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The Uruk period (ca. 4000 to 3100 BC) existed from the protohistoric Chalcolithic to Early Bronze Age period in the history of Mesopotamia, following the Ubaid period and succeeded by the Jemdet Nasr period.[1] Named after the Sumerian city of Uruk, this period saw the emergence of urban life in Mesopotamia. It was followed by the Sumerian civilization.[2] The late Uruk period (34th to 32nd centuries) saw the gradual emergence of the cuneiform script and corresponds to the Early Bronze Age; it may also be called the Protoliterate period.[3] It was during this period that pottery painting declined as copper started to become popular, along with cylinder seals.[4]

Uruk period
Uruk expansion.svg
Geographical range Mesopotamia
Period Copper Age
Dates c. 4000–3100 BC
Type site Uruk
Preceded by Ubaid period
Followed by Jemdet Nasr period


Dating and periodizationEdit

Cylinder-seal of the Uruk period, Louvre Museum

The term Uruk period was coined at a conference in Baghdad in 1930, along with the preceding Ubaid period and following Jemdet Nasr period.[5] The chronology of the Uruk period is highly debated and still very uncertain. It is known that it covered most of the 4th millennium BC. But there is no agreement on the date when it began or ended and the major breaks within the period are difficult to determine. This is due primarily to the fact that the original stratigraphy of the central quarter of Uruk is ancient and very unclear and the excavations of it were conducted in the 1930s, before many modern dating techniques existed. These problems are largely linked to the difficulty specialists have had establishing synchronisms between the different archaeological sites and a relative chronology, which would enable the development of a more reliable absolute chronology.

The traditional chronology is very imprecise and is based on some key soundages in the Eanna quarter at Uruk.[6] The most ancient levels of these soundages (XIX-XIII) belong to the end of the Ubaid period (Ubaid V, 4200 - 3900 or 3700 BC); pottery characterisic of the Uruk period begins to appear in levels XIV/XIII. The Uruk period is traditionally divided into many phases. The first two are "Old Uruk" (levels XII - IX), then "Middle Uruk" (VIII-VI). These first two phases are poorly known, and their chronological limits are poorly defined; many different chronological systems are found in scholarship. From the middle of the 4th millennium, it transitions to the best-known period, "Late Uruk", which continues until around 3200 or 3100 BC. It is in fact in this period that the features which are generally seen as most characteristic of the civilization of the Uruk period occur:[7] high technological development, the development of important urban agglomerations with imposing monumental structures (the most characteristic of these is Level IV of Eanna), the appearance of state institutions, and the expansion of the Uruk civilization throughout the whole Near East. This phase of "Late Uruk" is followed by another phase (level III of Eanna) in which the Uruk civilization declined and a number of distinct local cultures developed throughout the Near East. This is generally known as the Jemdet Nasr period, after the archaeological site of that name.[8][9] Its exact nature is highly debated, and it is difficult to clearly distinugish its traits from those of the Uruk culture, so some scholars refer to it as the "Final Uruk" period instead. It lasted from around 3000 to 2900 BC.

Very recently, a new chronology has been proposed by the members of a colloquium at Santa Fe, based on recent excavations, especially at sites outside Mesopotamia. The consider the Uruk period to be the "Late Chalcolithic" (LC). Their LC 1 corresponds to the end of the Ubayd period and ends around 4200 BC, with the beginning of LC 2, which is the first phase of the Uruk period. They divide "Old Uruk" into two phases, with the dividing line placed around 4000 BC. Around 3800 BC, LC 3 begins, which corresponds to the "Middle Uruk" phase and continues until around 3400 BC, when it is succeeded by LC 4. It rapidly transitions to LC 5 (Late Uruk), which continues until 3000 BC.[10]

Painted ceramic vessel from the Jemdet Nasr period, found at Khafajah. Museum of the Oriental Institute, Chicago.

Therefore, although the chronology of the Uruk period is full of uncertainties, it is generally agreed to have a rough span of a thousand years covering the period from 4000 to 3000 BC and to be divided into several phases: an initial urbanisation and elaboration of Urukian cultural traits marks the transition from the end of the Ubayd period (Old Uruk), then a period of expansion (Middle Uruk), with a peak during which the characteristic traits of the 'Uruk civilization' are definitively established (Late Uruk), and then a retreat of Urukian influence and increase in cultural diversity in the Near East along with a decline of the 'centre'. Some researchers have attempted to explain this final stage as the arrival of new populations of Semitic origin (the future Akkadians), but there is no conclusive proof of this.[11] In Lower Mesopotamia, this takes the form of the Jemdet Nasr period, which sees a shift to more concentrated habitation, undoubtedly accompanied by a reorganisation of power;[9][12] in southwestern Iran, it is the Proto-Elamite period; Niniveh V in Upper Mesopotamia (which follows the Gawra culture); the "Scarlet Ware" culture in Diyala.[13] In Lower Mesopotamia, the Early Dynastic Period begins around the start of the 3rd millennium BC, during which this region again exerts considerable influence over its neighbours.

Lower MesopotamiaEdit

Location of the main sites in southern Mesopotamia in the Uruk and Jamdet Nasr periods.

