What Makes Civilization? Sid Meier?

Reviewing David Wengrow’s What Makes Civilization? is made difficult by the discrepancy between its title and its contents. Out of about 240 pp in total, only ~180 are intended to be read, the rest being comprised of bibliography, index etc. And these pages do not offer meditation on the necessary conditions or definition of civilisation. Instead, a series of observations on the early state societies of the Middle East and Egypt fill the first 150 pp, and then the modern reception of these cultures is covered on 30 pp.

Wengrow’s main goal with the book (p. XIV) is to offer a new account of the early 3rd millennium BC rise of powerful kingdoms in Egypt and Iraq. And I did learn a lot: about the importance of long-distance trade in luxury items for temples and palaces, about how the senseless veneration of statues and royal corpses formed the engine in the “world system” of the age, and many interesting details of these cultures that are so alien to me as a Scandy archaeologist.

But my main impression of the book is that in writing it, Wengrow was motivated more by a need to produce a book-length piece of text than by any ambition to tackle well-defined questions in a structured way. It’s not a primer, text book or reference work. It’s more like a collection of rather meandering (Mesopotamian?) essays that don’t have the Montaignian decency to acknowledge to the reader that they’re a bit self-indulgent.

Wengrow’s writing is clear enough and not much encumbered by jargon. Specialists in the fields concerned will have to judge the factual accuracy of the text. All I can contribute is that the “Scandinavian riksrad” mentioned on p. 155 along with the French national assembly and the English parliament doesn’t belong there. Wengrow probably means the Swedish riksdag, as the riksrÃ¥d was a patrician council of noblemen and bishops who represented only the upper aristocracy’s interests.

The ideal reader of Wengrow’s book is probably a professional Egyptologist or Mesopotamian scholar who knows the debates and can spot what is new here. The casual reader who dips in for a rare peek at the 3rd millennium cradles of civilisation, like me, would do better to choose a less interpretive, more structured primer.

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