What Makes Civilization?

David Wengrow: What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West.

Wengrow, David: What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West.  Oxford University Press  9780199699421  Paperback pp217 £10.99/$14.95 



This book deals with the question of civilisation: not only when and where it began to arise, but also its nature.  The author is an archaeologist of the near east and so the interest of the book to those undertaking Classical Studies of any kind may at first seem tangential, but there is much here that is relevant.  Drawing mainly on the civilisations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, his basic argument is that civilisations do not arise in isolation but were the product of interaction and exchange.  Framing the archaeological argument which forms the main part of the book are short chapters on the nature of civilisation and on our modern understanding of ancient cultures.  For any student studying the question of what civilisation actually is this is valuable reading.  If the civilisation being researched is Greek or Classical then the relation between it and its near eastern predecessors is often neglected and the Greek period is usually treated in isolation, or at best the Egyptian and Mesopotamian cultures are regarded as a prelude.  The wide-ranging theoretical parts which frame the archaeological base include discussions of a number of thinkers including Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilisations and criticisms of him by Edward Said and others.  Wengrow also treats the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in the context of Enlightenment thinking and its effect on the way we are used to seeing these cultures through the window of museums: “the cruelty of the modern state museum and its carnival-like parodies of sacred kingship” as he describes it.   The archaeological case for the interaction of different cultures or civilisations is made through the examination of cultural transfers over large areas.  He sets out new evidence of links emerging through the exchange of commodities such as metals, coloured stone (particularly lapis lazuli), scented oils and woods.   The sections on sacred kingship and the mythology surrounding the concept may be more familiar ground to classicists, as he deals with such features as the relation between man and gods, the myths of the underworld and the relations between the living and the dead, and the role of the sacred king in mediating between men and the gods.  All these have parallels in classical myth and culture and may help the classicist, to whom the Greek world may often seem comfortingly familiar, to face up to the sheer weirdness of the Egyptian and Mesopotamian world view, and to question whether sometimes the Greek world wasn’t just as weird too.  Reading beyond the set syllabus is always to be recommended and so this book should have a place in the Classics department library listed under required further reading.


John Bulwer