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  • Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape
  • Sarah Kielt Costello
Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape. By Guillermo Algaze. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 246 pp. $35.00 (cloth).

Scholarship on early Mesopotamian civilization has not, for some time, been focused on the reasons for, or mechanisms through which, cities first emerged on the landscape. Explanations based mainly on irrigation, population density, and alternatively the availability or scarcity of natural resources have been employed effectively enough to allow researchers to move to other questions, such as regional interactions during the early urban period.1 Guillermo Algaze's Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization: The Evolution of an Urban Landscape revisits the question of the emergence of cities, armed with a wealth of ecological, geographical, and economic data. As the book title suggests, Algaze sees landscape as primary among factors allowing for the development of cities. His argument is laid out in evolutionary terms. Southern Mesopotamia is viewed as benefiting from "environmental and geographical advantages" (p. 9), advantages that "selected for" population increases. More specifically, Algaze considers the way the geography and ecology of the landscape of southern Iraq allowed for low-cost transport, economies of scale in production, and regional and long-distance trade. The "multiplier effects of trade" (p. xvii) led to an increase in population in the region, creating more interaction among the polities of southern Mesopotamia, thus leading to new ways of organizing labor and processing information. [End Page 738]

It is a well-organized and data-rich book. Algaze is extremely clear in stating his goals and in framing his argument. He deploys an array of economic and geographical data, drawn from archaeological survey, cuneiform texts, and ethnographic examples. For example, he presents a compelling case for a particularly resource-rich environment in southern Mesopotamia in the fifth and fourth millennia b.c.e. using climatological, sedimentological, and textual data (pp. 44–49). In another impressive use of varied data sources, Algaze connects population growth and elite control of labor forces to the large-scale textile industry of Late Uruk cities. It is well known that textile production was an important industry in southern Mesopotamia, but Algaze uses ethnographic, textual, and visual evidence to reconstruct the scale and arrangement of the industry in some detail, and then draws conclusions about the economic and demographic effects of this extensive operation on the burgeoning cities. Such examples of well-researched, detailed microstudies are plentiful in this volume. Not all the information is new, but Algaze has gathered it together and thoughtfully analyzed it in such a way as to create a rich picture of the geographic and economic "landscape" of southern Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium b.c.e.

As a portrayal of burgeoning urbanism, then, it is a commendable work. As an explanation for that urbanism, it does not quite fulfill its stated goals. Perhaps because of the amplifying feedback cycles of population growth and industrial growth, it is difficult to identify a prime mover. Does industrial growth feed population growth, or vice versa? Of course, it is both at the same time. And while Algaze recognizes the complexity of these forces, he nevertheless explains the process in linear terms: landscape allows low-cost production and trade, which feeds population growth, producing further innovations. Instead of urbanism being, ultimately, a result of innovations such as writing, could it not be that the scale and complexity of cities required the development of writing? Certainly the chronology of the development of writing suggests that cities came first, rather than vice versa. Such an idea is not absent from Algaze's book; to the contrary he considers such complexities and scenarios in some depth. Yet in the final analysis, he sticks to a causal chain of landscape, trade, population growth, and writing resulting in the urban entities of the Late Uruk. My critique, perhaps, reflects a difference in preferred methodological and theoretical frameworks, yet to seek change in socioevolutionary processes resulting from an advantageous landscape omits the choices and values of people living within the distinct communities of the Mesopotamian landscape. In Algaze...


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