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What Makes Civilization?: The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West [Hardcover]

David Wengrow
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

22 July 2010
In What Makes Civilization?, archaeologist David Wengrow provides a vivid new account of the 'birth of civilization' in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (today's Iraq). These two regions, where many foundations of modern life were laid, are usually treated in isolation. Now, they are brought together within a unified history of how people first created cities, kingdoms, and monumental temples to the gods.

But civilization, as Wengrow shows, is not only about such grand monuments. Just as importantly, it is also about the ordinary but fundamental practices of everyday life that we might take for granted, such as cooking food and keeping the house and body clean.Tracing the development of such practices, from prehistoric times to the age of the pyramids, the book reveals unsuspected connections between distant regions, and provides new insights into the workings of societies we have come to regard as remote from our own. It also forces us to recognize that civilizations are not formed in isolation, but through the mixing and borrowing of culture between societies.

The book concludes by drawing telling parallels between the ancient Near East and more recent attempts at reshaping the world order to an ideal image. Are the sacrifices we now make in the name of 'our' civilization really so different from those once made on the altars of the gods?

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (22 July 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192805800
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192805805
  • Product Dimensions: 2.4 x 14 x 21 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 625,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Convincingly concludes that the parallel development of Mesopotamia and Egypt demonstrates the deep attachment of human societies to the concepts they live by, and the inequalities they are prepared to endure in order to preserve those guiding principles. (Nature)

What Makes Civilization? is well written for a student or educated lay-person audience...when the past is being employed to understand the present or predict the future of human societies, archaeologists must be part of the discussion. (Current Anthropology)

This book promises a lot and delivers even more...It guides readers into the heart of the sources of civilization. (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute)

Provocative....stimulating...occasionally infuriating. (Steven Snape, History Today)

A book that readers will certainly find stimulating. (History Today)

Lively and insightful work. (Geoff Ward, Western Daily Press)

About the Author

Dr. David Wengrow is Reader in Comparative Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. He trained in archaeology and anthropology at the University of Oxford, and has conducted fieldwork in both Africa and the Middle East. His research explores early cultural transformations across the boundaries of Asia, Africa, and Europe, including the emergence of the first farming societies, states, and systems of writing. He has also written on the history of archaeological thought and the role of the remote past in shaping modern political identities. His past appointments include Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford, and Frankfort Fellow in Near Eastern Art and Archaeology at the Warburg Institute, London.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
By docread
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a stimulating and provocative book written by an Archeologist with a grounding in Anthropology.The text is divided into two parts.He starts by giving an account of the material and ecological conditions leading to the emergence of civilisation in the Near East i.e.the cradle of civilisation in Mesopotamia and Egypt.Great emphasis is given to the continuities between the earlier pre-urban non literate societies and the latter organised literate states.Counteracting vigorously the prevalent 'isolationist' theories from H Frankfort to S Huntington,he demonstrates the permeability of these civilisations to outside influences with cultural borrowings and extensive trade exchanges.A dense web of connections interlinked them through more peripheral 'bridging' societies, to satisfy their insatiable need for exotic commodities particularly timber,gems, metals and incense .
The text offers insightful accounts of the practice of sealing transportable goods, of the inventorial function of early writing systems as well as the role of dynastic kingship and it's interaction with the divine.
The second part is rather whimsical, as he indulges in philosophical musings about the ambivalent legacy of the Ancient Near East as received by modern Europe.On the one hand he maintains the fundamental otherness of these civilisations to the modern post revolutionary European mind with it's rejection of sacred kingship and the dynastic cult of the dead.On the other hand he asserts that Antiquity and Modernity are cut from the same cloth, and by idealising civilisation "are we not raising up new gods where old ones have fallen?
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Amazon.com: 5.0 out of 5 stars  1 review
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Prehistoric origins of Capitalism!! 1 Mar 2013
By Paul Thompson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I've been taking grad courses in American history, and there's a lot of debate about when the 'market revolution' occurred. This book makes it clear that in many ways, it's absurd to create such a category at all. If you did, you might have to start thousands of years BCE!

The book's primary theses are:

1. Capitalism, including its psychological impacts like anomie and Lucascian 'reification', and its physical manifestations like cities and international trade routes, began in the ancient prehistorical Neolithic (early Stone) and early Bronze Ages.

2. A universal temporal 'track' or progression of civilization identified by many a historical/ political theorist is nonsense. Techniques and technology are *spatially* contingent. Early trading civilizations were interdependent, with different nations manifesting different 'marks of civilization' *concurrently*, with all benefiting from the resulting diversity. Highland miner-shepherds brought precious metals to the markets of lowland farmer-fishermen. Here the author echoes Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel"

If you're not well versed in this period of history (like me!), this is an incredibly accessible and friendly book. The maps are simple and effective. The author's anti-orientalist chapter(s) at the end (modern cultural uses of the 'mystic orient' icon) have a slapdash, last-minute character. But *because* of that afterthought quality, you can easily bifurcate them from the rest of the book and focus on the goods.
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