Lower Mesopotamia is the core of the Uruk period culture and the region seems to have been the cultural centre of the time, since this is where the principle monuments are found and the most obvious traces of an urban society with state institutions developing in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, the first system of writing, and it is the material and symbolic culture of this region which had the most influence on the rest of the Near East at this time. However, this region is not well-known archaeologically, since only the site of Uruk itself has provided traces of monumental architecture and administrative documents which justify seeing this region as the most dynamic and influential. At some other sites, construction from this period has been found, but they are usually known only as a result of soundages. In the current state of knowledge it remains impossible to determine whether the site of Uruk was actually unique in this region or if it is simply an accident of excavation that makes it seem more important than the others.

This is the region of the Near East that was the most agriculturally (fr) productive, as a result of an irrigation system which developed in the 4th millennium BC and focussed on the cultivation of barley (along with the date palm and various other fruits and legumes) and the pasturing of sheep for their wool.[14] Although it lacked mineral resources and was located in an arid area, it had undeniable geographic and environmental advantages: it consisted of a vast delta, a flat region transected by waterways, resultingin a potentially vast area of cultivatable land, over which communications by river or land were easy.[15] It may also have become a highly populated and urbanised region in the 4th millennium BC,[16] with a social hierarchy, artisanal activities , and long-distance commerce. It has been the focus of archaeological investigation led by Robert McCormick Adams Jr., whose work has been very important for the understanding of the emergence of urban societies in this region. A clear settlement hierarchy has been identified, dominated by a number of agglomerations which grew more and more important over the 4th millennium BC, of which Uruk seems to have been the most important by far, making this the most ancient known case of urban macrocephaly, since its hinterland seems to have reinforced Uruk itself to the detriment of its neighbours (notably the region to the north, around Adab and Nippur) in the final part of the period.[17]

The ethnic composition of this region in the Uruk period cannot be determined with certainty. It is connected to the problem of the origins of the Sumerians and the dating of their emergence (if they are considered locals of the region) or their arrival (if they are thought to have migrated) in lower Mesopotamia. There is no agreement on the archaeological evidence for a migration, or on whether the earliest form writing already reflects a specific language. Some argue that it is actually Sumerian, in which case the Sumerians would have been its inventors[18] and would have already been present in the region in the final centuries of the 4th millennium at the latest (which seems to be the most widely-accepted position).[19] Whether other ethnic groups were also present, especially Semitic ancestors of the Akkadians or one or several 'pre-Sumerian' peoples (neither Sumerian nor Semite and predating both in the region) is also debated and cannot be resolved by excavation.[20]


Out of these urban agglomerations, it is Uruk, the period's eponymous site, which was the largest by far, according to our current knowledge, and it is the main one from which the chronological sequence of the period has been constructed. It may have covered 230-500 hectares at its peak during the Late Uruk period, more than the other contemporary large settlements, and it may have had a population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people.[21] The architectural profile of the site consists of two monumental groups located 500 metres apart.

The most remarkable constructions are located in the sector called the Eanna (after the temple which was located there in subsequent periods and possibly already at this stage). After the 'Limestone Temple' of level V, a programme of construction hitherto unparalleled was begun in level IV. Thereafter, the buildings were vastly larger than earlier, some had novel designs and new construction techniques were used for the structure and the decoration. Level IV of the Eanna is divided into two monumental groups: in the west, a complex centred on the 'Temple with mosaics' (decorated with mosaics made of painted clay cones) of level IVB, subsequently covered by another building (the 'Riemchen Building') of level IVA. To the east there is a very important group of structures - notably a 'Square Building' and the 'Riemchen Temple Building', which were subsequently replaced by other buildings with original plans, like the 'Hall with Pillars' and the 'Hall with Mosaics', a square 'Grand Court' and two very large buildings with a tripartite plan, 'Temple C' (54 x 22 m) and 'Temple D' (80 x 50 m, the largest building known from the Uruk period).

The second monumental sector was attributed to the god An by the excavators of the site, because it was the location of a sanctuary for this god some three thousand years later. It is dominated by a series of temples built on a high terrace after the Ubayd period. The best-preserved of these is the "White Temple" of level IV, which measures 17.5 x 22.3 m and gets its name from white plates that covered its walls. At its base, a building with a labyrinthine plan, called the 'Stone building', was built.[22]

The function of these buildings, which are unparalleled in their size and the fact that they are gathered in monumental groups, is debated. The excavators of the site wanted to see them as 'temples', influenced by the fact that in the historic period, the Eanna was the area dedicated to the goddess Inanna and the other sector was dedicated to the god An. This conformed to the theory of the 'temple-city' which was in vogue during the inter-war period. It is possible that this is actually a place of power formed by a complex of buildings of different forms (palatial residences, administrative spaces, palace chapels), desired by the dominant power in the city, whose nature is still unclear.[23] In any case, it was necessary to invest considerable effort to construct these buildings, which shows the capacities of the elites of this period. Uruk is also the site of the most important discoveries of early writing tablets, in levels IV and III, in a context where they had been disposed of, which means that the context in which they were created is not known to us. Uruk III, which corresponds to the Jemdet Nasr period, sees a complete reorganisation of the Eanna quarter, in which the buildings on the site were razed and replaced by a grand terrace, which ignores the earlier buildings. In their foundations, a deposit which is probably of a cultic nature (the Sammelfund) was found, containing some major artistic works of the period (large cultic vase, cylinder seals, etc.).

Other sites in Lower MesopotamiaEdit

Zoomorphic marble stamp discovered at Tello (ancient Girsu), Louvre Museum.

