Early Mesopotamian Urbanism: A New View from the North

By Oates, Joan; McMahon, Augusta et al. | Antiquity, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Early Mesopotamian Urbanism: A New View from the North


Oates, Joan, McMahon, Augusta, Karsgaard, Philip, Al Quntar, Salam, Ur, Jason, Antiquity


For many years, the southern Mesopotamia of Ur and Uruk, ancient Sumer, has been seen as the origin centre of civilisation and cities: The urban implosion of late-fourth- and early-third-millennium Mesopotamia resulted in a massive population shift into large sites' said Nissen in 1988. 'These new city-states set the pattern for Mesopotamia as the heartland of cities' (Adams 1981; Yoffee 1998). And for Stone & Zimansky (2005) 'Remains of the world's first cities are the most noteworthy feature of the landscape in southern Iraq'. But at Tell Brak Joan Oates and her team are turning this model upside down. A long campaign of study, culminating in the new discoveries from 2006 reported here, show that northern Mesopotamia was far along the road to urbanism, as seen in monumentality, industrialisation and prestige goods, by the late fifth millennium BC. The 'world's earliest cities' are as likely to have been in north-eastern Syria as southern Iraq, and the model of a core from the south developing a periphery in the north is now ripe for revision.

Keywords: Mesopotamia, Syria, cities, origins of civilisation, tell settlements, urbanism

Early urbanism

Most accounts of the emergence of complex societies and city genesis in the Near East locate the beginnings of these processes in the alluvial plains of southern Mesopotamia, the iconic 'Heartland of Cities'. Features peculiar to the south Mesopotamian landscape such as the agricultural potentials of irrigated and lacustrine environments and the associated logistical advantages of the closely braided water channels of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers have been thought to provide the south with uniquely suitable habitats for the emergence of the first cities and the development of 'pristine' civilisation (Algaze 2001; 2005; Wilkinson 1994). The corollary is that the dry-farming zone upstream in northern Mesopotamia was only stimulated into its own 'secondary' phase of development after contact initiated by the southern core. But this idea is now being increasingly challenged, not merely through concerns with the underlying core-periphery model and its emphasis on regional asymmetric interactions, but because of recent and compelling evidence for early northern developments in social complexity that are not directly tied to the south (Frangipane 2001; Stein 2002).

Early Mesopotamian cities famously survive as tell settlements, which represent the accumulation of level after level of mud-brick or pise construction, cut down, levelled off and replaced, often over many thousands of years--mud is, of course, the great 'reusable' resource. Such longevity is a factor not only of both landscape and the ancient environment but also, since the Neolithic, the 'substantial commitment to farming' (Sherratt 1997). But a serious problem for the archaeologist wishing to investigate the background to urban growth in Mesopotamia is that the very situations that encouraged the growth of later cities were often equally attractive to early villagers; the early phases, however, soon become inaccessible through the build-up of later levels. At Uruk (Warka), for example, undoubtedly the greatest of the early cities and the site that has yielded not only the earliest written documents but also the largest area of late-fourth-millennium public buildings, soundings have failed up to now to yield pertinent information about the nature of earlier settlement (for a recent summary see Nissen 2002). Indeed our knowledge of the Neolithic/Chalcolithic background to such urban complexity comes largely from small farming settlements which, although they remain less compromised by overlying occupation, are less informative of wider social and economic developments.

Here we review recent evidence from the north Mesopotamian site of Tell Brak, indicating its growth as a major settlement apparently well before the emergence of large urban centres such as Uruk in the southern alluvium. …

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