Read an Excerpt
The Early History of the Ancient Near East 9000â"2000 B. C.
By Hans J. Nissen, Elizabeth Lutzeier, Kenneth J. Northcott
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1988 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Sources and Problems
The historian of the early periods of the ancient Near East faces many problems. The geographical terms "the Near East" and "Asia Minor" provide only a rough indication of the area whose early cultural development is to be traced. It is perhaps better to define the region as an area distinguished from the outside world by a multiplicity of internal ties, or as a fluctuating sphere of interactions.
This densely woven network of developments was seldom limited to what we commonly refer to as the Near East. Parts of the area, such as Palestine and Syria, at times had close contact with Egypt, which was very important for development on both sides. And we do not count Egypt as belonging to the Near East in the narrowest sense of the term. Similarly, parts of what is now Turkey were for most of their history oriented more toward the West and the Aegean, and the Iranian plateau kept up a rather more regular exchange with its neighbors to the East than with the other parts of the Near East. This situation is underlined by recent attempts to treat most of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and the western part of present-day Pakistan as a single area, connected in many different ways and fairly autonomous in its significance for the development of early civilizations.
However, any account that included both internal entanglements and connections with the outside world would not only go far beyond the confines of the present discussion, but would also make too many demands upon the information provided by our sources. Though we know of contacts outside the narrow, limited area of the Near East, or must at least postulate such cases, it is only rarely that a comprehensive picture emerges. Even more rarely are we able to follow such contacts over any significant period of time.
We shall see in what follows that the demand for a balanced presentation taking equal account of all the contributions to cultural development cannot be satisfied even for the actual Near Eastern area. The available material is distributed far too unevenly over the region and over different periods of time. There is also the fact that the epoch we are dealing with embraces preliterate, paraliterate, and literate periods. Again and again, we run the risk of overestimating the importance of regions or periods about which we quite fortuitously possess a great deal of information, and of underestimating that of other regions or periods of which we — equally fortuitously — know little or nothing. Thus, for example, early interest in the ancient history of Mesopotamia (Abraham's biblical homeland being "Ur of the Chaldees"), especially after the written tradition had become known, produced an imbalance in the information about this region: for far too long, it allowed Mesopotamia, and more especially the southern part of Babylonia, to appear to be the natural center of the ancient Near East. One aim of this work is to distribute the emphasis more evenly and, wherever possible, to define the parts played respectively by all the regions of the Near East in building up its ancient civilization.
However, it is not the intention of the present work to propagate the other extreme — frequently defended in recent years — that maintains that all developments in every region were equally important, as though they all played an equal part in the development of Near Eastern civilization, whose great achievement must be seen as the creation and further development of universally valid forms of political organization that had an influence far beyond the chronological and geographical boundaries of the ancient Near East.
In the course of history, all the regions of the Near East were more or less involved in this process, but some areas certainly progressed more consistently and energetically than others. This work will show that the role of trailblazer in the most momentus phase of development — from city to regional state — fell to Babylonia. To deny this would be to deny the driving impulse behind, and the special peculiarities of, ancient Near Eastern history. A relatively large amount of space is thus devoted to discussion of what happened in Babylonia.
The more ambitious aim of including areas outside the Near East could not be tackled in this book, but should be kept in mind. Although complete in itself, the following survey should be seen as the preliminary work for a more comprehensive synoptic presentation.
By choosing to discuss both the preliterate and literate periods, the author has complicated things still further. This is a consequence of the concept underlying this work, which highlights historical development, and especially the development and changes in early forms of political organization in the ancient Near East. This development can in no way be said to start with the beginning of writing. It was not even particularly influenced by it.
The Near East is exceptionally suited to the documentation of all stages from the earliest human settlements up to the emergence and evolution of regional states. The invention of writing in Babylonia around 3100 B.C. was only one of many significant innovations in this early period. It is thus impossible to assign it the value given to it, for example, in the concept of a differentiation between "prehistorical" and "historical" phases of human development, depending on whether written sources of information are available or not, as if one could only speak of history when written evidence existed.
