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Thirst: For Water and Power in the Ancient World

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Freshwater shortages will affect 75% of the world’s population by 2050. Mithen puts this crisis into context by exploring 10,000 years of water management. Thirst tells of civilizations defeated by the water challenge, and of technological ingenuity that sustained communities in hostile environments. Work with nature, not against it, he advises.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07218-3
    Subjects: Anthropology, History, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. x-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. 1 THIRST For knowledge of the past and lessons for the future
    (pp. 1-11)

    There is a narrow sidewalk next to US Route 93 at the boundary between Nevada and Arizona. I am not usually inclined to walk alongside four-lane highways, especially those used by 20,000 vehicles daily and in the 43°C heat of a July afternoon. But this took me to the centre of a bridge, 270 metres above the Colorado River and to a perfect view of the Hoover Dam.¹ Constructed almost seventy years ago, this remains a dramatic icon of the human endeavour to control the most precious resource on planet earth: water.

    The Hoover Dam was constructed between 1931 and...

  7. 2 THE WATER REVOLUTION The origins of water management in the Levant, 1.5 million years ago to 700 BC
    (pp. 12-43)

    The sparkling blue waters of the Dead Sea come suddenly into view as one drives south and downhill from Amman, heading towards the Red Sea port of Aqaba. As the expanse of water appears, I often pull into a lay-by, step out into stifling heat, pause, and reflect about the very special place on planet earth at which I have arrived.

    A few kilometres further south, one reaches the earth’s lowest point, 423 metres (1,388 feet) below sea level in the middle of the Dead Sea Rift, one of the geological wonders of the world. The road from Amman will...

  8. 3 ‘THE BLACK FIELDS BECAME WHITE / THE BROAD PLAIN WAS CHOKED WITH SALT’ Water management and the rise and fall of the Sumerian civilisation, 5000–1600 BC
    (pp. 44-74)

    With water now domesticated, we leave the Levant and move 1,000 kilometres east to the alluvial plain of the Tigris and Euphrates.

    Here, Bronze Age towns of 4000 BC underwent inexorable growth to create the first civilisation of human history – the Sumerian. Those towns had grown from Neolithic villages which had arisen from either the arrival on the plain of Neolithic farmers, dispersing from the Levant, or by the adoption of Neolithic lifestyles by its indigenous hunter-gatherers. Our concern is with the role that hydraulic engineering played in the rise and then the fall of the Sumerian civilisation.¹

    With regard...

  9. 4 ‘WATER IS THE BEST THING OF ALL’ – PINDAR OF THEBES 476 BC Water management by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and Ancient Greeks 2100–146 BC
    (pp. 75-103)

    On 12 September 1903, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) carried the following description of a recently discovered flush toilet:

    It consists of a small chamber about a metre in width and two metres in length, resembling the shape and size of a similar room in a modern house. Outside the lintel of the door is a flag sloped towards a hole, which opens into a short drain beneath the floor, and down which water could be thrown for flushing purposes, and also the household ‘slops’. From the groove seen in the wall there appears to have been a wooden seat...

  10. 5 A WATERY PARADISE IN PETRA The Nabataeans, masters of the desert, 300 BC–AD 106
    (pp. 104-124)

    A visitor’s first enthralling glimpse of the splendours of Petra is the yellow stone-cut façade of the ‘Treasury’ framed by the dark walls of the siq and a clear blue sky above. After a long hot coach or car journey to Wadi Musa in southern Jordan, and then the tiring, winding walk down the narrow two-kilometre siq itself travellers suddenly find themselves awestruck at such an architectural marvel (Photograph 13). This is only the start of a physically exhausting but mentally exhilarating walk around the rock-cut tombs, the theatre, temples and other ruins of Petra, the capital of the Nabataean...

  11. 6 BUILDING RIVERS AND TAKING BATHS Rome and Constantinople, 400 BC–AD 800
    (pp. 125-149)

    I doubt if it will be news for you that something was going on with water in the Roman world. Go almost anywhere in the former expanse of the Roman Empire – in Europe, North Africa, Asia Minor or the Middle East – and you will find evidence for the Roman manipulation of water: aqueduct bridges, wells, reservoirs, dams, cisterns, fountains, drains, toilets and, of course, Roman baths.¹ The bridges are often of monumental scale, exemplified by the Pont du Gard in France – almost 50 metres high and 275 metres long – that carried the aqueduct of Roman Nîmes across the River Gard.²...

