State and Statehood – GCSE Introduction to Development in the Ancient Near East – Part I



WHAT do we understand by the term ‘state’? At what point can a community be said to have ceased to be simply a community and to have become a state? Is the state simply a social construct imposed on a community when it achieves a certain size and requires a set pattern of rules in order to function? When did the idea of the state as an entity develop? How have interpretations of the state varied and evolved over the passage of time? What are the requirements of a state in order that it be termed a state? What do the earliest communities and states tell us of their understanding of the concept and the developments in this through written, archaeological and epigraphic evidence they have left to us; and indeed, how well and truly can we interpret this evidence in light of our modern understanding and interpretations of the state and statehood?

There is one major problem in our understanding – there is no single, universally accepted definition of what a state actually is.[1] While this may seem rather unusual, it leads to a level of confusion and countermanding of opinions among scholars, and this in particular with reference to the earliest of states.

Radcliffe Brown (1940) defines the state as:

‘…a collection of individual human beings connected by a complex system of relations. Within that organization different individuals have different roles, and some are in possession of special power or authority.’

While a basic interpretation, as a grounding from which to work, this serves as well as any other – though, as Engels stated:

‘The state…has not existed from all eternity. There have been societies which have managed without it, which had no notion of the state or state power. At a definite stage of economic development, which necessarily involved the cleavage of society into classes, the state became a necessity because of this cleavage.’ (in Claessen and Skalník, ibid, 4)

Is this therefore the defining factor in determining a state? That the differences imposed through an economically determined class structure are the way in which the concept of statehood be understood? What then of those communal societies Engels cites which had no concept of a state? While the Marxist interpretation may look at this in the hope that the removal of social class boundaries will remove the economic differences, would that mean the removal of the State as an entity? Could social structures of hundreds of millions truly return to a none state in the form of a network of truly egalitarian communities, such as may theoretically have existed when communal structures were based upon small familial groups which supported one another (if, indeed, any such ever existed in the first place!)? Where did such pre-industrial, pre-capitalist, pre everything we associate with a modern definition of a state, exist, and when? Have we any concrete proof of such, in any form that we can examine in a meaningful way? With reference to Claessen and Skalník, however:

‘These examples all could be suspected of being secondary state formations, that is developed under the influence of another case and modeled on it. Visibly lacking were exactly those cases that had created the history of the problem in the course of a century and a half of reflection and research on the question… The data visible today are quantitatively disproportionate in the documentation and obscure the few and difficult proto-historic data. Thus, essentially, the comparativism of neo-evolutionists, in its principles and choice of documentation, puts at risk a historical approach to the problem of the origins of the state and complex society.’[2]

THE earliest bulk records at present are the written records from Syria-Mesopotamia, stemming from levels IV and III in the sacred Eanna precinct at Uruk up to the much later caches at Mari, Ugarit inter alia when city states and burgeoning empires were the dominant socio-political structures, fully developed and interacting on a massively complex level, records which stretch over a long period and give us an insight at least into the social and civic constructs which developed into a state structure. The complex interactions between the different groups and individuals which played defining roles in the evolution, areas ruled by petty kings, tribal groups, small communities and their growth into larger polities which, as they evolved, adapted and expanded their concepts of the state and of states, and statehood. In these, the reader can find almost every possible form of governance, from absolute monarchy to early communal governance (though whether this may yet be termed democracy, proto-democracy or any other similar term is as disputed as the whole idea of a single, accepted definition of the state). One of the greatest repositories of these written records is the archive of the kings of Mari, some 3,000 clay tablets covered in Akkadian cuneiform which composed the collection of the last Lord of Mari, Zimri-Lim, and give an overview of the system which had developed over the larger part of the third millennium BC, when Mari had dominated the banks of the Euphrates along an area which today forms part of the Syrian-Iraqi border region.

Zimri-Lim’s self proclaimed title, ‘King of Mari and the Land of the Hana’ is telling in our understanding of this early state at least. As Fleming points out:

‘The first title defines him by the walled city that he made his seat of power, and the second associates him with mobile pastoralists who identify themselves by tribe.’[3]

That the king of a, in reality, minor kingdom of no more than mediocre importance, but one which survived for almost a millennium, needs to refer both to the urban populace and the pastoralist populace under two separate and varying titles, demonstrates that the, what must have been, principle division in the social structure held a great importance. Is there evidence that Engels’ idea of economic division is here present? Was there an urban elite who relied on the taxes and tribute levied on a pastoralist majority underclass? Was there a pastoral elite which controlled the land and held the urban populace in thrall, depending on the food supplies which the pastoralists granted them? Were the tribal loyalties of a pre-urban structure something which the king might ignore in the urban structure, but still of major importance when dealing with a conservative pastoral social structure beyond the city walls? This was, after all, well after the states which composed Mesopotamia had developed into a complex structure of political alliances, wars and marriages.  These are questions to which I shall return.