Outside Uruk, few sites in southern Mesopotamia have yielded levels contemporary with the Uruk period. Soundages carried out on the sites of most of the key cities of Mesopotamia in the historic period have revealed that they were occupied in this period (Kish, Girsu, [[Nipp[ur]], Ur, perhaps Shuruppak and Larsa, and further north in Diyala, Tell Asmar and Khafajah). The sacred quarter of Eridu, site of the main monumental structures of the Ubayd period in Lower Mesopotamia, is poorly known for the Uruk period. The only important structure from the end of the 4th millennium BC so far known from the region outside Uruk is the 'Painted Temple' on the platform of Tell Uqair, which dates to the end of the Uruk period or perhaps the Jemdet Nasr period, and consists of two terraces superimposed on one another with a building of around 18 x 22 m identified as having a cultic function.[24] More recently, a level belonging to the Uruk period has been revealed on the tell southeast of the site of Abu Salabikh ('Uruk Mound'), covering only 10 hectares.[25] This site was surrounded by a wall which has been only partially revealed and several buildings have been brought to light, including a platform which supported a building, only traces of which remain. As for the site of Jemdet Nasr, which has given its name to the period of transition from the Uruk period to the Early Dyanstic period, it is divided into two main tells and it is on the second (Mound B) that the most important building has been brought to light, which contained a substantial cache of administrative documents - more than 200 tablets with impressions of cylinder seals.[9][26]

Neighbouring regionsEdit

The sources relating to the Uruk period derive from a group of sites distributed over an immense area, covering all of Mesopotamia and the neighbouring regions up to central Iran and southeastern Anatolia. The Uruk culture itself is certainly characterised mainly by sites of sothern Mesopotamia and others which seem to have directly resulted from migrations from this region (the 'colonies' or 'emporia'), which are clearly part of the Uruk culture. But the phenomenon which is known as the Uruk expansion is detected on sites situated across a vast zone of influence, covering the whole Near East, regions which were not all really part of the Uruk culture, which was strictly-speaking limited to Lower Mesopotamia. The relations of some areas with the Uruk culture are very unclear, such as the little-known cultures of the Persian Gulf in this period, and Egypt whose exact relations with the Uruk culture were distant and are the object of debate, as well as the Levant, where the influence of southern Mesopotamia remains barely perceptible. But in other areas the Uruk culture is more evident, such as Upper Mesopotamia, northern Syria, western Iran and southeastern Anatolia. They generally experienced an evolution similar to that of lower Mesopotamia, with the development of urban agglomerations and larger political entities and they were strongly influenced by the culture of the 'centre' in the later part of the period (c. 3400-3200), before a general strengthening of their own regional cultures took place at the turn of the 3rd millennium BC. The interpretation of the expansion of the Uruk culture into neighbouring regions poses numerous problems and many explanatory models (general and regional) have been proposed in order to explain it.

Susiana and the Iranian plateauEdit

Accounting tokens from Susa, Louvre.

The region around Susa in the southwest of modern Iran, is located right next to lower Mesopotamia, which exercised a powerful influence on it from the 5th millennium BC, and might be considered to have been part of the Uruk culture in the second half of the 4th millennium BC, either as a result of conquest or a more gradual acculturation, but it did retain its own unique characteristics.[27] The Uruk period levels at Susa are called Susa I (c. 4000-3700 BC) and Susa II (c. 3700-3100 BC), during which the site became an urban settlement. Susa I saw the beginning of monumental architecture on the site, with the construction of a 'High Terrace', which was increased during Susa II to measure roughly 60 x 45 metres. The most interesting aspect of this site is the objects discovered there, which are the most important evidence available to us for the art of the Uruk period and the beginning of administration and writing. The cylinder seals of Susa I and Susa II have a very rich iconography, uniquely emphasising scenes of everyday life, although there is also some kind of local potentate which P. Amiet sees as a 'proto-royal figure,' preceding the 'priest-kings' of Late Uruk.[28] These cylinder seals, as well as bullae and clay tokens, indicate the rise of administration and of accounting techniques at Susa during the second half of the 4th millennium BC. Susa has also yielded some of the most ancient writing tablets, making it a key site for our understanding of the origins of writing. Other sites in Susiana also have archaeological levels belonging to this period, like Jaffarabad and Chogha Mish.[29]

Further north, in the Zagros, the site of Godin Tepe in the Kangavar valley is particularly important. Level V of this site belongs to the Uruk period. Remains have been uncovered of an ovoid wall, enclosing several buildings organised around a central court, with a large structure to the north which might be a public building. The material culture has some traits which are shared with that of Late Uruk and Susa II. Level V of Godin Tepe could be interpreted as an establishment of merchants from Susa and/or lower Mesopotamia, interested in the location of the site on commercial routes, especially those linked to the tin and lapis lazuli mines on the Iranian plateau and in Afghanistan.[30] Further east, the key site of Tepe Sialk, near Kashan, shows no clear evidence of links with the Uruk culture in its Level III, but beveled rim bowls are found all the way out to Tepe Ghabristan in the Elbourz[31] and at some sites in Kerman further to the southeast.

In this region, the retreat of the Uruk culture resulted in a particular phenomenon, the Proto-Elamite civilization, which seems to have been centred on the region of Tell-e Malyan and Susiana and seems to have taken over the Uruk culture's links with the Iranian plateau.[32][33]

Upper Mesopotamia and northern SyriaEdit

Several important sites of the Uruk period have been excavated in the Middle Euphrates region, during the salvage campaigns preceding the construction of hydroelectric dams in the area.[34] It is largely as a result of the findings of these excavations that ideas of an "Uruk expansion" have arisen.

