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Mike Shupp
Department of Anthropology
California State University, Northridge
18111 Nordhoff Street
Northridge, California 91330

Some Problems for Mesopotamian Archaeology

This began as a quest into the origins of early Mesopotamian civilization. That failed to progress satisfactorily, and I will attempt to recoup by instead discussing some areas of ignorance that have impressed me as offering scope for archaeological enquiry.


Mesopotamia, as generally known, developed writing. We possess literally hundreds of thousands of clay tablets and other documentary evidence which shed light on that civilization's condition and social evolution, and over the years a number of books and articles have appeared which purport to explain the laws, myths, forms of commerce, technology and other aspects of Mesopotamian culture, from the time of early Uruk to Alexander the Great.

In fact, this evidence is far less complete than one would wish, in terms of both space and time. Most of our documents have come from fortuitously found archives, others were surreptitiously excavated and sold piecemeal by local entrepreneurs over the last century or so to museums and other unfastidious collectors. The oldest of these known-- perhaps indeed the very oldest-- come from the temple precincts of Uruk and date to about 3400-3100 BC. Some symbols are recognizable, but the texts are poorly understood and appear closer to aides memoire than anything else. Rather slowly, this writing system became more capable; about 2600 BC, the representation of syllables by individual icons was arrived at, and then the use of lighter brush strokes to indicate case and tense. Before then, the system was ideographic, with characters for about 2000 words. In short, the earliest texts are of little help for reconstructing political events of the crucial 3500 to 2900 BC period of state formation. Later, we have archives from Ur during the Early Dynastic II period (c 2700-2600 BC), from ED III Shuruppak and Abu Salabihk (2600-2500 BC), and Girsu (the famous "Temple of Bau" in Larsa) dating to 2430-2340 BC. These are all from southern Mesopotamia. In the north, we have the royal archives from Ebla, which date to about 2450-2350 BC, and later ones from Mari which cover the 1810-1760 BC period. (Potts 1997; Kuhrt 1995)

The list is no doubt incomplete. It makes the point that we do not have records from all areas at all times. In fact, according to I. M. Diankonoff, no less than half these clay tablets come from the archives of the Ur III dynasty-- a period lasting little more than a century (2113 to 2004 BC). Many of these are simply work orders or inventory lists. The level of detail is staggering-- there are, for example three separate documents which record the death of one sheep (Postgate 1994:42)-- but so too is the triviality; not surprisingly, Diakonoff estimates that only a quarter of the UR III tablets have been translated, let alone published.

During the Old Babylon period (1750-1600 BC) scribes began to write on wooden tablets covered with wax. These were more fragile than clay; they could also be scraped clean, revised, and reused. As a result, our knowledge of later events does not improve as we move closer to the present. There are tiny tribes who loom large today because they are mentioned in the Bible. There are great kingdoms-- Elam, Mitanni, Arrapkhe, Eshnunna-- whose names are known only to specialists.

The Ancient Near East sprawls over millions of square miles and thousands of years. We grasp only scraps of this enormous province.

However, this is more the concern of history than archaeology.


Dealing with people in our way, the simplest and most basic necessity would seem to be decent population counts or at least estimates. Adams (1981), was leery of assigning numbers by mechanical formula, but he did suggest that villages in the late Uruk period might have had up to 1000 inhabitants-- classifying villages as sites of less than 10 hectares in extent-- and that urban centers might have had upwards of 100-400 inhabitants per hectare, on the analogy of later Mesopotamian sites. This is the origin of later estimates (Modelski 1997) that would give Uruk, with its approximate 500 hectares, 50,000 residents circa 3100 BC and even 80,000 in Early Dynastic times (2800 BC), Larsa 40,000, and so on.

We have a variety of theories which link social evolution to population increases (e.g., Carniero 1970. Johnson and Earle 1987). Other theories (Adams 1966) and some evidence (Brumfiel 1976) suggest that states can develop without such increases; by internal political evolution rather than through external forces. In Mesopotamia, we have both important social change and settlements small enough to excavate in toto. It is possible in principle to form better estimates of village and regional populations at different stages of history. It would be nice to review some of these theories with better numbers in hand.


