Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History

Antiquity, Sept, 1993 by Norman Yoffee
And how can one imagine oneself among them I do not know; It was all so unimaginably different And all so long ago. --Louis MacNeice , Autumn Journal At first glance, there's not much imagination in Postgate's 'early Mesopotamia'; the commonsensical, British empiricist that Postgate is, coolly assembling the data and calmly and dispassionately drawing logical conclusions from the evidence would not have it otherwise. But no reader of this book will feel cheated that s/he does not know more about Mesopotamia, c. 3000-1500 BC, than s/he did before -- and this will be as true for specialists as for the students for whom the book is intended. And many readers will rightly wonder at the narrative skills of the author and how the Mesopotamian past can be so vividly portrayed in these pages. Postgate's 'method' is direct: pull together the relevant documentary and material evidence in order to delineate the major social and economic institutions of early Mesopotamia. The result is rewarding, since the copious illustrations and translated texts not only provide a state-of-the-art synthesis of the 'world's earliest urban civilization' (p. xxi); the volume is also filled with original research findings and novel interpretative sketches that cannot be found elsewhere. No scholar's bookshelves and no course on early Mesopotamian history and archaeology can be without this volume. Is there a central theme to this book, one that is systematically developed and advocated in opposition to others' views? Doesn't imagining the past require a dialogue with the present in which the discourse of analysis is reflexively constituted in the theory-laden analyst? Does Postgate really live and work in Cambridge? Allow me, good Chippindale, to lay out the contents of this remarkable volume, to debate certain points with the author, and to consider how dispassionate an observer of the past he is. Part One, 'Setting the Scene,' is divided into three chapters on environment, a historical sequence and writing. These chapters set out the geographic realia of deserts and rivers, mountains and natural routes of travel. They show that southern Mesopotamia, the 'heartland of cities,' was not a land barren of natural resources, as in many Mesopotamian histories: early Mesopotamians exploited birds, turtles, fish, sheep, goat, cattle, pigs, onions, cucumber, lettuce, apples, pomegranate, dates, willow, tamarisk, poplar. (Postgate is co-editor of the newish journal Bulletin of Sumerian Agriculture, which provides details of these and other natural resources). One cannot extrapolate from the present despoiled environment of southern Iraq to the Mesopotamian past and one cannot compare Sumerians with Marsh Arabs.

The first dynasties were preceded by small farming villages with modest public architecture and relatively small amounts of social and economic differentiation. While Postgate stresses continuity in the prehistoric sequence -- rightly so, in order to dispute the notion that Sumerians were immigrants into the land -- he unfairly (in my view) underestimates the massive changes in all aspects of Mesopotamian social life at the end of the Uruk period, toward 3000 BC. At that time, massive citystates were formed, and the characteristic elements of sculpture, cylinder-seals and writing in Mesopotamia appeared. His stress on continuity leads Postgate to endorse Schmandt-Besserat's controversial hypothesis that writing is the end product of a slow evolutionary process. The evidence and logic to the contrary, however, is that while the first writing owes much to a variety of preceding symbol and communication systems, writing represented a 'punctuated' change and a new semiotic system. New evidence of early writing in Egypt from W. Kaiser's work at Abydos (Kaiser 1990) also invalidate Postgate's suggestion that the 'idea' of writing spread to Egypt; nor will Indus Valley archaeologists accept that Mesopotamian writing provided the stimulus for the development of the Indus script. Postgate's outline of political institutions in early Mesopotamia admittedly owes much to Thorkild Jacobsen's pioneering ideas. Thus, Postgate reiterates Jacobsen's notion that a 'Kengir' (Sumerian) amphictyonic league of city-states flourished in the early 3rd millennium BC (see Yoffee 1993). His analysis of seal-impressions decorated with the names of cities as indicating the existence of such a league, however, is not supported by the evidence of pandemic warfare and the lack of any political unification at that time. I further take issue with Postgate's picture of Mesopotamian history as one of 'alternation of strong centralized political control with periods of turmoil'; I return to the point anon. As elsewhere in the volume, this Part One is filled with elegant apercus and excellent illustrations -- original data that allow glimpses of actors, not simply disembodied historical forces in early Mesopotamia. Part Two, 'Institutions', contains chapters on 'city and countryside', 'household and family', 'temple' and 'palace'. No Mesopotamian history covers these topics in as much depth and with the authority of this volume. Postgate shows that some aspects of life, such as the production of crafts, are illustrated by reference to the material record, while local political authority of assemblies is known from texts. In order to delineate these institutions, the narrative pace quickens. The result is that the character of co-resident extended families, marital and funerary rituals and inheritance practices has an air of timelessness to it and the dynamism of social life is thereby occluded. For example, in the Old Babylonian period, c. 2000--1600 BC, there were many sales of property, including houses under which were 'ancestral tombs'. Presumably the political and economic flux of this period necessitated such sales, which were perhaps local disasters for the unfortunate sellers. Whereas the chapter on 'the temple' documents the many festivals and journeys of the gods, most of the attention is on the economic role of Mesopotamian religion. Postgate dismisses the Tempelstadt theory (which held that early citystates were theocracies) and shows the powerful presence of temples as land-owners. Temples supported orphans and unfortunates, temple offices were bought and sold, certain classes of Mesopotamian 'nuns' were the real-estate entrepreneurs of the Old Babylonian period. The role of the palace is trickier. Postgate argues that palaces were as ancient as (big) temples in early Mesopotamia but at Warka in the late Uruk period, it is unclear that the building called 'palace' is actually the home of royalty or seat of administration. Indeed, from the Ur III period (c. 2100--2000 BC), the most centralized time in early Mesopotamian history, no palace at Ur has been located. One thinks that palaces were shifted frequently by competing dynasties and new kings while temples, built on hallowed ground, were rebuilt continually. It was the temple, especially of the patron god of the city-state, that had symbolic importance to kings, not their own residences.

