"Modell Agypten": Adoption von Innovationen im Mesopotamien des 3. Jahrtausends v. Chr. By OSKAR KAELIN. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, Series Archaeologica, vol. 26. Fribourg: ACADEMIC PRESS, 2006. Pp. 204, illus. FS 69.
Although Egypt and Mesopotamia are viewed as cradles of Western civilization and they appear side by side in numerous encyclopedias and anthologies of ancient history, art, or literature, cultural exchange between them is rarely studied. An ever-increasing specialization impedes trespassing among the fields of Egyptology, Assyriology, and Near Eastern archaeology. Oskar Kaelin surmounts this obstacle and looks into correlations between Egypt and Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C.E.
This study, which presents Kaelin's revised dissertation, is straightforward, coherent in argumentation, and well illustrated. While the first chapter expounds the theoretical background of his approach, chapters two through four propose Egyptian models for the following Mesopotamian features: funerary cult expressed in Early Dynastic visual media, kingship in the late Early Dynastic and Akkad periods, and monumental architecture under the Third Dynasty of Ur. Chapter five explores potential channels of communication between Egypt and Mesopotamia in the third millennium, and the last chapter wraps up with conclusions.
The areas for which Kaelin proposes Egyptian models--material culture, religious practice, political ideology--imply a nearly complete dependence of Mesopotamia on Egypt in the third millennium. Kaelin's incentive for this radical allegation lies in his approach, which depends on the diffusion-of-innovations theory developed by the social scientist Everett Rogers in 1962. This fundamentally evolutionist theory is based on the presumption of monogenetic as opposed to polygenetic invention. While technological inventions in modern history, such as the printing press, the electric light bulb, or the aircraft, can be viewed as one-time creations, I cannot subscribe to a once-and-for-all invention of the wheel or of writing, much less of ritual practices or ideologies.
This issue will remain a matter of debate, because we are unlikely ever to prove or disprove this theory beyond doubt. As an example, Kaelin follows Denise Schmandt-Besserat's thesis that cuneiform writing developed from earlier recording systems over several centuries and views subsequent scripts as adaptations of this (p. 33). Conversely, I find Hans Nissen's thesis of an ad hoc invention of the complete Uruk sign inventory much more convincing and see no reason for suggesting that hieroglyphs, the Indus script, Chinese, or Mayan, not to speak of the alphabet, were adapted from cuneiform. Recent finds from Egypt and China have revealed older recording systems than the Uruk cuneiform, although their relation to later hieroglyphs or Chinese script, respectively, remains controversial.
Kaelin assures us that current research based on the diffusion-of-innovations theory is far from either the monogenetic or polygenetic extreme, and that the theory provides a refined tool for the investigation of the diffusion of innovations (p. 20). If, however, the theory postulates that innovations, rather than being copied, were adapted to their new environment, sometimes so much so as to constitute re-invention (pp. 30-33), this refinement seems to me but an apology for all cases lacking evidence for adoption. As regards Egyptian innovations adopted in Mesopotamia, Kaelin conceives of the following adaptations (p. 31): visual images will be adapted to indigenous antiquaria (garments, attributes, etc.); the depiction of humans will be adapted to indigenous hairstyles, gestures, degree of abstraction; new media will show deviations from the model when indigenous artisans have not yet been trained in their production; ideas will be consciously altered, so that the indigenous elite can claim them as their own creation; contents and ideological context may deviate from the model. …