It would be equally simple to look for evidence of separate communities with separate cultures at an early stage of Sumerian life (the pre-Ubaid say) which might be combined in later periods-- my own pet solution of the "origins of the Sumerians" problem.

This archaeological chestnut grew from the long held belief that southern Mesopotamia was a depopulated wilderness before the Ubaid period, perhaps even an uninhabitable branch of ocean. (Nissen 1988) Obviously the Sumerians, with their language unrelated to any other, were migrants to the area-- but from where? (Woolley 1965a, b)

Summarizing, at about 6000 BC, two early agricultural cultures are spread across what are now northern Iraq and eastern Iran: the Hassunian, generally in the north and west of this area, and the Samarrans in the south and west-- though in fact, as at Tel Hassuna itself, their occupational layers occasionally interdigited. Over a millennium or so, the Hassunians disappeared, to be replaced by the Halafian culture. Meanwhile, in the south, hitherto uninhabited, a culture based on irrigation agriculture had appeared.

Taking form at about 5300 BC, by 4500 BC this Ubaid culture had begun to expand to the north and to supplant the others. Gradually it spread over the entire Sumerian/Assyrian area, while continuing to evolve in the south. About 3500 BC, Sumer enters an Uruk era, then a Jemdat Nasr period lasting several centuries (3100-2900 BC), and an Early Dynastic period, which lasts from about 2900 to 2350 BC. These periods and cultures are distinguished by pottery and architectural styles, and (later) by written records. (Redman 1978; Nissen 1988; Bader 1993a, b, c; Merpert 1993; Meerpert and Munchaev 1993a, b, c;)

On the available archaeological evidence, there is underlying continuity-- with of course some uncertainty. The Hassunians may have given rise to the Halafians; they may have become Samarrans1, with the Halafians an intrusion from Anatolia. The Ubaidians are thought to incorporate elements of either or both northern cultures; similarities of household and temple architecture support the notion that the peoples of the Uruk, Jemdat Nasr, and Early Dynastic periods were their descendants. It is a minor complication that from 2350 BC onward we find the same characters used for writing two different languages: the Sumerian, with which we are already familiar, and an East Semitic dialect called Akkadian, which gradually became the lingua franca of all Mesopotamia. Semitic words and Semitic names had appeared in documents centuries before this, and it is generally felt today that Sumer was a multiracial society in which both Sumerians and Semites were intermixed from the beginning.

To complicate matters, some linguists are insistent that the Sumerians could not have been the first residents of Sumer, because many words and place names in that language-- including Ur and Uruk-- are of non-Sumerian and non-Semitic origin. Joan Oates has suggested that the coastal marshes of southern Sumer would have provided comfortable livings to pre-Ubaidian hunter-gatherers, and there are flint tools which might have been left by precursors of the Ubaidians; these have been attributed to Middle Paleolithic cultures in the past, but never with evidence to support such a date. More to the point, French excavations at Tell Oueili, a Ubaid site near Larsa, has revealed a predecessor "Ubaid 0" occupation which appears to be derived from the Samarran culture; a somewhat later Samarran site to the north at Choga Mami shows canal irrigation in operation at about 6000 BC. It is no longer clear which way cultural developments were flowing in the 6500 to 4500 BC period. (Yoffee 1993b; Potts 1997)


This is only background, since the confusion is hardly of theoretical concern. We expect to find hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists moving back and forth across the empty earth. We have evidence for at least three lanquages, and three archaeological cultures, and we can hope to assign one to the other. Tentatively then, the Samarrans were or became the Ubaidians of late pre-history, the Hassunians were the proto-Semites, and the "Sumerians", much as Woolley thought, some amalgam formed from the aboriginal residents of the land and all the incoming migrants.

