Irrigation in Early States: New Directions

March 3-4, 2016OISeminar-2016-Rost-image.jpg

The Oriental Institute, University of Chicago

Organized by Stephanie Rost, Posdoctoral Fellow


The role of irrigation management in early complex societies has been of classic interest to anthropology. As most early civilizations in the Old World were located in river valleys, the managerial requirements of large-scale irrigation (e.g., construction/operation, water distribution, conflict resolution) were thought to be crucial for the development of the state. Underlying this argument was the assumption that the management of large-scale irrigation systems requires centralized control as claimed by Karl Wittfogel in Oriental Despotism.

Yet scholars have demonstrated that centralized control is a choice rather than a necessity. Thus centralized control cannot be assumed based on physical attributes of an irrigation system (e.g., its size or technical complexity) but needs to be empirically demonstrated. Irrigation was of great economic importance for many early states as it played a key role in the intensification of agricultural and the production of surplus. Agricultural surplus was the main source of wealth in early state societies and political power was mainly based on the control of these surpluses by a small centralized group. Moreover, agricultural surpluses were needed to maintain the very features of statehood, such as urbanism, full-time labor specialization, state institutions, and status hierarchy.

Scholarly interest in the cross-cultural study of ancient irrigation has diminished considerably over the last few decades. As a result, many important questions have only been partially answered. The study of ancient irrigation provides tremendous possibilities to understand the socio-political and economic organization of early states. We do not know how — and even more importantly, why — states might assume or abstain from assuming control over irrigation management. Moreover, the consequences of either choice have not been systematically investigated in a cross-cultural comparison.

The purpose of this conference, therefore, is to re-examine the role of irrigation in early states. The conference is organized into five sessions, each addressing one of the main aspects of irrigation. In Session 1, “Features of Irrigation,” participants describe the physical attributes of irrigation systems, which are highly diverse and vary depending on their size, the environment in which they occur, the water source they control, the kinds of crops they irrigate, the duration of their use, and the ways they are managed. The case studies presented in this session explore the relationships between water flow, environment, and human agency. In Session 2, scholars will represent the various methods how “Empirical Investigations of Ancient Irrigation” can be made. Sessions 3-5 each address a specific function (economic and socio-political) or dimension (cosmological and cognitive) of irrigation. Session 3, “The Economic Function of Irrigation,” is the sum of the features of irrigation systems (e.g., size, duration, population, management), which have enormous environmental and economic consequences for labor input, material costs, and economic output and dictate the rhythm of tasks performed to ensure watering efficiency. Session 4, “The Social-Political Function of Irrigation,” covers how individuals and social groups enter into socio-political arrangements to participate in and coordinate the operation of irrigation systems. In addition, state-sponsored irrigation was frequently not only economically motivated (to increase revenues) but was also employed to serve political ends. It played an important role in the process of settling (and re-settling) people on the landscape – either coercively or by creating economic incentives. Moreover, the social and political capital gained from assuming patronage over the construction of hydraulic devices of monumental size — clearly visible in the landscape — featured prominently in the ideology of kingship in various ancient societies. As has been shown by the work of Steven Lansing in Bali, irrigation has a cosmological dimension by which management is embedded into the larger religious belief systems through rituals. In Session 5, "The Cosmological and Cognitive Dimension of Irrigation," scholars will present cases that show there is evidence for similar systems in ancient times.

This conference brings together experts in the field of irrigation studies from a wide regional and temporal scope with the goal of encouraging an interdisciplinary dialogue and advancing both methodological and theoretical approaches to understanding irrigation in early states. It is hoped that this conference will stimulate interest in the cross-cultural study of ancient irrigation and advance our understanding of the socio-political and economic organization of early state societies.


Thursday, March 3, 2016

9:00–9:15    Opening Remarks by Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute
9:15–9:30    Introduction by Stephanie Rost, Conference Organizer

Session 1: Features of Irrigation

Session Chair: Richard Payne
9:30–9:50    Maurits Ertsen (Hydraulic Modeling, Peru) -- “A Leak on the Irrigation System May Not Be Seen: How to Connect Daily Human Agency and Long-Term Effects in Irrigation”
9:50–10:10    Vernon L. Scarborough (Mesoamerica) -- “Crosscultural Archaeology and the Role of the Seasonally Wet Tropics in Informing the Present”
10:10–10:30    Martin Sterry (Ancient Libya) -- “Foggaras and the Garamantes: Irrigation Systems in the Central Sahara”
10:30–10:50    Questions/Discussion
10:50–11:15    Coffee Break

Session 2: The Empirical Investigation of Ancient Irrigation

Session Chair: Richard Payne
11:15–11:35    Jason Ur (Remote Sensing, North Mesopotamia) -- “Remote Sensing of Ancient Canal and Irrigation Systems”
11:35–11:55    Stephanie Rost (Textual Data, South Mesopotamia) -- “Textual Evidence from Late Third-Millennium Mesopotamia on Irrigation and Watercourse Management”
11:55–12:15    Marco Madella (Archaeobotany, Indus Valley) -- “Water Management in the Indus Valley: Rain, Rivers, and People”
12:15–12:35    Kyle Woodson (Canal Archaeology/Geomorphology, Arizona) -- “The Archaeological Excavation and Explanation of Ancient Canal Irrigation Systems in Southern Arizona, USA”
12:35–1:00    Questions/Discussion
1:00–2:30    Lunch for conference speakers

