What is civilization?

This semester I am teaching a class on the Ancient Near East at A Local College. I plan on posting some or all of my lectures here. I can see that these are going to be somewhat long so will figure out what to do about that later. Here is Lecture #1.

In this class we will be studying the history and archaeology of the region known as the Near East. The term “Near East” is used by scholars to refer to the region usually known as the “Middle East” in modern terminology. This map [not the same map I’ll be showing in the actual class] shows the modern countries which are included in the term; ancient and scholarly terms for these regions often match up with these modern terms but other times do not: these terms include Egypt, the Levant, Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Persia. We will begin in the late fourth millennium BC, and end with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BC.

This is quite a large region, even larger in practical terms before modern transportation. This is also quite a long period of time: the period between the development of written language in Mesopotamia until the conquest of Alexander was about 2700 years, which is about the same length of time between the fall of the kingdom of Israel to Assyria and today. A lot can happen during that long a time, which begs the question of why this region during this time is considered enough of a unified entity to be studied as a unit.

It isn’t easy in the real world to set clear-cut geographical and chronological boundaries, but this region and time period sees what we often call the world’s first “civilization” or “civilizations.” Unfortunately, “civilization” can be a tricky word to use: not only does it have some ethnocentric implications, but it also can be difficult to say just what is a civilization and what is not. So I have a question for you: What is a “civilization”? What are some of the elements that a society has to have in order to be considered a civilization? (Is civilization a kind of political leadership or economic organization? Or maybe you would argue that “civilization” is not a useful term that can be used to refer to a society that is significantly different from other kinds of societies?)
[Here is where the students will hopefully come up with some brilliant ideas about the concept of Civilization.]

Now that we’ve discussed the term “civilization” in general, let’s talk about specific civilizations. For example, scholars talk about “Mesopotamian civilization,” but a lot of changes took place in that region between 3200 and 330 BC. Another way we can think about this is through the idea of “Western Civilization,” which has also spanned several millennia and at least two continents, and which we often think of as going right back to Classical Greece. Obviously, a lot of cultural elements are different between Ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, and 21st century North America, including most major elements of life such as political formations, economic structures, and religion.
So keeping in mind the kinds of things we said constitute civilization, what kinds of elements do societies need to share in order to be thought of as having a shared civilization?
(Another way to think of this: What kinds of things can change over time without being called a different “civilization”?)

I’d like to discuss a couple of prominent models which attempt to explain how civilizations develop and what they are.
The cultural evolutionary model has a long history and a strong influence over ideas about where civilizations come from and what they are like. The idea that human societies in general develop from “primitive” or less complex societies more complex or “civilized” ones has roots that reach far back into the Enlightenment. A few prominent models based on this general idea are still very significant in attempts to explain what it was that happened in the Ancient Near East in the fourth millennium BC. These models generally suggest that human societies develop in a fairly predicable way through a series of definable stages. The following table is a conglomeration of several formulations of this general concept.
[My little chart loses some of its nuances in this format, sorry about that]

Cultural-evolutionary level: Characteristics

Band: Subsistence: hunting and gathering
Egalitarian social structure, family-based.
Leadership by “head man” or “big man”
Technology: fire, bow, and pottery

Childe’s “Neolithic Revolution”: Domestication of plants and animals
Subsistence by farming
Small, sedentary villages
Appearance of social stratification
Ability to produce food surplus

Tribe: Incorporates several families into a single entity based on a real or fictional kin
Specifics of tribal organization vary

Chiefdom: Multiple communities owe allegiance to
one leader.
Redistributive economy: the “chief” has authority to redistribute specialized goods,
the possession of which marks “elite” persons
Marked social inequality and level of control by chief and elite
Long-distance exchange of exotic goods which act as markers of status
Chiefdoms are unstable and frequently collapse
Childe’s “Urban Revolution”: In Mesopotamia, the Nile, and the Indus Valley, irrigation
cultivation yielded a food surplus large enough to support full-time specialists;
restricted cultivable areas; and raised the necessity of controlling irrigation waters
and protecting against annual floods.

State “civilization”: Larger-scale societies
Marked class differentiation
Public institutions: religious, bureaucratic, military
See list below

This is a conglomeration of several different models that share the idea that human societies come in three or four different levels of complexity, and that they develop from less complex to more complex societies, progressing through these levels. Different scholars have defined the levels in different ways, and have had different explanations as what leads a society to “evolve” from one level to another. The explanation I’ve included in this table was formulated by an archaeologist named V. Gordon Childe to explain the very first instances of such cultural evolution in human history, the Neolithic and Urban revolutions, both of which occurred in the Near East.

