Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Gather the Bones, XVI, 2: The Work of Eanna

"When Enmerkar was lord in Uruk, and the heavy barley drooped in the sun under the weight of the dew, and the black haired folk grew fat on the carp flood, then all the land west of the Euphrates belonged to the Amorites, whose kings lived in tents."

Sounds nice. But then came wage slavery.

And you thought your job sucked. These guys (defensibly just guys, I think) worked for specified amounts of, we think, other interpretations being possible, bevel-rimed bowls of cheap mass-produced pottery filled with grain rations, a certain number of rations per position. The bevel-rimmed bowls are one of the signature archaeological markers of the Uruk Expansion and speak of a widespread social organisation, even if the scribes whose work Robert Englund is compiling in this modern reconstruction recalled it, perhaps six centuries later, as an organisation handed down by the sky god Anu as one of his "Me" of civilisation, and stolen from sacred Eridu in the holy lagoon and carried off to upstart Uruk by sexy, sexy Mother Eanna, at least by the interpretation of sacred text presented by Paul Kriwaczek

That insistence, that failure to remember a glorious history, is a good reason for thinking that Uruk was ever the capital of an empire, as Cuzco was of Incan Tawatinsuyu. The same objection may be made to the idea of Cahokia as the capital of an upper Mississippi empire, similarly delineated by a characteristic mass produced pottery speaking to some kind of social-organisational function. Conversely, the survival of a genre of document that seems to originate in Uruk IV, and the attachment to it of a new explanation speaks to ideology, and I do mean ideology in the careful "German Ideology" way that Paul Hundert taught me to say it, for a change. Of course, you think. It's about food/rations/pay, in a way that makes it comprehensible to the citizens of the southern alluvium about 3200BC, perhaps as early as 3800BC. It's going to be ideological. But do we understand just how ideological?

What's the southern allulvium? Well, in my tradition of going to left field for my sources, here's Playfair (Mediterranean and the Middle East) illuminating the point:

(i) Floodtime near Habaniya Air Base, on the road between Fallujah on the Euphrates and Baghdad on the Tigris in the spring of 1941:

ii) The theatre of operations back from that time when the RAF bombed the heck out of their clients allies for having the temerity to back the wrong side:

As you can see, the area around Habaniya was very wet during flood time. What can't be imaged here is that this is going to be a transient condition. The region gets as hot and dry in the summer as it is wet and chilly in the late winter/spring, and as the historian of the last British (well, Indian, really) campaign in the region points out, all the fodder and animals are going to disappear, and if you think that  you're going to store food in a way that lasts through the summer around here, forget it. It's just way too damn hot for anything but the local traditional technics, not that anyone actually knows how it's done, given that the foreigners traditionally clear out for the mountains, along with at least some of the herds, when it starts to get hot.

Hot. That's the word. In 1925, documentary makers will follow the Bakhtiar tribe of, they say, 50,000 people and 500,000 head as they cross the lower Karun on their way to winter pasture in the mountains. It's an ancient and unchanging struggle, the documentarians say, against heat in the low country and snow in the high. Only probably  not, because, at least for the moment, on the dubious basis of pollen and sediment studies, I am going to go with the thesis that there was a radical expansion in human-curated forests during the Iron Age. Which is another way of saying that we can at least assume that low-forage climax forest on the Zagros heights were replaced with high-forage mast forests by people with iron axes in the period after 800BC. No less in the Middle East than in temperate Europe, the disruption of iron technology must have been socially transformative.

But that's for later. There were certainly livestock in the Middle East of 4000BC, and some, at least, were going to the mountains. This thing we're talking about was an economic unit. What thing? Well, some call it Mesopotamia, because of course you use Greek names for Arab places, and some call it the Fertile Crescent, which, for me, raises spectres of Seventies style geopolitical fantasies, and some call it Iraq, and it certainly would be awesome if it turns out, as Kriwaczek suggests that "some" say, that Iraq comes, via Erech, from Uruk.

Still, we're talking about an economic unit here, and I have a map, crassly lifted from Robert Englund (1998) Texts from the Uruk Period just like the table of occupations above:

Englund offers a somewhat fuzzy view of the key 400mm isohyet, but the basic geography is easily described. The Arabian plate is ramming Eurasia, raising an orogeny around the leading edge of the plate that lies within he Warm Mediterranean climate zone of wet winters and dry summers. The orogeny sheds winter precipitation in a spring flood and creates a zone of relatively high precipitation low land that hugs it in a gentle crescent. Mountainwards of the isohyet, dry farming is practical. Below it, there is a zone of archaic settlement remains indicating an early phase of agriculture petering out towards true desert. Or, as the ancestral cattleman in me calls it, "range."