Session 3: The Economic Function of Irrigation

Session Chair: Morag M. Kersel
2:30–2:50    Robert C. Hunt (Hohokam, Arizona) -- “Irrigated Food Production and Complexity: The Case of Hohokam, a Neolithic Society in the American Southwest”
2:50–3:10    Emily Hammer (Urartu, Azerbaijan) -- “The Role and Characteristics of Irrigation in the Kingdom of Urartu”
3:10–3:30    Hervé Reculeau (North Mesopotamia) -- “Opener of Canals, Provider of Abundance and Plenty: Royal Investment in Large-Scale Irrigation in Second-Millennium BC Upper Mesopotamia”
3:30–3:50    Questions/Discussion
3:50–4:15    Coffee Break

Session 4: The Socio-Political Function of Irrigation

Session Chair: Morag M. Kersel
4:15–4:35    Michael Harrower (Yemen) -- “Political Rhetoric, Social Logic, and Spatial Heterogeneity of Water: An Interpretation of Irrigation and Ancient State Formation in Southwest Arabia (Yemen)”
4:35–4:55    Kathleen D. Morrison (India) -- “You Eat What You Are: Ideologies of Food, Water, and Irrigation in Middle Period Southern India”
4:55–5:15    Juan C. Moreno García (Egypt) -- “Irrigation/Irrigations in Pharaonic Egypt: The Interplay between Institutions and Particulars”
5:15–5:35    Questions/Discussion
5:35–6:30    Reception

Friday, March 4, 2016

Session 5: The Cosmological and Cognitive Dimension of Irrigation

Session Chair: James Osborne
9:00–9:30    Zhichung Jing (Ancient China) -- “Water Management and Urban Organization of Late Shang Dynasty”
9:30–9:50    Christopher Woods (Mesopotamia) -- “Where the Rivers Meet Language: Topographical Deixis in Sumerian”
9:50–10:10    Miriam T. Stark (Ankor, Cambodia) -- “Where the Rivers Flow: Water Management and Early States in the Lower Mekong Basin”
10:10–11:00    Questions/Discussion
11:00–11:30    Coffee Break
11:30–12:30    Respondents: McGuire Gibson, Carrie Hritz, Sylvia Rodriguez
12:30–1:30    Concluding Session


  • Maurits Ersten (Delft University of Technology)
  • McGuire Gibson (Respondent; University of Chicago)
  • Emily Hammer (University of Chicago)
  • Michael Harrower (Johns Hopkins University)
  • Carrie Hritz (Respondent; US Census Bureau)
  • Robert C. Hunt (Brandeis University)
  • Zhichun Jing (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)
  • Marco Madella (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)
  • Juan C. Moreno García (Centre de Recherches Egyptologiques de la Sorbonne)
  • Kathleen D. Morrison (University of Chicago)
  • Hervé Reculeau (University of Chicago)
  • Sylvia Rodriguez (Respondent; University of New Mexico)
  • Stephanie Rost (University of Chicago)
  • Vernon L. Scarborough (University of Cincinnati)
  • Miriam T. Stark (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa)
  • Martin Sterry (University of Leicester)
  • Jason A. Ur (Harvard University)
  • Christopher Woods (University of Chicago)
  • Kyle Woodson (Gila River Indian Community Cultural Resource Management Program)

Participant Abstracts and Bios

Maurits Ersten (Delft University of Technology)
Title: “A Leak on the Irrigation System May Not Be Seen: How to Connect Daily Human Agency and Long-Term Effects in Irrigation” (Thursday, 9:30–9:50)
Abstract: Many early civilizations were based on irrigation; modern global food production is heavily dependent on irrigated agriculture. Today, as in the past, irrigation is shaped by both human and material aspects, but these aspects are typically studied separately and meaningful approaches linking the two are lacking. This paper discusses how to overcome the dominant opposition of natural and cultural factors when studying irrigation, building on Latour’s conceptualization of human decision-making and development of societal institutions as local activities, constructed within networks of actors. Networks are continuously recreated by human and non-human actors. Using three examples, the paper shows how the resulting human-environmental networks link short- and long-term human responses — from individuals to societies — in terms of actions, policies, interventions, and the like in relation to the often stochastic nature of water flows and systems on different scales.
Bio: Maurits Ertsen is associate professor within the Water Resources Management group of Delft University of Technology, the Netherlands. Together with archaeologists, he works on human agency in ancient irrigation to understand human-environmental interactions. His work in environmental history focuses on colonial irrigation. In his recent book, Planning Improvised Development (Palgrave, 2015), Maurits discusses the huge Gezira Scheme in Sudan as a result of daily interactions between all different kinds of interested parties. Maurits is president of the International Water History Association (IWHA) and is one of two main editors of Water History, the official journal of IWHA.

McGuire Gibson (Respondent; University of Chicago)
Bio: McGuire Gibson is Professor of Mesopotamian Archaeology in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He has conducted archaeological research in Iraq since 1964, mainly at Nippur, and has also worked in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Syria, where he directed the investigations of the early city site of Hamoukar. He has authored or edited more than twelve books, including The City and Area of Kish, Seals and Sealing in the Ancient Near East, and The Organization of Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East, and reports on excavations at Nippur and Uch Tepe. Articles include “Violation of Fallow and Engineered Disaster in Mesopotamian Civilization,” numerous preliminary reports on Nippur and other sites, as well as pieces on the destruction of cultural heritage. He served on UNESCO and National Geographic Society fact-finding teams in Iraq in May 2003. He was the founder of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies and The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq, and served as Chairman of the Council of Overseas Research Centers.

