in my excavations though his mooted visits to the site never materialized. Clearly, he wished to harness the creative power of the archaeological record to his efforts at economic reconstruction. At the local level things were, if anything, more complex. The local political elite, or at least the elderly male members of it, rallied around the banner of the ancient king- doms. When they visited the Munsa excavations, they offered interpretations of the archaeological evidence as well as observations on the local historical topography that emphasized kingship and instrumental power; for example, the locations of military barracks and cattle enclosures. Once these gentlemen had gone on their way, however, different aspects of the site were emphasized by the subsistence farmers who comprised our local labor force. At their instigation, we had to slaughter a goat to appease the Cwezi spirits who lurked around the rocks on the hill at the site’s center. Indeed, investigation by the historian Ed Steinhart led to the revelation that the young son of my local foreman was the site’s Cwezi spirit-medium. For these locals, Munsa may have been a royal settlement, but far more important for them was the creative power that could be harnessed via a spirit medium to provide prosperity and fertility (Steinhart 2002). Thus, the archaeological record at Munsa signified different things for the archaeologists, the national politicians, the local elite and the local peasantry (for another Ugandan example, see Robertshaw and Kamuhangire 1996).


Power and the sources of power are difficult and fluid concepts. In the West, we may have placed too much emphasis on instrumental power. We need to remind ourselves that creative power most likely preceded instrumental power, for in the (translated) words of Godelier (1978, p. 767), ‘the monopoly of the means (to us imaginary) of reproduction of the universe and of life must have preceded the monopoly of the visible material means of production’. However, the acquisition of a monopoly of instrumental power does not guarantee a monopoly over creative power. The latter is slippery for, as Arens and Karp remind us, power is not simply what power does but how power means (Arens and Karp 1989, p. xv), for ‘the source of power resides in the interaction between natural, social, and supernatural realms’ (Arens and Karp 1989, p. xvii). Power can therefore, in theory at least, be harnessed in many places by many people. Power is not simply action; power exists of its own accord. Bunyoro-Kitara is probably not unique in its complex geography of nodes of creative and instrumental power. Models such as those of the segmentary state and peer polity interaction are, as their proponents rightly claim, valuable heuristic devices that draw attention to general processes, yet they represent views from the perspective of the centers of instrumental power. They neglect and ignore the smaller nodes of power, particularly creative power, hidden in the hills and interstices of larger polities. We must investigate these nodes of power more thoroughly if we are to write prehistories that tell the stories of everyone, not just the kings in their courts.


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Acknowledgments David Schoenbrun introduced me to the concepts of creative and instrumental power; his linguistic work on the history of the African Great Lakes region has been a great source of ideas and inspiration. An earlier version of this paper was presented at a meeting of the Complex Society Group in San Diego; I thank Tom Levy and Guillermo Algaze for inviting me to present a paper at that meeting. I thank Jeff Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones for their invitation to participate in their symposium at the Society of American Archaeology annual meeting in Vancouver and in this publication. I thank Andrew Reid, Ann Stahl, Henry Wright, Ephraim Kamuhangire and others too numerous to mention for ideas and for sug- gestions about books and papers I should read. My field research was supported by the British Institute in Eastern Africa and the National Science Foundation (SBR-9320392).


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