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The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C.

The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C.

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The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C.

3.5/5 (12 valutazioni)
344 pagine
5 ore
Mar 4, 2011


Hans J. Nissen here provides a much-needed overview of 7000 years of development in the ancient Near East from the beginning of settled life to the formation of the first regional states. His approach to the study of Mesopotamian civilization differs markedly from conventional orientations, which impose a sharp division between prehistoric and historic, literate, periods. Nissen argues that this approach is too rigid to explain the actual development of that civilization. He deemphasizes the invention of writing as a turning point, viewing it as simply one more phase in the evolution of social complexity and as the result of specific social, economic, and political factors.

With a unique combination of material culture analysis written data, Nissan traces the emergence of the earliest isolated settlements, the growth of a network of towns, the emergence of city states, and finally the appearance of territorial states. From his synthesis of the prehistoric and literate periods comes a unified picture of the development of Mesopotamian economy, society, and culture. Lavishly illustrated, The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C. is an authoritative work by one of the most insightful observers of the evolution and character of Mesopotamian civilization.
Mar 4, 2011

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The Early History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C. - Hans J. Nissen


Preface to the English Edition

In this English translation of the original German edition of my Grundzüge einer Geschichte der Frühzeit des Vorderen Orients, substantial changes have been incorporated. Due to strict space limitations and the impossibility of including photographs, parts of the German version were substantially abridged and the illustrations could not meet the quality intended. I was happy to be able to restore and, at the same time, to revise the text. Also, the bibliography could extensively be enlarged to include more technical titles but still be important for a general presentation. Last but not least, I was grateful for the opportunity to increase the number of illustrations, most of which serve their purpose better in the form of photographs than in line drawings.

Reviewers of the German edition have voiced some criticism: archaeologists would have appreciated the discussion of more archaeological details, and philologists would have preferred a larger presentation of the vast written record of Early Mesopotamia. But as the German title implied, this book was intended to be the outline of a history—of several possible ones—with a particular general view in mind. Again, it is true that aspects of religion are not treated with the same weight they enjoyed in the life of the ancient inhabitants of Babylonia. But more than twenty years after A. L. Oppenheim’s statement in his Ancient Mesopotamia that a Mesopotamian religion cannot and should not be written I still see his arguments fully justified: the difficulties result from the nature of the available evidence, and the problem of comprehension across the barriers of conceptual conditioning.

This having been said regarding the historical periods, it applies even more to the earlier periods. Yet, future research still may give us better insights.

A word should be said about the geographical terms used here, as they may differ from what the reader is used to. In order to avoid ethnic designations for areas and periods that we have no certain information about, like Sumer or Akkad, I prefer using more neutral terms as they were coined in the Hellenistic period. Thus I am using the terms Babylonia designating the plains between modern Baghdad and the head of the Gulf, and Susiana for the plains of modern Khuzestan. Mesopotamia stands more or less for the territory of modern Iraq, of which Northern Mesopotamia means the area north of Baghdad, whereas Southern Mesopotamia refers to the same territory as Babylonia.

I should like to express my thanks to those who helped me in the process of producing this book in English: to those who instigated the idea, to the translators, to those who provided the photographs, and, particularly, to the people at the University of Chicago Press.

Preface to the German Edition

Few other disciplines in the humanities have increased their share of public goodwill in recent years as much as archaeology, whether concerned with the relics of the past at home, in the countries of classical antiquity, or in more exotic lands. Opportunities available to the modern tourist have caused distances to shrink and have made travel to distant lands almost routine for an ever-increasing number of people. At the same time, our uncertainty about many aspects of our own history has led to greater interest in the history of older, more self-contained periods, and especially in the history of problem solving. And with this increase in interest, there has also been an increase in the legitimate demand of the public to be informed in a comprehensive, but generally comprehensible, manner about the history of countries and periods that do not lie within our normal field of vision. The various branches of archaeology are in different states of readiness to meet this demand.

Even today, our knowledge about the ancient Near East is at the stage where new research is more likely to bring to light new problems than to help complete the picture. The early history of the region is heterogeneous, and there is an imbalance in the evidence that has been handed down to us. Despite all the gaps in our knowledge, however, we must not abandon our attempt to draw a larger, more coherent, picture of the whole, an endeavor that not only helps us formulate new research projects but also illustrates the current state of research into the ancient Near East to the public.