Emily Hammer (University of Chicago)
Title: “The Role and Characteristics of Irrigation in the Kingdom of Urartu” (Thursday, 2:50–3:10)
Abstract: In the ninth to seventh centuries BC, portions of present-day eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, Naxçıvan (Azerbaijan), and Armenia were incorporated into the kingdom of Biainili (Urartu). Stone fortresses on hills and royal inscriptions carved into architectural blocks or living bedrock mark Urartian control throughout this mountainous region, which is made up of small fertile plains separated from each other by large tracts of agriculturally marginal land. Historians and archaeologists have long excluded Urartu from debates about the relationship between irrigation and state development, in part because Urartu is located on the highland fringes of the Near East and in part because the study of material remains of Urartian irrigation through landscape archaeology has lagged far behind that of other major Near Eastern empires (especially that of their main adversaries, the Neo-Assyrians). Urartian inscriptions frequently mention various kings’ roles in constructing various types of water management features, including irrigation canals, reservoirs, fountains, and cisterns. Recently, a debate has emerged about the possible role of Urartian irrigation systems. The alluvial plains under surveillance by Urartian fortresses are environments in which agricultural intensification requires irrigation, and royal inscriptions have long been taken at face value in support of a view that irrigation systems were constructed by the state in order to increase agricultural surplus. However, a recent article by Çifçi and Greaves (2013) argues that Urartian irrigation systems could have been constructed independently by local rulers and in some cases would have provided water for increasing the production of animal fodder rather than crops for human consumption. In this paper, I present two preliminary landscape archaeology studies of Urartian-era irrigation structures. The first attempts to connect textually described irrigation structures from the heart of Urartu — the Lake Van basin — to archaeological features visible on historical satellite imagery. The second draws on recent fieldwork in Naxçıvan, Azerbaijan, to discuss the characteristics of Urartian-contemporary irrigation along the Araxes River, at the kingdom’s eastern fringes. These two studies provide insight into the debate about whether Urartian irrigation systems were designed to benefit agricultural or pastoral food production systems and also provide the basis for scale comparisons to roughly contemporary irrigation features of the Neo-Assyrians.
Bio: Emily Hammer (PhD, anthropology, Harvard University 2012) is director of the Center for Ancient Middle Eastern Landscapes (CAMEL) at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, and lecturer in archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. She is an archaeologist who focuses on cultural landscapes, environmental history, and complex societies in the Middle East and South Caucasia. Through field research in southeastern Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Azerbaijan, she has studied the relationship between mobile pastoral and sedentary communities of the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and medieval/Ottoman periods in agriculturally marginal landscapes, including how such communities managed water through both small- and large-scale features. As the head of CAMEL, Emily directs a number of landscape archaeology, environment, and cultural heritage projects in the Near East and Afghanistan that rely on satellite imagery, GIS, and landscape modeling techniques to analyze ancient land use, past settlement dynamics, and modern looting patterns.

Michael Harrower (Johns Hopkins University)
Title: “Political Rhetoric, Social Logic, and Spatial Heterogeneity of Water: An Interpretation of Irrigation and Ancient State Formation in Southwest Arabia (Yemen)” (Thursday, 4:15–4:35)
Abstract: For nearly sixty years, Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic hypothesis has steered research attention on water and ancient state formation toward managerial requirements of irrigation. While it has long been recognized that many of the world’s earliest states did not rely on large-scale, state-managed irrigation systems, a clear alternative interpretation of water’s role in state formation has yet to gain widespread affirmation. This paper presents a new interpretation of irrigation and political complexity in ancient Yemen that centers on spatial, political, and environmental dynamics and holds potential to help explain water’s role among ancient states in other regions.
Bio: Michael Harrower is an archaeologist whose current research concentrates on long-term histories from the beginnings of agriculture through the rise and decline of ancient states across Southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa. He is presently Assistant Professor of Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His recently published book Water Histories and Spatial Archaeology: Ancient Yemen and the American West (Cambridge University Press) examines the spatial-political-environmental role of water among societies of East and West. His current fieldwork in Oman and Ethiopia includes a three-year NASA-funded study of long-term water histories of early civilizations using a combination of archaeological survey and satellite imagery analysis. Thematically, his recent research concentrates on spatial, political, and ideological dynamics of water. Methodologically, he is a specialist in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), satellite imagery, advanced GPS, and water management.

Carrie Hritz (Respondent; US Census Bureau)
Bio: Carrie Hritz is currently a Supervisory Geographer and the Branch Chief of Partnership Communication and Outreach at the US Census Bureau. Previously, she was an American Association for the Advancement of Science, Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation in the Geosciences Directorate, and an assistant professor of anthropological archaeology at Penn State University. She is an archaeologist who specializes in the use of geospatial tools and remote sensing to investigate the evolution of human-environment relations in southern Mesopotamia. She has conducted surveys in Iraq and Syria, and is the survey director of the Oriental Institute’s Nippur archaeological survey.

