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Ancient Uruk -- Biblical Erech -- Arabic Warka

One of 37 Uruk Images (Oriental Institute)

Selected Excerpt on Uruk

The Uruk Expansion: Cross Cultural Exchange in Early Mesopotamian Civilization
Guillermo Algaze in Current Anthropology Volume 30:5:1989 (571-608)

Overview: Known today by the Arabic name of Warka and in the Old Testament as Erech. When the city was occupied in ancient times the waters of the Euphrates River flowed close by; today the river flows some 12 miles distant -- having shifted its course through the millennia ...

Uruk was one of the major city-states of Sumer. Excavations by German archaeologists from 1912 onwards have revealed a series of very important structures and deposits of the 4th millennium BC and the site has given its name to the period that suceeeded the Ubaid Culture and preceeded the Jemdet Nasr Period. The Uruk Period saw the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia and in the ensuing Early Dynastic Period it was by far the largest settlement known up to that time.

It seems to have started as two separate settlements -- Kullaba and Eanna -- which coalesced in the Uruk Period to form a town covering circa 80 hectares; at the height of its development in the Early Dynastic period the city walls were circa 9.5 kilometres long -- enclosing a massive 450 hectares and housing some 50,000 people. The city remained important throughout the 3rd millennium BC up until the decline of Sumer itself circa 2000 BC. It remained occupied throughout the following two millennia down to the Parthian Period but only as a minor centre. Uruk was the home of the epic hero Gilgamesh and played an important role in the mythology of Mesopotamia to the end (AHSFC).

Chapter 1 Introduction

The Late Chalcolithic is a period of far-reaching changes in many aspects of life in Mesopotamia. On the southern alluvial plain (present day Iraq) the first city states appear, among them the city of Uruk, which grows to become the largest of the cities in the south (1).

... In the later half of the Late Chalcolithic settlements are also established in the north which carry distinct southern Mesopotamian features – the material remains of the so-called “Uruk Expansion” (Algaze 1989 and 1993) or "Uruk Phenomenon” (Collins 2000).

Despite its importance to the understanding of the development of early complex civilisations in the Near East, the Late Chalcolithic has been described as “one of the most ill-documented in Mesopotamia” (Jasim and Oates 1986:357). This is still particularly true for southern Mesopotamia, as excavation has been limited to only a few Late Chalcolithic sites apart from the city of Uruk itself (Akkermans and Schwartz 2003:184), partly due to the fact that many settlements have been long-lived enough for Late Chalcolithic levels to be buried under many metres of later occupation levels.

3.1.1. Chronology of early Mesopotamian civilisations

The Late Chalcolithic covers all of the fourth millennium BC and is also named the Uruk period after the largest city of that time in southern Mesopotamia. The Uruk period is generally assumed to have lasted roughly between 4200 and 3100 BC and is divided into several phases from Early to Late Uruk.

3.1.3. The role of exchange in the development of complex society

During the middle and late phases of the Late Chalcolithic a number of sites to the north and east of the southern Mesopotamian alluvial plain were established, the material assemblages of which are indistinguishable from those of the cities to the south. The sites have been interpreted as southern Uruk colonies and as they are mainly located along major trade routes, such as the Euphrates and the gateways into the plains of Susiana and Anatolia, their purpose has primarily been explained in terms of long-distance exchange.

3.2.2. Northern Mesopotamia

... the Ubaid period saw the beginnings of the Uruk period economy. The long-distance contacts with Mesopotamia’s neighbours as indicated in the Ubaid period and earlier also appear to directly precede the later "Uruk Expansion”, indicating that not only did long-distance exchange networks exist before the emergence of cities in southern Mesopotamia but also that the communities in the “peripheries” of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain, rather than being isolated regions, formed part of these networks, participating in the exchange of the goods, ideas and technologies these contacts would have brought with them.

3.3.1. Southern Mesopotamia

Surface surveys in southern Mesopotamia (Adams 1981, Adams and Nissen 1972) have shown how the Ubaid period settlement pattern of widely dispersed small villages and towns changed dramatically during the Late Chalcolithic. The Early and Middle Uruk period (LC 2-4) saw a large increase in number of settlements on the Mesopotamian alluvium, mainly centred in the area around Nippur ... In the LC 5 the area around Uruk appears to have had the highest concentration of population, with Uruk itself reaching a size of about 250 hectares (Emberling 2003:259). By this time the emergence of four-tiered hierarchies of settlement systems is seen (Algaze 2001b:30, Nissen 1988:66). Uruk was for the whole of the Uruk period the biggest city in Mesopotamia and reached a size of 400-550 hectares just after the Late Uruk (LC 5) period. The "Uruk Expansion”: theories and explanations

Regardless of the character of the ”Uruk Expansion” there is no doubt that north-south interaction took place during the Late Chalcolithic. The establishment of southern Mesopotamian colonies in the north and the cultural interaction between the two regions that followed took place over more than 700 years (Wright 2001:126). The earlier colonies, appearing in the late LC 2, took the shape of enclaves within local northern settlements, such as Hacınebi (Stein 2000) in southeast Turkey and Tell Brak in northeast Syria.