Rather more interesting is that we have some notion of what sort of religion the Hassunian and Samarran peoples pursued-- a fertility cult involving statuettes of animals and an obese seated woman with shrunken limbs and head-- and despite all the alleged similarities between the temple architecture of the Ubaidan and later periods, these images bear no resemblance at all to the Anu-Inanna-Enki-Enlil-Nanna-Utu-et cetera pantheon described in all the reference books.

Something changed. My suggestion is that Mesopotamian religion as we eventually know it is syncretic, a conglomeration of religious beliefs and myths from all the varied cultures of Ubaid-era Sumer. I will not speculate about the whys and wherefores, except to note that accepting another society's gods is probably useful for making peace. The notion is not completely from left field; one of my references (Frankfort et al) mentions the Sumerians had four different creation myths, and another (Potts 1997) describes 13 separate systems of enumeration in early Uruk. Later we find several different systems for land ownership and tenancy which seem to operate side by side, different forms of kingship, and a continuum of non-elite political status which ranges from slave to full citizen.

It appears to me that larger Mesopotamian communities are not homogeneous but contain people with different traditions who continued to maintain seperate social institutions until rather late in history. The mystery is when such combinations occurred, and the last possible date which suggests itself is about 3500 BC, when some sort of catastrophic realignment of population patterns began.

This is too early to hope for documents, but not too much to ask of iconography. Portraits of gods with powers shared among later deities would fit my ideas, for example, or statue groups which do not match the conventional numbers of male and female deities. The general idea of E pluribus unum might be confirmed by finding villages or regions which used only some of the numbering schemes, or by finding villages of the same date with different forms of land tenure-- or more visibly, different forms of household architecture.

Of course, this requires a lot of digging in the sort of unimportant little hamlets that bore Assyriologists to tears.


From fusion of communities, I jump to fission. Obviously some settlements gave birth to other settlements, both within Mesopotamia and outside in the form of colonies or trading posts, or simply as foreigner's quarters in each other's cities. Sometimes we know of a connection through documents. More often--

I would say we have to guess, but in fact we don't even bother.

It would be of interest to see whether we can tie the known mother settlements and their colonies together by some aspects of material culture. Bricks made to the same dimensions or with characteristic proportions of clay and straw would be a good clue. Common architectural features such as the numbers of brick rows in a wall, breadth-vs-length ratios for rooms and styles of door mounting would be another, and perhaps characteristic quirks of individual builders might be found-- the use of half bricks at a corner, for example, sacrifices of tools or small animals under cornerstones, or markings to show how stones should be oriented.

If such correlations can be found, we would be justified in looking elsewhere with the idea of establishing relationships. Perhaps we could put names to the communities which set up distant colonies and trading posts in the Ubaid and Uruk periods. (Algaze 1993) Perhaps we could make estimates of the numbers of people who chose to emigrate and thus get some notion of the political or resource stresses at work in these societies on the verge of statehood.

Just an idea.


Finally I'd like to return to the basic question of when the state appeared. Let us admit that cultural evolution can lead backwards as often as forward, or even lurch sideways. The only sure means we have to identify a "civilization" is through hindsight.

Nonetheless, it is of interest to contrast the Mesopotamia seen by historians and classical archaeologists, with the one seen by prehistorians, and with the one that exists for social theorists. For the former, civilization is determined by writing and perhaps by political and economic organization; it is sufficient to recognize that Mesopotamia had reached this stage by the Early Dynastic period. The steps which led to this extraordinary situation are evidently not of interest. For the latter, civilization was achieved by socio-economic transformations which seem plain to them but are not obvious in the historical or archaeological record.

One line of thought, commonly associated these days with Elman Service (1962, 1975), argues that the earliest states functioned to "integrate" societies grown complex beyond previous imagination; kings served desirable ends. This line of thought, at least in its initial stages, is close to that of V. Gordon Childe (1936), Karl Wittfogel (1957), Leslie White (1959) and Gregory Johnson (1982): kings and chiefs appeared as managers who enabled early societies to intensify production, perhaps as administrators of irrigation systems, or by coordinating trade between villages with potential surpluses, or simply by serving as the focus for communal allegience when systems based on kinship had broken down.