Robert C. Hunt (Brandeis University)
Title: “Irrigated Food Production and Complexity: The Case of Hohokam, a Neolithic Society in the American Southwest” (Thursday, 2:30–2:50)
Abstract: Complex societies require a food surplus, Neolithic societies do not. The transition from a Neolithic society to a complex society requires the invention of a food surplus. A food surplus is generated by intensifying agriculture. One way to intensify agriculture is with canal irrigation. Hohokam was a Neolithic society in southern Arizona that for a millennium (ca. AD 450–1450) operated and supported large irrigation systems. Despite the common association of such large-scale irrigation systems with the early state, Hohokam did not become a complex society. The question I ask is whether a food surplus of maize was possible for Hohokam. To answer that question I have constructed a simulation of Hohokam maize production. Sufficient data exist on modern and prehistoric environment (river flow regime, precipitation, temperature, soils), and on the agricultural economy (food production calendar, maize cultivar responses to variable water supply, size of irrigation systems, and the population of irrigation systems) to permit a simulation addressing the question of a food surplus. The simulation shows that the water supply from irrigation was not sufficient to reliably produce a maize surplus. This is one plausible answer to the question of why Hohokam did not become a complex society. These results suggest that a threshold of water supply, water-responsive cultivars, food surplus, and population are necessary conditions for irrigation to contribute to the evolution of early states.
Bio: Robert C. Hunt received a BA from Hamilton College (1956), an MA from the University of Chicago (1959), and a PhD from Northwestern University (1965), all in anthropology. He identifies as a social anthropologist and an economic anthropologist. Fieldwork in Mexico was followed by comparative studies (social organization of irrigation, agricultural productivity). He has been a member of the Anthropology Department at Brandeis University for thirty-three years, where he is currently professor emeritus. Grants from NIMH, the National Science Foundation, and the American Council of Learned Societies have supported his research. A Mellon Foundation Emeritus Grant has helped support a decade of work on Hohokam.

Zhichun Jing (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)
Title: “Water Management and Urban Organization of Late Shang Dynasty” (Friday, 9:00–9:30)
Abstract: This paper reviews the archaeological remains of water features and discusses the role and importance of water management in the emergence and development of Great City Shang, the capital of last nine Shang kings, located in the modern city of Anyang. Great City Shang was a cult center of the late Shang Dynasty (ca. 1200–1046 BC); more importantly, it was a vast urban settlement with a concentrated population covering an area of about 25 square kilometers. With the royal district in the center and the cemetery of the kingly lineage in the northwest, the landscape is dotted with scores of lineage-based neighborhoods composed of residential buildings and associated cemeteries, and workshops for manufacturing bronzes, jades, bones, and ceramics. The Shang developed and utilized various technologies for collecting, transporting, storing, and using water from rainfall, ground, and underground resources. Recent excavations have revealed many water features of different kinds and scales in the royal district as well as the surrounding neighborhoods; among them are canals of multiple functions (both practical and symbolic), recreational ponds (water gardens), wells, cisterns, irrigation ditches, underwater caches for food storage, and drainage systems. It can be argued that the urban landscape at Great City Shang, of which water management was an essential and integrated component, were dynamically created through the interactions of top-down and bottom-up local forces. Bottom-up collective actions (or self-organization) in managing the use of water seemed to be dominant during the early stage of urban development, while the late stage witnessed increasingly centralized management and control of water resources, as evidenced by the construction of large canals throughout the whole city, which might demand great amounts of labor to build and maintain, probably more associated with centralized management in addition to coordination and collaboration among different neighborhoods or communities. The improved understanding of the linkages between water resources and urban organization contributes significantly to our knowledge of the social and material processes of early urbanization in ancient China.
Bio: Zhichun Jing (PhD, University of Minnesota, 1994) is an archaeologist who has conducted fieldwork in China, Greece, and the United States. After completing his doctoral degree in interdisciplinary archaeology at the University of Minnesota, Jing held postdoctoral and research positions at the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Harvard University before becoming Canada Research Chair in Pacific Asia Archaeology at the University of British Columbia in 2002. Since 2002, Professor Jing has been a principal investigator of the Anyang Project, a long-term and interdisciplinary collaboration between the University of British Columbia and the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, with the support from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Canada Foundation for Innovation, the University of British Columbia Research Funds, Henry Luce Foundation, National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society, and Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange. Professor Jing and his collaborators were directly responsible for the discovery of two major Bronze Age capital cities: Great City Song (Shang to Eastern Zhou periods) and Huanbei Shang City (13th c. BC) in the province of Henan, China.

Marco Madella (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)
Title: “Water Management in the Indus Valley: Rain, Rivers, and People” (Thursday, 11:55–12:15)
Abstract: Water management is a very active topic in current discussions for environmental policies with a focus on resilient agricultural systems and land use. Archaeology is very much part of this discourse as it gives the possibility to provide an anthropological and historical background to this debate. The Indus civilization in what is modern-day Pakistan and India was the result of a long cultural trajectory that started on the western highlands of Baluchistan and then moved into the valley of the Indus River. The greater Indus Valley is centered on the hydrological basin of the Indus and the southern peninsula of Gujarat. The climate of northwest South Asia is dominated by two systems: the Indian Summer Monsoon (ISM) and the winter rains. The ISM lies along the western flank of the Southeast Asian summer monsoon system, and receives most of its annual rainfall during June–September. The “winter rains” are associated with winter and pre-monsoon rainfalls across northwest South Asia. Rainfalls have great importance in the subcontinent for agriculture, the winter ones specifically for the rabi crops (wheat and barley — the staple crops of the urban Indus society) while ISM or summer ones for the kharif crops (millets and pulses — locally domesticated and staples of the rural communities). Furthermore, cereal cultivation is also influenced by the Indus and its tributaries through annual inundation from Himalayan spring snowmelt. This paper approaches the water management strategies of the Indus civilization in the light of the setting of an aridity trend from the mid-Holocene, which has seen the rise of major Indus urban centers and the possible expansion of land under intensive agriculture. A review of the available data is presented together with possible approaches and examples to understand water management in diverse environmental settings, and how this can help current planning for water management in semi-arid regions.
Bio: Marco Madella (PhD, Cantab) is ICREA (Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies)  Research Professor of Environmental Archaeology at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Spain). He studies the socio-ecological dynamics of past human populations from Mediterranean to tropical environments. His interests span from past vegetation histories, origin of agriculture and phytolith analysis, people-plants co-evolutionary dynamics, the modelling and simulation of processes in human behavioral change, and long-term trajectories of biodiversity and sustainability in prehistoric societies. Key areas for his work are South and West Asia.

