Featured Reviews, VOLUME 6

Steven Mithen – Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World [Review]

[easyazon-image align=”none” asin=”0674066936″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51vQWLjbIUL.jpg” width=”220″ alt=”Steven Mithen – Thirst” ]The Challenges of Water Management

A Review of

Thirst: Water and Power in the Ancient World

Steven Mithen

Hardback: Harvard UP, 2012
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Reviewed by Mary Bowling


Water is the stuff of life. No one, anywhere, ever, can live without it. For many of us it is simply there at the turn of a knob or push of a button without a second thought.  But for many more, and especially in the past few years, there have been serious issues relating to severe water shortages or devastating floods around the United States and the globe.  As Steven Mithen relates in Thirst, humans have been managing their water supply for millennia with varying degrees of success, but even with the relative sophistication of some of the early systems and the amazing strides that humans have made during recent history in controlling nearly every aspect of our built environment, sometimes water will still just do what it wants with us. Are there lessons we can learn from early societies about effective and sustainable water management, or are we doomed- as they all eventually were- to abandon our cities, disperse, and regroup in new forms to try it all over again?


Mithen has taken a literal journey around the world in order to examine ruins of ancient hydraulic systems from the cradle of civilization, to Europe, the Far East, and the Western Hemisphere.  Archaeology, although focused on the past, has taken strides recently with the advent of new imaging technologies, that have allowed clearer and more full pictures of long ago. As such, we have better information now than we had even five or ten years ago, although what we find out in years to come will tell us even more about log, long ago.  Mithen has undertaken a broad survey of ten regions in order to see commonalities and differences in the regions and what the water management issues required, the techniques used to control the water supply, and the outcomes.


***[easyazon-link keywords=”Steven Mithen” locale=”us”]Other Books by Steven Mithen[/easyazon-link]
Starting with the earliest civilizations, Mithen relates the results of first-hand research to uncover the simplest beginnings of hydraulic engineering in such places that it could be found and ascertained to be such.  Many early peoples of the Levant had to deal with irregular and scarce rainfall, and yet managed to survive for years without as much as a well or a cistern. For these people and others,  the rain that did fall came in destructive floods through the desert. Other groups, such as the Khmer at Angkor and the Incas in the Sacred Valley dealt with ongoing and torrential rains, steep landscapes, while others had to contend with saline soils, and waterborne diseases and pests.


Besides the obvious, constant, and seemingly insurmountable environmental challenges, effective water management always came with some sort of human power structure. Mithen identifies that same pattern in civilizations around the world, but questions follow each one about the nature of the relationship between those in power and the flow and use of water to and by the civilization as a whole. Were inventive and intense waterworks constructed at the behest of a powerful leader, or was leadership able to emerge because the civilization had become stable enough to allow people to advance beyond mere survival concerns? Was water used in ornamental or symbolic ways to further the aggrandizement of rulers at the expense of the civilization as a whole, or was it because of ingenious thinking by leading individuals that the cultures became as grand and opulent as they did. Hand in hand with almost all of these case studies came the questions of the nature of the power structure that existed alongside the literal structures used to sustain vast numbers of people with clean water for drinking, bathing, irrigation, transportation and trade.


As well as the fascinating questions centering on the use and possible or probable abuse of political power among early peoples, the obvious fact in common in all of the places studied by Mithen is that they are no longer functional civilizations, at least not as they were. Intervening millennia will certainly have an effect on every human civilization, and many people still inhabit areas and even cities that have been population hubs for centuries. Rome and Istanbul/Constantinople are obvious examples, but even these longstanding strongholds have experienced periods of success and failure that are inseparable from their ability to sustain themselves with water. Mithen uses not only the archaeological evidence itself, but written historical documents and even stories, as well as drawing upon previous research and conjecture to put forth ideas about the demise of some of these communities and how it related to or was even brought about by practices related to water use. He also relates some of the history of archaeological research on the sites and how theories and then new discoveries have fed or discredited other previous theories about life in these places long ago.



Each chapter in the book has at least one map or diagram, and several color pictures, which are all together in two sections in the middle of the book.  The diagrams are helpful, as Mithen does give a detailed verbal description of many of the features uncovered at the sites, which can be a bit hard to envisage without help. The photos, many of which he himself took during his travels, provide a nice bit of color and first-handedness to the stories of places that are many miles and years removed from the reader.  He devotes one chapter to each of his subject sites, with the first and last chapters dealing with the bigger and more all-encompassing questions brought up by the mass of information presented.  At nearly three hundred pages, the book does contain quite a lot of raw archaeological, geological, and cultural facts. However, Thirst is very well researched, organized, and written, and is ultimately very readable.


Aside from being an engrossing read about ancient cultural practices related to water, the book brings up questions that are perpetually relevant.  Just as some very early civilizations constructed elaborate and expensive hydraulic systems that required vast amounts of resources to build, we find ourselves continually doing the same thing today, always with a mind to build bigger and grander systems for managing water. What were the results of these endeavors in ancient times, and can we expect the same today? Are there any of these antiquated systems that have survived the millennia and are still in use today, and if so what has contributed to their longevity? Do any of today’s hydraulic engineers or people in power care to take lessons from the past, or is looking backward the sole realm of archaeologists and historians? Steven Mithen’s Thirst ultimately provides look back at people groups across time and place to find similar strivings, and ways of dealing with the challenges of water management that we would do well consider the effects and outcomes of today.



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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