There are several problems with this formulation. While in a general way some societies in different times and places can be seen to develop through stages something like this, not all societies develop in the same way. It’s problematic to see human society as having some mysterious force propelling it towards greater complexity; there’s more to human society than that, to say the least.

Also, the terms often have to be redefined to fit specific societies: not all societies which seem to be at the level of “chiefdom” or “state” share all of the elements which theoretically at least define what these terms mean.

Finally, these terms are very broad, and several different societies which have arisen on different continents and at different time periods can be described as “bands,” “chiefdoms,” or “states.” But all of these societies have very different cultures; so does saying that they are bands, chiefdoms, etc. really say anything substantial about that society?

So why do I bring this model up at all? It’s important to be aware of this model because many historians and archaeologists reference it when discussing shifts between more and less “complex” societies in the ANE, but it’s also important to be critical of the model and question whether it helps understand a specific situation, or if it obscures what was really going on by substituting an artificial model for an understanding of what was really going on.

We will run into these problems as we study the Ancient Near East, but at the same time I think we can safely say that what was going on in that region during the years we’ll be studying was significantly different from what was happening before that time, and represents a new phenomenon in human history. The development of a highly complex, urban society is something that has arguably only happened independently three or four times in human history; the development of the “state” in other places has occurred under the influence of these few independent inventions. I also think that we can say that that new thing has affected subsequent history down to the present day. I think that the models we will be looking at to try to define what this new thing was, exactly, have their drawbacks; but I think that the ways in which various civilizations differ from these attempts at definitions tells us as much as how they match up with the models.

A necessary and endlessly debatable question is: what causes societies to change from one type or “level” to another? There are a wide variety of theories on this subject, which attribute the development of complex societies to adaptations to changes in the natural environment, to the impact of the development of new technologies, the availability of food surpluses, and so on. We will now look more closely at V. Gordon Childe’s theory of the Urban Revolution and what kinds of changes that entailed.

Childe was an archaeologist in the first half of the twentieth century. He believed there were two major “revolutions” in human history which fundamentally altered human society. That his approach used Marxist theory is apparent in his use of the word “revolution” and in that, in his own words, he described these changes as “a ‘revolution’ that initiated a new economic stage in the evolution of society.” (italics mine) He goes on that the word “revolution” “is here used for the culmination of a progressive change in the economic structure and social organization of communities that caused, or was accompanied by, a dramatic increase in the population affected—an increase that would appear as an obvious bend in the population graph were vital statistics available.” (as was observable in the case of the Industrial Revolution)

These revolutions represent his view of what led to the change from one cultural evolutionary level to another, and this view has been very influential in the study of how “state” societies, also known as Near Eastern “civilizations” arose.

The Neolithic Revolution refers to the development of agriculture; the domestication of plants and animals. This allowed people to live in sedentary villages rather than in nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. Agriculture also allowed an increase in population; and this increase and the fact that people were living in closer proximity than before required a more complex social structure to manage people and to organize agricultural work.

The Revolution which will concern us is the “Urban Revolution.” This was characterized by the appearance of settlements which were unprecedented in their size and population density. These first “cities” were precipitated by the development of irrigation agricultural in three locations: in Mesopotamia, the Nile, and the Indus Valley. Irrigation cultivation yielded a food surplus large enough to support full-time specialists; and at the same time restricted cultivable areas; and raised the necessity of controlling irrigation waters and protecting against annual floods. All other urban societies in the Old World were direct or indirect offshoots of these three independent developments.

Childe’s characteristics of urbanism (in “The Urban Revolution”)
1. Size: The first cities were larger and more densely populated than any previous settlement. The population of Sumerian cities ranged between 7000 and 20,000.

2. Specialization: Most citizens were still farmers, but cities must also have included classes which did not procure its own food via agriculture etc., but instead were full-time specialists: craftsmen, merchants, royal officials, and priests. These were supported by the surplus agriculture produced by the city’s residents who remained primarily farmers.