Part Three includes chapters on 'crops and livestock', 'water and land', 'the domestic economy' and 'foreign trade'. The material assembled in these chapters will not be found elsewhere. Crops and agricultural practices, especially irrigation routines, are delineated, and social institutions are measured according to their success in dealing with harsh environmental circumstances. Similarly, when discussing trade, Postgate presents such titbits as the carrying capacity of boats. The primary message of this section of the book is to show that the palace and temple regularly hired private entrepreneurs to supply goods, both from foreign trade (of, for example, copper from Oman) and local goods (for example, massive quantities of sheep and fish). The fourth and concluding part has chapters on 'craft and labour', 'war and peace', 'laws and the law' and 'order and disorder'. The discussions on these topics vary from detailed listings of craft workers (for which terms in lexical lists are legion, but without any context in which to put them) and archaeological finds of craft products to general pronouncements that disorder comes from enemies abroad. Whereas his comments on 'religion', separated from his chapter on 'the temple' by about 150 pages, might be expected to focus on the sacred and belief systems, Postgate declares that 'Mesopotamian religion is politics' (p. 260). Kings are enthroned in temples, enrich temples, rebuild temples; kings are divinized; kings seek legitimation through the support of the gods and political disasters are ascribed to divine displeasure. Disputes are settled, however, outside the crown's apparatus by local assemblies and elders. Legal transactions are accompanied by symbolic acts, such as cutting the hem of a garment, dropping a lump of earth in a canal, passing a pestle. Law codes are 'prescriptive', meaning that the 'law' is to be 'universally applicable' within a realm, and abstract statements are intended to standardize legal practice. Although Postgate dismisses concern over whether the law codes are anything more than a species of literature in which justice is the prerogative of royal authority, it is perverse to disarticulate the law code of Hammurabi (for example) from the political deeds of that Babylonian king. Far from 'standardizing legal practice', Hammurabi ruled conquered territory in southern Mesopotamia with an iron hand, pumped resources to the capital in Babylon, and only overruled his puppet administrators in order to tax the conquered regions more efficiently (typically by granting new lands for subjects to cultivate while their own land was under water). These conquered territories were ruled for less than 10 years by Hammurabi and broke away from Babylonian control beginning in the ninth year of his successor. In the final chapter and in the epilogue, Postgate rightly ponders the continuity in Mesopotamian civilization over 3000 years (well beyond the purview of the volume and including north Mesopotamia, Assyria, which is only alluded to occasionally), which is apparent in spite of the many ethnic and linguistic groups in Mesopotamia, the changes of dynasties, and the cycles of local city-state autonomy and brief periods of regional integration. Characteristically, Postgate presents not only important and interesting data, but also up-to-date and new ideas about social and economic affairs. In particular, he joins a number of workers (including myself) in seeking to delineate the 'overlap between different sectors of society' (p. 303). That is, Mesopotamian history must eventually be written not solely in terms of institutions, but rather in the interplay of power relations, the multiple roles of individuals as members of several social groups simultaneously and who could manipulate their identities and also be co-opted by others. In this volume Postgate has not spent much time in developing these points about the intersection and overlap of social roles, and he has not considered how Mesopotamian 'culture' was systematically revised and reproduced over time, resulting in the standardization of cultural forms. Indeed, the history of Mesopotamian culture stands

curiously in contradistinction to the lack of political unity in the land. No one has attempted to write such a Mesopotamian history, and when it is done, perhaps Postgate will be the author. Meanwhile, we have in this volume a very British imagination of Mesopotamia, one in which the private sector is foregrounded as ensuring the prosperity of the land, but with a conserving ideology of values and social controls guaranteed by the crown, and with social conflict being exceptional and overcome in the end -- and we are glad to have it. References KAISER, W. 1990. Zur Entstehung des gesamtagyptischen Staates, Mitteilung des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 46: 287--99. YOFFEE, N. 1993. The late great tradition in ancient Mesopotamia, in M.E. Cohen, D.C. Snell & D.B. Weisberg (ed.), The tablet and the scroll: Near Eastern studies in honor of William W. Hallo: 300--308. Bethesda (MD): CDL Press. COPYRIGHT 1993 Antiquity Publications, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning