Friday, February 28, 2014

Steven Mithen - Thirst: Water & Power in the Ancient World

Steven Mithen is one of today's foremost popularisers of ancient history. Thirst is first and foremost a book about how ancient societies used and controlled water, but it clearly is influenced by wider contemporary questions of water and state power. As Mithen points out, two billion people today have inadequate sanitation, and by 2025 over half the world's nations are expected to face shortages of fresh water. So how can ancient history illuminate contemporary problems?

Firstly there is the obvious point, that access to water can be controlled. Those who control water can thus make others pay tribute in various ways. Indeed some historical studies have linked water very closely to state power. Karl Wittfogel's 1957 book Oriental Despotism argued that irrigation work could only have been done by large amounts of labour, and thus it must have needed a large centralised bureaucratic network.

For some societies this was undoubtably true. Mithen's book looks at the enormous aqueducts and water courses of the Roman Empire, the gigantic water courses and lakes of Angkor and South American civilisations such as the Maya and Inca to see how ancient states often did use water in this way. Water could be a tool to help control populations, but it also had a myriad of symbolic, religious or social uses too.

But Mithen argues very strongly that the existence of a political and bureucratic hierarchy is not a prerequisite for irrigation works. In fact, some of the most fascinating parts of this book, are ones that deal with the extensive water works and irrigation schemes of early farming communities. Frequently these are in places which are extremely arid today. Take for instance the Ubaid and early Uruk "pre-state" communities in the area now known as Iraq. These communities improved on natural features of existing water courses to irrigate their fields.

"Because of the natural braiding of the rivers, short off-shoot canals running for a few kilometres could be dug with minimal alteration of the water regime. The rivers were naturally elevated above the surrounding plain by the levees and hence by simply cutting an outlet through those banks, a sluice gate, water would flow into a channel by gravity. The water could then flow into a network of small channels surrounding the crops... with irrigation, the rich alluvial soils became highly productive and with greater reliability than those from the rain fed farming regions of Northern Mesopotamia."

While such works may not have needed centralised power, they would have required co-operation on a large scale, and archaeologists also suggest that in this case, according to translations of cuneiform texts, individuals that operated as "canal inspectors". Mithen doesn't point this out, but it is not difficult to imagine that such individuals could have ended up becoming the seeds of hieracrchical groups in society as their position in relation to a crucial resource gave them additional power within a community. Later when looking at Iraq's water history, Mithen notes the debates around salinity that may have contributed to the end of Sumerian civilisation. Interestingly he notes that pre-colonial farming was often better at dealing with salt than modern agriculture imposed during colonial times.

With more complex class societies, and more powerful states, water management was on much larger scales. Mithen describes some of the impressive water schemes. One Roman system brings water 551 kilometres to Constantinople. Such schemes led at least one Roman bureaucrat to consider his canals and aqueducts to be far more impressive than the "good for nothing tourist attractions of Greece".

Mithen avoids falling into the trap of arguing that we can simply impose experiences from 1000s of years ago onto contemporary societies. But while the outlook is gloomy, history has shown that we can use technological innovations to bring water to areas that need it.

The kings of Petra may have done this so that visitors experienced the shock of fountains in the middle of the desert, and heard the gurgling of water in underground pipes; today's rulers put golf courses in the centre of deserts to benefit the rich. Mithen notes that in the past, as with today, the wealthy section of the population were more likely to benefit from the technology and engineering solutions.

Steven Mithen's book is not without fault. On occasion I found some of his writing frivolous. To suggest that because the Maya rulers chose the "delicate" water-lily as their symbol it can "excuse the odd bit of rampant environmental degradation and gratuitous violence" is frankly silly. This aside, Mithen's book is an accessible introduction to questions of resource management, government and power in the ancient world that will help the reader to explore the rise of class societies and the nature of hierarchy in the past.

 Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice
Mithen - The Singing Neanderthals
Mithen - To the Islands
Fagan - Floods, Famines and Emperors

No comments: