The Eden that never was

Ancient Mesopotamia - Susan Pollock

I work second shift and so find myself driving home late at night most weekdays, where I often while away the commute by listening to “Coast to Coast AM with George Noury.” For those who do not recognize the name, George hosts an interview/call-in show that caters to conspiracy theorists, New Age gurus, cryptozoologists, (unfortunately) the occasional right-wing wacko like Alex Jones, ghost hunters, get the idea.

It’s fun. I’ve always been impressed by George’s ability to agree with whatever insane theory his on-air guest is propounding even though the previous night he was equally agreeable to someone whose ideas utterly contradict the current guest’s.

One of George’s favorite theorists is Zechariah Sitchin, famous for his Earth Chronicles books, which argue that humans were created by a race of aliens – the Annunaki – from the planet Nibiru. Nibiru orbits the sun every 1,600 years in an elliptical orbit, and every so often wanders into the inner Solar System. About a ½ million years ago, an expedition from that planet came to Earth and set down in the southern Mesopotamian plain. They created humans by combining their DNA with the local primates’, creating a slave-labor force that would help them mine minerals, esp. gold. Sitchin “proved” his hypothesis with a selective reading of Sumerian and other Mesopotamian writings as well as culling the Bible for “clues.”

It is with enjoyment that I turn from books like Sitchin’s to those written by people who’ve actually worked on Mesopotamian sites, and there discover how much more interesting the actual story is compared to the fantasy.[1] Such is the case with Susan Pollock’s Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden that Never Was. Pollock is an associate professor of anthropology at State University of New York at Binghamton (or she was when the book was published in 1999) and has done fieldwork in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and has here produced a brief introduction to the earliest civilizations of the Middle East.

The book’s time frame stretches from 5000 to 2100 BC – technically the Ubaid (5000-4000), the Uruk (4000-3100), the Jemdet Nasr (3100-2900), the Early Dynastic (2900-2350) and the Akkadian (2350-2100) periods. Pollock marshals evidence showing how urban civilization developed and spread from southern Mesopotamia, organically and without the aid of aliens or divine interventions.

The book’s audience is not the general reader, even ones interested in history/archaeology, but rather a beginning student. There are pages of graphs and charts comparing things such as animal bones and sizes of sites, for example. Though, I’m not studying to be an archaeologist, I found the book fascinating so what follows is a summary of the main points I gleaned from it.

The first chapter after the Introduction, “Geographic setting and environment,” makes two chief observations. The first is that Mesopotamia is a dynamic landscape. Neither the Tigris nor Euphrates rivers are as reliable as the Nile: the periodic flooding usually occurs at the worst time of the year from a farmer’s point of view and the rivers (and tributaries) regularly overflow their banks and change course. Human intervention – deforestation and salinization, primarily – further alters the region’s ecology, causing agricultural expansion/collapse cycles.[2] This dynamism, along with the second observation – the lack of significant stone and metal resources – were important in the development of urban centers and large-scale states.

“Settlement patterns,” the next chapter, presents evidence for the increase in the number of permanent settlements and the growth of urban centers at the expense of smaller, rural villages over time. Pollock also suggests that people shifted from sedentary lifestyles to more mobile ones relatively frequently in response to that dynamic landscape mentioned above.

“Making a living: tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia” and “A changing way of life: the oikos-based economy of the third millennium” track the development of a tribute-based economy where most productive activity still occurred in individual households to an oikos-based one:

In the tributary economies of the fifth and fourth millennia, political and economic leaders strove to control the distribution of goods; direct control over production of most goods…appears to have been limited. In the oikos economy, by contrast, many forms of production as well as distribution were controlled directly. Control over production was ensured by the concentration of the means of production…in the hands of the oikoi rather than the producers (p. 147).

Increasingly, production was divorced from its formerly domestic context, and producers lost control over their output.

“The growth of bureaucracy” takes up the origins of writing:

For ancient Mesopotamia as for many other parts of the world, it has become increasingly clear that writing was not the primary catalyst for major social, political, or economic change. Rather, the invention of writing was a response to other changes that...required a more flexible system of accounting and record keeping. Although...scholars continue to debate the extent to which writing developed directly out of tokens, there is no doubt that writing originated in the context of a growing bureaucracy (p. 172).

In “Ideology and images of power,” Pollock looks at the roles religion, monumental architecture and sculpture took in enforcing and justifying the status quo, and shows how ideology changed over time. Each era had its own “flavor”: The Ubaid period tended to mask inequalities and promoted communal unity. Uruk identified the social order with the natural order.[3] Later periods built on Uruk’s model but introduced local and interregional competition between city-states and larger polities like Akkad and Elam.

“Death and the ideology of community” continues the theme taken up in the previous chapter and relates it to death: “Mortuary practices are the deliberate, meaningful expressions of people’s views about themselves, other members of the society, and/or the world as they perceive or wish others to perceive it” (p. 216). Over time, the Ubaid-era emphasis on community and “all are equal in death” gave way to increasingly differentiated burials, expressing the decedent’s status while alive.

I want to digress and mention how different this is from the ancient Egyptians’ attitude about death and the afterlife, to which I’ve recently been exposed having read Toby Wilkinson’sLives of the Ancient Egyptians and Genesis of the Pharaohs. Where the typical Sumerian saw death as “the House of Darkness” where “those who dwell do without light, where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay” and “light cannot be seen,” the Egyptian expected to pass his time in a more perfect – definitely sunnier – place than he occupied in life. An essentially optimistic view.

The concluding chapter touches on why Sumer and later Mesopotamian cultures developed the way they did:

Mesopotamian civilization…emerged in an inhospitable environment, with a harsh and unpredictable climate and limited natural resources. The unpredictability and ever-present risks associated with agriculture…played important roles in the particular social, economic, and political forms taken by Mesopotamian societies. Institutions or cooperative groups that pooled resources and risks were preferred.... Chronic tendencies toward soil salinization and the availability of large tracts of arable and pasture land encouraged frequent movements of settlement.... The importance of microenvironmental differences for agricultural success in Mesopotamia, the necessity of irrigation, and the instability of the Euphrates River regime all contributed to the unequal growth of settlements and, ultimately, urbanization (p. 219).

The author ends by calling for greater in-depth study of how ordinary people lived. Pollock’s focus in the preceding pages has been on such research; she rarely mentions specific individuals (like Sargon of Akkad or Lagash’s Urukagina), focusing instead on the “boring” evidence of how societies functioned day to day. But continued research is necessary. She also asks for a focus on gender-related research. The roles men and women (and children) played in economies and politics are not well understood. Class, wealth and religious belief, for example, all factored into relative status and power, and it is difficult – not to say, ill-advised – to make generalizations.

I can’t recommend this book for everyone. As I mentioned above, its audience is not the general reader, who’s probably more interested in reading about the historical origins of Gilgamesh or the Flood myth and would prefer a narrative history. But if you have a deeper interest in and not too much familiarity with the subject of (really) ancient Mesopotamia, then I think this is a good place to start. The 21-page bibliography provides ample fodder for further reading.

[1] The same can be said for authors like Toby Wilkinson, whose books on Egypt I’ve enjoyed for the opportunity to glimpse an admittedly “alien” but thoroughly human world.

[2] Though not discussed in this volume, I have read elsewhere about the roles climate change and ecological collapse have played in the rise and fall of empires.

[3] A tendency one still finds in politics and economics today, unfortunately.