The Ubaid period

Long ago, I posted about the environment and landscape in Ancient Mesopotamia. Now, finally, I’ll continue with the development of the earliest historical periods in Mesopotamian history. I’ll begin with the Ubaid period. Although the Ubaid period itself was prehistoric (meaning that writing had not yet been developed), there were several significant developments during the Ubaid period that set the stage for the beginning of history.

The term “Ubaid” is used for three things: a time period, an archaeological site, and a culture. The time period is ca. 5000-4000 BC. You can see the archaeological site of Tell al-Ubaid and other important Ubaid sites in southern Meospotamia on this map. The Ubaid “culture” was first identified at this site by Sir Leonard Woolley, based on the presence of a certain kind of painted pottery .

What does it mean when I refer to the Ubaid “culture”? The word “culture” is meant in the anthropological sense. It’s one of those abstract concepts that is difficult to define, but here is one definition. Now, the Ubaid culture was extinct long ago, so there is no way we can observe these “shared beliefs, values, and customs” directly; and the Ubaid was prehistoric, meaning we don’t have any written accounts of these things. The only thing recoverable from extinct cultures are the “artifacts,” hence, an archaeological “culture” refers to a particular assemblage of similar artifacts. (An assemblage is just a term meaning a group of things–any group of things. The stuff sitting on my desk right now could be called a “Michele’s desk assemblage.”)

It is assumed by archaeologists that when they find groups of diagnostic artifacts (such as pottery made or decorated in a distinctive way, or other distinctive types of art, architecture, or tools), the people who made them belonged to a common “culture” with people in other places who made the same kinds of things. The Ubaid “culture” is defined by the type of painted pottery mentioned above, a kind of tool made of clay referred to as bent clay “nails” or “mullers,” cone-headed clay figurines (boo! Happy Halloween), and sickles made out of clay used for harvesting crops. There was also a characteristic form of Ubaid architecture: a tripartite house with a T-shaped center room.

When we speak about the “Ubaid period,” then, we are referring to the time period during which this characteristic assemblage is found in southern Mesopotamia and surrounding areas.

Although the Ubaid period was prehistoric, several Ubaid developments paved the way for the following historic periods:

1. Although settled agricultural life had existed in northern Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East for thousands of years before the Ubaid period, no cultural remains earlier than the Ubaid have been found in southern Mesopotamia. Some scholars believe that this is because people simply didn’t live there before that, perhaps because the Gulf coast was farther inland and the land was too marshy to be habitable; others believe that earlier settlements haven’t been found. We discussed earlier several ways in which early sites can be obscured in the alluvial plain: they can be buried under silt deposited by the rivers or by sand dunes.

Regardless of which theory is correct, two things about the origins of the Ubaid are notable: first, the Ubaid culture is native to southern Mesopotamia; and second, it is interesting that the first complex societies arose in a region which may not have had nearly as long a history of habitation as other regions of the Near East.

2. Another reason to begin with the Ubaid period is that we can see a significant cultural continuity between the Ubaid period and the following period, the Uruk. One particularly dramatic, archaeologically visible example of the direct development of the Uruk and later historical period from the Ubaid period occurs at Eridu. Here, a series of temples were built, one on top of each other and becoming more and more elaborate over time, beginning in the Ubaid period and ending in the historic period.

3. The final reason to consider the Ubaid period is that the Ubaid saw the appearance of non-egalitarian societies which perhaps somehow paved the way for the urban civilizations that would appear in the next period.

One way in which to view the Ubaid phenomenon is with in the band-chiefdom-state cultural evolutionary model we looked at last time.

First, let’s look at the evidence for the emergence of what we call “complexity” in southern Mesopotamia:

Settlement hierarchy: One indicator archaeologists look for when determining the level of complexity of a society is the emergence of a settlement hierarchy. In the Ubaid period, a two-level settlement hierarchy appears on the alluvial plain: there were a few large sites covering 10 ha or more, and numerous small 1 ha sites. This apparently indicates a pattern of city centers surrounded by village communities, which may have been politically subordinate to the centers. In more complex societies, we see settlement hierarchies with more levels—three, four, or more, representing a nested set of centers with satellite communities, which each have their own satellite communities.