The best known site is Habuba Kabira, a fortified port on the right bank of the river in Syria. The city covered around 22 hectares, surrounded by a defensive wall, roughly 10% of which has been uncovered. Study of the buildings on this site shows that it was a planned settlement, which would have required significant means. The archaeological material from the site is identical to that of Uruk, consisting of pottery, cylinder-seals, bullae, accounting calculi, and numerical tablets from the end of the period. Thus this new city has every appearance of being an Urukian colony. Around twenty residences of various sorts have been excavated. They have a tripartite plan, arranged around a reception hall with a foyer opening onto an internal courtyard, with additional rooms arranged around it. In the south of the site is a hill, Tell Qanas, which has a monumental group of several structures identified speculatively as 'temples' on an artificial terrace. The site was abandoned at the end of the 4th millennium BC, apparently without violence, during the period when the Uruk culture retreated.[35].

Habuba Kabira is similar in many ways to the nearby site of Jebel Aruda (fr) on a rocky outcrop, only 8 km further north. As at Habuba Kabira, there is an urban centre made up of residences of various kinds and a central monumental complex of two 'temples'. It is beyond doubt that this city two was built by 'Urukians'. A little further north, is a third possibly Urukian colony, Sheikh Hassan, on the middle Euphrates. It is possible that these sites were part of a state implanted in the region by people from south Mesopotamia and were developed in order to take advantage of important commercial routes.[36].

Ruins of Tell Brak, Syria.

In the Khabur valley, Tell Brak was an important urban centre from the 5th millennium BC, one of the largest of the Uruk period, since it covered over 110 hectares at its height. Some residences from the period have been uncovered, along with pottery typical of Uruk, but what has received the most attention is a succession of monuments which are definitely for cultic purposes. The 'Eye Temple' (as its final stage is known) has walls decorated with terracotta cones which form a mosaic and with inlays of coloured stones and a platform which might have been an altar and is decorated with gold leaf, lapis lazuli, silver nails, and white marble in a central T-shaped room. The most remarkable find are over two hundred "eye figurines" which give the building its name. These figurines have enormous eyes and are definitely votive deposits. Tell Brak has also produced evidence of writing: a numeric tablet and two pictographic tablets showing some unique features in comparison to those of southern Mesopotamia, which indicates that there was a distinct local tradition of writing.[37] A little to the east of Tell Brak is Hamoukar, where excavations began in 1999.[38] This vast site has provided the normal evidence found at sites under Urukian influence in Upper Mesopotamia (pottery, seals) and evidence of the existence of an important urban centre in this region in the Uruk period, like Tell Brak. Further to the east again, the site of Tell al-Hawa also shows evidence of contacts with lower Mesopotamia.

On the Tigris, the site of Nineveh (Tell Kuyunjik, level 4) was located on some major commercial routes and was also within the Urukian sphere of influence. The site covered roughly 40 hectares - the whole area of Tell Kuyunjik. The material remains of the period are very limited, but beveled rim bowls, an accounting bulla, and a numerical tablet characteristic of the Late Uruk period have been found.[39] Nearby, Tepe Gawra, which was also important in the Ubayd period, is an important case of the changing scale of monumental architecture and of political entities between the end of the 5th millennium and the first half of the 4th millennium BC (Level XII to VIII). The excavations there have revealed some very rich tombs, different kinds of residence, workshops, and very large buildings with an official or religious function (notably the 'round structure'), which may indicate that Tepe Gawra was a regional political centre. However, it declined before the Uruk expansion into Upper Mesopotamia.[40].

Southeast AnatoliaEdit

Several sites have been excavated in the Euphrates valley in the south east of Anatolia, near the region of the Urukian sites of the middle Euphrates.[34] Hacinebi, near modern Birecik in Şanlıurfa, was excavated by G. Stein and was located at the crossroads of some important commercial routes. Beveled rim bowls appear from phase B1 (c. 3800/3700 BC) and they are also present in phase B2 (3700-3300 BC), along with other objects characteristic of Late Uruk, like mosaics of clay cones, a terracotta sickle, an accounting bulla imprinted with the pattern from a cylinder seal, an uninscribed clay tablet, etc. This material co-exists with local pottery, which remains dominant throughout. The excavator of the site thinks that there was an enclave of people from Lower Mesopotamia who lived on the site alongside a majority population of local people.[41]

Other sites have been excavated in the region of Samsat (also in the Euphrates valley). An Urukian site was revealed at Samsat during a hasty rescue excavation before the area was flooded as a result of the construction of a hydroelectric dam. Fragments of clay cones from a wall mosaic were found. A little to the south is Kurban Höyük, where clay cones and pottery characteristic of Uruk have also been found in tripartite buildings.[42]

Further to the north, the site of Arslantepe, located in the suburbs of Malatya, is the most remarkable sit of the period in eastern Anatolia. It has been excavated by M. Frangipane. During the first half of the 4th millennium BC, this site was dominated by a building called 'Temple C' by the excavators, which was built on a platform. It was abandoned around 3500 BC and replaced by a monumental complex which seems to have been the regional centre of power. The culture of Late Uruk had a discernible influence, which can be seen most clearly in the numerous sealings found on the site, many of which are in a south Mesopotamian style. Around 3000 BC, the site was destroyed by a fire. The monuments were not restored and the Kura–Araxes culture centred on the southern Caucasus became the dominant material culture on the site.[43] Further west, the site of Tepecik has also revealed pottery influenced by that of Uruk.[44][45] But in this region, the Urukian influence becomes increasingly ephemeral, as one gets further from Mesopotamia.