Juan C. Moreno García (Centre de Recherches Egyptologiques de la Sorbonne)
Title: “Irrigation/Irrigations in Pharaonic Egypt: The Interplay between Institutions and Particulars” (Thursday, 4:55–5:15)
Abstract: The study of irrigation in pharaonic Egypt has been hampered by several assumptions about the role played by the state and by particulars. Concepts like “hydraulic civilization” or “despotic state” have popularized the idea that the monarchy played an essential role in the organization and management of the irrigation system. Also that the cultivation of cereals and flax was the “natural” basis of pharaonic economy. However, a careful reassessment of the written record (from administrative titles to papyri and commemorative inscriptions) shows that this was not the case. Quite the contrary, it was not until the nineteenth century AD that the state became a crucial actor in the creation and maintenance of complex irrigation systems. Furthermore, new venues of research stress the role played by small-scale irrigation, the difference between well-off tenants involved in an intensive and lucrative horticulture (like date palm) and common peasants, the difference between intensive and extensive cerealiculture or the alternative uses of space according to the expansion or retreat of irrigation networks, the interplay between different actors (pastoral populations, agriculturalists, fishermen, etc.), the introduction of new irrigation devices (qanat, shaduf, shaqiya), etc. The introduction of new plants also left a mark on irrigation practices, as well as the dynamics of landscape (like the historical eastward move of the Nile) or the impact of institutions and the state tax system. In all, the social and economic practices built up on irrigation will be reviewed in the light of recent research.
Bio: Juan Carlos Moreno García (PhD in Egyptology, 1995) is a CNRS senior researcher at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, as well as lecturer on social and economic history of ancient Egypt at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. He has published extensively on pharaonic administration, socio-economic history, and landscape organization, usually in a comparative perspective with other civilizations of the ancient world, and has organized several conferences on these topics. Recent publications include Ancient Egyptian Administration (2013), Élites et pouvoir en Égypte ancienne (2010), L’agriculture institutionnelle en Égypte ancienne (2006), and Egipto en el Imperio Antiguo (2004). He is also chief editor of the Journal of Egyptian History (Brill) and area editor (“economy”) of the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology.

Kathleen D. Morrison (University of Chicago)
Title: “You Eat What You Are: Ideologies of Food, Water, and Irrigation in Middle Period Southern India” (Thursday, 4:35–4:55)
Abstract: In the centuries prior to European colonization, the landscapes of southern India were already products of a long history of human engagement. The Indian peninsula is divided into highly contrastive climatic zones, from the semi-arid interior, to fertile river deltas, coastal and upland tropical forests, and even small zones of high-elevation temperate vegetation. Despite this diversity, and alongside similar levels of cultural, linguistic, and social variability, a shared set of elite South Indian cuisines developed after 1000 CE which focused on the use of water-loving rice and associated products such as coconut, cane sugar, and bananas, all of which require water- and labor-intensive production regimes. In the semi-arid interior, the production of such crops proved to be a significant challenge. Although access to elite foods, just as access to sources of water uncontaminated by contact with lower categories of persons, was critical for recruiting and maintaining the elite residents of aspiring states such as the Vijayanagara polity, soon to become the major imperial power in the region, production of the exacting conditions of elite consumption required significant changes in regional landscapes as well as regimes of land, labor, and social relations. In this paper, I consider the ways in which cultural regimes of value and power relations worked in concert with the constraints of the semi-arid landscapes of the peninsular interior to produce a material record of water-related features whose impressive diversity of form, scale, and long-term success speaks to the complex and variegated set of social and ritual actors involved in its construction and use.
Bio: Kathleen D. Morrison is the Neukom Family Professor of Anthropology and a faculty affiliate of the Program on the Global Environment at the University of Chicago. Her research integrates evidence from archaeology, history, and paleoecology (pollen, macroremains, microscopic charcoal, and stable isotopes) to examine long-term human-environment relationships in South Asia. Her new project compares record of human land use and land cover changes with indices of biodiversity across several kinds of biodiversity hotspots in southern India. Previous projects have focused on irrigation systems, recent gatherer-hunters in South and Southeast Asia, colonialism, imperialism, and the anthropology of food and consumption.

