Civilization and Its Discontents: Why Did the World's First Civilization Cut a Swath across the near East?

By Bower, Bruce | Science News, March 3, 1990 | Go to article overview

Civilization and Its Discontents: Why Did the World's First Civilization Cut a Swath across the near East?


Bower, Bruce, Science News


Civilization and Its Discontents

Investigators rrom the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, Egypt, make an annual slog through the Nile Delta to the waterlogged site of Buto, the legendary ancient capital of Lower Egypt. Strategically located near the Mediterranean Sea, Buto was a major port during the 4th millennium B.C. -- a poorly understood period of Egyptian history preceding the emergence of the pharaohs around 3100 B.C.

During four field seasons that began in 1983, the German researchers repeatedly drilled through the mud, sand and water-saturated soil covering Buto until they reached pottery fragments and other ancient debris. Since 1987, the investigators have siphoned off groundwater at the spot with diesel-driven pumps and then carefully dug into Buto's muddy remains. Their duty work is yielding important evidence not only about Lower Egypt's early days but also about the world's first civilization, which began developing in Mesopotamia around 5,400 years ago.

"We've found the first archaeological evidence of cultural unification in Egypt at the end of the 4th millennium B.C., before the first dynasty of pharaohs appeared," says project director Thomas von der Way. Excavations show that during the final stages of the predynastic era at Buto, local methods of pottery and stone-blade production were replaced by more advanced techniques that originated in Upper Egypt, which lay farther to the south. Apparently, Upper Egyptian invaders had conquered this prominent city and port, von der Way says.

Some of the Upper-Egyptian-style pottery is poorly made and probably represents the handiwork of Buto residents who were allowed to stay on and adapt to the new regime, he maintains. Those individuals were most likely commoners, von der Way says, adding, "Buto's ruling class and its followers might in fact have been wiped out."

Even more intriguing is evidence of close contact between Buto's Egyptian residents and the Sumerians of southern Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), who fashioned the world's first full-fledged civilization and state institutions during the last half of the 4th millennium B.C. Not only does pottery at Buto display Mesopotamian features, but clay nails uncovered at the delta site are nearly identical to those used to decorate temples at sites such as Uruk -- the largest Sumerian settlement and the world's first city. In Mesopotamia, workers inserted the nails to temple walls and painted their heads to form mosaics. The researchers also found a clay cone at Buto that closely resembles clay decorations placed in wall niches inside Mesopotamian temples.

Scientists have long argued over ancient Egypt's relationship to early Mesopotamia. Much of the debate centers on Mesopotamian-style artifacts, such as cylinder seals and flint knife handles, found in 4th-millennium-B.C. graves situated on slopes above the Nile Valley near Buto. Traders who regularly traveled through Mesopotamia and Syria may have brought those artifacts to Egypt, says David O'Connor of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

At Buto, however, Egyptians may have copied temple decorations shown to them by Sumerians more than 5,000 years ago, suggesting "direct and complex influences at work" between the two societies, O'Connor observes.

"It's not possible to trade architecture," von der Way asserts. "Direct personal contact between people from Lower Egypt and Mesopotamia led to the adoption of foreign architecture at Buto."

Buto fuels the growing recognition among archaeologists that early Mesopotamian civilization experienced an unprecedented expansion between 3400 and 3100 BC. The expansion occurred during the latter part of a phase called the Uruk period (named after the major city of the time), which began around 3600 B.C. Excavations conducted over the past 15 years indicate that southern Mesopotamian city-states, each consisting of one or two cities serving as political hubs and providing goods and services to thousands of people living in nearby farming villages, established outposts in neighboring territories lying within modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. …

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