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Hydraulic Empire Revisited: Exploring the sociopolitical vulnerabilities of the riverine socio-ecological system of Pharaonic Egypt

Author(s): Rudolf Cesaretti

Year: 2015

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Ever since the falsification of Wittfogel’s thesis on the role of centralized irrigation construction and administration in ancient Near Eastern states, most scholars of Pharaonic Egypt have found it taboo to theorize a relationship between irrigation-based productive systems and the Pharaonic political economy. A wealth of geoarchaeological and paleoclimatological proxy data has enabled the reconstruction of long term trends in Nile flood levels, highlighting not only the considerable inter-annual variability of inundation, but also dramatic fluctuations at millennial scales. While it is now rightly acknowledged that Egyptian artificial irrigation systems were normally constructed and administered at the household and local level – enabling a high level of robustness in a socio-ecological system dependent on the maximization of floodwater for arable land – the sociopolitical trade-offs of such a system remain undertheorized. Using a stylized demographic-structural model to study the impact of fluctuations in carrying capacity on the Pharaonic political economy, this poster explores how: (a) long-term flood trends were mechanisms for both state expansion and collapse, (b) regional geomorphological differences in the Nile River stimulated divergent socio-ecological systems, and (c) decentralized regional institutional (nomarch, temple) power over local irrigation networks produced a decentralized sociopolitical structure prone to devolutionary tipping points.

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Hydraulic Empire Revisited: Exploring the sociopolitical vulnerabilities of the riverine socio-ecological system of Pharaonic Egypt. Rudolf Cesaretti. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 396676)


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min long: -18.809; min lat: -38.823 ; max long: 53.262; max lat: 38.823 ;

Arizona State University The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation National Science Foundation National Endowment for the Humanities Society for American Archaeology Archaeological Institute of America