Archeology and Property Law, Together at Last!


I've been reading off-and-on an interesting survey history of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (It's called Egypt, Greece, and Rome, though I suspect the title was not the author's; there's actually a whole chapter arguing that the Persians get far too short a shrift from Greco-centric historians of the ancient world). In it, there's a discussion in there of agriculture in ancient Egypt. It's quite interesting. We tend to think of Egypt today as this great barren desert, but in the ancient world it was something of a bread basket. Egypt consistently had surpluses of food that it used as a trade good, and as late as the Roman era it was a heavy grain exporter.

Anyhow, Egypt had a rather peculiar agriculture. Farming was centered around the Nile, naturally enough. There was, at the time, little or no irrigation. Rather, farmers relied on annual floods to nourish their land. Egypt had great flood plains around the Nile that were underwater roughly from April to September, from the Spring rains until Autumn. Planting happened in Fall, ripening in Winter, and then harvest in Spring. So these annual floods served as natural irrigation.

The interesting thing is that, at least according to the book, the archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptian society had private property for individual citizens (there was apparently a large centralized bureaucracy that kept records of administrative and judicial decisions, and it's from these records that a sense of Egyptian property rights has been derived). So this raises all sorts of interesting questions about how you adjudicate property rights to land that's underwater half the year. This was important stuff; food was Egypt's main export, so you can imagine how important it was to maintain your rights to agricultural land. But how do you tell who's land is whose when it's gone for half a year, and any markers you leave are likely to be washed away? And what do you do when the geography changes thanks to erosion? I mean, the river itself has to be constantly shifting in its path. How do you figure out who has the better claim to a piece of land when noone can be sure where that land is in relation to where it was last year?

Sadly, the book provides no answers. It mentions that there were property disputes that were adjudicated by Egypt's courts, and that the nature of Egypt's agriculture made these disputes particularly troublesome, but it doesn't discuss how the legal rules evolved to handle the situation.

Now that I've thought about all this, of course, I will inevitably have a nightmare in which I walk into class and find that I have a final in Ancient Egyptian Property Law, a class I've never attended. Naturally, the test will be administered in hieroglyphics, and our answers are to be in hieroglyphics as well. All the other students will have brought their stone tablets and papyrus to work on, and I'll be standing there with my useless laptop. In my underpants. Tiger-print polyester underpants.


Tigris-print! Bading!

Well-suited for a test on Mesopotamian Criminal Law, but utterly inappropriate for Egyptian Property.

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on March 28, 2006 6:42 PM.

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