I was honored to have been invited by Jussi Parikka to contribute to a special issue of Cultural Politics on “geological media.” I’ve been waiting for well over a decade to finally have an excuse to write about mud, inscription, and architecture — it’s part of my larger project on the “deep time of urban mediation,” which I previewed in my little Deep Time of the Media City book (Minnesota 2015) — and this was my chance! I also got to mention cylinder seals, which are among my absolute favorite things in the universe (and which I take my students to see at the Morgan Library as much as possible).
I finished a (too-long!) draft of the article a couple weeks ago and submitted it for comments. The full issue, I imagine, will come out next year — but for now, here’s my introduction. If you feel inclined to cite or even allude to any of this material, I ask that you please make sure to provide proper attribution; I worked really hard on this!:
Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis:
Aggregating Histories of Writing and Urbanization
Over 6500 years ago, not far from where the radicals of Islamic State are now bulldozing ancient mud-brick temples and sacrilegious shrines, sledge-hammering idolatrous stone statues, burning “haram,” or un-Islamic, manuscripts, and smuggling clay cuneiform tablets and mosaics for sale on the black market, a civilization was born – a civilization built upon many of those very same humble materials: mud, stone, and clay. Small farming villages in the fertile Mesopotamian region had made way for what are widely regarded as the first cities, Eridu and Uruk – settlements whose proximity to the Euphrates River made possible the production of a reliable agricultural surplus. In Uruk, those bountiful grains fed a large population – up to 80,000 at the city’s peak around 2900 BCE – who had learned to build mud-brick temples and a mosaic-adorned ziggurat; craft stone sculptures and clay pottery; pursue a wide variety of professions; and design complex political and administrative structures to manage their affairs. All that administration required a system for keeping records.
Bureaucracy, many believe, begat writing.[i] The origins of our written languages, our chirographic cultures, are rooted not in noble literary traditions, but in accountancy (although it was the Epic of Gilgamesh, which survived on a set of clay tablets, that tells us much of what we know about Uruk’s mythical history). “It has been suggested,” economist Harold Innis writes, “that writing was invented in Sumer to keep tallies and to make lists and hence was an outgrowth of mathematics. The earliest [records] include large numbers of legal contracts, deeds of sale, and land transfers, and reflect a secular and utilitarian interest.”[ii] Yet all this “proto-paperwork” was part of a larger constellation of developments that extended beyond the merely managerial. As Innis explains, “The development of writing, mathematics, the standardization of weights and measures, and adjustments of the calendar were a part of an urban revolution” – a new way of living with others, a new way of organizing and inhabiting space.[iii]
It so happened that Uruk’s urban revolution was fortified by the most archaic of natural resources: mud. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers yielded not only excess crops, but their regular floods also offered plenty of alluvial clay – unconsolidated silt, sand, clay, and gravel, mixed in with organic matter, and deposited on the river banks. That fine-grained clay was blended with chaff from the threshing floor, formed into molds, and dried in the sun, yielding the mud-bricks that constructed most of ancient Mesopotamia’s buildings and city walls. Or it was fashioned into multiform tokens that were used for accounting, and the clay envelopes that organized them.[iv] Or the clay was strained and shaped into tablets, on which a reed stylus then impressed a wedge-shaped cuneiform script – or a hard-stone cylinder seal rolled out an impression, a script or a figurative scene, which served as a form of notarization for its “author” – after which the tablet was sun- or kiln-baked, or recycled.[v] These alluvial documents constituted the new urban register, and they serve us today as a valuable archaeological archive.
Many historians date the birth of writing at roughly 3200 BCE. We have access to writing’s history largely because of the material properties of the historical record, of writing itself. Archaeologists Olof Pedersén, Paul J.J. Sinclair, Irmgard Hein and Jakob Andersson note that “it is a great advantage to archaeologists when texts are written on clay tablets.”[vi] Clay, as Innis would say, is a time-biased medium: it has permanence; it both cultivates lasting civilizations, and it sticks around to make itself available for historical study.[vii] Of course early writing and proto-writing appeared on a variety of substrates: stone walls, shards of bone or wood, wax tablets, cloth, metal – some of which are similarly durable. Yet the materiality of the archaeological record has implications that extend beyond the mere availability of artifacts; the forms of those artifacts inform their historical interpretation, because they also shape the civilizations that used them.[viii] As Innis, Lewis Mumford, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, and a host of other historians and archaeologists argue, a civilization’s prevailing media formats cultivate its habits of mind, its economy, its modes of governance, its culture.
