very old times

20 February 2013

They had beer rations in Mesopotamia - that raises a few questions: did they always have enough beer for the workers ? Could one trade his share for some other goods ? did they have to stand in line for their share ? What happens if they run out of beer ? What kind of society is that that has to mandate the consumption / distribution of stuff to its subjects ? If you run away from Mesopotamian rule and get into Egypt, how would things be different ?

Maybe Victor Pelevin is not too far off when he likened Soviet / post Soviet society to Mesopotamia ? … and more intriguing - are these all questions unique to persons who grew up behind the Iron curtain ?

Is rationing of food a feature of a high-end state? Ian Morris says that in high-end states there are no vassals and that everyone is subordinate to the state (no fiefdoms allowed). A high end state needs a standing army and needs a huge number bureaucrats ; Of course the financing of these projects requires the state to raise taxes. (see Taxes in the ancient world )

However this development is associate with King Tiglat Pileser the III of Assyria, who lived in the eight century BC;

Can it be that the Mesopotamia of 3000BC was not so much different from the Neo Assyrian Empire of 800BC ?

Ian Morris says that the change has been brought about by a worsening of the climate, suddenly it was all cold and dry. (Why the west rules on page 86

Climate change forced tough choices on Mesopotamians. They could bury their heads in the sand as it encroached on their fields and carry on as usual, but the price of doing nothing would be hunger, poverty, and perhaps starvation. Or they could migrate to regions less dependent on the monsoon; but it is no small thing for farmers to abandon their well-tended fields. In any case, the Hilly Flanks—the obvious place to go—was already packed with villages. In 2006 archaeologists at Tell Brak in northeast Syria uncovered two mass graves of young men dating to around 3800 BCE, apparently the victims of massacres. Moving back to the crowded, violent Hilly Flanks might not have been a very attractive option. If enough Mesopotamians had done nothing or run away, this new core would have collapsed. However, a third possibility presented itself. People could abandon their villages but stay in Mesopotamia, congregating in a few big sites. That seems counterintuitive: if crop yields are falling, cramming more people into smaller spaces should make things worse. But some Mesopotamians seem to have figured out that if more of them worked together they could run larger irrigation systems and store floodwaters until the crops were ready. They could feed more miners to dig copper from the ground; more smiths to make ornaments, weapons, and tools; and more traders to carry these goods around. So successful were they that by 3000 BCE bronze (an alloy of copper and a little tin) had largely replaced stone for weapons and most tools, sharply increasing fighters’ and workers’ effectiveness. Getting to that point, though, required organization. Centralized administration was the answer. By 3300 BCE people were scratching onto little clay tablets such sophisticated records of their activities that most archaeologists call the symbols writing (even if as yet only a tiny scribal elite could read them). Little villages that could not support such sophisticated activities went to the wall while one site, Uruk, turned into a true city with maybe twenty thousand residents. Mesopotamians were inventing management, meetings, and memoranda—the curses of life for so many of us today, and hardly the stuff of soaring narratives of human achievement. Yet as will become clear in the next few chapters, these were often the most important motors of social development. Organization turned villages in the Hilly Flanks and along the banks of the Yellow River into cities, states, and empires; failures of organization caused their fall. Managers are simultaneously the heroes and the villains of our story. The birth of management as the monsoons dried up must have been traumatic. We should probably picture bedraggled, defeated columns of the hungry slouching toward Uruk under a dusty sky, like Okies but without the jalopies, let alone the New Deal. We should probably also imagine angry villagers refusing to cede power to self-important bureaucrats who tried to requisition their fields or crops. Violence must often have been the outcome. Uruk could easily have broken apart; perhaps plenty of rival towns did. We will never know the stories of the ancient managers who pulled Uruk through, but archaeologists suspect that they were tied to temples. Many pieces of evidence point this way, propping one another up like the poles in a tepee. For instance, excavations at temples have uncovered stacks of uniform-sized dishes known as “bevel-rimmed bowls,” probably for distributing food. The earliest clay tablets scratched with crude symbols come mostly from temples, and the symbol for “rations” on them is a sketch of a bevel-rimmed bowl. And when writing systems developed to the point they could record such information, they tell us that temples controlled broad acres of irrigated land and the labor to work them.

The pattern is that there is a certain pendulum that swings between high end states and low end ones; I don’t know what option would be preferable for an individual: what is preferable the violence of a centralized state or the whims of a vassal; the order and periodic terror of the state or the general chaos of medieval times?

The high end state seems to have had been a better option for the advancement of arts the sciences and technology: with a high production there is a greater chance that something trickles down to the thinkers; also a higher level of stability is good for the accretion of culture.

However when the state becomes repressive then most of these advantages are undone; so go figure The thinkers of the Axial age where placed on the periphery, not in the big centers of civilization.

Another idea: The Pharaohs claimed to be Gods but the rulers or Mesopotamia claimed to be God like; Some people like Daeniken make a lot out of this distinction.

Can it be that this difference is due to the fact that in Mesopotamia power was usually local to the city state, in any event a subject could possible run away to a competing authority. So the power of the city state could not have been absolute; so there was no use to claim the impossible - it would be strange for a local leader to claim to be God when there is a competing leader next door to you.

In ancient Egypt was much more limited in this regard; there were fewer places to run to, for an individual the choices were severely limited, no use to question established believes.

also interesting thing to note: Agriculture and irrigation must have been easier in Egypt – Mesopotamia had lots of problems with the irrigation project, the problem of soil becoming salin is much more severe than in Egypt, I guess that the irrigation system in Mesopotamia required more work. See ancient irrigation So Mesopotamia was probably more technologically challenged than Egypt.

On the other hand Egypt had more political stability/continuity - which must have been good for the development / accretion of arts, science and technology.

Hard to tell which civilization was better off in the end.

In any events there is a lot of room for speculation in these subjects. It is a very rewarding subject - it is also hard to say if one says something significant or if it is just rubbish. I am not a historian, and the more I think on these subjects, the more confused I get …