Changes in the Middle East and Levant during the Chalcolithic Period

The Chalcolithic marks an era of significant change in the Levant and Middle East. Beginning at around 8000 years ago, the Ubaid (5900 B.C. – 4200 B.C.) and Uruk (4200 B.C. – 3000 B.C.) periods demonstrate for the beginnings of urbanization, city life, irrigation, ideologies of hierarchy, centralized administration, the development of “states”, and ultimately the rise of “civilization” as commonly understood. These developments begin in the southern portion of the Fertile Crescent, in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Many large and dominant sites emerge during the Ubaid and Uruk periods, for example, Eridu and Uruk, respectively. In this post, I will review the major developments of the Chalcolithic at several sites in Southern Mesopotamia to illustrate the dynamism of settlement and society during this time.

Almost as interesting as the archaeology of the region, is the history of archaeology in the Middle East. Belzoni, Champollion, Layard, Schliemann, and Woolley are but a few of the important names to remember, many who braved conflict, disease, and uncertainty in pursuit of the past. For our purposes, Woolley is most relevant, as his pioneering work at Ur, an Ubaid-period site, developed some of the earliest data on writing and complex societies. Although his work only addressed the latter occupations at the site, such as the royal graves and “Standard of Ur”, his research helped flesh-out prehistory such that “this earliest segment of human culture took on real life and color” (Ceram 1951:309). In the royal graves he found many commoners interred with the royalty, soldiers, ladies of the court, chariot drivers, and even the ox-carts themselves. Beyond this, after excavating through 8.2 feet of alluvium, Woolley made the fantastical claim that there lay direct evidence for the flood best known from Genesis. While his claims were exceptional (perhaps not for their veracity), they certainly brought much needed attention and scholarship to the area.  If nothing, his work is the foundation upon which we can continue to build Mesopotamian archaeology.

While settlements dating to around 6000 B.C. are present elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, southern Mesopotamia saw the most consistent and continued growth after 6000 B.C. Sandwiched between the two rivers Euphrates and Tigris, this southern area was a rich alluvial plain annually inundated with rich sediments from the seasonal flooding of the two rivers.  Although growth proceeded slowly during the Ubaid period, by the late Uruk period Southern Mesopotamia is covered a bi-partite settlement system consisting of a few very large settlements over 100 hectares, the remainder being around 7 hectares or less. These settlement trends continue into the Dynastic periods with the continued growth of settlements into large urbanized cities. Generally speaking, the Gulf was much farther inland and thus most likely made the region an attractive place to settle. Ubaid settlements in the northern part of Southern Mesopotamia appear to have relied heavily on locally available resources and the tending of goats and sheep, whereas in the south pigs and cattle were more heavily used (Pollack 1999:66). There is variation in Ubaid settlement site size and subsistence regimes, as they are scattered over a variety of environments with access to different types of resources.

During the Uruk period, settlement increases in the region. A bi-partite system of settlement develops along with an increasing trend towards urbanism. Population growth is substantial enough to suggest a large influx of outsiders (Pollack 1999:68), although with increasing sedentism comes declines in birth-spacing, and thus greater population growth should be expected. Another possible reason for population growth might be inferred from the shifting of the Euphrates river away from the Tigris, creating a more stable regime and environment between the two rivers (Pollack 1999:72).

One of the most important sites of the Ubaid period was Eridu, an early settlement dating to around 5000 B.C. The site is located in an ecotonal setting in modern day southern Iraq and supported a population engaged in three different subsistence systems: agrarian, fishing/hunting, and pastoralism (caprines). The water god Enki was most prominent at this site and an elaborate temple complex was constructed in her honor. Her importance in Eridu and Ubaid society cannot be stressed enough – the temple is thought to become the center of community and power during this time. “Without such temples, there would have been no early development of complex society on the Mesopotamian plain” (Matthews 2009:438). A long sequence of store houses and temples were constructed, implicating a priestly order and the continuous occupation of this site dedicated to her worship. The temple constructed in her honor had long hallways and stairs on each side which over time became formalized with ramps and ornamentation and an entrance with the classic early Mesopotamian tripartite division, suggesting that through time the temple and access to it became restricted.