The 'Uruk expansion'Edit

The 'Uruk expansion': sites representing the 'centre' and 'periphery'.

After the discovery in Syria of the sites at Habuba Kabira and Jebel Aruda in the 1970s, which were rapidly decided to be colonies or trading posts of the Uruk civilisation settled far from their own lands, questions arose about the relationship between Lower Mesopotamia and the neighbouring regions. The fact that the characteristics of the culture of the Uruk region are found across such a large territory (from northern Syria to the Iranian plateau), with Lower Mesopotamia as a clear centre, led the archaeologists who studied this period to see this phenomenon as an "Uruk expansion". This has been reinforced by the political situation in the modern Near East and the impossibility of excavating in Mesopotamia. Recent excavations have focused on sites outside Mesopotamia, as a 'periphery', and with an interest in how they related to the 'centre', which is paradoxically the region in this period which is least well-known - limited to the impressionistic discoveries of the monuments of Uruk. Subsequently, theories and knowledge have developed to the point of general models, drawing on parallels from other places and periods, which has posed some problems in terms of getting the models and parallels to fit the facts revealed by excavations.[46]

Guillermo Algaze adopted the World-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein and theories of international trade, elaborating the first model that sought to explain the Uruk civilization.[47] In his view, which has met with some approval, but has also found many critics,[48] the 'Urukians' created a collection of colonies outside Lower Mesopotamia, first in Upper Mesopotamia (Habuba Kabira and Jebel Aruda, as well as Nineveh, Tell Brak and Samsat to the north), then in Susiana and the Iranian plateau. For Algaze, the motivation of this activity is considered to be a form of economic imperialism: the elites of southern Mesopotamia wanted to obtain the numerous raw materials which were not available in the Tigris and Euphrates floodplains, and founded their colonies on nodal point which controlled a vast commercial network (although it remains impossible to determine what exactly was exchanged), settling them with refugees as in some models of Greek colonisation. The relations established between Lower Mesopotamia and the neighbouring regions were thus of an assymetric kind. The inhabitants of Lower Mesopotamia had the advantage in the interactions with neighbouring regions as a result of the high productivity of their lands, which had allowed their region to "take off" (he speaks of "the Sumerian takeoff") resulting in both a comparative advantage and a competitive advantage.[49] They had the most developed state structures, were able to develop long distance commercial links, to exercise influence over their neighbours, and perhaps even engaged in military domination.

Algave's theory, like other alternative models, has been criticised, particularly because a solid model remains difficult to demonstrate while the Uruk civilization remains poorly known in Lower Mesopotamia aside from the two monumental complexes that have been excavated at Uruk itself. We are therefore poorly placed to evaluate the impact of the development of southern Mesopotamia, since we have almost no archaeological evidence about it. Moreover, the chronology of this period is far from established, which makes it difficult to date the expansion. It has proven difficult to make the levels at different sites correspond closely enough to attribute them to a single period, making the elaboration of relative chronology very complicated. Among the theories that have been advanced to explain the Uruk expansion, the commercial explanation is frequently revived. However, although long distance trade is undoubtedly a secondary phenomenon for the south Mesopotamian states compared to local production and seems to follow the development of increased social complexity rather than causing it, this does not necessarily prove a process of colonisation.[50] Some other theories propose a form of agrarian colonisation resulting from a shortage of land in Lower Mesopotamia or a migration of refugees after the Uruk region suffered ecological or political upheavals. These explanations are largely advanced to explain the sites of the Syro-Anatolian world, rather than as global theories.[51].

Other explanations avoid political and economic factors in order to focus on the Uruk expansion as a long term cultural phenomenon, using concepts of koine, acculturation, hybridity and cultural emulation to emphasise their differentiation according to the cultural regions and sites in question. P. Butterlin has proposed that the links tying southern Mesopotamia to its neighbours in this period should be seen as a 'world culture' rather than an economic 'world system', in which the Uruk region provided a model to its neighoburs, each of which took up more adaptable elements in their own way and retained some local traits essentially unchanged. This is intended to explain the different degrees of influence or acculturation.[52].

In effect, the impact of Uruk is generally distinguished in specific sites and regions, which has led to the development of multiple typologies of material considered to be characteristic of the Uruk culture (especially the pottery and the beveled rim bowls). It has been possible to identify multiple types of site, ranging from colonies that could be actual Urukian sites through to trading posts with an Urukian enclave and sites that are mostly local with a weak or non-existent Urukian influence, as well as others where contacts are more or less strong without supplanting the local culture.[53] The case of Susiana and the Iranian plateau, which is generally studied by different scholars from those who work on Syrian and Anatolian sites, has led to some attempted explanations based on local developments, notably the development of the proto-Elamite culture, which is sometimes seen as a product of the expansion and sometimes as an adversary.[32] The case of the southern Levant and Egypt is different again and helps to highlight the role of local cultures as receivers of the Uruk culture.[54] In the Levant there was no stratified society with embryonic cities and bureaucracy, and therefore no strong elite to act as local intermediaries of Urukian culture and as a result Urukian influence is especially weak.[55] In Egypt, Urukian influence seems to be limited to a few objects which were seen as prestigious or exotic (most notably the knife of Jebel el-Arak), chosen by the elite at a moment when they needed to assert their power in a developing state.[56].