Architecture and artifact distributions suggest differences in levels of wealth between different people, another factor in an increasingly complex society. At Tell Abada in Ubaid 203, one building located in the center of town was much larger than the other houses at the site. This large house shows evidence for different, special burial practices and high concentrations of artifacts which were apparently prestigious: maceheads, carved gypsum vessels, and administrative artifacts such as clay tokens and clay “proto-tablets” which are found only in this building.

Ritual public architecture: The Ubaid period sees Mesopotamia’s first ritual public architecture. This takes the form of rectangular temples with corners oriented towards the cardinal points of the compass with similar architecture. These temples appear in the first phase of the Ubaid period and become larger and more elaborate over time as we saw at Eridu; such temples appear at other sites including Uruk and Tell Uqair.

Taking this evidence into account, let’s consider the Ubaid period in terms of the cultural evolutionary model I posted about earlier. This evidence of settlement hierarchy shows a differentiation in function between settlements. Evidence of prestige artifacts and different house sizes and functions, and the presence of “public” architecture, all suggest that Ubaid societies were non-egalitarian. But it did not fulfill the criteria for being a “state”.

Does this make Ubaid societies “chiefdoms”? They are often considered as such by scholars, but the Ubaid societies display some important differences from the characteristics of classical “chiefdoms”.

A Near Eastern archaeologist named Gil Stein argues that Ubaid societies can be considered “chiefdoms,” but that they were a different kind of chiefdom from the classical type. He argues that the classical chiefdom model was formulated based on Polynesian and American examples, and that the Ubaid chiefdoms had a different socio-economic basis which caused it to display somewhat different characteristics.

How does Stein argue that the Ubaid is different from the classical chiefdom model?

(1) In what I’m calling the classical chiefdom model, chiefs pursue a particular type of warfare to bolster their status and maintain their rule. There is no evidence for warfare in the Ubaid period. The most obvious signs of warfare that archaeologists look for are signs of violent destructions at ancient sites and the presence of site fortifications: heavy walls, towers, and gates; and these are not present in the Ubaid. There are also no signs of warfare in the iconography of the period.

(2) A second characteristic of the classical chiefdom is the long-distance exchange of exotic goods as status markers. We do not see evidence that exotic trade goods obtained by long-distance trade played a tremendous social role. I described a couple of prestige items above, but one of important ones was objects related to administration-tokens and proto-tablets, which were simply made of mud.

(3) Finally, classical chiefdoms tend to be unstable, with frequent societal collapse. But the Ubaid social system seems to have lasted for a millennia or more with only minor changes in settlement, subsistence, and material culture.

Stein argues that Ubaid society represents a different kind of chiefdom. The classical chiefdom relies on what he calls “wealth distribution”: the power of the chiefs was bolstered by the manufacture or procurement of high-status objects which are exchanged for staple goods (food etc.), and are redistributed among the elites as rewards for loyalty and service to the chief.

The Ubaid system, however, was based on “staple finance”: which was the power to command surplus staples such as grain to support the elite.

Stein offers the following picture of Ubaid society based on this model: The notable characteristics of the Ubaid period are the simultaneous emergence of an irrigation-dependent farming system, economic differentiation, regional centralization, and ritual elaboration. Power would have been based on access to good agricultural land and the ability to mobilize labor to maintain the irrigation systems necessary for farming. This would have been done both through kinship and through the temples which appeared at this time. The temples are evidence of a shared religious ideology. Temples could have provided a buffer against crop failure by storing surplus agricultural products and redistributing them as necessary.

The power of the Ubaid chiefs remained focused on local resources, based on ritual sanctification of authority, which avoids the tendency toward instability of classical chiefdoms, which are dependent on their ability to access exotic trade goods. The result would be numerous small-scale but stable chiefdoms.

Next up: The Uruk Period

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