W14 – Waterscapes: Perspectives on hydro-cultural Landscapes in the Ancient Near East

Organizers: Lucia Mori (Sapienza Università di Roma) — Davide Nadali (Sapienza Università di Roma) — Lorenzo Verderame (Sapienza Università di Roma)


  1. Lucia Mori (Sapienza Università di Roma)
  2. Ingo Schrakamp (Freie Universität, Berlin)
  3. Davide Nadali, Andrea Polcaro, Maurizio Ercoli, Giulia Iacobucci, Paolo Mancinelli, Cristina Pauselli and Francesco Troiani (Sapienza Università di Roma / Università di Perugia)
  4. Lorenzo Verderame (Sapienza Università di Roma)
  5. Sergio Alivernini (Orientální ústav: Akademie vĕd České republiky = Oriental Institute: The Czech Academy of Sciences)
  6. Angela Greco (Sapienza Università di Roma)
  7. Noemi Borrelli (Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”)
  8. Robert Middeke-Conlin (Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte)
  9. Hervé Reculeau (University Of Chicago)

General Abstract

Water is a central topic in the ancient Near Eastern studies: more than 60 years have passed and much has been done since the 1957 “hydraulic society” model, presented by Karl Wittfogel in his “Oriental Despotism”, but still in 2012, the late Tony Wilkinson, wrote that “Too often the archaeology of water is studied as a footnote to other areas of the ancient cultural record, or, simply presented as an interesting diversion from the ‘real’ archaeology of buildings, burials or artefacts.” (Water History 4: 155-176). Pointing to the importance of field research especially dedicated to the topic of water, he continued by underlying the need to generate an overall conceptual framework for dealing with ancient water systems and, to shift the focus away from the “water and power” perspective, towards a more nuanced understanding of water management, which would re-consider the effective role of the local management of water resources.
The workshop aims at presenting and discussing the recent perspectives on water studies in the ancient Near East in an interdisciplinary perspective, which should contribute to the development of new interpretative models, able to enrich the long debate on where, how and when technologies related to water management in dry areas took place and which may be their role in the modern world, where water is considered as the key to a sustainable future. In particular, the presence and even the absence of water is a cultural and social cause that deeply influenced and affected the birth and development of settlements and urban centres: different waters co-existed and worked in the change of the environmental conditions of villages and cities, creating aquatic wet areas characterized by peculiar flora and fauna that are reflected in the economical, social and religious aspects of material culture.

Contact: lucia.mori@uniroma1.it; lorenzo.verderame@uniroma1.it; davide.nadali@uniroma1.it

Paper Titles with Abstracts

To view the abstracts, please click on the titles:

“Water and power”: what is left? An introduction to the Waterscapes workshop
Lucia Mori (Sapienza Università di Roma)

Water and its lack is certainly among the main concerns of the contemporary world and water crisis has been indicated as the main risk of higher concern of our modern times in a ten years perspective, in the “Global Risk Report” of the World Economic Forum in 2016.  Sustainability and water management are currently perceived as crucial challenges the modern times have to face and thus, the research and preservation of hydro-cultural landscapes rooted in the past, especially in arid countries, has received a lot of attention in the past years.
The ancient Near East represents undoubtedly a rich field of research as far as ancient systems of water management are concerned, and a field providing fervid stimuli for theoretic discussion on the crucial “water and power” relation. The present paper is meant as an introduction to the Waterscape workshop, and aims at presenting different developments in the debate on models dealing with ancient near eastern water systems from the hydraulic society depicted by Wittfogel in 1957 to the more fragmented and multi-disciplinary perspectives of the contemporary researches.

The irrigation network of the ED IIIb/Pre-Sargonic city-state of Lagaš: Technical, administrative, socio-economic and legal aspects
Ingo Schrakamp (Freie Universität Berlin)

The earliest evidence for fully-developed irrigation networks and their cuneiform terminology dates from the Early Dynastic IIIb/Presargonic period and stems from the Sumerian city-state of Lagaš (ca. 2475-2315 BC) which included the four major cities of Girsu, Lagaš, Nigen and Guabba and covered an area of approx. 3000 km². Cuneiform sources pertaining to irrigation include royal inscriptions and administrative texts from the archive of the household of the ruler’s wife (e2-mi2) or the temple of Bau (e2 dba-u2), respectively, which managed subsistence agriculture and is considered to represent a typical temple household. They demonstrate that the city-state of Lagaš maintained a four-level irrigation network which was establish by Urnanše upon the unification of the state and included primary canals, secondary canals, field canals, regulators, distributors, and reservoirs. As their cuneiform terminology reflects a recent development, the texts probably testify to one the earliest complex irrigation systems in Southern Mesopotamia. Moreover, they demonstrate that construction and maintenance of the irrigation network were organized on two levels. Large irrigation projects, such as excavation of major canals or the construction of regulators, were conducted by the ruler, who drew on the corvée troops mobilized by the temples of the state. The temples were primarily responsible for the maintenance of lower-level or local irrigation structures, such as dikes and distributors, located at their landed property.