It might be added that an interpretation of the relations of this period as centre/periphery interaction, although often relevamt im period, risks prejudicing researchers to see decisions in an assymetric or diffusionist fashion, and this needs to be nuanced. Thus, it increasingly appears that the regions neighbouring Lower Mesopotamia did not wait for the Urukians in order to begin an advanced process of increasing social complexity or urbanisation, as the example of the large site ofTell Brak in Syria shows, which encourages us to imagine the phenomenon from a more 'symmetrical' angle.[57][58]


On the cusp of prehistory and history, the Uruk period can be considered 'revolutionary' and foundational in many ways. Many of the innovations which it produced were turning points in the history of Mesopotamia and indeed of the world.[59] It is in this period that one sees the general appearance of the potter's wheel, writing, the city, and the state. There is new progress in the development of state-societies, such that specialists see fit to label them as 'complex' (in comparison with earlier societies which are said to be 'simple').

Scholarship is therefore interested in this period as a crucial step in the evolution of society - a long and cumulative process whose roots could be seen at the beginning of the Neolithic more than six thousand years earlier and which had picked up steam in the preceding Ubayd period in Mesopotamia. This is especially the case in English-language scholarship, in which the theoretical approaches have been largely inspired by anthropology since the 1970s, and which has studied the Uruk period from the angle of 'complexity' in analysing the appearance of early states, an expanding social hierarchy, intensification of long-distance trade, etc.[46]

In order to discern the key developments which make this period a crucial step in the history of the ancient Near East, research focusses mainly on the centre, Lower Mesopotamia, and on sites in neighbouring regions which are clearly integrated into the civilization which originated there (especially the 'colonies' of the middle Euphrates). The aspects traced here are mostly those of the Late Uruk period, which is the best known and undoubtedly the period in which the most rapid change took place - it is the moment when the characteristic traits of the ancient Mesopotamian civilization were established.

Technology and economyEdit

The 4th millennium sees the appearance of new tools which had a substantial impacts on the societies that used them, especially in the economic sphere. Some of them, although known in the preceding period, only came into use on a large scale at this time. The use of these inventions produces economic and social changes in combination with the emergence of political structures and administrative states.

Agriculture and pastoralismEdit

Limestone statuette representing a bull, discovered in Uruk, Jemdet Nasr period, Louvre.
Livestock and crops: the riches of Lower Mesopotamia depicted on the grand alabaster Warka Vase (replica, Pergamon museum.

In the agricultural sphere, several important innovations were made between the end of the Ubayd period and the Uruk period, which have been referred to in total as the 'Second Agricultural Revolution' (the first being the Neolithic Revolution). A first group of developments took place in the field of cereal cultivation, followed by the invention of the ard - a wooden plough bulled by an animal (ass or ox) - towards the end of the 4th millennium BC, which enabled the production of long furrows in the earth.[60] This made the agricultural work in the sowing season much simpler than previously, when this work had to be done by hand with tools like the hoe. The harvest was made easier after the Ubayd period by the widespread adoption of terracotta sickles. Irrigation techniques also seem to have improved in the Uruk period. These different inventions allowed the progressive development of a new agricultural landscape, characteristic of ancient Lower Mesopotamia. It consisted of long rectangular fields suited for being worked in furrows, each bordered by a little irrigation channel. According to M. Liverani, these replaced the earlier basins irrigated laboriously by hand.[61] After the end of the 5th millennium, tree crops were also developed in the whole Middle East; in Lower Mesopotamia, the date palm began to be cultivated and gardens and orchards containing them became a characteristic element of Mesopotamian architecture. This system which progressively developed over two thousand years enabled higher yields, leaving more surplus than previously for workers, whose rations mainly consisted of barley.[62] The human, material, and technical resources were now available for agriculture based on paid labour, although family-based farming remained the base unit. All of this undoubtedly led to population increase and thus urbanisation and the development of state structures.[16]

The Uruk period also saw important developments in the realm of pastoralism. First of all, it is in this period that the wild onager was finally domesticated as the donkey. It was the first domesticated equid in the region and became the most important beast of burden in the Near East (the dromadary was only domesticated in the 3rd millennium BC, in Arabia). With its high transport capacity (about double that of a human), it enabled the further development of trade over short and long distances.[63][64] Pastoralism of animals which had already been domesticated (sheep, horses, cattle) also developed further. Previously these animals had been raised mainly as sources of meat, but they now became more important for the products which they provided (wool, fur, hides, milk) and as beasts of burden.[65] This final aspect was especially connected with the cattle, which became essential for work in the fields with the appearance of the ard, and the donkey which assumed a major role in the transportation of goods.

Early city-statesEdit

These early city-states had strong signs of government organization (though social stratification was not strongly evident until very late in this period and the beginning of the Early Dynastic Period, beginning around 3100 BC), evident even in items such as cheap, mass-produced beveled rim bowls which were made to be discarded. These bowls may have been handed out at community outings, such as large-scale constructions. The cities grew to cover up to 250 acres (1.0 km2) and supported up to 10,000–20,000 people by the end of the period.

