History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World

Richard Coopey considers a sweeping attempt to unpick the complex relationship between water and political power

Published: February 26, 2013 at 8:55 am
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

Reviewed by: Richard Coopey
Author: Steven Mithen
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price (RRP): £20


This book’s scope is ambitious to say the least, stretching from the prehistoric to modern periods. The case study-based journey takes us from the prehistoric Levant, through Mesopotamia, ancient Greece, Rome and Constantinople, Angkor and ancient China and into the Americas with studies of the Hohokam, Maya and Inca.

Mithen presents a painstaking review of each case study, reprising the state of general archaeological scholarship and highlighting the development of water resources in each area. One of the key issues is an examination of these early organised water systems, with a view to understanding the connection between water control and political power. Revisiting Karl Wittfogel’s classic Marxist reworking of the ways in which political elites emerged from the need to socially organise water resources, Mithen finds that, in reality, the organisation of water resources came often first, with indications that political elites utilised this control for power or display only after systems had been established.

This is an interesting and lively book, not least in the way it sheds light on the archaeological process as it moves through the evolving history of water management and society.

There is a strong sense of the personal in many of the accounts: Mithen provides a review of established scholars to underpin the examples, supported by observations from experience and visits. Some chapters are less successful than others, however: the chapter on China, for example, relies almost exclusively on Joseph Needham’s classic study from the 1950s. There is a disclaimer referring to the slow emergence of contemporary, indigenous, scholarship on China, but nevertheless this reliance on a classic, but dated, text is a little disappointing.

The book is weakest in its introduction and conclusion, which see a descent into predictable environmental evangelism. Mithen shows a desire to prove that the ancient past, however incompletely understood, has lessons for the present and future. Leaving aside the issue that a particular understanding of today’s problems might well shape perceptions of what we find in the past, the real difficulty is the book’s lack of connection with modern geopolitics.

It is futile trying to connect these ‘lessons’ to the modern world without an understanding of the technology, ideologies, international relations, and so on, of at least the post-Enlightenment world, if not the late 20th century. It is not enough simply to cite the excesses of the Three Gorges Dam, for instance, in isolation and as some sort of planetary exemplar. A vast array of scholarship is absent, particularly on the issues and debates surrounding the development and meaning of civil engineering in the 20th-century water landscape.

It’s a shame the book is topped and tailed like this, since the core of research on which it is based, not least the illuminating accounts of archaeological knowledge in each region, makes it a very good read and provides an excellent synthesis of the history of water resources in the ancient world/


Richard Coopey is one of the editors of The Political Economy of Water (IB Tauris, 2006)


Sponsored content