Hervé Reculeau (University of Chicago)
Title: “Opener of Canals, Provider of Abundance and Plenty: Royal Investment in Large-Scale Irrigation in Second Millennium BC Upper Mesopotamia” (Thursday, 3:10–3:30)
Abstract: These were two of the official titles claimed by Yahdun-Lim, king of the Middle Euphratean city-state of Mari in the nineteenth century BC. By using these titles, he places himself in a long-lasting tradition: from mid-third-millennium Sumerian city-rulers to late first-millennium Babylonian emperors, Mesopotamian kings have celebrated waterworks among their most notable deeds and pictured themselves as the source of wealth and abundance in their lands through irrigation. Despite their heavily ideological function, such boasts must be taken seriously, since archaeology attests that massive investments in irrigation did create devices able to drastically alter the agrarian potential of entire regions. Yet, the scale and nature of these investments varied to a great extent depending on time, areas, and (first and foremost) the availability of taskforce. In Upper Mesopotamia, the striking massive canals and aqueducts from first-millennium BC Assyria and later periods (down to Islamic times) dominate the archaeological record, casting a shadow over older, poorly documented waterworks of the third and second millennia.
Cuneiform tablets retrieved from ancient administration centers (“palaces”) can, however, help us understand how large-scale irrigation developed in this area. Dealing with daily problems of water and agrarian management, administrative letters and documents offer an alternative view, less ideologically biased than that of royal inscriptions. They allow for a partial reconstruction of the rulers’ actual investments in irrigation, and of their outcome. This paper focuses on two well-documented archives, both recovered in the eastern part of Syria: the first one in the royal palace of the Amorite kingdom of Mari (19th–18th c. BC), the other one in the provincial Middle Assyrian administrative center of Dūr-Katlimmu (13th–12th c. BC). It evaluates the inputs and outputs of palace-organized irrigation in the valleys of the Euphrates and Habur rivers, in terms of labor requirements for canal digging, maintenance, and agriculture production on the one hand, and in terms of agricultural achievements (especially cereal yields) on the other hand.
Bio: Hervé Reculeau is a historian of Syria and Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC. His research centers on the environmental and social histories of the ancient Near East, with a particular focus on landscapes and the interaction between humans and their environment from the technical, historical, and socio-economic points of view. Among his special interests are irrigation practices and devices, agricultural works and techniques, and the social settings of the Syrian and Upper Mesopotamian countryside, as well as their relationship to urban centers. He also investigates the human response to environmental change, and how ancient conceptions of space impacted the spatial strategies of sedentary and nomadic groups in Upper Mesopotamia. As en epigrapher, he is in charge of editing some of the cuneiform tablets discovered at the ancient cities of Mari (Syria) and Assur (Iraq).
Reculeau has authored several scholarly articles and books on these topics, and was awarded the 2013 Prix Saintour by the French Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres for his book Climate, Environment and Agriculture in Assyria in the 2nd Half of the 2nd Millennium BCE. An alumnus of the École Normale Supérieure in Fontenay/Saint-Cloud (France), Reculeau holds a BA and MA in ancient history from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, as well as an MPhil and PhD in Assyriology from the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. Before joining the Oriental Institute and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, he taught Assyriology and conducted research at several institutions in France (the École Pratique des Hautes Études, the Collège de France, the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), Germany (the Freie Universität Berlin and Excellence Cluster 264 – TOPOI: The Formation and Transformation of Space and Knowledge in Ancient Civilisations), and Russia (the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow).

Sylvia Rodriguez (Respondent; University of New Mexico)
Bio: Sylvia Rodríguez is professor emerita of anthropology and former director of the Ortiz Center for Intercultural Studies at the University of New Mexico. Her research and publications have focused on interethnic relations in the Upper Rio Grande Valley of New Mexico, where over the past three decades she has studied the cultural impacts of tourism and conflict over land and water on ritual and on ethnic identity. Currently she works collaboratively with acequia (traditional irrigation) organizations and with researchers in various disciplines on acequia sustainability and resilience, and the politics and anthropology of water. Her publications include numerous journal articles, book chapters, and two prize-winning books: The Matachines Dance: Ritual Symbolism and Interethnic Relations in the Upper Rio Grande Valley, and Acequia: Water Sharing, Sanctity, and Place.

Stephanie Rost (University of Chicago)
Title: “Textual Evidence from Late Third-Millennium Mesopotamia on Irrigation and Watercourse Management” (Thursday, 11:35–11:55)
Abstract: Ancient irrigation management has received much attention in the anthropological literature as a means to understand the development and functioning of early states. In most areas of the world, the study of ancient irrigation practices is based entirely on archaeological remains, but it is difficult to reconstruct the linkages between these material remains and more ephemeral elements of society such as state administration and centralization because different social realities can lead to similar material manifestations. However, when the archaeological data is supplemented with other sources of information, such as texts and ethnography, it is possible to create a much more comprehensive picture of the degree of state involvement in irrigation management. There are few places in the world that have as extensive an archaeological and historical record on irrigation management as Mesopotamia, making possible its investigation with a degree of precision not possible for any other complex society. This paper presents the results of the study of cuneiform administrative documents on the management of watercourses in the Umma Province of the Ur III period (2112–2004 BC). The so-called I-sala-canal functions as a case study to show the extraordinarily detailed insight that can be gained from these documents on how irrigation was managed in this early state society.
Bio: Stephanie Rost (2015–2017 Oriental Institute Postdoctoral Fellow) earned her BA at the Free University of Berlin, her MA at Vienna University, and her PhD from the State University of New York at Stony Brook in May 2015. Her research interests focus on the investigation of early state economies with an emphasis on agricultural systems and political ecology. Her dissertation research was concerned with the technical and social aspects of water management of late third-millennium BC southern Mesopotamia as a means to assess the degree of political centralization in early state societies. Her future research agenda focuses on the reconstruction of the historical geography of late third-millennium BC southern Mesopotamia to build a framework in which the rich data sets of economic documents from this period can be explored to their full potential. Stephanie was trained primarily as an archaeologist and anthropologist but has a strong background in ancient languages. She adopts the approach of historical archaeology in her research by combining archaeological and textual data.