3. Taxation: Primary producers (farmers etc.) had to render surplus product to a deity or a divine king as taxes.

4. Monumental public buildings: These occur in cities, but not in villages. These symbolize the concentration of societal surplus under the king or god. The earliest Sumerian cities were dominated by large temples built on a brick platform, raising it above the residential districts, and connected with a “ziggurat.” Attached to these temples were building used for storage of surplus grain and other items, and workshops used for production of various goods.

5. A ruling class: All those not engaged in production of food were supplied by these surpluses, and thus were dependent on the temple or court. Priests, civil and military leaders, and officials received a large share of this surplus, and thus became a ruling class. This class was responsible for planning and organization for society, and for religious ritual which ensured the favor of the gods and the orderly running of the world.

6. Writing: The administration of the temples and the surplus agricultural product required the development of writing and numerical notation.

7. Calendar and mathematics: The urban societies developed calendars based on astronomical observations, allowing them to regulate the agricultural cycle.

8. Art: The surplus of subsistence items allowed artistic specialists to develop and create sophisticated art works and styles.

9. Regular foreign trade: The social surplus also allowed for regular long-distance trade. Contrary to Childe, trade over long distances had occurred previous to the rise of urban civilization, but only sporadically and a limited number of types of goods. Now trade became more frequent and regularized.

10. Eclipse of kinship: Belonging to a social unit now depended on residence in a particular city rather than on belonging to a particular kin group.

More recent attempts at lists of the characteristics of Ancient Near Eastern civilization rely on this list to one extent or another. Yet most of these particular characteristics are debatable. The earliest civilization, which arose in a region called Sumeria in southernmost Mesopotamia, were very strongly urbanized and the vast majority of the population lived in cities. In Egypt, however, the Pharaonic civilization arose at about the same time as the Sumerian city-states, but Egyptian civilization was always much less city-centric than in Sumeria. The different landscape and agricultural regime in Egypt did not lend itself to large cities, but Egypt was no less a civilization than Sumeria. Also, we now know kinship played an important role in even the most strongly urbanized societies, in a variety of ways.

Throughout this course, it will be important to note the differences between various regions as well as the similarities in order to gain a better understanding of what Ancient Near Eastern civilization was.

The second issue related to defining what a civilization is, is what constitutes a particular civilization: what makes Egyptian civilization Egyptian civilization; versus Mesopotamian civilization?

Egyptian civilization is probably the easiest to recognize and define. Pharaonic civilization was significantly different from the cultures that preceded it. The basics of royal ideology, iconography, and other aspects of Egyptian culture were already in place by the time our period of study begins, and they persisted with a very high level of continuity throughout the time period we’ll be studying.

In other regions, though, “civilization” is more difficult to define. Egypt was a unified country through much of the dynastic period, and even during periods when the central kingship declined in power or disappeared temporarily, many of the Pharaonic traditions were carried on by local authorities. Egypt was also somewhat geographically isolated from the other regions, and thus was less vulnerable to foreign domination and outside influences. On the other hand, Mesopotamia, or parts of Mesopotamia, was only sporadically united, and these periods of unification were under kings who came from a variety of regions and ethnic backgrounds, and these dynasties were much more short-lived than in Egypt.

In this case, can we even speak of a “Mesopotamian civilization”? An ancient Near Eastern historian named Norman Yoffee defines Mesopotamian civilization as a “set of cultural boundaries that encompass a variety of peoples, political and social systems, and geographies marked as Mesopotamian and that, importantly, include the ideal of a political center…the term Mesopotamia is by no means easy to define and even has the disconcerting ability to dematerialize entirely, since ‘Mesopotamia’ existed predominantly as a cellular pattern of city-states that rarely acted in political concert. Nevertheless, there can be demonstrated, throughout millennia before the existence of the state and hundreds of years after it, a very specific and shared cultural sense of Mesopotamia that is independent…of the presence of a Mesopotamian state…

Yoffee notes that the end of Mesopotamia as an autonomous political system ended with the conquest of Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC: and for the rest of antiquity the region of Mesopotamia was dominated by outside empires. But he argues that “Mesopotamian civilization” continued much longer, and that a specific date can be set for its final demise; the year A.D. 75, which the year in which the last known cuneiform document is dated. After this date, no elements of a Mesopotamian economic or belief system, or any Meso language can be determined to have persisted.

This suggests a somewhat different idea of civilization: that a civilization isn’t centered on a political unit, but rather in a shared culture.

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