An opposing argument, associated with Morton Fried (1967), sees the formation of the state in terms of power and status, which become differentially bestowed in society after the transformation. The best known exponents of such a view were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Engels 1942, Diakonoff 1991), but it's probably safe to say that most modern accounts see some amount of coercion and exploitation as inherent characteristics of the early state; in fact such notions are perfectly compatible with those of Childe, Wittfogel, and and White.

Rather more interesting is that some of these theories-- of Fried (1967), Carneiro (1970), Flannery (1972)-- suggest a rapid transistion to statehood, possibly through violence or other social disorder. And while our chances of recognizing a gradual transition through some such mechanism as Service's redistributive chiefdom's may be slim in Mesopotamia, something like large scale warfare and occupation of subjugated communities may be more obvious-- particularly in villages.

In any event, we have been excavating the great cities of the Land Between the Two Rivers for over a century without a glimpse of the phenomena that led to civilization. Inevitably, our efforts are too small, too confined to palaces and temples, too myopically focused on tablets and art work-- and foredoomed. The cities are too large, too diverse, too long lasting to provide unambiguous evidence of the political or social or economic changes we seek.

Villages are a more manageable situation, as I have several times suggested. In particular, villages of the Ubaid and early Uruk period may show to what extext population increases, social storage, and ranked social orders were important in the pre-state period. It is here we may see the primitive forms of institutions-- the temple, the en, far flung trade, etc.-- which were prominent in the early state; what we don't see may indicate what had to be invented or what changed to make civilization possible.

Later on, the images in temples and private shrines may show religious and thus political bonds between these small communities and the various urban centers. The sort of crops being raised and private handicrafts can show levels of economic integration and the extent of a specialized division of labor. House plans and settlement maps may reveal the extent of slave labor; we may perhaps be able to estimate the productivity of slave and free labor in the countryside. We may find documents or tokens of office which provide evidence of political or social stratification in the village. We may find evidence of trade or personal links across communities. Alternately, we may find that "civilization" was strictly an urban phenomena coexisting with village life little changed from neolithic conditions.

We might extend this to ecological investigations. Detecting the year to year growth of the irrigation system is probably not possible; pollen counts to show the extent of farm land and pasture may be. Knowing the type of crops may let us estimate crop yields to see if production increased with time. It would be interesting to see if overall climatic patterns, as shown by Greenland glacial cores, could be correlated with Mesopotamian political events. Droughts brought on the Amorite migration which led to the fall of the Ur III dynasty, it is attested. (Diakonoff 1991) it would be interesting to see if there were others with equal effect. It would be interesting as well to figure out the ultimate effects if any of the flood that so impressed Leonard Woolley and which has so long been neglected.

All this and more applies to the specialized communities, apparently concerned with trade or colonization, that Ubaid- and Uruk-era societies established in upland Mesopotamia, Elam, and Anatolia, and which-- apparently-- were abandoned on the very dawn of civilization. (Algaze 1993, Oates 1993) We would like to know what items were traded; we would very much need to know what precipitated this collapse, if collapse it was. We need to know whether it preceded or followed the apparent sudden growth of Uruk at the end of this period. We need to establish whether those outposts were the product of private (clan) enterprise or the first evidence of policy initiatives by the still invisible leaders of still invisible states.2

This requires examination of a great deal of evidence-- radiocarbon dates, pollen counts, chemical analyses, iconography, etc.-- and a great deal of spade work. These are within our capabilities, which continue to expand with data base management and graphical image systems. More importantly, we have a greater awareness of just which treasures we seek than the pioneers of the last century.

The great age of Mesopotamian archaeology lies ahead.


1. Maisel's notion. I personally doubt that single-family household societies (Hassunians) can switch to a multi-family style (Samarram) except at gunpoint or in dire economic circumstances.

2. It would be ironic indeed if concentrated urban centers-- by definition, the core element of our "civilization" for the last five thousand years-- could be shown to be the second-best method of handling social complexity in large populations.


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