Hidden Waters: Groundwater Histories of Iran and the Mediterranean

My dissertation in Global History is concerned with traditional technologies of groundwater irrigation associated with arid regions in Iran, the Ancient Near East, and parts of the ancient and medieval Mediterranean. This research relies on different kinds of sources, in order to understand these historical landscapes. While regional archaeologists have done excellent work examining these landscapes, and those archaeological investigations are important sources in my dissertation, I was interested to find records of historical observations, and descriptions by foreign travelers, who were seeing these landscapes for the first time. The type of groundwater irrigation I describe is both visually distinctive, at first glance, and simultaneously, to the casual observer, not functionally obvious ­ the mechanism to extract and transport groundwater is quite ingenious, and required a class of traditionally trained engineers, whose social and functional role was to design and maintain these groundwater aqueducts. In short, I wanted to borrow a set of travelers' eyes, to describe how they, as strangers in a strange land, understood the functioning of these irrigation landscapes, chiming in with their own voices and perceptions from different points in time.

In Summer 2009, I found these voices, the travelers' points of view, in varied places: I used documentary sources from a 1950's and 1960's development project at Princeton's Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library; British travelers' reports from the 17th and 18th centuries, located at the Library Company of Philadelphia; and silent moving images, in grainy color, with long, lingering views of field technologies in rural Iranian villages in 1963. Those films, shot on a 16mm camera by Watson Kintner, a Penn alumnus who traveled to rural areas of Iran in 1963, show a curiosity for the lifeways, customs, and rural environments of the countries he traveled in. Watson Kintner's estate donated his extensive collection of 16mm films, mostly in color, to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and these films are now available on the Internet Archive, as part of the Moving Image Archive associated with the Penn Museum. The Kintner films are located here: www.archive.org/details/UPMAA_films.

These different archival voices will help to form the narrative for chapters 4 and 5 of my dissertation. These voices of European and American foreigners, who speak in their own distinctive way about the peculiar irrigation landscapes they saw on their travels in rural Persia, will help to bring these very local, very particular, and geographically unique landscapes of groundwater irrigation into a larger, more global, conversation about traditional groundwater technologies in arid regions.

These voices from the archives will help to bring these very localized systems into a narrative history of humans telling about, theorizing about, and exploiting groundwater resources. I am very grateful to the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science for the financial support that made this research possible and for the warm welcome and encouragement; and to the professional archivists who made these materials accessible.

Archives Used

Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University:
Development and Resources Corporation Records, Public Policy Papers,

Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University Library.
Library Company of Philadelphia:
Fryer, John,d. 1733. A new account of East India and Persia, being nine years' travels, 1672-1681 / London : Hakluyt Society, 1909-15.

Ogilby, John,1600-1676. Asia, the first part· Being an accurate description of Persia, and the several provinces thereof. The vast empire of the Great Mogol, and other parts of India: and their several kingdoms and regions: with the denominations and descriptions of the cities, towns, and places of remark therein contain'd. The various customs, habits, religion, and languages of the inhabitants. Their political governments, and way of commerce. Also the plants and animals peculiar to each country. Collected and translated from the most authentick authors, and augmented with later observations; illustrated with notes, and adorn'd with peculiar maps and proper sculptures, by John Ogilby Esq; His Majesty's cosmographer, geographick printer, and master of His Majesty's revels in the kingdom of Ireland. London : printed by the author at his house in White-Friers, M.DC.LXXIII. [1673]
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania:
Watson Kintner Collection of Films. Iran, 1963.