To summarize, the Ubaid period at Eridu marks a time of growing institutionalization of power and the growth of a temples of fonts of leadership. The increasing prevalence of stamp seals and a decline in the quality of painted ceramics suggests the mass production of pots and an increasing emphasis on ownership. Ceramic manufacture towards the end of the Ubaid period is thought to shift toward being wheel-made as well. An increasing variety in seals of different motifs on mobile containers suggests greater specialization and bureaucracy controlling the economy (Pollack 1999:159).

By the Uruk period, changes in society and settlement are evident. Most significant are developments pointing towards the development of urbanism, state-level organization, a bi-partite settlement system of urban-centers and rural hinterlands, the beginnings of writing, and seals for individual cities and chariots. Most significant during this time is the development of statehood and complex social organization. Among the many trappings accompanying state societies in the region are the birth of colonialism, taxes, and mass-production.

One of the most significant sites of the Uruk period is the type-site of Uruk, located in what is now modern day Iraq. The site is located within a relict channel of the Euphrates River and was occupied from 4100 B.C. until its abandonment 1000 years later. Tens of thousands of people were thought to have lived at this site and although large agglomerations of houses are present, very little differentiation of space other than the two temple complexes is present.

The two temples at Uruk were constructed in tribute to Anu and Eanna. Anu is the sky god and a temple was built on top of a ziggurat in his honor. Eanna was the patron deity of love and war. Within the Eanna complex, archaeologists have found the earliest evidence for writing and storerooms for craft products and administrative materials. Throughout the site of Uruk in general, many processional depictions of deities can be found. The Warka Vase, for example, contains a relief carving in alabaster of the goddess Eanna.

In addition to the institutionalization of the temple complex and religious spheres, trade and commerce also became standardized during the Uruk period. Archaeologists infer this evidence from the many clay seals, roller seals, and clay bullae that are found around the site. Many of the cylinder seals were used to make seals over packages that would show evidence of tampering before their delivery. Furthermore, the site of Uruk also provides data on the earliest writing systems. Thought to develop from pictographs originally, cuneiform is the earliest writing system evident in the world and develops sui generis in Southern Mesopotamia. Although originally pictographic in the 3rd millennium, by the 1st millennium B.C. the script becomes fully symbolic.

When considering the Uruk world system, the site and the period after which it is named, it is important to recall that this was a period of time of significant social and political change. The first cities of the world develop in this region and are continuously occupied for many thousands of years – they are often recorded in memory and text. In popular memory, Uruk is thought to have been ruled by the king Gilgamesh, the mythical king from the epic. But its rulers are recorded by the scribes of Eanna and Anu. Small clay tablets have been found with signs depicting the names of rulers and the system of rule they administered. This administration was founded upon the power of the temple and the ability store surplus through its auspices. It would appear then this was a tributary economy with a leader in charge of redistributing wealth. Given the bi-partite settlement system, it is likely that hinterlands engaged in tribute with Uruk for wealth-related items and trade goods not easily obtained from the periphery. The craft production areas of the Eanna district might support such a model. Given that the temples were involved in the economic sphere, it is likely that economy and ideology were bundled into one sphere in the Uruk period.

Ultimately the Chalcolithic demonstrates for a changing world system in which populations were moving into more densely settled areas, peripheries were engaging in more productive and scientific agriculture (through irrigation systems), and leaders were gaining power through the effective manipulation of ideology. Large temple complexes and public quarters dedicated to craft production suggest that rulers and administrators were using ideology as a means to control people and trade – the lack of variation in domestic contexts but the elaboration of elite burials also suggests increasing hierarchies and inequality. This trend only continues into the Dynastic periods and the Bronze Age, as leaders become kings and kings become gods.


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