Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Earliest urban culture in Kuwait, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia

by Salman Hameed

This area is currently in turmoil. But these countries host the remains of some of the earliest cities - dating back to more than 7000 years ago! Yes, older than Sumerian Uruk. The ancient urbanization seems to have been linked to the Ubaidian period. Here are some excerpts from Science (you may need subscription to access the full article):

 “This is the earliest complex society in the world. If you want to understand the roots of the urban revolution, you have to look at the Ubaid.” 
At Bahra, archaeologists have found the oldest permanent settlement south of Mesopotamia. The finds come on the heels of a joint U.S.-Syrian discovery of a surprisingly large and sophisticated Ubaid town on the northern fringe of the Mesopotamian plain. Data from both sites contradict the old assumption that Ubaid culture was spread by precocious southern Mesopotamians who colonized their more primitive neighbors—a harbinger of the militaristic Mesopotamian empires to come. Instead, these and a handful of other sites suggest that a loose network of local peoples from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf helped shape a way of life that eventually spawned cities. 
Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky. 
Although researchers agree that factors such as irrigation and trade were key to seeding civilization, the emphasis has shifted to how those ideas grew and spread. The new data suggest that the Ubaid was a time of mutual exchange among independent peoples rather than control asserted by a single sophisticated group. “Like the Ottoman Empire, people may have adapted in different ways,” Bielinski says, his face ruddy from the sun and wind. Stein, who leads the dig in Syria, uses another analogy: “It's almost like the European Union,” he says. People shared a common identity but retained their own local traditions. That view puts a radically different spin on civilization's emergence.
here is the timeline of the birth of these cities: 

But by 4000 B.C.E., Ubaidian materials vanish from the records and the more familiar Uruk culture starts to dominate: 
Ultimately, archaeologists say, the Ubaid's most important innovations were not technological but social. A new style of housing, blossoming trade, specialty jobs, temples, and growing acceptance of a budding social hierarchy changed the way people saw themselves and related to others, Bielinski says. Practical acceptance of outside ways rather than “slavish imitation” was the Ubaid way, Stein adds. 
And southern Mesopotamia was not the source of the entire culture. At least one form of pottery, a greenish buff ware with black paint, seems to appear in northern Mesopotamia first. Iranian digs have revealed some of the earliest examples of banding infant skulls. The popularity of wool provided new markets for a growing number of pastoralists, who may have played a key role in transmitting goods and ideas. 
In this emerging picture, the Ubaid is a dress rehearsal for the radical changes to come. Across an area of unprecedented size, a complicated mix of peoples experimented with what became the building blocks of civilization. “There were tremendous integrative forces coming into play at this time,” Carter says. Despite the similarity of pots and architecture from Turkey to Oman, “it was not a homogenous cultural landscape.” What began to emerge, Harvard's Lamberg-Karlovsky says, were the “technologies of social control,” such as writing and organized groups of laborers that ultimately created our modern complex society. 
But further exploration of the deeply buried Ubaid sites in Iraq will not be easy. Sectarian turmoil in Syria has halted the excavations at Tell Zeidan, preventing Stein's access to what he calls “archaeological heaven.” And Iran remains off-limits to foreigners. Such constraints suggest that the Ubaid peoples will retain some of their ancient mystery for years to come.
Read the full article here.                   


Asad M said...

So the Ubaid culture wasn’t just a precursor of the Sumerians but a rather complex one that evolved from the interactions of diverse ethnicities in a much larger area.

Ancient Mesopotamian history, culture, religion and mythology are simply fascinating. This cradle of civilization has given us so much yet it started to be unearthed only 100 or so years ago and so much more remains undiscovered. Besides Iraq & Syria there are archaeological sites in Yemen & Saudi Arabia too that are not being excavated due to lawlessness and politics.

And here is an interesting story of the man who discovered the Epic of Gilgamesh:

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks for the kinks Asad. And yes, this is what is fascinating that there was this network of sort of urbanized folks of different ethnicities spanning a pretty big area. And you are right - all of this has been found quite recently. So it won't be surprising at all, if this narrative changes again.