The Shape of Water: How Landscape and Environment Affected and Changed the Morphology of Tell Zurghul in the ancient State of Lagaš
Davide Nadali, Andrea Polcaro, Maurizio Ercoli, Giulia Iacobucci, Paolo Mancinelli, Cristina Pauselli and Francesco Troiani (Sapienza Università di Roma / Università di Perugia)

A complex system of ancient river channels and marshes in proximity of the sea heavily characterized the landscape of the ancient State of Lagash, at the downstream sector of the Mesopotamian Plain (southern Iraq), from mid-5th to 2nd millennium BC. The diachronic landscape changes that can be analysed thanks to the integration of geological and geomorphological analyses (through both remote sensing techniques and targeted field surveys) and archaeological investigations show how this “waterscape” definitely influenced the shapes of settlement and the organization of ancient societies from a cultural, economic and biological point of view.
Recent excavations at Tell Zurghul in southern Iraq are giving the possibility to test, in the field, the presence of water: ancient cuneiform sources, from the mid-3rd millennium BC, show the intense programme of the rulers of the State of Lagash in managing water through the construction of canals and the regulation of marshes characterized by marine water due to the proximity of the sea. In this respect, human actions (such as the digging of canals) and the variations of natural conditions (such as, for example, the geomorphic response to the mid-Holocene climate changes of the fluvial-and-marshes system at the lower sector of the Mesopotamian Plain) are recognizable in the field and they explain the morphology of the site in the past and the changes it suffered even in the present: water in fact is doubtless a fundamental resource for suitable conditions of formation and growth of a urban centre, but it also limits the possibility of extending occupation on the entire surface (as for example the exploitation of lands for agricultural purposes).

Sea and Seascape in IIIrd Millenium Mesopotamia
Lorenzo Verderame (Sapienza Università di Roma)

In this paper I will analyse the geo-political evolution of the Persian Gulf coast and the impact this had on ancient Mesopotamian mythological thought. In the "Land between the two rivers", the crucial role of watercourses caused the gradual displacement of sea to a marginal and marginalizing function. The earlier state formations of the IIIrd millennium BCE had risen on the shores of the sea, and the Sumerian city-states were part of a network of intense cultural and commercial exchange that connected the cultures of the Persian Gulf with those of the Indian Ocean and, most probably, with those of the East Africa coast as well. Later on, the crisis that hit the region and the shift of power towards the territories of the north condemned this area to abandonment. The neglect of canal systems in Sumer caused the formation of marshes that hindered direct access to the sea. All this process of transformation finds an echo in the mythical and cosmological thought. The lagoon, the sea, and overseas lands (Dilmun) are the main scenarios of the oldest Sumerian literature, whereas in later composition this waterscape is marginal, if not absent. If the sea had been a key means of communication, it now becomes a limit. The expression “from the Lower Sea to the Upper Sea”, in fact, is used by the Mesopotamian rulers to refer to the borders of the known world. The hendiadys marks two geographical limits, the Persian Gulf, on the one hand, and the Mediterranean sea or the lake of Van, on the other. In the cosmological view the world is encircled by a sea or better a river of "bitter waters". Therefore, the sea is not anymore at the center of the political and mythological geography, but at its margins.

The management of earthmoving linked to hydraulic works in Southern Mesopotamia at the end of 3rd millennium BCE
Sergio Alivernini (Orientální ústav: Akademie vĕd České republiky = Oriental Institute: The Czech Academy of Sciences)

The role of irrigation management in the development of the first urban societies in Mesopotamia is still an important topic of discussion among philologists, archaeologists and historians. Since the mid-twentieth century, the development of Mesopotamian civilization has been seen as being intrinsically linked to the building of water-related infrastructure (dams, channels, etc.) to "tame" the environment. Although the importance of wetlands and marshes in the development of prehistoric communities in the Ubaid period has been emphasized by Oates and above all, more recently, by Pournelle, there is no doubt that, from the third millennium B.C., the region of Sumer had became an important area for the production of cereals, and crops, irrigated by artificial canals, had probably gained ground when compared to the wetlands. Earthwork projects and the building of reservoirs, dams and canals are closely related to the management of irrigation; several Ur III texts describe the building and repairing of canals or their components. These works would have required the use of different materials (in accordance to the typology of the facilities to be built) but the most important was definitely  the earth. This paper is aimed at showing which officials were involved in earthworks during the Ur III period. Moreover, the paper will study also the practical procedure used by these officials, to prepare and to complete, step by step, an earthwork for water-related infrastructures.