So from the map, we know what the southern alluvium is: desert. Or range, if you prefer. Not in the spring, to be sure, when the rivers are in spate, when the Tigris, carrying the freshet of the Zagros, rises in its deeply dissected gorge to the height of a four story house, and the much more mellow Euphrates, descending from the Taurus at a gradiant of perhaps 6 inches in a hundred miles, leaks under its natural levees to create the landscape of the picture above, where it is nearly as wet on the landward side of the levee as on the riverside, and great lakes pool in depressions in the midst of a landscape of intractable mud. But later: in the summer. When it's hot.

Did I mention that it gets hot then? That's why it is range. Of course, that's not what it is used for. It was farmed, perhaps beginning about 5000BC, or perhaps a little later, and still is. Irrigation serves as a better-than-substitute for rain, and as a result cities sprouted on the southern alluvium at an early date. Breaking historical insight: irrigation is key to early civilisation!

Except, well, yes and no. The only major Iraqi agricultural  exports that manage to bear up against the tides inflooding that unhappy country are dates and wool. Yes, the country produces a great deal of cereal, but it is a net importer of wheat and grain, and the agricultural ministry's current main concern is getting the 17 million palm trees that line the Shatt al'Arab back into full production. And this should be no surprise given that the average date palm produces 100kg of fruit/year, and that 178g of pitted dates yields 500 calories. If I were a Stone Age economist, in fact, I would strongly recommend that southern alluvium subsistence-challenged fellow flint nappers focus on dates as their food source, not grain.

The only problem with this that I can see is that the date harvest takes place in four tranches, each harvest being necessary to prepare the tree for the next. The earliest pick is in June, the same time as the cereal harvest, shortly after the sheep are shorn/combed out, and the main harvest begins in August. Did I mention that it's awfully hot on the southern alluvium in August? In a world where all the good land is already taken up, I can see the logic of lounging through the July heat around Uruk waiting for the dates to fruit.

So I argue, a lot, that major civilisational changes reflect the long, slow, positive feedback loop of technological change leading to higher regional population bearing leading to investment in a deeper economy of knowledge making new technologies possible making for higher population densities. If the Uruk Expansion is defensible as a transition to a new social mode of organisation, perpetuating ideological statements that survive another six hundred years to be found as scribal exercises at the dawn of the next era, do I see a new technology, or, more clearly, a new economy of knowledge?

You damn bet I do: Andrew Sherrat's "Secondary Products Revolution" is already closely correlated with the beginning of the Uruk Expansion period. The idea, not to get repetitive here, is that about 4000BC, human society moved from using its domestic animals (closely hunted prey?) for secondary products such as milk, wool and traction as well as for meat. This is not "invention;" it's not, pace the geneticists currently at work on the subject, due to a sudden mutation that made adults capable of consuming lactose. People put far too much trust in claims about the scientific origins of the diet fads of the moment.** It's about labour. To use wool and milk and traction successfully, you have to feed and care for animals more closely, and you need plenty of labour to process the products. Above all, you need textile workers.

I am not proposing the rise of a commodity textiles industry in alluvium cities here. That would be crazy. Dressing a person in wool takes the product of one or more animals, and the full shearing season labour of one individual, plus the work of another. We are still in an age when people wear mostly hides and rely on staying out of the sun a lot. I am proposing a much larger scale of textile production, and actual social takeup somewhere between the extremes of Paleolithic-people-trading-shells-hundreds-of-miles-inland and everyone-wears-undies-made-in-Manchester. This will serve as a model for understanding the extent of population concentration in Uruk that aligns it with Cahokia at one extreme and Cuzco and Teotihuacan at the other.

But I still haven't explained the empire, or dates, or the logic of cramming people into the southern alluvium, or the ideology that I see in those list of occupation plates. Again, out of left field, early modern military history irresistably suggests the parallel. If there is anyone who is as weirdly insistent on publishing tables of ration compensation by office, it is the scribes of the Perpetual Diet who tell me, and anyone who goes into the Kriegsarchiv in Vienna and looks up late Seventeenth Century administrative documents, exactly how many additional rations for man and horse every man and officer  receives in pain de munition and horses worth of fodder, as well as their pay in good silver gueldern. 

Prince Eugene of Savoy, in right of his position as Reichsgeneralleutnant, gets the rations of 300 men, by the way, and 300 horses. Not because der Edle Ritter goes to war with a train of 300 mounted servants, but because he's doing a fine job as commander of the Reich's armies, and deserves to get rich.

