Mesopotamia: Civilization, Archaeology, and Material Culture

Instructor: Türkan Pilavci
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

What qualifies as a “civilization”? And why is Mesopotamia commonly called its “cradle”? Art, agriculture, and animal husbandry all pre-existed the settlements that dotted the “fertile crescent” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But it was there, amongst the cities of Uruk, Kish, Ur, and elsewhere, that the basic structures of civilization first took root: from irrigation to written language (Sumerian), formal law (the Code of Ur-Nammu), literature (the Epic of Gilgamesh), arithmetic, money (the shekel), class, state, monarchy, slavery, and—with the successive conquests of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Assyrians, and Babylonians—military empire. Yet, if the material facts of Mesopotamia are well-known, how do we begin to interpret their significance, interconnection, and the forms of life that emerged with and through Mesopotamian material culture? We might even ask: does “Mesopotamia” correspond to an actual geography? Or, is it a fictional landscape, the colonial invention of 19th-century European archaeologists who saw in its artifacts both civilizational promise (ultimately realized in the West) and an essential savagery (latent in the subject peoples of colonized Eurasia and Africa)? What do we know about the historical region we call Mesopotamia—its origination, urbanization, processes of cultural and state formation, social structures, economies, daily life—and how do we know it ? How has its material culture been variously interpreted across time? And, how, in interpreting Mesopotamia, do we in some sense interpret ourselves, reiterating (while projecting) contemporary norms and relations in the attempt to make legible an ancient past at once strange and recognizable?

In this course, we will explore the history, and the historiography, of Mesopotamia, drawing on excavated remains, material culture, and textual evidence to answer major questions about the origins, structures, meaning, and legacy of Mesopotamian civilization. What made the region a suitable site for the Neolithic revolution? Why did settlements evolve into city-states, and what kinds of technologies and structures arose or were devised to organize urban life? How can we understand Mesopotamian class and social relations—and were they consistent across city-states? And, as we answer, we’ll attend to ways such questions were posed and answered in the past. In particular, we’ll seek to deconstruct the colonial discourse that surrounded early European scholarship on Mesopotamia. How did Orientalism shape the way Mesopotamian antiquities were received—and to what extent does Orientalism linger still? And finally, connecting past and present, we’ll examine the impact of invasion, civil war, migration, and climate change on Mesopotamian archaeology, recovery, preservation, display, and interpretation. How have governments, archaeologists, and artists (including Rayah Abd Al-Redah, Betoul Mahdey, Fatimah Jawdat, and Michael Rakowitz) responded to the manifold threats imperiling Mesopotamian sites and artifacts? How do contemporary geopolitics compel us to understand, interpret, and value Mesopotamia anew? 

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
May 08 — June 05, 2024
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, May 15th.


Registration Open

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