A neglected source of prosperity: Marshes’ resources and the role of the ‘enku’ in the III Mill. BC Southern Mesopotamia
Angela Greco (Sapienza Università di Roma)

Recent studies have underlined the importance of marshes in the economic landscape of Southern Mesopotamia in the fourth and third Millennium BC. If, on the one side, documentation offers abundant evidence for marshes’ natural products, on the other one, mentions of marshes as place of provenance of incoming commodities are quite few. This might be due to several factors, among them, to the fact that in economic texts the information about the provenance of incoming commodities can be simply replaced by the name of agents who had to supply specific commodities.  The role of intermediary agent between marsh resources and state or provincial institutions may have been played by the ‘enku(d/r)’, a profession attested from the beginning of the cuneiform tradition, traditionally translated as ‘inspector of the fishery’ or ‘tax collector’.

Water environments in Ur III Lagaš: from natural setting to economic resource
Noemi Borrelli (Università degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale”)

The integration of local resources and products into the state-run flow of income was a key point in the economic agenda of the Ur III policy. Beside the emphasis on the agricultural production at large and on local irrigation systems, this also included the exploitation of other water environments, such as marshes, wetlands, and riverine areas, which were peculiar to some of the southern provinces, particularly in Ĝirsu/Lagaš. The management of these ecological niches apparently involved either their requalification in pastures and arable lands or the direct exploitation of food supply there available: fish and fowl. Often neglected, these latter were as present in the Sumerian cultural landscape as in the contemporary economic output of the province.
This paper aims to show, through the analysis of the textual record, how this economic manoeuvre dealt with the local landscape and with the pre-existent networks of authority in the province of Ĝirsu/Lagaš. Specifically, it will address the following issues: how these “waterscapes” influenced the administrative geography of the region, which were the locations where these activities took place, and in what capacity the people in charge of them were absorbed in the socio-economic network of the Ur III society.

Planning a canal maintenance project during the reign of Hammurabi
Robert Middeke-Conlin (Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte)

YBC 12273 is an unprovenanced tabular administrative document in which volume excavated and labor expended in a canal widening project are estimated. Calculation of labor works as expected: volume multiplied by a labor coefficient produces man-day’s labor. This is similar to the mathematical tradition as witnessed in texts like YBC 07164. However, the production of volume is not so straightforward. First, while numbers in the labor calculation of columns 4-6 appear with measurement units and express magnitude, numbers in the volume calculation of columns 1 through 3 appear without measurement units, rendering them ambiguous to the modern observer. Second, depth in column 2 is stated before width in column 3, which breaks from the order of calculation in mathematical texts like YBC 07164. Finally, in the first two multiplied rows, length multiplied by depth and then width produces half of the stated volume. Why is this? Why is there a difference between columns 1 through 3 and columns 4 through 6? Can value be associated with the numbers in columns 1 through 3? Why do these calculations seem to differ from the mathematical tradition? This presentation answers these questions as it examines YBC 12273, and in the process shed light on mathematical practice in a professional environment, how this can differ from mathematical practice in a scholarly text, and then how a project planned by an administrator could both reflect reality and differ from reality. In so doing, new light is shed on how mathematical practice could affect planning in the Old Babylonian economy.

Of canals big and small: Landscapes of irrigation in the Euphrates valley  (Mari, 18th c. BCE)
Hervé Reculeau (University Of Chicago)

Being located in a semi-arid environment, Bronze Age Mari (Tell Hariri, Syria) was dependant on irrigation agriculture for its subsistence. Over the past decades, there has been much debate on the nature of large-scale irrigation in Mari, with a specific focus on the dating of archaeological remains of massive canals still present in the Middle Euphrates valley —with proposals ranging from the Early Bronze Age to the Late Ummayad Caliphate. Text-based studies, on the other hand, have highlighted the very detailed (if often difficult to interpret) information that cuneiform tablets found in the 18th c. BCE Palace of the Kings of Mari offer for the study of ancient irrigation, especially when combined with archaeological, geomorphological and ethnographic evidence. The focus was here also primarily on the three major canals whose names are preserved in the cuneiform documentation: the Išîm-Yahdun-Lîm, Ḫabur, and Mari/Ḫubur canals.
Textual evidence on Mari irrigation is however not restricted to large-scale irrigation of winter cereals on the alluvial terraces of the Euphrates valley, and a careful examination allows us to distinguish much more complex patterns of irrigation and agrarian practices —and the landscapes they shape. In this paper, I will discuss the evidence pointing to the parallel use of large and small-scale irrigation for both winter and summer crops, as well as to the exploitation of a multiplicity of water sources alongside perennial rivers (Euphrates and Habur), such as wells, wādīs, oxbow lakes and humid depressions. 

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