Water in Sumer

Stephanie Rost

ISAW Visiting Assistant Professor

Ancient water management, especially for irrigation purposes, has featured prominently in anthropological theories on the development of socio-political and economic complexity. Traditional approaches have assumed that centralized control was needed to meet the managerial requirements of water control on a large scale. However, recent ethnographic and archaeological studies have shown that centralized control is a choice rather than a necessity. To date, there has been no empirical study on the exact nature of state control (if any) in the organization of ancient water control and irrigation due to the lack of empirical data.

The only exception is ancient Mesopotamia with its extraordinarily rich archaeological and historical record on ancient water control.  This talk will presents an analysis of the oldest and most comprehensive record on ancient water control from the archive of the Umma province of the Ur III state (2112–2004 B.C.). This rich provides a detailed insight into the technological and social aspects of ancient water control, which allows us to address larger theoretical questions regarding the role of the state in ancient water management and its importance for the functioning of an early state society.

This research is based on the analysis of cuneiform administrative documents, complimented by archaeological and comparative ethnographic/ethno-historical data. The results show that water courses in the Umma province were managed not only for irrigation but also for navigation and flood control. While irrigation was crucial for the production of agricultural surplus, it was waterborne transportation that allowed for its efficient distribution throughout the state and its urban centers. Moreover, given that peak flooding of the Euphrates and Tigris coincides with the harvest, flood control was as important as irrigation. The textual data also allowed a detailed description of the social aspects of the water management system, including labor organization, social inequality, gender relations, bureaucracy, and political centralization.

Stephanie Rost (2017-2019 Visiting Assistant Professor at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU) earned her BA at the Free University of Berlin, her MA at Vienna University, and her PhD from the State University of New York at Stony Brook (2015). Her research interests focus on the investigation of early state economies with an emphasis on agricultural systems and political ecology. Her dissertation research was concerned with the technical and social aspects of water management of the late 3rd millennium B.C. southern Mesopotamia as a means to assess the degree of political centralization in early state societies. Her future research agenda focuses on the reconstruction of the historical geography of late 3rd millennium B.C. southern Mesopotamia to build a framework in which the rich data sets of economic documents from this period can be explored to their full potential. Her research will be based on remote sensing techniques, the collection of archaeological settlement data, textual and ethnographic data.

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