Urban and architectural history are likewise informed by the materiality of their historical records. Some early construction used stone: consider the Megalithic Temples of Malta and even Uruk’s own Stone Temple, built of limestone and bitumen on a rammed-earth podium. But as archaeologist Seton Lloyd acknowledges, “The raw material that epitomized Mesopotamian civilization was clay.”[ix] For millennia clay and mud have together accounted for a significant proportion of the earth’s built environment: wattle-and-daub structures (woven sticks or reeds coated with mud), cob houses (chunks of clay tempered with straw, manure, or sand, stacked and smoothed into walls), adobe bricks (tempered bricks, sun-dried, stacked and mortared), rammed-earth buildings (sand, gravel, and clay compressed into a molded wall), and fired brick structures span the globe and the ages.[x]
Those ancient architectures serve as more than archaeological remains; they’re often historical texts, too. As we will see later, civilizations the world over – in Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, Mesomerica, Fatimid-era Cairo, present-day Calcutta – have written on their material environments, too – through architectural inscriptions or epigraphy, for example – which provides another set of historical writings for future archaeologists to consult. These various recorded formats – tablets containing urban administrative records, and the material city itself as a written text – are often entangled, which complicates archaeologists’ attempts at periodization and historical dating. Christopher Woods, in his history of writing in the ancient Middle East, acknowledges that most Mesopotamian tablets were found in “rubbish heaps,” in no clear historical strata. “The sun-hardened clay tablets, having obviously outlived their usefulness, were used along with other waste, such as potsherds, clay sealings, and broken mud-bricks, as fill in leveling the foundation of new constructions….”[xi] Writing thus served as a literal foundation for urban development.
For millennia mud and its geologic analogues have bound together our media, urban, architectural, and environmental histories. Some of the first writing surfaces, clay and stone, were the same materials used to construct ancient city walls and buildings, whose facades also frequently served as substrates for written texts. The formal properties of those scripts – the shapes they took on their clay or, eventually, parchment and paper foundations – were also in some cases reflected in urban form: how the city molded itself from the materials of the landscape. And those written documents have always been central to our cities’ operation: their trade, accountancy, governance, and culture.
The long history of mud’s applications as both a writing substrate and an architectural medium shows us how we can integrate both the historical and contemporary meanings of the term Kulturetechnik, or “cultural technique,” a framework very much en vogue in media theory. As Bernhard Siegert explains, “The very word culture, derived from Latin colere and cultura, refers to the development and practical usage of means of cultivating and settling the soil with homesteads and cities.”[xii] Since the late 19th century the term Kulturetechnik has been associated with agricultural or rural engineering – although there is, as we’ve seen and will see, a much deeper history to the practices that term refers to (and rightly so: as Siegert states, “cultural techniques are conceived of as operative chains that precede the media concepts they generate”).[xiii] “Starting in the 1970s,” Siegert continues, “Kulturtechniken also came to refer to elementary Kulturtechniken or basic skills such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.”[xiv] The blending of these agrarian and literary etymologies, Siegert suggests, enables us to recognize the existence of cultural techniques in realms that extend well beyond the book and culture-with-a-capital-C. Culture, in our case, even extends to techniques of settlement, urban planning and administration, and the practices of everyday urban life. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young proposes that Kulturetechnik’s genealogical ties to husbandry permit us to recognize culture as “that which is ameliorated, nurtured, rendered habitable and, as a consequence, structurally opposed to nature, which is seen as actively resistant… or indifferent.”[xv] Yet in examining the place of mud in the Kulturetechniken of city-making and record-keeping, we recognize that urban and administrative culture are utterly dependent on geological resources. Writing and urbanization are both muddy businesses, and they’re messily entwined.
