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Centre for Iranian Cultural Studies

Ancient Iranian Water Systems Seminar

From Human Niche Construction to Imperial Power: Long-Term Trends in Ancient Iranian Water Systems

Monday, 06 June 2011 | Department of Archaeology


On the 6th June 2011 the Durham University Centre for Iranian Cultural Studies (CICS) hosted a seminar entitled: From Human Niche Construction to Imperial Power: Long-term Trends in Ancient Iranian Water Systems. The workshop was intended to build upon the Water and Power workshop sponsored by the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University in November 2009 (Wilkinson 2010). The primary aim of the CICS workshop was to receive papers on the entire chronological range of water management systems in Iran from around 8000 years BC until the present day, with a view to recognizing major research questions that could be used to create an agenda for future studies of ancient water use in the country. Too often the archaeology of water is studied as a footnote to other aspects of the ancient past, or simply presented as an interesting diversion from the "real" archaeology of buildings, burials or artefacts. For Iran, single thematic areas such as qanats often provide the focus of interest because of their novelty and because they are viewed as specific to Iran itself. Alternatively the topic of water management can appear under rather over-arching models such as the "archaeology of power", or more specifically Wittfogel's models of hydraulic civilizations. Although a single workshop with six speakers can hardly be expected to command the full range of expertise required, it was decided to use this as an opportunity to develop a broad range of questions that could be taken forward by scholars at a future date, and which might, after this workshop, be used to produce a short "position paper" for an academic journal.

Some key questions or topics addressed during the meeting included:

  • What was the role of "human niche construction" in the creation of early water management systems:
  • How significant was the geoarchaeology of early irrigation systems and alluvial fans, and was the choice of site location partly responsible for the loss of evidence of early water management systems?
  • When do hydraulic management systems become so big they cease to be sustained by local management?
  • Does this take place with rise of the powerful later territorial empires of the first millennium BC and later?
  • How did such systems operate in detail, and what role can engineering play in understanding ancient water management?

Human Niche Construction provided a useful lens through which to view the development of early small-scale systems of water management. The following definition is taken from a paper that derives from an earlier workshop on this subject sponsored by Durham University's Institute of Advanced Study:

"Niche construction theory....originated as a branch of evolutionary biology that emphasizes the capacity of organisms to modify their environment and thereby influence their own and other species' evolution" (Kendal, Tehrani & Odling-Smee 2011: 785).

In the context of water management, human niche construction can be seen to have operated where small-scale communities built upon naturally-occurring conditions to divert water to nearby localities with the result that incipient water management then created the conditions for further developments. However, once conscious-planning can be seen to have played a role in irrigation it can be argued that processes of niche construction were no longer being followed (Lansing and Fox 2011).

Although human niche construction may have operated during early (prehistoric) stages the gap in evidence in the 4th and 3rd millennia BC needs to be filled, especially if we are to understand how small-scale systems developed into larger systems. With the development of later territorial empires we do see an increase in the scale of systems (in part for taxation, but also for many reasons including strengthening frontier systems and for the supply of trading cities), but it was evident that by no means all of the later or larger systems were developed or operated by imperial authorities.

Summary of Discussions

At the seminar it appeared that although the small-scale systems presented by Gavin Gillmore probably constituted an example of niche construction, the later imperial systems that were presented by later speakers did not. In fact, it was noted that despite the recognition of occasional irrigation systems of third-millennium BC date in the Deh Luran plain by Neely and Wright, as well as perhaps in Khuzestan, there was a general dearth of evidence of Chalcolithic and Bronze Age systems in Iran. However, by the first millennium BC there was a considerable increase in the construction of major water management systems, some of which were, at least as far as the associated evidence suggests, constructed by imperial authorities. Evidence of imperial systems was presented by Wilkinson, as well as by Boucharlat, Ertsen and de Schacht. All agreed, however, that just because a system appeared large in scale, it was not necessarily a result of imperial management. For the subject of qanats Peter Magee took this point further by arguing that not only were they usually built by small-scale societies, but also that there may have been multiple centres of origin; one primary centre being a broad zone of south-east Iran, Pakistan and south-east Arabia. The workshop was brought to a close by Dr. Khodadad Rezakhani who looked at ancient Iranian water management systems through the lens of both archaeology and written texts.