This week: Elites

A pair of Bronze Age arm bands found in Northern Hungary, and dating from around 1400-1200 BC. IMAGE: Geni/Wikimedia Commons

These days, it sometimes seems hard to read a newspaper, or scan a news website, without coming across an article about the ‘new elites’ who run our world.

Often this is in reference to the richest ‘1 percent’, who are said to have hoovered up most of the money, property, and power in society, though there is also much discussion about a new ‘liberal elite’, the sometimes overlapping group that is perceived to dominate our culture, politics and institutions.

Of course, this fascination with new elites is itself nothing new: power (and all that comes with it) has mostly been passed from one ruling group to another since prehistory. So where did it all begin?

As we discover this week on The Past, many of the earliest elites can be traced back to a time of dramatic societal change – as the Neolithic period gave way to the Bronze and Iron Ages, and as people made the long transition from largely egalitarian farming communities to more hierarchical societies ruled by formidable chiefs and mighty kings and queens.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Attila Gyucha and William S Parkinson – the curators of The First Kings of Europe, a new exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum that highlights spectacular finds from across 11 south-east European countries – explain how these emergent groups grew their power and influence.

Just one word of warning: as you read about the complex political and economic inequalities that developed as these early new elites strengthened their grip on technology, trade, rituals, and warfare, it’s possible you might think that not much has changed.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we have also been delving into the archives for more about elites down the ages: we travelled to the Eurasian steppe to learn about Kazakhstan’s ‘golden burials’; we journeyed to China to hear how the discovery of intricate treasures has helped the Bronze Age Zeng and Chu dynasties rise from obscurity; and we stopped off in Rome to see how Nero’s opulent Domus Aurea inspired artists in the 15th and 16th centuries.

And finally, if all that simply whets your appetite, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around history’s rich and powerful. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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