The Uruk period

With the Uruk period in ancient Mesopotamia we see the very beginnings of writing and are, therefore, almost into a historical period! How exciting! I’m sure that’s how the ancient Mesopotamians felt about it.

As in the Ubaid period, the term “Uruk” refers to three things: a time period, an ancient city (now an archaeological site), and a material culture. The time period is ca. 4000-3000 BC, and the city is the main and almost the only source of information we have for the period.

The Uruk period saw the development of several cultural factors which marked the transition from relatively egalitarian, sedentary agricultural towns to what we would call a “civilization.”

One of these was the development of public architecture. This architecture was “monumental,” in that it was built to impress; it was “public” because it was meant to serve, belong to, or encompass the whole community rather than a single family (even if not everybody got to participate directly in what went on in these buildings).

The city of Uruk had two major public complexes in the Uruk period. One of these was the Anu ziggurat and White Temple, both dedicated to the Mesopotamian sky-god Anu. Several architectural features of the building complex had appeared first in the Ubaid period, showing the continuity between the two phases.

Several hundred meters from the Anu ziggurat is the “Eanna precinct,” dedicated to the rather alarming goddess Inanna, who was the patron goddess of Uruk.

Along with monumental architecture, monumental art made its first appearance in the Uruk period. The best-known of these artifacts is the Warka vase (Warka being another version of the word Uruk). It depicts a procession of people bringing offerings to Inanna. The difference between this object, which shows specialized knowledge and excellent workmanship, and earlier art which mainly consisted of small clay figurines, marks a change in the way society worked.

Along with these changes, the Uruk saw a continuation of the trend of social complexity (professional specialization and differences between socio-economic classes). This can be seen in the production of the above monumental buildings and art; and also in such texts as the “Standard Professions List,” which lists various jobs held by people (though most people’s livelihood still came from agricultural pursuits both now and throughout Ancient Near Eastern history).

The Uruk also saw an increased settlement hierarchy (large cities surrounded by smaller towns which are themselves surrounded by smaller hamlets, each playing a part in the centralization and distribution of various kinds of goods). Cities were still independent at this stage, and most likely in various relationships of cooperation and competition with each other.

Most important to the beginning of a truly historical period, the Uruk saw the origins of writing in the form of cuneiform script representing the Sumerian language. Cuneiform consisted of impressions made with a reed stylus in carefully prepared, moist clay. It began as a pictographic text, and may have had a three-dimensional precursor in the from of bullae and tokens (scroll down for pictures, but read the text if you like). Both bullae and tokens and the earliest writing were probably ways of keeping track of things: stored goods, goods being shipped from one place to another, etc. The development of cylinder seals at this period is another aspect of such record-keeping bureaucracy: officials in charge of such things had their own seals, and used them to make impressions on bullae, tablets, and other pieces of ancient red tape to show that whatever transaction was taking place was officially approved.

Much as there was an “Ubaid expansion” in the previous period, there was an “Uruk expansion”: a period in the middle to late Uruk in which characteristic Uruk artifacts are found in western Iran, northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and parts of Anatolia. It is not clear what type of interaction this “expansion” represents. The most prominent theory, promoted by Guillermo Algaze, is that the Uruk expansion represents a Marxist-style World System. According to this theory, the Uruk enclaves represented by the Uruk material culture were trading colonies intended to ensure access to foreign resources for Mesopotamian cities. The Uruk peoples dominated the regions they touched through economic means rather than through military or political might.

There are, as you might imagine, a number of objections to this theory. First, there is no evidence of power asymmetry between the Mesopotamian “core” and the Anatolian (for example) “periphery”: the Anatolians controlled production of Anatolian traded goods and their side of the exchange. The terms of the exchange were not set by the Mesopotamian side of things.

Second, the Marxist model suggests that long-distance trade would have fundamentally changed the societies it touched, re-forming them along the lines dictated by the needs of the “core” entity. But this has not been established, as Algaze himself concedes.

Finally, the model assumes the existence of a political entity with the level of organization and resources needed to control a far-flung region. But Mesopotamia was not unified at this period, rather it consisted of several competing city-states. Algaze suggests the existence of several “cores” controlling parts of the “periphery,’ but this is a theory for which we will probably never have enough documentation to prove its truth or falsity.

Next: the Early Dynastic period
(Objections to the World Systems model from Gil Stein and Piotr Steinkeller).

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