Unfortunately, this concept, which was held to be valid for a long time, and led to an overestimation of the importance of written sources, also led to a development under which works like the present one still have to suffer. Because the philological disciplines claimed to be able to make universal pronouncements about the state, the community, the economy, religion, and "daily life" based on written texts, archaeologists hardly ever felt it necessary to deal with any fields apart from those manifestly allotted to them, above all art and architecture. Any archaeology of the "historical" periods was therefore in a position to exclude whole areas of research dealing with ancient civilizations. However, for the branches of archaeology concerned with civilizations without writing and those that existed before writing was invented, it was a totally different story. They naturally had to investigate all aspects of the civilization in question, including, for example, society and the economy.
This different type of approach has, in fact, had some effect on the treatment of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. Although, as noted, the invention of writing did not mark any particularly significant historical turning-point, it subsequently acquired importance owing to the division of academic study of the ancient Near East into two spheres. Thus, for example, we know much more about basic nutrition and the domestic flora and fauna of the early period than we do about those of the "historical" period, because remains of animals and plants have been found and analyzed in excavations of "prehistoric" settlements, which is hardly ever true of excavations of "historical" settlements. In the latter case it was assumed that the relevant information could be recovered from an analysis of the texts, by asking the right questions. This can hardly be expected, however, since a selection process was already in operation in choosing what was considered worthy of being written down, and we have no way of knowing what the criteria of selection were.
Archaeology should therefore make use of the methods valid for research into earlier, preliterate periods even when it is concerned with "historical" periods. A barrier seems to have been reached when, parallel to its responsibilities for the preliterate period, archaeology is also expected to pronounce on the economic, social, and political context of the "historical" period. This seems to belong so clearly to the realm of textual interpretation that any of the, admittedly rough, statements and estimates an archaeologist can make appear superfluous. However, though this is fundamentally true, it does not hold good for the early literate period in Mesopotamia, because here we have only comparatively few historically useful texts at our disposal. In addition, these early texts were obviously not written to inform people in later ages about circumstances at that time. In fact, their usual aim was not to describe things exactly as they happened, but to describe them in such a way as to make them fit in with a specific view, follow a particular trend, or legitimate a certain course. Hence it seems possible, not only that the rougher outlines sketched by archaeological surveys have at times been more objective than the literary evidence, but that in many cases archaeology can contribute information in areas where texts have nothing to add to our knowledge — for example, we need only mention the important issues, discussed later in more detail, of the origins of settlements and settlement systems, the changes that took place in them, and almost all contacts between different settlements that fell short of hostilities. If one disregards economic texts, it was mostly wars and conquests that motivated men to write about relationships between settlements, not the normal relationships whose description would give an account of the actual development of those settlements.
Since they have hardly ever been manipulated, archaeological sources are usually more dependable than literary ones, but they are difficult to use. Hence, even the construction of a firm foundation for all further investigations, dating, or the confirmation of chronological contemporaneity or noncontemporaneity, causes considerable problems, especially when we take into account the role played by chance in the way evidence has been handed down to us.
The difficulties standing in the way of arriving at an absolute chronology — that is, fixing the exact chronological distance between any event and our era — are self-evident in the case of a period about which we have no historical documentation. On the other hand, techniques such as the so-called carbon 14 method have not yet achieved a degree of dependability and accuracy that would allow us to use their results without some reservations. However, in spite of these reservations, a chronological framework based partly on carbon 14 dating, which has been accepted by many researchers as a working hypothesis, has been used here, inasmuch as our historical imagination is incapable of managing without the aid of some reference to dates. In using this chronology I am not making a judgment as to whether the system is right or wrong. It simply makes it easier for those interested in the history of Mesopotamia to communicate, as well as making it easier to use other literature (see fig. 1).
However, as a rule, absolute dates — that is, dates giving the exact length of time up to the present day — will be used as little as possible. Instead, reference will be made to the relative chronologies developed for the individual regions of the ancient Near East. In these chronologies, observations that an event happened before or after another event and of the chronological contemporaneity of different finds and events are combined into groups or systems even if the intervals of time or the distance in time from our own era cannot normally be exactly defined.