The six sections that follow include:
- “Writing on Stone Cliffs and Mud Bricks: Landscape and Architectural Inscription”
- “Writing Cities Into Being: Scripts of Urban Planning and Administration”
- “Urban Writing Cultures: Circulating Texts”
- “Standardization: Bricks and Concrete”
- “Writing on the Walls: Industrial Materials and Indigenous Inscriptions”
- “The Mud and the Mark”
* * *
[i] See the work of Harold Innis and Denise Schmandt-Besserat; Lewis Mumford, The City In History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1961; Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society, Cambridge University Press, 1986; and Christopher Woods, “The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing” In Christopher Woods, Ed., Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010): 33-4.
[ii] Harold Innis, Empire and Communications (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007: 46
[iii] Innis, Empire, 55.
[iv] See Schmandt-Besserat.
[v] See Frederick G. Kilgour, The Evolution of the Book (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998): 16. For more on cylinder seals, see Dominique Collon, First Impressions; Cylinder Seals in the Ancient Near East (London: British Museum Press, 2005) and Woods 2010.
[vi] Olof Pedersén, Paul J.J. Sinclair, Irmgard Hein and Jakob Andersson, “Cities and Urban Landscapes in the Ancient Near East and Egyptwith Special Focus on the City of Babylon” In Paul J.J. Sinclair, Gullög Nordquist, Frands Herschend and Christian Isendahl, Eds., The Urban Mind: Cultural and Environmental Dynamics (Uppsala, Sweden: African and Comparative ArchaeologyDepartment of Archaeology and Ancient HistoryUppsala University, 2010): 132.
[vii] The materiality of the historical record conditions the possibilities of historiography. As Innis noted, “The significance of a basic medium to its civilization is difficult to appraise since the means of appraisal are influenced by the media, and indeed the fact of appraisal appears to be peculiar to certain types of media. A change in the type of medium implies a change in the type of appraisal and hence makes it difficult for one civilization to understand another. The difficulty is enhanced by the character of the material, particularly its relative permanence. Pirenne has commented on the irony of history in which as a result of the character of the material much is preserved when little is written and little is preserved when much is written. Papyrus has practically disappeared whereas clay and stone have remained largely intact, but clay and stone as permanent material are used for limited purposes and studies of the periods in which they predominate will be influenced by that fact.” (Innis, Empire, 29)
[viii] In a 1975 report by the National Academy of Sciences, a group of materials scientists and engineers wondered about the cultural and methodological implications of materials development: how might the materials used to produce historical records inform the nature of writing, and thereby shape a culture’s language and their “mode of thought.” How did the angular script necessitated by the reed stylus and clay tablet shape Sumerian thought? “The differences between the cuneiform and hieroglyphic culture,” which used a more flexible medium, papyrus, “were made dependent on the differences in materials available, quite as much as were the mud-brick and stone architecture of their respective regions” (Materials and Man’s Needs: Materials Science and Engineering, Supplementary Report of the Committee on the Survey of Materials Science and Engineering, Vol. 1, The History, Scope, and Nature of Materials Science and Engineering (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1975): 1-14).
[ix] While Lloyd has published several esteemed books about Mesopotamian archaeology, this useful quotation appears in an encyclopedia entry: “History: The Origin of Mesopotamian History” Encyclopedia Britannica (1987): 907; quoted in Kilgour 1998: 16.
[x] Suzanne Staubach, Clay: The History and Evolution of Humankind’s Relationship with Earth’s Most Primal Element (New York: Berkeley Books, 2005): 114.
[xi] Christopher Woods, “The Earliest Mesopotamian Writing” In Christopher Woods, Ed., Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond (Chicago: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010): 34.
[xii] Bernhard Siegert, Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filter, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real, Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015): 9.
[xiii] Siegert 11, my emphasis.
[xiv] Siegert 10.
[xv] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks” Theory, Culture & Society 30:6 (2013): 5.