Vernon L. Scarborough (University of Cincinnati)
Title: “Crosscultural Archaeology and the Role of the Seasonally Wet Tropics in Informing the Present” (Thursday, 9:50–10:10)
Abstract: The ancient Maya and the Khmer developed in not dissimilar environmental settings, and both have similar temporal chronologies. When assessing the manner by which they developed, tropical ecological rhythms dictated their respective dispersed settlement and land-use patterning. To cope with the seasonal abundance of precipitation followed by four to five months of drought-like conditions, one civilization (Maya) accepted cropping designs based on the limitations of extended ground storage (inclusive of root vegetables), while the other (Khmer) moved rice resources to elevated reaches of stilted housing; both approaches conditioned by accelerated rates of organic decomposition and the role of pest infestation. To further accommodate rapidly grown and harvested food, though subject to the vagaries of regional rainfall distributions (especially during the canicular period), extensive roadways (inclusive of canoe transport) connected groups and polities into elaborate exchange networks coordinated by sizable centers and their calendrical scheduling. The role of climate, both at the nuanced seasonal level and at more coarse decadal levels, resulted in environmental adaptations by these two great civilizations which provide a potential picture of our own futures. Internet connectivity to resource-specialized communities located in hinterlands away from the most dense urban aggregates and physically linked by light rail would mimic the successes of tropical socio-environmental systems in the past. Urban hubs would continue to prosper as coordinating centers for global socio-economic supply and demand, but rural communities would be prized and elevated in their importance and influence. Community-based cooperatives today would have a global reach not apparent in antiquity.
Bio: Vernon L. Scarborough is Distinguished University Research Professor and Charles Phelps Taft Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Cincinnati. His work emphasizes sustainability and global water systems. By examining past engineered landscapes, he addresses both ancient and contemporary societal issues from a comparative ecological and transdisciplinary perspective. Geographically, his published work includes studies about the American Southwest, Belize, Guatemala, Indonesia, Greece, Pakistan, and Sudan. The National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, Alphawood Foundation, Taft Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, and the School of Advanced Research have supported these efforts. In addition to editing Water and Humanity: A Historical Overview for UNESCO, he is a senior editor for WIREs Water Journal (Wiley-Blackwell) and a series editor for New Directions in Sustainability and Society (Cambridge University Press). He is an IHOPE (Integrated History of the People on Earth) Steering Committee member based at Uppsala University, Sweden (, and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has published nine books, including seven edited volumes (one more in press), and over one hundred book chapters and journal articles, the latter inclusive of SCIENCE, PNAS, and American Antiquity.
His most recent field work is at Tikal, Guatemala, and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (, two World Heritage Sites as deemed by UNESCO (United Nations Economic, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). Scarborough and his teams have chosen these two regions to accent the “wet and the dry” of the water and landscape problems globally — in both the past and the present — and to show how the past can inform our futures, inclusive of sustainability and climate change. The UNESCO volume noted above is 1,300 typescript pages and now “in press”; it includes over forty-five scholars from most major regions in the world. The IHOPE work is tightly integrated into the high-profile Future Earth initiative of the European Union and involves about forty scholars globally (see website), with water one of its key foci.

Miriam T. Stark (University of Hawai’i at Mānoa)
Title: “Where the Rivers Flow: Water Management and Early States in the Lower Mekong Basin” (Friday, 9:50–10:10)
Abstract: For more than 1,400 years, Cambodia’s Khmers blended practical and cosmological considerations in their hydraulic engineering projects. The earliest documented Khmers settled along the edges of the Mekong Delta’s floodplain to capture receding floodwaters for their crops; they surrounded their shrines with moats, dug ponds in every hamlet, and supplemented their riverine network with canals to connect communities and facilitate commerce. Angkorian Khmers cultivated arable lands surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake. From the ninth through fifteenth centuries ce, they redirected the Siem Reap River to spare their urban center and crafted an intricate canal system to form a perimeter around their capital. Each major Angkorian ruler constructed a grand reservoir (baray) with his ascension; these reservoirs projected state power, provided reserves for the dry season, and encouraged collective labor for the state. This paper examines agrarian and cosmological dimensions of water management in first- and second-millennium ce Cambodian states, drawing from work since 1996 in southern and northwestern Cambodia. Water shaped ritual as much as it shaped agricultural practice in the lower Mekong basin, producing a broad imperial landscape that archaeologists and environmental scientists seek to understand.
Bio: Miriam Stark is Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She has worked since 1996 on multiple collaborative research projects in Cambodia: first in the Mekong Delta through the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project, and since 2010 in the Siem Reap region through the Greater Angkor Project. Her interest in political economy has included research on settlement and early state formation, agrarian strategies, urban settlement patterns, and craft production. Some of her recent publications focus on Southeast Asian urbanism, Angkorian residential patterning, and the organization of Khmer stoneware production. Miriam currently serves as the associate editor for archaeology for American Anthropologist, as an Executive Committee member for the Indo-Pacific Prehistory Association (IPPA), and on multiple international heritage committees for the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA).

