Friday, November 18, 2016

Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat ****

Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat is a comprehensive volume on the dawn of civilization from 4000 BCE (and before) to the rise of Greek civilization (mid first millennium BCE). How comprehensive? Exhaustive.

There are many long lists with detailed explanations and examples. For examples, the section crafts includes: carpentry, pottery,glass, textiles, basketry, leather, stone sculpture, seals, metals, jewelry, ivory, and songs.

In the interest of completeness, the editing tends towards redundancy rather then conciseness. For example there is a discussion of money...
"...silver, which now began to serve the three classical functions of money: as a medium of exchange, as a unit of account, and as a standard of value."
A mere seven pages later the following is offered...
"Currency has four difference functions: (1) as a standard of value, (2) as a medium of exchange, (3) as a means of payment, and (4) as a means of accumulating wealth."
Certainly the major contribution of this place and time was writing. By 1500 BCE much of civilization as we know it was in place, including recognizable government, religious, family, trade, diplomatic, judicial, and medical structures, as well as technologies for manufacturing, farming, housing, and transportation. Someone transported back 3,500 years might have little difficulty understanding society. Much from back then survives today.

Our base 60 math (minutes, seconds, degrees of arc) comes from these people.

Before we give these people too much credit, we also need to remember...
"Caution must be exercised at all times, since many facets of Babylonian technology have their roots in prehistory. For example... wool... the arts of bleaching, spinning, fulling, dyeing, and weaving were fully developed by the fourth millenium... pottery... metalwork... The potter's wheel was already widely used before 4000 BCE... We know even less about early metal, since it was melted down and reused."
If you want to know anything about Mesopotamia (except lists of kings and battles), this is the book.

A few more interesting tidbits, mostly centered around 1500 BCE.

Mesopotamian traders went as far east as India, into central Asia, north to Anatolia (Turkey) and the Caucasus mountains, west to the Mediterranean and Cyprus and Crete, and south to Egypt, both across land and by water. The counter-clockwise route from Phoenicia to Egpyt via southern Crete was well traveled at this time.

Visitors from beyond the this sphere were also possible, as records of European visitors have been found dated back to the 12th century BCE.

Common math knowledge included algebra for addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, squares, cubes, and Pythagorean theorem. Math focused on practical applications, such as inventories, land records, taxes, tariffs, and shares.

There is significant continuity from this period to today. Many roads follow ancient routes, and cities maintain their locations and names.
"Once a city was destroyed, the remaining inhabitants continued to live in the ruins, preserving the city's name through the millennia."
Society was divided into royalty, priests, land owners, freemen, and slaves. The was some mobility.

The efficiency of farming left time for recreation, including, polo, hunting, board games, toys, music (drums, lyres, flutes), and plays.
"Kingship began as a temporary office during times of danger. When the emergency past, the king no longer held power. Once war became chronic, the office of the king became a permanent position."
Famously Herodotus wrote of temple prostitutes.
"The most shameful of the customs of the Babylonians is this: every woman must sit at the shrine of Aphrodite once in her life to have intercourse with a strange man... She follows the first man who throws money and refuses no one... After... she... goes home... There is a similar custom in Cyprus."
An interesting device for flotation was the use of inflated animal skins. The head would be cut off and the skin sewed close to form a bladder. Three legs would be sealed, but the fourth was used for inflation by blowing into it and tying it shut. Such a raft might float down the river with occasional re-inflation for leakage. At the end of the trip, the bladders would be deflated and carried by mule back up stream for another trip.

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