Apart from attempting such a summary, it has also been my concern to emphasize a historical view of developments. For periods before the discovery of writing, the usual generalized presentation of the archaeological finds has had to be sacrificed to this goal. Such broad documentation seems dispensable because it may be found in a great number of readily available handbooks and individual accounts, which have been listed here in the bibliography.

There is naturally often a yawning gap between different interpretations of historical contexts, and it is hardly necessary for me to stress that the responsibility for this account rests solely with me. I do not even seek to impute a share of this responsibility to others by naming the many colleagues with whom, over the years, I have been able to discuss individual problems. However, I do wish to express my gratitude to my students at both the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the Freie Universität, Berlin, who were prepared to follow my example in assuming that nothing is ever certain, and who were never satisfied with the information I gave them.


Sources and Problems

The historian of the early periods of the ancient Near East faces many problems. The geographical terms the Near East and Asia Minor provide only a rough indication of the area whose early cultural development is to be traced. It is perhaps better to define the region as an area distinguished from the outside world by a multiplicity of internal ties, or as a fluctuating sphere of interactions.

This densely woven network of developments was seldom limited to what we commonly refer to as the Near East. Parts of the area, such as Palestine and Syria, at times had close contact with Egypt, which was very important for development on both sides. And we do not count Egypt as belonging to the Near East in the narrowest sense of the term. Similarly, parts of what is now Turkey were for most of their history oriented more toward the West and the Aegean, and the Iranian plateau kept up a rather more regular exchange with its neighbors to the East than with the other parts of the Near East. This situation is underlined by recent attempts to treat most of present-day Iran, Afghanistan, and the western part of present-day Pakistan as a single area, connected in many different ways and fairly autonomous in its significance for the development of early civilizations.

However, any account that included both internal entanglements and connections with the outside world would not only go far beyond the confines of the present discussion, but would also make too many demands upon the information provided by our sources. Though we know of contacts outside the narrow, limited area of the Near East, or must at least postulate such cases, it is only rarely that a comprehensive picture emerges. Even more rarely are we able to follow such contacts over any significant period of time.

We shall see in what follows that the demand for a balanced presentation taking equal account of all the contributions to cultural development cannot be satisfied even for the actual Near Eastern area. The available material is distributed far too unevenly over the region and over different periods of time. There is also the fact that the epoch we are dealing with embraces preliterate, paraliterate, and literate periods. Again and again, we run the risk of overestimating the importance of regions or periods about which we quite fortuitously possess a great deal of information, and of underestimating that of other regions or periods of which we—equally fortuitously—know little or nothing. Thus, for example, early interest in the ancient history of Mesopotamia (Abraham’s biblical homeland being Ur of the Chaldees), especially after the written tradition had become known, produced an imbalance in the information about this region: for far too long, it allowed Mesopotamia, and more especially the southern part of Babylonia, to appear to be the natural center of the ancient Near East. One aim of this work is to distribute the emphasis more evenly and, wherever possible, to define the parts played respectively by all the regions of the Near East in building up its ancient civilization.

However, it is not the intention of the present work to propagate the other extreme—frequently defended in recent years—that maintains that all developments in every region were equally important, as though they all played an equal part in the development of Near Eastern civilization, whose great achievement must be seen as the creation and further development of universally valid forms of political organization that had an influence far beyond the chronological and geographical boundaries of the ancient Near East.

In the course of history, all the regions of the Near East were more or less involved in this process, but some areas certainly progressed more consistently and energetically than others. This work will show that the role of trailblazer in the most momentus phase of development—from city to regional state—fell to Babylonia. To deny this would be to deny the driving impulse behind, and the special peculiarities of, ancient Near Eastern history. A relatively large amount of space is thus devoted to discussion of what happened in Babylonia.

The more ambitious aim of including areas outside the Near East could not be tackled in this book, but should be kept in mind. Although complete in itself, the following survey should be seen as the preliminary work for a more comprehensive synoptic presentation.

By choosing to discuss both the preliterate and literate periods, the author has complicated things still further. This is a consequence of the concept underlying this work, which highlights historical development, and especially the development and changes in early forms of political organization in the ancient Near East. This development can in no way be said to start with the beginning of writing. It was not even particularly influenced by it.

The Near East is exceptionally suited to the documentation of all stages from the earliest human settlements up to the emergence and evolution of regional states. The invention of writing in Babylonia around 3100 B.C. was only one of many significant innovations in this early period. It is thus impossible to assign it the value given to it, for example, in the concept of a differentiation between prehistorical and historical phases of human development, depending on whether written sources of information are available or not, as if one could only speak of history when written evidence existed.