Martin Sterry (University of Leicester)
Title: “Foggaras and the Garamantes: Irrigation Systems in the Central Sahara” (Thursday, 10:10–10:30)
Co-authors: David Mattingly (University of Leicester), Andrew Wilson (University of Oxford)
Abstract: Hundreds of underground irrigation canals, similar to the Persian qanats but known locally as foggaras, have been recorded in Fazzan, Libya’s southern desert province. Radiocarbon dating of the foggaras and associated sites has shown conclusively that these were in use from ca. 400 BC to AD 700. This corresponds to the heyday of a people known as the Garamantes, who can arguably be identified as the earliest polity in the Central Sahara.
In this paper the authors explore the relationship between the development of the Garamantian state and the development of complex irrigation systems. We consider the role of the hyper-arid environment and its impact on the adoption of intensive oasis agriculture and the potential for declining water tables and failing foggaras to have contributed to the decline of Garamantian power and cohesion. We also consider the human dimension of technological innovation and managerial responses in creating a constantly evolving set of irrigation systems with corresponding evidence for cooperation and conflict.
Bio: Martin Sterry is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Leicester. As part of the ERC: Trans-Sahara Project he is leading its research into urbanization and state formation in the Sahara. His primary research focuses on the landscape archaeology of the Sahara and North Africa in the early historic period and he has more general interests in archaeological applications of geographic information science and archaeological field survey.

Jason A. Ur (Harvard University)
Title: “Remote Sensing of Ancient Canal and Irrigation Systems” (Thursday, 11:15–11:35)
Abstract: Ancient irrigation systems can inform our reconstructions of past societies, but first they must be documented. The standard tools of archaeology, such as excavation, can do little to fill out the picture of such geographically large phenomena. A remote perspective, on the other hand, can reveal features and structure not apparent from the ground. Not all images are equal, however; ephemeral water features like canals are more visible at certain times of year, and under certain ground conditions. Especially powerful are aerial and satellite photographs and imagery that predate the expansion of settlement and the intensification of agriculture in the later twentieth century ad. This presentation reviews remote sensing-based approaches to ancient irrigation, with case studies in the Near East.
Bio: Jason Ur is Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis. He specializes in early urbanism, landscape archaeology, and remote sensing, particularly the use of declassified US intelligence imagery. He has directed field surveys in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. He is the author of Urbanism and Cultural Landscapes in Northeastern Syria: The Tell Hamoukar Survey, 1999–2001 (Oriental Institute, 2010). Since 2012, he has directed the Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, an archaeological survey in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. He is also preparing a history of Mesopotamian cities.

Christopher Woods (University of Chicago)
Title: “Where the Rivers Meet Language: Topographical Deixis in Sumerian” (Friday, 9:30–9:50)
Abstract: Although often mistaken for relatively uninteresting elements of language, demonstratives constitute the foundation upon which the referential potential of language lies, providing speakers with a means of anchoring their utterances in the extra-linguistic context. Demonstratives are, fundamentally, deictic — that is, pointing — expressions that supply the point of reference of speech with respect to the physical locations of the speaker and addressee. As such, they represent the critical juncture where language and reality meet. This paper proposes a contrastive three-degree deictic system in Sumerian with referential origins derived from the distance — visually perceived from the perspective of the speaker — between river or canal banks. Finding parallels with other cultures that abstract spatial distinctions from salient local landmarks, distance in Sumerian is conceptualized in terms of watercourses of varying widths, the dominant topographical feature of southern Mesopotamia. The evidence suggests that by the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000–1600 BC) — the time of the bulk of our textual evidence — this deictic system represented the vestige of an archaic, but once productive, three-degree system of spatial orientation.
Bio: Christopher Woods is Associate Professor of Sumerology at the Oriental Institute, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and the Program in the Ancient Mediterranean World at the University of Chicago. He received his BS from Yale University and his PhD in Assyriology from Harvard University and was a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows before joining the faculty of the University of Chicago. His research interests include Sumerian writing and language as well as early Mesopotamian religion, literature, and administration.

Kyle Woodson (Gila River Indian Community Cultural Resource Management Program)
Title: “The Archaeological Excavation and Explanation of Ancient Canal Irrigation Systems in Southern Arizona, USA” (Thursday, 12:15–12:35)
Abstract: Advancements in archaeological survey, excavation, and analysis methods over the last fifty years produced a surge of new information on ancient canal irrigation systems in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. Archaeologists now know the earliest canals there are over 3,000 years old, and were developed independently of the earliest canal construction in Mesoamerica. Most of the investigated canals, though, are related to the Hohokam cultural tradition (AD 450–1450), which built the most extensive canal systems in North America. These discoveries occurred largely during projects conducted in compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act. This paper provides an overview of the techniques used to detect and document archaeological signatures of irrigation features, including canals, water-control devices, and fields. Studies have given us better data not only on the size, structure, and chronology of canal systems, but also on higher-level questions concerning demography and socio-political organization. This information can be used together with hydraulic modeling to enhance our understanding of irrigation management. In addition, analysis of canal fill sediments and floral and faunal remains within the fill provides data on hydrological and environmental conditions. Extensive absolute dating of canals has produced refined canal chronologies, bolstered by accelerator mass spectrometry dating of carbonized plant remains in canal sediments and luminescence dating of canal sediments. This example from the New World provides a robust methodological approach to the excavation and explanation of irrigation in early states.
Bio: Kyle Woodson has studied the archaeology and history of southern Arizona for over twenty years with experience in tribal, academic, and for-profit cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology. Kyle received BA and MA degrees in anthropology in 1992 and 1995, respectively, from the University of Texas at Austin. He received his PhD in anthropology at Arizona State University in 2010. Kyle’s dissertation is now published in book format, The Social Organization of Hohokam Irrigation in the Middle Gila River Valley, Arizona (2016, available through the University of Arizona Press). His research on canal irrigation is also published in book chapters and journals such as Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, Quaternary International, and the Journal of Arizona Archaeology. His work focuses on southern Arizona and his research interests include Hohokam canal irrigation agriculture, community organization, and ceramic production and technology, as well as ancestral Puebloan migrations.


Stephanie Rost