End of the Uruk periodEdit

A few commentators have associated the end of the Uruk period with the climate changes linked to the Piora Oscillation, an abrupt cold and wet period in the climate history of the Holocene Epoch.[66] Another explanation given is the arrival of the East Semitic tribes represented by the Kish civilization.[67]


  1. ^ Crawford 2004, p. 69
  2. ^ Crawford 2004, p. 75
  3. ^ As for example in Frankfort 1970, where the first chapter covers the period.
  4. ^ Langer 1972, p. 9
  5. ^ Matthews, Roger (2002), Secrets of the dark mound: Jemdet Nasr 1926-1928, Iraq Archaeological Reports, 6, Warminster: BSAI, ISBN 0-85668-735-9 
  6. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 286-297)
  7. ^ (Benoit 2003, p. 57-58)
  8. ^ U. Finkbeiner & W. Röllig, (ed.), Jamdat Nasr: period or regional style ?, Wiesbaden, 1986
  9. ^ a b c Cite error: The named reference matthews-55/4-196-203 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  10. ^ M. S. Rothman (ed.), Uruk Mesopotamia and its neighbours : cross-cultural interactions in the era of state formation, Santa Fe, 2001, introduction
  11. ^ M.-J. Seux in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 342-343
  12. ^ B. Lafont in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 135-137
  13. ^ (Huot 2004, p. 94-99) ; (Forest 1996, p. 175-204)
  14. ^ Cite error: The named reference liveco was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  15. ^ (Algaze 2008, p. 40-61)
  16. ^ a b (Liverani 2006, p. 19-25)
  17. ^ R. McC. Adams, Heartland of Cities, Surveys of Ancient Settlement and Land Use on the Central Floodplain of the Euphrates, Chicago, 1981, p. 60-81
  18. ^ (Glassner 2000, p. 66-68)
  19. ^ See thus (Englund 1998, p. 73-81)
  20. ^ For a summary of the debate on this point, see : J. S. Cooper in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 84-91 ; B. Lafont in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 149-151 ; M.-J. Seux in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 339-344
  21. ^ P. Michalowski in (Sumer & 1999-2002), col. 111
  22. ^ Convenient summary of the buildings in the levels of Uruk belonging to the Late Uruk period in (Englund 1998, p. 32-41), (Huot 2004, p. 79-89), (Benoit 2003, p. 190-195). See also R. Eichmann, Uruk, Architektur I, Von den Anfängen bis zur frühdynastischen Zeit, AUWE 14, Mainz, 2007.
  23. ^ (Forest 1996, p. 133-137) sees these remains as a palatial complex. See also (Butterlin 2003, p. 41-48).
  24. ^ (Englund 1998, p. 27-29). S. Lloyd, F. Safar & H. Frankfort, "Tell Uqair: Excavations by the Iraq Government Directorate of Antiquities in 1940 and 1941," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 2/2 (1943) p. 131-158.
  25. ^ Summary of the excavations of this level, by S. Pollock, M. Pope & C. Coursey, "Household Production at the Uruk Mound, Abu Salabikh, Iraq," American Journal of Archaeology 100/4, 1996, p. 683-698
  26. ^ (Englund 1998, p. 24-27)
  27. ^ M.-J. Stève, F. Vallat, H. Gasche, C. Jullien et F. Jullien, "Suse," Supplément au Dictionnaire de la Bible fasc. 73, 2002, col. 409-413
  28. ^ P. Amiet, "Glyptique susienne archaïque," Revue Assyriologique 51, 1957, p. 127
  29. ^ G. Johnson & H. Wright, "Regional Perspectives on Southwest Iranian State development," Paléorient 11/2, 1985, p. 25-30
  30. ^ H. Weiss & T. Cuyler Young Jr., "Merchants of Susa: Godin V and plateau-lowland relations in the late Fourth Millennium B.C.," Iran 10 (1975) pp. 1-17
  31. ^ Y. Majidzadeh, "Sialk III and the Pottery Sequence at Tepe Ghabristan: The Coherence of the Cultures of the Central Iranian Plateau," Iran 19 (1981) p. 146
  32. ^ a b (Butterlin 2003, p. 139-150)
  33. ^ P. Amiet, L'âge des échanges inter-iraniens, 3500-1700 av. J.-C., Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, 1986.
  34. ^ a b (Huot 2004, p. 89-93)
  35. ^ Cite error: The named reference strommenger was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  36. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 347-357)
  37. ^ I. L. Finkel, "Inscriptions from Tell Brak 1984," Iraq 47, 1985, p. 187-189
  38. ^ "The Hamoukar Expedition". The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Retrieved 17 April 2013. 
  39. ^ D. Collon et J. Reade, "Archaic Nineveh," Baghdader Mitteilungen 14 (1983) p. 33-41; G. Algaze, "Habuba on the Tigris: Archaic Nineveh Reconsidered," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 45/2 (1986) p. 125-137; D. Stronach, "Village to Metropolis: Nineveh and the Beginnings of Urbanism in Northern Mesopotamia," in S. Mazzoni (ed.), Nuove Fondazioni nel Vicino Oriente Antico : Realtà e Ideologia, Pisa (1994) p. 88–92
  40. ^ (Forest 1996, p. 91-103) ; (Huot 2004, p. 75-78). M. S. Rothman, Tepe Gawra: The Evolution of a Small, Prehistoric Center in Northern Iraq, Philadelphia, 2001 ; P. Butterlin (ed.), A propos de Tepe Gawra, Le monde proto-urbain de Mésopotamie, Turnhout, 2009