These relative chronological systems are based on stratigraphy and typology. The principle of stratigraphy is based on the hypothesis that, where excavations of an undisturbed site are concerned, the very top layers and the things found there are generally more recent than the objects buried beneath them. This is most obviously true for sites where a house has been built on the remains of an older house, but of course it is also true of layers of rubble, whose position one on top of the other shows how the layers were piled up one after the other on the site under consideration. The chronological sequence of the different constructions, or at least the point in time at which the objects under discussion landed upon the site, can be clearly established, both for the houses and for the objects found in them or in the layers of rubble.
Beside this assured method of establishing differences in age, we have to set the typological method, which it is true cannot do without borrowing the results of stratigraphy: still in essence it bases its theories upon different observations. The basic principle underlying typology is that the causes of the changes that take place in everything subject to molding or shaping by man lie in changes in raw materials, technology, functions, taste, or artistic expression.
Series of such changed forms in a given category can be arranged so that their individual members can be closely related in time to neighboring ones, as either precursors or further developments of the latter. In determining the chronological direction of such a group, we are dependent on those cases in which it can be proved without doubt that the form of one link in the chain would be inconceivable without a prototype in the shape of another link or in which one form is a vestige of a previous one. The more nearly perfect form or prototype is then quite obviously older, and hence only the direction of the series derived from these observations can correspond to reality.
One additional, more frequently used, way of fixing the chronological alignment of a typological series is possible when two or more individual links in such a chain are found in some stratigraphic context. The study of objects in terms of stylistic evolution, a method borrowed from art history, can also be counted among the typological methods. This particular method attempts to find clues to a "before" and "after" from the decoration of the objects themselves, and from this it attempts to abstract criteria for the general thrust of development.
Our relative chronological systems are accordingly based, directly or indirectly, on stratigraphical sequences discovered during excavations. This explains why the names of excavation sites are often used as the accepted terms for the periods referred to in such relative chronological systems. Such terms, which do not entail value judgments, have not been used consistently, however, and as one approaches "historical" periods, for which, it is assumed, "historical" terminology should be adopted, they gradually give way to less value-free terminology.
Thus, for example, the periods from which the names of rulers and their dynasties are known to us are called after particular dynasties, although these were not the only dynasties that existed at that time, and possibly were not even the more important. An "Early Dynastic" period was designated as preceding these well-known periods, although there is absolutely no reason to suppose that there were no dynasties prior to it.
Periods that were not clearly understood were promptly defined as transitional periods. In one particular case, in order to name a period, the name of a ruler was used, even though in the meantime it has been shown that he was not even alive during the period named after him.
In addition to this vagueness about names, archaeological contexts only infrequently permit a clear demarcation between one period and the next. Drawing such dividing lines is thus very much a matter of the judgment of the individual scholar, depending on which criteria are used in each individual situation. It is therefore clear that it is not possible to have one universally valid chronological scheme, but only systems that fit specific criteria in given situations and show certain inadequacies in others.
The view that it is not one of the least of the aims of a relative chronological system to serve as a general foundation for the understanding of as many interested people as possible led, in the end, to the setting up of a hybrid system that took individual names for particular periods from different systems and put them together in new and different ways. Here, too, the subjectivity involved in the selection process cannot be overlooked. However, in spite of its inconsistencies and vulnerability to criticism, this combined system is generally accepted, and it is therefore used here. It would have been nice to have developed a chronological system of my own that would have been better adapted to the particular direction pursued in this work, the development of forms of political organization as an aspect of historical development. Nonetheless, I resisted this temptation in order to guarantee the comparability of scientific results.
In this book, the role of the natural environment and the changes that took place in it during the initial growth and subsequent development of the early civilizations of the Near East will be emphasized more strongly than usual. In contrast to mere assumptions made about these influences in earlier times, new research has provided enough evidence for us to make direct connections between changes in the environment and the growth of these civilizations without falling into the dangerous proximity of ecological determinism.
Excerpted from The Early History of the Ancient Near East 9000â"2000 B. C. by Hans J. Nissen, Elizabeth Lutzeier, Kenneth J. Northcott. Copyright © 1988 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.