Saturday, May 3, 2014

The southern tip of the Mesopotamian plains with the approximate shore of the Persian Gulf and the location of important sites mentioned in the text. After Susan Pollock, 1999. Ancient Mesopotamia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

The land of Sumer - southern Mesopotamia from south of Baghdad to the marshlands at the head of the Persian Gulf - has been called the `heartland of cities'. Here we find ample evidence for two major developments in human history: the beginnings of urban life and the formation of the first states. Many theories on these landmark developments rely on archaeological data from this region. Although these theories may debate the causes, mechanisms, and relationships between urbanism and state formation, they agree that cities and states developed in the context of a rich agricultural regime dependent on the fertile alluvial plains created by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 

The earliest phases of settled life in Mesopotamia began farther north and it was not until the early sixth millennium BC, with the emergence of the `Ubaid culture, that villages and small towns appeared in Sumer. Archaeological evidence from `Ubaid settlements suggests a gradual change toward increasing socioeconomic complexity. However, as town dwelling in Sumer was undergoing its organic development, some evidence suggests that the shift to urbanism involved the introduction of a new form of settlement, the `city-state', that came to characterize Sumer later in the Early Dynastic period (c. 2900-2334 BC). Each city-state consisted of an urban center exercising control over a hinterland of a 15-20 km radius, dotted with smaller settlements engaged in the production and collection of foodstuffs. An underlying feature of each urban center was the Sumerian concept that each was the dwelling of a particular god or goddess, the patron deity of the city (and the state) whose temple formed the city's focal point. Cities and states emerged from these temple-based settlements, the first example of which can perhaps be witnessed at Eridu. 

According to Sumerian literature, Eridu was the first city to receive kingship from the gods in antediluvial times. Eridu was the site of e'-bazu, the temple of Enki, the supreme deity of the Sumerian pantheon and god of subterranean freshwater. Construction of a modest mudbrick building at Eridu at the southernmost edge of the alluvial plain during the early `Ubaid period marks an important landmark in human history. This building - interpreted as a shrine - is superimposed by foundations of 15 increasingly larger structures, and finally by a ziggurat for Enki built by kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur some 3500 years later. The superimposition of the buildings, from the modest examples of earlier levels to the elaborate examples of upper levels to the Ziggurat of Enki, stressed the sanctity of this location. 

Little is known about the settlement surrounding these early shrines, but the largest recorded `Ubaid cemetery was discovered here, with an estimated 800-1000 graves showing evidence for social differentiation. 

The pattern observed at Eridu may have been repeated at other sites. For example, the city of Uruk was also founded during the `Ubaid period. Beneath the temple precinct of the goddess Inanna (called Eanna, `house of heaven'), deep soundings have reached buildings that may have been cultic structures similar to those at Eridu. 

At this time, the head of the Persian Gulf was about 80 km northwest of its present location with the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers each forming its own delta. This turned the area around Uruk into a wellwatered, alluvial, and marshy land that allowed a rich agricultural regime to flourish. 

By the end of the `Ubaid period, Uruk was a town of modest size, but it grew gradually throughout the following Uruk period (traditionally associated by archaeologists with state formation), experiencing a surge from the Middle Uruk to Jemdet Nasr periods (3600-2900 BC), and reaching 400 ha by the Early Dynastic II period (c. 2700 BC). Surveys of the Uruk countryside suggest that there was a continuous migration of people into the city, leading to the abandonment of many smaller settlements. Middle Uruk period settlement patterns indicate a four-level administrative hierarchy for the region, interpreted by archaeologists as a marker of a state system. 

Excavated evidence from the city also suggests state institutions. In the Eanna precinct, a series of monumental buildings were discovered, but most date to later phases of the Uruk period. The so-called Limestone Temple, Stone Building, and Stone Cone Temple, all with foundations made from limestone slabs quarried from the Arabian Shelf some 80km east of the city, date to the Uruk V period (c. 3600 BC) when, presumably, a state was already in place. In the next phase (Uruk IV), several other monumental buildings were constructed around the Great Court, including Buildings A-E, Hall of Pillars, Hall of Round Pillars, and the Subterranean Building made from `riemchen' (a kind of small brick with a square cross section). In the Uruk IV period, the appearance of the earliest protocuneiform numerical tablets, apparently used to record economic transactions, is also observed.

In the Late Uruk period, a mudbrick wall was constructed around the city that was rebuilt on a larger scale in the Early Dynastic I period (c. 2900 BC). Sumerian texts attribute this undertaking to Gilgamesh, the semi-mythical ruler of Uruk. To archaeologists, the construction of a wall signals the rise of other competing polities. 

By the Early Dynastic II period (c. 2750-2600 BC), the land of Sumer was divided among as many as 35 city-states. Some, including Lagash, Umma, Ur, Isin, Shuruppak, and Adab, played a more important political or military role. Two lines of evidence indicate the consolidation of states in this time: royal titles indicating established kingship, and buildings interpreted as palaces. The most solid evidence for both comes from the quintessential Sumerian city Kish.

The city of Kish in the northernmost part of Sumer was also founded during the `Ubaid period. Kish expanded and attained prominence in the Early Dynastic period, when it was considered to be where the kingship descended from heaven after the Great Flood. The prestigious title `King of Kish' signified, at least nominally, political hegemony over the land of Sumer. The authority of the king of Kish derived from military might as well as a coalition among several city-states, evidence for which comes from seal impressions from Ur and Jemdet Nasr.

Excavations at Kish are more limited than at Eridu or Uruk, but the first example of a Mesopotamian palace was discovered here in Area A. To the northwest of this palace (in Area P), a large building with extensive storage facilities and thick buttressed walls may have been another palace or a heavily fortified administrative building. Also in the Early Dynastic period, at least two structures were built at Kish that have been interpreted as ziggurats, perhaps dedicated to Zababa, the important god of Kish. 

With the rise of Sargon of Agade, Sumerian city-states lost their autonomy and were absorbed into the Akkadian Empire. Some attempts were later made to revive the city-state form of government, for example, during the Isin-Larsa period (2017-1763 BC), but the nature of Mesopotamian government had already shifted from city-states to polities oriented toward inter-regional hegemony.

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