The question that we tend to ask is, "Why this cumbersome triple compensation scheme?" And the answer, it seems to me, is ovious: ideology. This is how the Age of Grass organises wealth. We live in the Age of Oil, and we think differently.  Well, the scribes of Uruk are men ofo the Age of Grass, and they' are talking about rations. But, in my humble opinion, they aren't talking about rations as rations per se. They're talking about wealth.

What's the difference? Well, the first rule of animals is that they live and grow on what they eat on their native ranges, but they are fattened for sale at a feedlot. In general (and I aim this snotty shot at people who talk about the Roman annona and elide into "bread and circusses" talk), people way underestimate the extent to which the alleged subsistence rations of antiquity were paid, not to the starving poor, but to rich feedlot ownerrs, to fatten up cattle for the market, rather than the poor for their own good. Call me cynical, and I'll cop to it. I can't imagine how I got that way, but that's the way I see it.

So here's the logic of the Uruk Expansion as I see it: massive circulation of population to and from the southern alluvium because that was the only way of circulating real wealth, in the form of something that mattered: sheep and cattle. The "new" focus on the date palm as the wonder crop of the southern alluvium? It's not because it feeds people. Dates might be a dietary staple, but they're only a dietary staple. It's asking a lot of the average human digestive tract to deal with an all fruit-sugar-and-fibre diet, and that's a lot of pits to remove. Sheep and goats, on the other hand. . . .

Empire, I'm suggesting. It is the product of a new economic system required to organise mass animal movements across paths that we may have lost sight of insofar as they ceased to make sense in the Iron Age. It is an empire that makes the southern alluvium worth colonising, and one that drives economic intensification there, and, incidentally, administrative intensification that makes itself visible in the form of the first texts, and, somewhat later, the first (and unhelpful) history.

Taking this back across the Atlantic, and I am going to suggest that if economics organises empires, than the collapse of the pre-Columbian economy, instantiated by the very appearance in the New World of Old World techniques and domesticates, ought to have dissolved New World empires, at, just after, or even before explicit contact. New techniques call for new modes of organisation, so why put up with the inequities of the old?

(I will leave it out there, for now, that the main use of the Oregon Trail turns out to have been to run sheep to and from the Oregon and California pastures to the mutton packing plants of Chicago, and that two significant concentrations of the somewhat mysterious surname "Nottke" are in Illinois and Washington state.... The idea that some of the Nottkes were originally "Nutkas" barely qualifies as a hypothesis, but the two decade long era of mass sheep drives on the Oregon Trail legitimately count as lost history. )

That is not the world of 4000BC.
*This is actually a composite of Uruk IV lexical lists of occupations, appearing in and, I guess, created by Robert K. Englund, or an unsung assistant. Englund (1998): 104, fig. 32
**Imagine how our history of civilisation will change after some impressionable historian reads a book by a gluten-free diet faddist!


  1. At the first oasis where I did my fieldwork, it was date _stones_ that fed the cattle - they pounded them into a powder edible to goats. That said, some inferior date types were also used as fodder. But date palm products are useful for so many other things - building fences, providing beams, making baskets and ropes, lighting fires, making monster costumes... and, perhaps more importantly, date palms are great for shading other crops that don't do so well in that level of sunlight, so planting them lets you expand your crop repertoire.

    Date palms are also - ironically - really thirsty. They can grow without irrigation if there's enough water, but if you're serious about yield, you irrigate them. Dunno how they did it in 3200 BC, though.

    As for the geneticists, obviously the causation is the other way around: it's only once people start drinking milk that mutations that help them digest it better can confer enough of an advantage to spread.

  2. Something that dropped out of my post between the version that Blogger ate and the one that appeared is a note that the early date palms were planted on the levees, which were also the main roads.

    Old civil engineering handbooks actually discuss the kinds of trees that you should plant along the edge of roads, rating them by shade value and their fodder value....

  3. You know, one further point comes to mind: if the early towns of Mesopotamia were founded around mass animal movements, the introduction of the camel (millennia later, I know...) should have played havoc with the regional economy.

  4. Which is true. I just wish that the archaeologists wouldn't make the domestication of camels some kind of floating reference, ever receding into past time. (At any moment I expect to see the origins of Indian civilisation pegged at the K-T Boundary.) Maybe someone will come up with something as off-hand useful as Drew's Early Riders, where it doesn't matter who first domesticated horses, because you can't have largescale horse riding without iron bits.

    As for the theory, I offer it for what it's worth, but it does converge nicely with the Inca comparison. The only pastoral society in the New World is also the only one with a true empire --and probably a heritage of earlier empire building.

    Herds are mobile wealth, and put the idea of conquering, or at least despoiling, distant peoples into political play at the centre. Which I guess reads as "neo-conservatives cause empires." Cynical as that is, I like it better than bloodless arguments about how the Uruk Expansion reached out to "secure resources."