Unfortunately, this concept, which was held to be valid for a long time, and led to an overestimation of the importance of written sources, also led to a development under which works like the present one still have to suffer. Because the philological disciplines claimed to be able to make universal pronouncements about the state, the community, the economy, religion, and daily life based on written texts, archaeologists hardly ever felt it necessary to deal with any fields apart from those manifestly allotted to them, above all art and architecture. Any archaeology of the historical periods was therefore in a position to exclude whole areas of research dealing with ancient civilizations. However, for the branches of archaeology concerned with civilizations without writing and those that existed before writing was invented, it was a totally different story. They naturally had to investigate all aspects of the civilization in question, including, for example, society and the economy.

This different type of approach has, in fact, had some effect on the treatment of the ancient civilizations of the Near East. Although, as noted, the invention of writing did not mark any particularly significant historical turning-point, it subsequently acquired importance owing to the division of academic study of the ancient Near East into two spheres. Thus, for example, we know much more about basic nutrition and the domestic flora and fauna of the early period than we do about those of the historical period, because remains of animals and plants have been found and analyzed in excavations of prehistoric settlements, which is hardly ever true of excavations of historical settlements. In the latter case it was assumed that the relevant information could be recovered from an analysis of the texts, by asking the right questions. This can hardly be expected, however, since a selection process was already in operation in choosing what was considered worthy of being written down, and we have no way of knowing what the criteria of selection were.

Archaeology should therefore make use of the methods valid for research into earlier, preliterate periods even when it is concerned with historical periods. A barrier seems to have been reached when, parallel to its responsibilities for the preliterate period, archaeology is also expected to pronounce on the economic, social, and political context of the historical period. This seems to belong so clearly to the realm of textual interpretation that any of the, admittedly rough, statements and estimates an archaeologist can make appear superfluous. However, though this is fundamentally true, it does not hold good for the early literate period in Mesopotamia, because here we have only comparatively few historically useful texts at our disposal. In addition, these early texts were obviously not written to inform people in later ages about circumstances at that time. In fact, their usual aim was not to describe things exactly as they happened, but to describe them in such a way as to make them fit in with a specific view, follow a particular trend, or legitimate a certain course. Hence it seems possible, not only that the rougher outlines sketched by archaeological surveys have at times been more objective than the literary evidence, but that in many cases archaeology can contribute information in areas where texts have nothing to add to our knowledge—for example, we need only mention the important issues, discussed later in more detail, of the origins of settlements and settlement systems, the changes that took place in them, and almost all contacts between different settlements that fell short of hostilities. If one disregards economic texts, it was mostly wars and conquests that motivated men to write about relationships between settlements, not the normal relationships whose description would give an account of the actual development of those settlements.

Since they have hardly ever been manipulated, archaeological sources are usually more dependable than literary ones, but they are difficult to use. Hence, even the construction of a firm foundation for all further investigations, dating, or the confirmation of chronological contemporaneity or noncontemporaneity, causes considerable problems, especially when we take into account the role played by chance in the way evidence has been handed down to us.

The difficulties standing in the way of arriving at an absolute chronology—that is, fixing the exact chronological distance between any event and our era—are self-evident in the case of a period about which we have no historical documentation. On the other hand, techniques such as the so-called carbon 14 method have not yet achieved a degree of dependability and accuracy that would allow us to use their results without some reservations. However, in spite of these reservations, a chronological framework based partly on carbon 14 dating, which has been accepted by many researchers as a working hypothesis, has been used here, inasmuch as our historical imagination is incapable of managing without the aid of some reference to dates. In using this chronology I am not making a judgment as to whether the system is right or wrong. It simply makes it easier for those interested in the history of Mesopotamia to communicate, as well as making it easier to use other literature (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. Chronological chart. Author’s original.

However, as a rule, absolute dates—that is, dates giving the exact length of time up to the present day—will be used as little as possible. Instead, reference will be made to the relative chronologies developed for the individual regions of the ancient Near East. In these chronologies, observations that an event happened before or after another event and of the chronological contemporaneity of different finds and events are combined into groups or systems even if the intervals of time or the distance in time from our own era cannot normally be exactly

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  • (5/5)
    A wonderfully inspiring text on the early history of civilisation. A must read for any scholar of bronze age history.