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Water and Power in Past Societies

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Water and Power in Past Societies

Edited by Emily Holt (Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology Distinguished Monograph Series 7). Albany: State University of New York Press 2018. Pp. xiv + 320. $95. ISBN 978-1-438-46875-4 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The past decade has seen a decisive shift in the kinds of research questions archaeologists and historians are posing, namely toward ever larger geographical and temporal scales. This is especially apparent in researchers giving more conscious attention to the definition and character of the role of the natural environment in ancient cultures. The advances in methods and increased integration of archaeological sciences and big-data projects, as well as the growing awareness of the need of researchers (and funding bodies) to understand the impact of climate change, are among the explanations for this shifting research emphasis. 

The volume under consideration comprises the proceedings of a 2015 conference of the same name held at the State University of New York at Buffalo. The breadth and goals of the volume fit well with the comparative and interdisciplinary conferences organized annually by this institution. The literature on water, rivers, and seas in the ancient Mediterranean produced in the last few years has offered many new theoretical and methodological insights into the role played by these different kinds of water in the past. While examining all of these new directions falls beyond the scope of a single conference, this volume succeeds in exploring the relationship between the control of water and societal power. Most readers will be familiar with the physical manifestation of structures designed to manipulate, direct, or remove water. However, it is the “invisible” role of water under discussion here, namely the relationship between water and power, as formalized by Karl Wittfogel. Inspired by his personal experience of totalitarian power during World War II, his 1957 monograph (Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New Haven) stated that water was an essential resource that required hierarchical control and management. In the volume under review, an introduction by the editor lays out the recent historiography of the study of water and power and sketches the important and still-developing use of theories borrowed from cultural anthropology and human geography, such as the hydrosocial cycle developed by Jamie Linton (What Is Water? The History of a Modern Abstraction, Vancouver 2010). This framework not only views water as an abstract material to measure but also sheds light on the entire path of water through society and interrogates why certain physical and social systems exist in the conceptualization and movement of water. 

That water is interconnected with all aspects of any culture may seem like a banal oversimplification; however, water’s omnipresence makes it an ideal lens for assessing cultural reactions to it in different times and places. This publication consists of 15 chapters grouped into four larger sections: “Productive Power and the Ecological History of Waterscapes,” “Waterscapes, Power Plays, and Display,” “Coastal Water,” and “Water Archaeology: Pasts, Presents, Futures.” In terms of the geographical range covered, the reader is introduced to human-water relationships in such places as the Basin of Mexico, southwestern Norway, Britain, Central Anatolia, Indonesia, and Oman, as well as Italy and Greece. One strong point of the book is its mix of urban, rural, and maritime settings, as discussions of water and power usually discuss only one of these contexts. From a chronological point of view, the evidence spans from at least 2500 BCE to the 17th century CE and looks ahead at possible future uses of historically modified waterscapes. 

This review does not summarize each of the contributions but rather addresses some of the larger themes among the diversity of cultures and approaches presented. While all the papers revolve around the concept of water and power, it is refreshing to see a conference publication that goes beyond hyper-specialized case studies and attempts to take a broad view. Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis is not simply set up as an easy target to be torn down six decades after its publication. Many, though not all, of the papers engage with the relationships between large-scale infrastructure, landscape modification, and the human social structures created as a result of culturally specific values pertaining to certain kinds of water (e.g. groundwater, sea water, river water). Another major theme addressed by some of the contributors is the examination of power dynamics employed by different states or empires. These case studies draw out intercultural reactions to similar issues, recalling the exciting results of Veronica Strang’s anthropologically focused approach to water (“Common Senses: Water, Sensory Experience and the Generation of Meaning,” Journal of Material Culture 10.12005, :92–120). A small number of papers actively explore diachronic approaches to water systems and power, helping erode the modern–ancient divide in the study of human–water dynamics. 

From a more practical point of view, this book seems targeted to graduate students and specialists looking to a particular section of the volume to expand their understanding of a particular topic. At the same time, the discussions presented here help dissolve, or at least problematize, disciplinary boundaries rarely addressed by scholars who focus on the urban and imperial aspects of the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. Such a diversity of methods will be useful even to specialists working on other facets of human-water relationships: for example, research on the control of maritime routes could gain from investigating the strategies of mobile pastoralists, and the aims of political ecology have much in common with the sustainable development of small-scale hydropower. 

In general, the book is well edited—apart from one repeated image (figs. 6.2 and 6.3)—and has a sufficient number of good quality figures to assist the reader in navigating the diverse landscapes and technologies presented. Additionally, the bibliography following each contribution allows the reader to explore a given topic to a greater depth than would a cumulative bibliography. In the reviewer’s opinion, it is always a good sign when both established and burgeoning scholars are involved in such a conference. However, one weakness of the volume is that some of the papers do seem to drift off course from the volume’s aims, or to republish data already known for decades. 

Overall, the volume succeeds in advancing a call for a more thematic approach to investigating the relationship between culture and nature in the past. Despite all of the recently produced scientific and theoretical studies of nature in past cultures, it is clear that there is still much to learn from the successes and failures of past water strategies. But more than this, it may be the longevity of some of the relationships between past cultures and water that can suggest new ways of existing with water.

Mark A. Locicero
Department of Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies
University of British Columbia

Book Review of Water and Power in Past Societies, edited by Emily Holt 
Reviewed by Mark A. Locicero
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Locicero

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