Feder: The development of Mesopotamian civilization

“Civilizations are cultures exhibiting social stratification, a formal government, labor and craft specialization, a food surplus that supports a political and/or religious elite, monumental construction and a system of record keeping.”

Feder K. p.641

20th August 2010

Kenneth L. Feder is a Professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University and author of several books on archaeology as well as criticism of pseudoarchaeology such as Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. By his definition what constitutes civilization first appeared in the area known as Mesopotamia derived from the Greek (Μεσοποταμία) for the land “between the rivers” in this case the area between the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys in West Asia. Although there appears some variation in the dates presented from text to text all agree that this began at some point between about 4300B.C and 3500 B.C.

Feder writes that, “Southern Mesopotamia is a land of sand dunes and marches, a semi arid plain surrounded by a double river system prone to unpredictable, ferocious flooding”. (Feder, 2010 p.461) .In the past, although both the impact and importance of climatic variation in Mesopotamia has at times been minimized by some archaeologists, facts based on archeological evidence are hard to ignore. Archeological records record changes in climate beginning around 4600 B.C. and lasting until at least a millennium later. According to Fagan, during this time rainfall became irregular, causing the environment to become much drier, resulting in the importance of the Mesopotamian floodplain as a stable area for inhabitants (Fagan, 2001 p. 395). Naturally, people migrated from more desolate lands to an area that was capable of best supporting their living requirements. In the case of Mesopotamia, the fertile floodplain was that area. Fagan proposes, “the first cities in southern Mesopotamia formed between 3500 and 3000 B.C., soon after local sea levels stabilized” (Fagan, 2001 p. 395).

More centralized populations and stabilized climates would later help to give way to another major civilization development, the organization and development of a large-scale irrigation system. Large well organized, labor forces were mobilized, that were able to gain control over the supply of water by constructing and maintaining a system of canals, dikes, drainage ditches and reservoirs. Upshur claims that properly irrigated and cultivated, “Mesopotamian crops yielded as much as a hundredfold return on seed planted and thus supported a much larger population than regions outside Mesopotamia still practicing Neolithic agriculture”. (Upshur, 2005 p.17) With the development of water control becoming both a technologically and socially feasible option, the construction of irrigation cannels to bring water to the fields in summer and to be able to drain them again after the spring flooding, enabled the fertile farm land of southern Mesopotamia to become enormously productive (Maisels in Feder, 2010 p. 462). While the original canal systems were relatively simple compared to what would later develop, Fagan notes that, “digging even the smallest canal required at least a little political and social leadership” (Fagan, 2001 p. 395). Thus due to a large core population this was likely the first time in Mesopotamia when a social stratification outside of one’s kin group could be clearly observed. Maisels proposed that there were 3 deciding factors in Mesopotamian development these were, “(1) the need to concentrate population along the arable lands near the river, thereby increasing population locally (2) the need to develop a complex social system that would allow work on the construction of canals, and (3) the ability of irrigation to produce a food surplus.” (Maisels in Feder, 2010 p. 462)

With the development of a system of irrigation and a centralized population and workforce, Southern Mesopotamia soon began to see surpluses for the first time. Their Agricultural success in turn allowed for the production of vast amounts of food, creating further surplus, and supporting a denser population leading to more specialization of labor. Surpluses were stored and redistributed at temples in cities such as Uruk, which required full cooperation of the entire community to continue functioning (Fagan, 2001 p. 397). For reasons such as these, temples became a backbone of the developing Mesopotamian civilization. Feder explains that, in Mesopotamia, as in many other areas at the time, there was no political or military structure in place that could provide designers, builders, supervisors, maintainers, and controllers of the irrigation networks. What he does claim existed is that one institution, the temple was set apart, and that all those all-extraordinary powers resided within that institution, long before the increase of social complexity. Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff maintain that when the population had grown sufficiently to make irrigation a necessity, an organizational organization to maintain and build works became necessary. They feel that at this point the priests quickly became the dominant power, both, politically, socially and religiously. (Lamberg-Karlovsky and Sabloff 1995 in Feder, 2010 p. 463)

As surpluses further stratified society, they also began to be redistributed through another one of the forces in the development system, the expanded trade networks. With a surplus of goods to trade workers being ‘freed up’ because of increased yields, trade networks became an integral part of the continual development of civilization in Mesopotamia. Traders were necessary for trade both in and around Mesopotamia. Cities such as Uruk had satellite villages that traders from the cities would travel between, since the satellites, “all provided food for those in the city, whether grain, fish, or meat. Each settlement depended on others for survival” (Fagan, 2001 p. 398). These trade routes helped maintain what was essential in generating a well-balanced lifestyle. Trade expanded well beyond the satellites though, as, “artifacts and artistic styles typical of Uruk and also Susa have come from the Nile Delta during the centuries when long-distance caravan trade was expanding rapidly in Egypt and across Sinai” (Fagan, 2001 p. 400). Like irrigation, the more trading that occurred the more there was a need for social leadership to have an effective economy. While food and dry goods were the primary reasons for the establishment of trade routes, ideas were also freely spread. Mesopotamia was home to inventions such as the wheel, and the trade routes were essential to the spread of revolutionizing ideas such as this (Fagan, 2001 p. 375). The spread of ideas, such as the wheel or new farming techniques amongst other things, helped further advance the evolving civilization of Mesopotamia. As the writing system of the period was just beginning to appear at this time, there is no written evidence to suggest that this was the initial factor of Mesopotamian civilization.

What is known is that according to Schmandt-Besserat (in Feder, 2010 p. 466) this development was most likely a 5-step process. The first 4 stages of development all revolve around the use of clay tokens as a form of record keeping, at first being the record themselves, growing in number, and later being developed into the tool or stamp that is used to mark the record. The 5th stage more importantly is the evolution of cuneiform, where symbols or marks were written, freehand by the record keeper. Cuneiform as noted by Feder was the creation of a true writing system (Feder, 2010 p. 467). The intense economic activity that followed made the Sumerian cities of the southern Mesopotamian region the more impressive. Fortifications there were common, for example, the city wall at Urk ran about a 4km circuit enclosing 1000 acres and containing some 900 defensive towers. The most remarkable constructions, however, were the temples. Upshur writes that the temples were “set apart in walled-off enclosures and often raised on distinct, stepped artificial mounds called ziggurats (the probable inspiration of the biblical tower of Babel)”(Upshur, 2005 p.19). Impressive as the Mesopotamian civilization had become, after many transitions and improvements, and despite the remaining legacy, in 539 B.C, the Mesopotamian civilization came to an end when the Persian ruler Cyrus conquered Babylon and incorporated Mesopotamia into his already huge empire. Through this chapter of the text, Feder has managed to impart many of the basic facts about this period, despite the differences in dates when comparing other texts. He has managed to write in such away that allows the learner to follow the simple progression of his idea from definition through the support, in language that is easy to understand and in a way that is interesting to the reader. While larger portions of the text are devoted to explaining the concept and progression of writing relatively little is mentioned about the art and architecture of the area. The entire idea of ziggurats was passed briefly leaving the reader wanting for more information such as the incline of the mound, differences between these and other pyramidal structures. A little more depth to the information would improve its interest.



Fagan, B. 2001, People of the Earth: An Introduction to World PreHistory. Prentice Hall. New Jersey, USA.

Feder, K. L, 2010, The past in perspective, an introduction to human prehistory, New York, Oxford University Press.

Upshur, Terry, Holoka, Goff & Cassar, 2005, World History: Compact 4th Edition, Thomson Advantage, Belmont, CA, USA.

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