David Wengrow’s ‘What Makes Civilization?’ – a review

by Edward Pegler on 12 April, 2011

David Wengrow’s book is a fascinating gem of ideas about the Bronze age Near East, although I’m not sure if I understood it.

Trying to understand the thoughts of another person is always difficult. Some people are less ambiguous than others. Sometimes the ambiguity in their ideas makes you think more than you would have if you’d understood exactly what they meant. David Wengrow’s “What Makes Civilization?” definitely falls into the ‘ambiguous’ category and is possibly all the better for it.

The book is essentially an essay about the economic and ritual life of Near Eastern ‘civilised’ societies in the third millennium BC. It is well written, highly readable and completely gripping. I read it quickly and found much of the little insights fascinating. Many little threads had me boring my partner with the wonder of it all. And yet by the time I got to the end I had no real idea what the book had to do with the title. And if anybody had asked me to summarise the whole thing… well.

But this book was too good to let go of so easily. There’s something in here that seems profound. So I sat down and started to go back through the whole thing again. Here’s what I’ve got so far.

A possible summary of the book

A common view of different early Bronze age civilisations (e.g. Egyptians, Mesopotamians and Harappans) isolated from each other and strange, will not help anybody understand the past. For these civilisations lived in a world of commerce and trade, occasionally between each other but more often with the raw materials suppliers that they shared.

What civilizations such as Mesopotamia managed to do was to encourage long-distance trade, even if those at the top of the pile were unaware of exactly how it worked in detail.

In the city

Cities were places that controlled trade routes, imported raw materials and made more complicated stuff (e.g. high quality bronze) out of it, much of this for export. They were located in just the right places and they had large skilled and unskilled workforces to do the work.

To counter fluctuations in supply and demand, city elites had effective systems of storing wealth in trusted places such as temples, acting rather like modern banks. This wealth could either be of a local type, like grain, or of a higher value, exotic type, such as prized metals, cedar wood and rare stones, such as lapis.

The elites didn’t really know where the exotic goods came from, just that they were coming in from distant mountains to the north or east or south or west. As far as they understood these mountains were sacred and the wealth they contained was god given or even god like.

So to construct a ‘god’ out of this sacred wealth was to actually create the god by putting together his sacred components. The god of the city was literally there, in the temple. But the god was also a sort of advert for the ‘Bank of XXX’, the ultimate, non-tradeable trade-item, to be cherished and cared for.

At the periphery

At the other end of the scale, those on the margins of civilisation, the raw materials producers, imported luxury, crafted goods of trusted provenance such as bronze or bronze items from the Mesopotamian cities in return for the raw materials that they produced.

So, in effect, these marginal producers bought into a system where they continued to export raw materials to the cities and continued to get newer versions of those trusted, crafted goods in return. The old goods they would dispose of by ritual burial. Thus the economic system could be maintained.


Clearly this is not a full, nor necessarily correct, understanding of David Wengrow’s book. I have interpolated much. There is much that I could not use, such as the details of differing cultural practice between Egypt and Mesopotamia resulting from their different histories.

Also I was not entirely clear about the final section of the book where he discusses and disputes the common interpretation of the Middle East as a debased nursery for our modern civilisation, a prejudice that he seems to say comes from our jettisoning of kingship.

However, the ideas that I took away from this little gem more than make up for the book’s ambiguities and are, at least in part, probably because of them.

So thank you, David Wengrow, for being an archaeologist who can achieve something rare in your field. You have written a book which is a thoroughly enjoyable read, whatever you meant to say.


Wengrow, D. 2010 What Makes Civilization? The Ancient Near East and the Future of the West, Oxford, pp217.



{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Geoff Carter April 14, 2011 at 4:52 pm

Interesting ideas about the origins of materials and gods, and making sacred artifacts, not entirely sure our knowledge of cosmology is enough to support this; I think there was more realpolitik than we give them credit. Mystifying the world is usually of benefit to the mystifier.


Edward Pegler April 15, 2011 at 9:56 am

Well I suppose you could say that that’s exactly what they were doing. We’re out of prehistory here so you do have texts, as quoted by Dr Wengrow, which are used to support his position. Whatever, it’s interesting to compare the situation with that of the silk road during the 1st millennium BC. The knowledge of writers at each end of the road was negligible, both Zhou and Han China in the east ancient Greece in the west. Yet silks were still getting through to the west from the east. The traders along the route must have known what was going on, yet they managed to spin the most incredible yarns to those at either end.


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