Among scholars arguing for a Late Chalcolithic exchange network on a much more equal level between the south and the north are Frangipane and Stein, excavators of the local northern settlements of Arslantepe and Hacınebi, respectively, who argue not only for the presence of evidence for a much higher level of socio-political complexity in the local northern communities than Algaze hypothesizes but also for the absence of evidence for southern domination of these communities. Frangipane (1997:46-7) is reluctant to believe that polities in the south were able to control an exchange system on this geographical scale, a view she shares with Johnson (1988-89). Frangipane argues that large northern centres such as Nineveh and Tell Brak would have “neither the physical nor the political space for an alien settlement” (Frangipane 1997:47). In contrast to Algaze, Frangipane (ibid.:48) argues that the success of the Uruk exchange system, which she interprets as the intensification of already existing exchange contacts (Frangipane 2002:129), was due not to the domination of less socially complex northern communities by southerners but to the fact that some northern settlements such as Arslantepe were already well-organised regional centres, exercising the control of the local populations needed to ensure the necessary flow of goods. Stein (2000, 2001) is of the same opinion and argues that northern settlements merely intensified trade relations by the time of the arrival of southerners. Rather than being overtaken by the southern settlers they were able to control the level and pace of interaction with the southern settlers and to maintain their cultural identities. Rothman (2002:58) agrees with both Stein and Frangipane in the argument that the southern Uruk presence in northern Mesopotamia should not be viewed in terms of southern dominance or colonialism. On the contrary he argues that the ”Uruk Expansion” represents an increase in economic exchanges between the two regions to the benefit of both north and south. Northerners are not expanding south because they inhabit less developed societies but because they do not have to, living as they do in the resource-rich north (ibid) ... With the abundance of raw materials and the high level of technology in the north it is questionable whether the southerners had anything to offer of particular attraction to the northerners (Stein 2000:20).

Schwartz (1988) uses the analogy of the 8th century BC Greek colonisation of the Mediterranean (ibid:9) to suggest that the expansion of southern Mesopotamian settlements to the north was related to overpopulation and major social changes in the south and was aimed at control of agricultural land rather than control of trade routes. Johnson (1988-89) has argued that the colony sites are simply too large, too elaborate and too many to merely function as trade stations (a point shared with Akkermans and Schwartz 2003:204) and suggests that they may have housed refugees from the southern plain, having fled the southern cities after political unrest or as Schwartz (1988) argues, in search of land.

3.3.3. Evidence for north-south interaction

The sheer number of more or less definitely identified southern Uruk colonies in northern Mesopotamia (Algaze (2001b:43) mentions 28 known sites in the Upper Euphrates area alone) makes Algaze (ibid) suggest that we cannot leave out the possibility of a full-scale southern Uruk colonisation of (at least parts of) northern Mesopotamia rather than merely the setting up of colonies at convenient locations. The archaeological data reviewed above however certainly does suggest that any southern Mesopotamians arriving in the north met with an already thriving complex urban environment engaged in long-distance exchange and controlling access to the goods that were valued by the southerners.

... Northern Mesopotamian settlement patterns did not show any effect from the presence of southern Mesopotamian settlers with several northern sites, including Tell Brak, already in multi-tiered settlement patterns by the time of contact with southerners (Lupton 1996:34). Though Algaze (2001b:66-8) argues that the northern societies had not reached the level of organisational complexity equivalent to that in the south, evidence from both Hacınebi and Tell Brak are sufficient to show that northern Mesopotamian communities had a high enough level of organisation not to be exploited or otherwise economically or politically affected by contacts with southern Mesopotamia. Rather from the archaeological evidence it appears that the northern settlements merely increased trade relations with their neighbours, probably to their mutual benefit.

Judging from the available evidence and the long history and obvious importance of inter-regional exchange in Mesopotamia, the function of the southern colony and enclave sites in the north appears to be primarily connected with trade. Southern Uruk enclaves on already inhabited local northern sites are unlikely to have been set up in order to exploit land for cultivation or grazing, as this would mean competing for land with the already established local communities.

For the Bibliography See Link (1) or PDF ...

(1) A Thousand Years of Farming: Late Chalcolithic Agricultural Practices at Tell Brak in Northern Mesopotamia by Mette Marie Hald --- BAR International Series (2008)

The Uruk Phenomenon: The role of social ideology in the expansion of the Uruk culture during the fourth millennium BC by Paul Collins (2000)

The History of the Ancient Near East Electronic Compendium