  12. 7 A MILLION MEN WITH TEASPOONS Hydraulic engineering in Ancient China, 900 BC–AD 907
    (pp. 150-175)

    From the top of the five-storey Qinyan Tower I finally grasped the scale of Li Bing’s achievement. I could not fail to do so because it took centre stage in a stunning panorama that reached from the Tibetan mountains in the west to the distant modern tower blocks of Chengdu city in the east. Between them was the Dujiangyan irrigation scheme, or at least the start of it, where the River Min is divided into two, one arm taking water to irrigate the Sichuan Basin – just it has done for 2,250 years (Photograph 25).

    Here, in the south-west of China,...

  13. 8 THE HYDRAULIC CITY Water management by the kings of Angkor, AD 802–1327
    (pp. 176-199)

    I caught my first sight of the West Baray as my plane banked to land at the tiny airport at Siem Reap: it shone like a shimmering blue mirror amid the tall-trunked sugar palms, rice paddies and scattered wooden houses of Cambodia.

    Siem Reap is surrounded by the temples of Angkor, the centre of the Khmer civilisation that reached its apogee between AD 802 and 1327 (Figure 8.1).¹ Millions of people come each year to visit the veritable man-made mountains of stone; many are decorated with the most exquisite bas-relief carvings of Hindu deities, dancers and scenes of ancient warfare,...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. 9 ALMOST A CIVILISATION Hohokam irrigation in the American South-West, AD 1–1450
    (pp. 200-222)

    When touching down at Sky Harbor International airport at Phoenix, Arizona, one isn’t so much in the vicinity of the most extensive prehistoric irrigation system in North America as quite literally right on top of it. Buried below the tarmac of the runways, the terminals and the fire station are the in-filled ditches and canals that had once irrigated the desert.¹ These had been made by the Hohokam people, constructing their first canals close to the start of the first millennium AD, when they lived in small villages adjacent to the Salt and Gila rivers in what would become Arizona....

  16. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  17. 10 LIFE AND DEATH OF THE WATER LILY MONSTER Water and the rise and fall of Mayan civilisation, 2000 BC–AD 1000
    (pp. 223-255)

    Losing one’s toenails in the quest to understand ancient water management is a great deal farther than I have been prepared to go in writing this book. But such was the sacrifice made by the archaeologist Ray T. Matheny, following in the footsteps of Yu the Great of China (Chapter 7). Matheny devoted much of his life to the study of the Mayan city of Edzná in the Yucatán peninsula of Mexico. This had reached its cultural apogee at around AD 750 with magnificent temples surrounding a central plaza, and a population of several thousand. Matheny had begun work at...

  18. 11 WATER POETRY IN THE SACRED VALLEY Hydraulic engineering by the Incas, AD 1200–1572
    (pp. 256-279)

    The dawn-time anticipation at the entrance to Machu Picchu was palpable. Hundreds of people were queuing at the early hour, the majority having travelled thousands of miles to complete their archaeological pilgrimage at sunrise. Buses were arriving every few minutes, having driven round a multitude of hairpin bends from the town of Aguas Calientes several kilometres below, where the hordes of visitors had stayed overnight. Others emerged along tiny paths through the dense tropical foliage, after climbing the steep hill on foot. When the gates opened and the queue began to move, I had a momentary fear of entering some...

  19. 12 AN UNQUENCHED THIRST For water and for knowledge of the past
    (pp. 280-299)

    Quelccaya glacier, located in southern Peru, is the world’s largest tropical ice cap. It provided us with the evidence for climate change during the sixth century AD that is likely to have been fatal for the Moche and Nasca cultures of Peru.¹ Such evidence was derived from cores cut from deep within its ice which required expert and meticulous scientific analysis. Quelccaya’s evidence about present-day climate change is more forthcoming: one can simply watch it melt. The glacier is retreating at 200 feet per year, ten times the rate of its retreat in the 1960s, a consequence of an average...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 300-318)
    (pp. 319-338)
  22. INDEX
    (pp. 339-347)