Anne Porter is challenging her colleagues in academia to re-envision the ancient world.
She disputes a basic assumption: Nomads were a discrete group of traveling herdsman, hostile to city dwellers and their ways. In her view, at the dawn of civilization, the peoples of the desert and the city were not distinct groups at all.
It’s a proposition that sometimes places the Near East studies scholar at odds with the traditional beliefs of her field. But it’s also earned Porter a prestigious invitation to discuss her research and conclusions at the College de France, a celebrated research institution in Paris.
An assistant professor of religion, art history and classics at USC College, Porter is giving a series of lectures this month reinterpreting the role of pastoralists — nomads in common parlance — in development of the world’s first city, Uruk in Mesopotamia, during the fourth millennium B.C.
According to her analysis of Uruk artifacts, the people of Uruk didn’t typically have set occupations, and tasks were commonly interchangeable.
“These are the same social groups,” she said. “It’s an extended family where some members tend the farm in the city and others go off in the desert with the sheep and goats. And it’s perfectly normal for them to exchange. Next season, this family stays home and that part of the family goes off.”
Her lecture series, “The Essential Logic of Pastoralism,” summarizes arguments fully developed in her forthcoming book.
While the idea that city dwellers and traveling herders were economically interdependent is nothing new, Porter is among a group of academics who hold the more radical view that the dichotomy between farmers and pastoralists is largely a false one. They want their peers to reexamine the archaeological record of the ancient Near East, believing that it will bear out a remarkably different, “holistic” picture.
According to Porter, in Uruk farming was primarily for subsistence, and textiles proved to be the first surplus industry. Goats and sheep previously used mainly for milk and meat became important for their wool and hides, the raw material for textiles and garments.
“It makes no sense to have the raw materials for your industry out of your control,” Porter noted.
In her framework, the spread throughout the Near East of Uruk’s traditions and ways of living followed the pastoralists, who traveled hundreds of miles away from their home in search of available pasture. As people moved farther up the river valley, the glue of their society followed along.
For instance, religion, a central element of Mesopotamian life, was a key tool for connecting people. So temples, as well as other necessarily stationary services, were established to keep the travelers invested in the culture of Uruk.
Her work vindicates the oft-maligned pastoralists, typically portrayed as lawless, rootless raiders, disconnected from Uruk’s society. Porter points out the misinterpretations are partly driven by how alien their arid environs are to the modern Western world.
“Studies of the ancient Near East have focused totally on the history of the city, these little, tiny strips of green through this vast desert of brown. And this means that half if not two-thirds of what’s going on in the ancient world is completely ignored.”
Porter faces a significant risk presenting her challenging theories at the College de France, where her audience includes the Near East experts who excavated the evidence she analyzes. But she’s looking on the bright side.
“The worst that can happen is they think I’m an idiot,” she said. “I hope not, but if that’s what they think, then I’ll figure out how to answer their concerns, and that’s always strengthening.”
Another hurdle for Porter: By law, her College de France lectures must be delivered in French. Leading up to her departure for Paris, she was brushing up on the language and translating her materials with the help of a USC College graduate student, Laurence Clerfeuille.
A key observation that’s influenced Porter’s thinking about pastoralism came from a surprising source — discussion in one of her courses with an undergraduate. It led Porter to reject the traditional rhetoric that pastoralists “are against the state and can’t bear its confines.”
“He asked me the smartest question, and something that I’ve never really seen in the literature, which was, ‘Aren’t pastoralists people just like farmers? Don’t they want the same things in life?’ “
Porter saw the answer as stunning, yet obvious: “People are people, and yes, they want to be happy, they want their family cared for, and they want to be fed.”
From this moment of a student’s empathy sprung the idea that the main difference between pastoralists and city-dwellers wasn’t cultural or a matter of temperament. It was more temporal, with different immediate circumstances dictating different answers to meet their needs.
“In almost every class I’ve had, a student has said something that makes me go, ‘Huh. I have to think about that differently in order to answer the question,’ ” Porter said. “In this case, my whole book has taken a new shape because of a student’s question.”
In each segment of her College de France lecture series, Porter will present her holistic view of the city and the steppes of Mesopotamia from a different academic perspective: political science, archaeology, anthropology and literary theory.
Her interdisciplinary approach and expertise in the study of antiquity has earned Porter a fellowship at New York University’s new Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Next academic year, she will be on the East Coast offering her advice in the establishment of this boundary-crossing endeavor.
But for Porter, who first entered Near East studies “by total accident” as an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne and went on to a distinguished career as a field archaeologist before returning to academia, being interdisciplinary comes with the territory.
“Every different approach just brings a different insight to the problem,” she said. “I don’t really think in terms of different disciplines. It’s just ‘This is the way to explore this problem.’ ”