Reviewing David Wengrow’s What Makes Civilization? is made difficult by the discrepancy between its title and its contents. Out of about 240 pp in total, only ~180 are intended to be read, the rest being comprised of bibliography, index etc. And these pages do not offer meditation on the necessary conditions or definition of civilisation. Instead, a series of observations on the early state societies of the Middle East and Egypt fill the first 150 pp, and then the modern reception of these cultures is covered on 30 pp.

Wengrow’s main goal with the book (p. XIV) is to offer a new account of the early 3rd millennium BC rise of powerful kingdoms in Egypt and Iraq. And I did learn a lot: about the importance of long-distance trade in luxury items for temples and palaces, about how the senseless veneration of statues and royal corpses formed the engine in the “world system” of the age, and many interesting details of these cultures that are so alien to me as a Scandy archaeologist.

But my main impression of the book is that in writing it, Wengrow was motivated more by a need to produce a book-length piece of text than by any ambition to tackle well-defined questions in a structured way. It’s not a primer, text book or reference work. It’s more like a collection of rather meandering (Mesopotamian?) essays that don’t have the Montaignian decency to acknowledge to the reader that they’re a bit self-indulgent.

Wengrow’s writing is clear enough and not much encumbered by jargon. Specialists in the fields concerned will have to judge the factual accuracy of the text. All I can contribute is that the “Scandinavian riksrad” mentioned on p. 155 along with the French national assembly and the English parliament doesn’t belong there. Wengrow probably means the Swedish riksdag, as the riksråd was a patrician council of noblemen and bishops who represented only the upper aristocracy’s interests.

The ideal reader of Wengrow’s book is probably a professional Egyptologist or Mesopotamian scholar who knows the debates and can spot what is new here. The casual reader who dips in for a rare peek at the 3rd millennium cradles of civilisation, like me, would do better to choose a less interpretive, more structured primer.

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Comments

  1. #1 Isis the Scientist
    December 1, 2010

    Mr. Isis just bought a copy of Civ V. It is pretty badass.

  2. #2 Ted H.
    December 1, 2010

    Any suggestions for the casual reader interested in 3rd millennium civilization?

  3. #3 Dunc
    December 1, 2010

    All I can contribute is that the “Scandinavian riksrad” mentioned on p. 155 along with the French national assembly and the English parliament doesn’t belong there. Wengrow probably means the Swedish riksdag, as the riksråd was a patrician council of noblemen and bishops who represented only the upper aristocracy’s interests.

    Well, I can’t say anything about the French national assembly, but “a patrician council of noblemen and bishops who represented only the upper aristocracy’s interests” sounds to me like a pretty good description of the English parliament, not to mention the current British one…

  4. #4 frog
    December 1, 2010

    “Senseless veneration”? That’s not a very meaningful phrase.

    Fetishizing is sensible to do if everyone else is doing it. It is sensible for the group, since it does “drive the engine of the world system”. So there’s no senselessness anywhere, other than that personal reasons, personal function and social function are all divergent.

    Unless you want to call venerating money “senseless” — it’s senseless to call the totem of the age senseless.

  5. #5 Rick Pikul
    December 1, 2010

    Sid Meier?

    No, Francis Tresham. Although I prefer ACiv to the original.

  6. #6 Martin R
    December 1, 2010

    Ted, sorry, not my field.

    Dunc, the idea he was trying to get across was larger assemblies representing “the people”.

    Frog, the engine did very little useful. It moved lapis lazuli around.

  7. #7 Sol
    December 1, 2010

    Suggestions like B. Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations. You’ll get Egypt and Mesopotamia, and oh so much more.

  8. #8 Jeremia
    December 1, 2010

    On a similar topic, what do you think of Jared Diamond’s books on, er, “history?”

  9. #9 Ted H.
    December 2, 2010

    Sol, thanks. I’ll check it out.

  10. #10 Dunc
    December 3, 2010

    Dunc, the idea he was trying to get across was larger assemblies representing “the people”.

    Well, yes. The (admittedly somewhat flippant) idea that I was trying to get across is that such things are largely mythical, even in the present day. Institutions do not represent “the people” in the wider sense, they represent the specific people who actually run them.

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