WHAT happened between the earliest sedentary communities dating to c.10,000 BC and the full blown urbanised and complex societies of around 3,000 BC? What turned them from small communities to States?

The major prerequisite for any state form to develop, under almost every definition, would require a regular supply of the basic commodities needed for survival. Without such, the sole imperative becomes that of a hand to mouth survival, such as is evident from archaeological evidence of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic. The two principle of these are evidently food and water, without which the only outcome can be death either through dehydration or starvation – a self-evident statement, but nevertheless, the primary prerequisites. The food supply which the hunter gatherer system gave was highly dependent on the constant nomadic lifestyle as was dictated by the following of migrating animals or moving according to the weather conditions which controlled the wild plant food supplies such as the berries, nuts et al gathered to supplement the meat. There are seeming settled communities at certain places along littorals where the fish and shellfish supplies must have been regular throughout the year, but they are very much in the minority. Some of the earliest polities we find are in the area referred to as the Ancient Near East, and such communities show evidence of early settled agricultural production, based on nine main plants:

Table 1[4]

Wild Progenitor                          Cultivar                                                 English name

Triticum urartu                           ?

Triticum boeoticum                    T. monococcum                                    einkorn

Triticum dicoccoides                  T. dicoccum                                           emmer


Spontaneum                              H. distichon                                              barley

Lens orientalis                           L. culinaris                                              lentil

Pisum humile                            P. sativum                                                pea

Cicer reticulatum                        C. arietinum                                         chickpea

Vicia ervilia                               V. ervilia                                                  bitter vetch

?                                                  Vicia faba                                                 broad bean

Linum bienne                             L. usitatissimum                                   flax


These nine plants were to remain the mainstay of the agricultural food supplies and textiles from plants through the whole of the western Ancient and Classical worlds.

The cultivation of these plants requires a settled lifestyle, and this, both for the crops and for the agriculturalists, has one joint necessity – water. Regular rainfall is not something which is found in the Ancient Near East away from certain areas which are under the influence of the coastal climate. Even then, for much of the summer period, the rains are not common, and this requires the storage of the rains where no fluvial waters are available; where the rivers are the suppliers of the waters, irrigation on a massive level and the controlling of the waters (where possible) under the floods from the Zagros mountains flowing down the Tigris and the Euphrates were required for a regular and reliable harvest to be available to feed the populace, both pastoral/agricultural and urban. Post the domestication of herd animals, a level of relatively settled life was still a priority when in a desert geographic situation due to the need for water, unlike areas where water and grasslands were plentiful and ergo permitted for the continuation of a more nomadic lifestyle. For Karl Marx, this was a key factor in the development of an early state:

‘He (Marx) particularly emphasized the dichotomic relation between agricultural communities and the state organization, occasioned by the necessity of constructing and maintaining irrigation systems.’[5]

When the agricultural production reached a certain level, the water necessary for the irrigation of the crops could only be supplied by a state which had the capacity to undertake construction on the required scale. When the control of the water falls into the hands of the state, then those who wield that control become the de facto elite; an elite which will demand labour, tribute and taxation in return for ensuring the supply of water through dams, aquifers or ditch systems, both in order that the construction projects be achieved, and as a reward for their services, eventually developing into the social class structure against which Marx and Engels wrote. Does the archaeological and epigraphic evidence support this theory? Or is this a massively simplistic segregating of a hugely complex system which was interpreted simply to support a nineteenth century (AD) politico-philosophical system?

