Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden That Never Was. (Book Reviews: Anthropology and History)

By Blanton, Richard E. | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Ancient Mesopotamia: The Eden That Never Was. (Book Reviews: Anthropology and History)


Blanton, Richard E., Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


POLLOCK, SUSAN. Ancient Mesopotamia: the Eden that never was (Case Stud, early soc.). xii, 259 pp., maps, tables, illus., bibliogr. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1999. [pounds sterling]32.50 (cloth), [pounds sterling]10.95 (paper)

This is one of several volumes in the Case studies in early societies series (Pita Wright, series editor) that are intended for mid-level undergraduate courses addressing primary state formation and the evolution of early civilizations. I teach such a course, so I looked closely at the book's suitability for this purpose. While I found some aspects of Ancient Mesopotamia acceptable, for example the nicely written chapter on record-keeping technologies and the origins of writing, I found it unacceptable in other regards. I base my decision on the author's close adherence to a Marxist perspective that forces her into what seem to me misleading and confusing interpretations of the archaeological data.

One of the most interesting and theoretically significant aspects of the Mesopotamian sequence is the transition from the Ubaid (fifth millennium BC) and Uruk (fourth millennium BC) periods to the Early Dynastic and later periods. A mode of social complexity developed during the earlier two periods that lacked any clearly defined chiefship or rulership, while the subsequent Early Dynastic and later periods were more socially stratified and ruler-centred. In the book, this transition is described as the evolution from a 'tributary economy' of the fifth and fourth millennia to the 'oikos-based' economy of the third millennium (oikos being a corporate economic system owning productive resources, with a managerial staff and dependent workforce). Of the two economic systems, 1 had more difficulty following the author's discussion of the tributary economy, although the discussion of the oikos is also problematic in that it ignores possible commercial transactions.

A tributary economy is one dominated by a political elite, divorced from production, that is able to appropriate resources from primary producers in the form of tribute payments. This elite is also able to control prestige goods used for their own consumption and as gifts to 'win supporters'. That a political elite is not readily detectable in the archaeological record of the fifth and fourth millennia is an obvious problem for this theory. And prestige goods are rarely found, although increasing somewhat over the course of the Uruk period. Confusingly, the author includes in her fifth and fourth millennia chapter two plates showing very fancy goods from the Royal Cemetery at Ur, dating to the mid-third millennium, not Ubaid or Uruk. …

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