  41. ^ Summary of the campaign and interpretation in Paléorient 25/1, 1999.
  42. ^ B. Helwing, "Cultural interaction at Hassek Höyük, Turkey, New evidence from pottery analysis," Paléorient 25/1, 1999, p. 91-99
  43. ^ M. Frangipane (ed.), Alle origini del potere : Arslantepe, la collina dei leoni, Milan, 2004
  44. ^ Gil Stein (1998), “World Systems Theory and Alternative Modes of Interaction in the Archaeology of Culture Contact.”
  45. ^ Konstantine Pitskhelauri, Uruk Migrants in the Caucasus Archived 2013-10-07 at the Wayback Machine. BULLETIN OF THE GEORGIAN NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES, vol. 6, no. 2, 2012
  46. ^ a b E.g. R. Matthews, The archaeology of Mesopotamia : Theories and approaches, Routledge, 2003, p. 93-126. See (Liverani 2006, p. 5-14) for a historiography of this issue.
  47. ^ Debate begun in G. Algaze, "The Uruk Expansion: Cross Cultural Exchange in Early Mesopotamian Civilization," Current Anthropology Volume 30/5 (1989) p. 571-608 ; the theory was presented in a more complete fashion in Id., The Uruk World System : The Dynamics of Early Mesopotamian Civilization, Chicago (1993, revised edition in 2005) and revised in Id., "The Prehistory of Imperialism: The case of Uruk Period Mesopotamia," M. S. Rothman (ed.), Uruk Mesopotamia and its neighbours : cross-cultural interactions in the era of state formation, Santa Fe, 2001, p. 27-85; see also (Algaze 2008, p. 68-73).
  48. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 98-107)
  49. ^ G. Algaze, "Initial Social Complexity in Southwestern Asia: The Mesopotamian Advantage," Current Anthropology 42/2 (2001) p. 199-233; (Algaze 2008, p. 40-63).
  50. ^ Transclusion error: {{En}} is only for use in File namespace. Use {{lang-en}} or {{en icon}} instead. J. N. Postgate, "Learning the Lessons of the Future: Trade in Prehistory through a Historian's Lens," Bibliotheca Orientalis 60/1-2, 2004, p. 5-26. See also (Liverani 2006, p. 40-44).
  51. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 131-137)
  52. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 386-390) for the conclusions.
  53. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 232-254 & 334-338)
  54. ^ (Huot 2004, p. 102-104) ; (Butterlin 2003, p. 151-157). A. H. Joffe, "Egypt and Syro-Mesopotamia in the 4th Millennium: Implications of the New Chronology," Current Anthropology 41/1 (2000) p. 113-123.
  55. ^ G. Philip, "Contacts between the 'Uruk' world and the Levant during the fourth millennium BC: evidence and interpretation," J. N. Postgate (ed.), Artefacts of Complexity: Tracking the Uruk in the Near East, Warminster, 2002, p. 207-235. Otherwise, this region was more marked by Egyptian influence in this period, cf. C. Nicolle, "Aux marges du Levant Sud : quelques considérations sur l'expansion "égyptienne" dans la seconde moitié du IVe millénaire," J.-M. Durand & A. Jacquet (ed.), Centre et périphérie, approches nouvelles des Orientalistes, Paris, 2009, p. 29-46.
  56. ^ B. Midant-Reynes, Aux origines de l'Égypte, Du Néolithique à l'émergence de l'État, Paris, 2003, p. 296-301. T. Wilkinson, "Uruk into Egypt : Imports and Imitations," J. N. Postgate (ed.), op. cit., p. 237-247
  57. ^ (Butterlin 2003, p. 66-70)
  58. ^ J. A. Ur, P. Karsgaard & J. Oates, "Early urban development in the Near East," Science 317/5842, (August 2007)
  59. ^ On the details and range of changes in this foundational period in Mesopotamia in relation to other civilizations, see especially the contributions in M. Lamberg-Karlovsky (ed.), The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization, Cambridge (Mass.), 2000.
  60. ^ X. Faivre, "Outils," in (Joannès (ed.) 2001, p. 608)
  61. ^ (Liverani 2006, p. 15-19)
  62. ^ (Englund 1998, p. 181-213)
  63. ^ B. Lafont, "Équidés," in (Joannès (dir.) 2001, p. 299-300)
  64. ^ (Algaze 2008, p. 66-68 et 141-142)
  65. ^ The 'secondary products revolution' of A. Sherratt "Plough and pastoralism: aspects of the secondary products revolution," in I. Hodder, G. Isaac & N. Hammond (ed.), Pattern of the Past: Studies in honour of David Clarke, Cambridge, 1981, p. 261–305.
  66. ^ Lamb 1995, p. 128
  67. ^ Lucy Wyatt (2010-01-16). Approaching Chaos: Could an Ancient Archetype Save C21st Civilization?. p. 120. ISBN 9781846942556. 


  • Algaze, G. 1993. The Uruk world system: the dynamics of expansion of early Mesopotamian civilisation. Chicago; London: The University of Chicago Press
  • Crawford, Harriet E. W. (16 Sep 2004). Sumer and the Sumerians (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521533386. 
  • Lamb, Hubert H. (1995). Climate, History, and the Modern World. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-12735-1. 
  • Langer, William L., ed. (1972). An Encyclopedia of World History (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. p. 9. ISBN 0-395-13592-3. 

See alsoEdit