It is necessary to return to the evidence to support the development of agriculture and pastoral domestication and the sequence which led to the situation of a (supposed) elite commanding the water supplies. Liverani:

‘…Neolithic Revolution, when fundamental techniques for food production (agriculture and farming), the necessary instruments (tools and containers), and the earliest forms of housing (houses, villages, and farms) were first developed… (then) the Urban Revolution of the Early Bronze Age. This phase saw the development of recording techniques (which culminated with the development of writing), the introduction of specialised labour (such as full-time craftsmanship) and mass production, as well as the development of cities and the rise of the concept of the state. The third phase took place between the late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age, when a number of innovations, such as the alphabet and increasing use of iron were developed. This led to a sort of ‘democratisation’ of the former palace and temple economies, and a stronger presence of socially and geographically marginal areas compared to the former supremacy of the city.’[6] (My bold)

Liverani here places the conscious idea of the state in a situation where the necessary socio-politico-economic and religious concepts and constructs have been not only developed but are firmly ensconced in the minds of the populace. So, can the state be defined in the sense of a social evolution which leads to an easily definable end by means of clearly delineated path, almost following a set pattern? Again – very debateable! This would, were it true, necessitate a common starting point in all ‘archaic states’ – indeed, there would surely be an archaic state which was a common prototype – and there most certainly was not. Not all early ‘states’ were tyrannies, there is no standard pattern or ladder of developments which all followed, and there were no requisite developments politically, socially nor economically that all communities followed in order to develop into a clearly defined concept of the state.[7]

The concept of the community, and on a larger level, the state, is the idea of ‘US’. The commonality, the shared ideas, beliefs and experiences are what underlie this idea of ‘us’ – those who lie outside of those commonalities become ‘them’ and are the foreigners. How do the small communities overcome this ‘us’ and ‘them’? Without this, would the small communities be able to grow to the level where they can be called a state? Do they simply rely on a growth in population? If so, how is this guaranteed? The healthier diet which agriculture and the domestication of animals brought, and the regular supply of food which was enhanced by the control of the water supply was evidently a factor in helping this. We can see the effects by examining the graves which are found in the archaeological evidence of the earliest settlements. The graves show something else of equal importance:

“Funerary rituals act as one of the most important mechanisms of ideological regeneration and are a fundamental vehicle to be able to define, develop and strengthen identities, collective memories and social relationships.”[8] These are all things which are intrinsic to the idea of ‘us’.

The graves at Tell Qarasa, dating from the late ninth millennium BC, show a variety of developments which are key in the evolution to statehood: first, there is certainly ritual. The bodies were:

“..buried in oval graves, placed on their side in a flexed position and oriented along an E-W axis. Skulls and, in some cases, long bones were later extracted for certain funerary rituals in which the memory of the deceased was relevant and which were carried out in an abandoned house and its attached courtyard.”[9]

This, combined with the fact that, despite this being a pre-pottery level of history, the bodies were interred with figurines which show features and genitalia as, presumably, totems of the dead, shows a certain level of ritual – indeed, such continue to be found, particularly in the form of the shabti of Egyptian funerary goods, though whether the earlier Syrian figurines are representations of the deceased or as labour for the afterlife is impossible to tell. These grave goods, ritualistic burials and the seeming evidence of excarnation give an almost certain suggestion of the development of a religious system and rituals to allow the deceased to continue or to progress through death to the life hereafter. Without this, there seems little or no point in the ritual. At such an early level in the settled existence of our ancestors, there exists not just a basic or primitive funerary process and ritual, but a highly developed and complex system – something which takes a very long time to develop. What is impossible to ascertain here is whether the excarnation of the isolated bone was part of the ritual (it is known that certain bones, especially the long bones and the skull, were later removed, used in presumably ritual, and returned to the ground, either to the grave or apart) or whether it was a part of a different ritual, or cannibalism of a human sacrifice (to carry hypothesis to its hyperbolic extreme) to accompany the death and interment of an important individual, we cannot tell as there is too little evidence as of yet.

[1] Claessen and Skalník (eds) The Early State, Mouton,1978, 3

[2] Liverani, Uruk-The First City, Oakville, 2006, 9-10

[3] Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, Cambridge, 2004, xiv

[4] A Companion to the Archaeology of the ANE, Blackwell, Vol I, 2007, 166

[5] Claessen and Skalník (eds) 1978, 8

[6] Liverani, The Ancient Near East, Routledge, 2014, 27

[7] For an in depth explanation, cf Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State, Cambridge, 2004, 5ff

[8] Santana et al, Interpreting a ritual funerary area at the Early Neolithic site of Tell
Qarassa North (South Syria, late 9th millennium BC), 2015, 1

[9] ibid

[10] Ibid, 8


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