The Surveyor’s Controversy: Changing epistemes in Ancient Mesopotamia

This project explores changing epistemes among surveyors during Old Babylonian period, or the early second millennium BCE in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq). It asks, “How and to what extend did knowledge change in this community?” “Who affected this change?” and “What impact did this change have on the surveyor’s themselves and on other communities?” The central hypothesis informing these questions is that epistemic change could result in a kind of controversy, even in the ancient world, and that this controversy is detectable.

Surveyors were vital to the ancient Mesopotamian economy in general because the ancient Mesopotamians were constantly altering their environments. Mesopotamia was and is dominated by the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, which are necessary for population growth and economic development in this region. However, these rivers and their subsidiary canals, vital to crop growth, are prone to drought at planting and flooding at harvest. Mesopotamia also formed a vital trade entrepot between Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the eastern Mediterranean. The rivers, with their numerous tributaries and canals, facilitated this trade. Thus, water engineering enhanced crop growth and trade and also protected the region from climate catastrophe.

Because much knowledge was required to plan the water regimes of Mesopotamia, an entire knowledge system formed in the fourth and third millennia BCE centering on the alteration and exploitation of the Mesopotamian landscape. The numbers used to plan and evaluate construction, land use, and water management are of particular importance to understanding this system. On the one hand, the earliest numbers were material in origin and viewed as objects to be counted. This was true of land measurements, which were treated as countable objects to be appended together. On the other hand, the very end of the third millennium BCE saw a significant development in how numbers were exploited with the development of what is often called sexagesimal place value notation (SPVN) by modern researchers  This system, which is distinct from the sexagesimal system used to count discrete objects, afforded an easier method to multiply dissimilar objects or values, such as length by width to produce area.

What I will call a “controversy” or, an epistemological disagreement between two or more actors or communities, might have occurred with this development. We see concerted efforts by different individuals to develop SPVN numbers and calculation with these numbers in mathematical texts over at least a one-hundred-year period. I suggest that these developments preceded implementation by administrations and scribes, who in turn exhibited differing opinions on whether and how these changes were to be exploited. The scribes and administrators were exploring whether and how to integrate this new development into their knowledge system. This development would be visible in both mathematical and administrative texts, while it would be exploited in different ways between the various kingdoms and administrations of the region. The controversy’s impact would have broad, long-lasting effects in administering land and in observing the heavens, that is, astronomy through the first millennium BCE. It would even impact mathematical traditions in ancient Greece.


Epistemic change, Hydraulic engineering, land use, education, administration, Old Babylonian Period

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