Home > Archaeology, History > Uruk: The First City

Uruk: The First City

  • Title: Uruk : the first city
  • Author: Mario Liverani
  • Translator: Zainab Bahrani and Marc Van De Mieroop
  • ISBN 10: 1845531914 (hb)     1845531930(pb)
  • Published: 2006
  • Format: PDF

Uruk, the First Complex Society in the Ancient Near East There are certain moments in world history when a coalescence of factors led to radical changes in all aspects of a society. The innovations involved were so fundamental that they fully altered human interactions with each other and with their physical surroundings, and they were irreversible.

Those moments gain even more importance when there was an influence over a geographical area beyond the territory of the society where they first occurred. A recent example of such an event is the industrial revolution, the consequences of which are still with us today. Its effects are visible in every facet of life: economy, technology, society, politics, religion, sciences, the arts, and the way in which we perceive our environment. From its original core in Western Europe it had worldwide repercussions, and the globalization movement today can still be considered a consequence of this nineteenth-century revolution.

Another such turning point in history happened in the fourth millennium BCE in the southern part of today’s Iraq (ancient Mesopotamia), where a single site, Uruk, stands out as the primary locus of innovation.

Because every aspect of society changed at that time the famous prehistoric archaeologist, V. Gordon Childe (1892–1957) called it the ‘urban revolution’. His terminology stresses the origins of cities at the time, but the changes were manifold. We see the appearance of the state, of writing, of bronze manufacture, of monumental art and architecture, and of an integrated economy that tied together the urbanized core and the nonurban periphery. Because of this multiplicity of innovations the period has attracted the attention of many different scholarly disciplines. Anthropologists have focused on the origins of the state, art historians on monumental art, historians on writing, and so on. In the last decade and a half a veritable avalanche of books and articles have appeared on topics relating to this event, which is now often called the Uruk phenomenon (Collins 2000) in order to avoid the evolutionary model that Childe imposed on it.

These studies often concentrate on only one aspect of this event. Many archaeologists devote attention to the interactions between southern Mesopotamia and the periphery. This focus is partly the result of today’s political circumstance in the Middle East. Since fieldwork has been virtually impossible in Iraq itself since 1990, many excavators went to work in the area of northern Syria and southern Turkey where the fourth-millennium remains show different levels of interaction with southern Mesopotamia.

A model of analysis often used by archaeologists is that of the capitalist ‘world system’, imagining a redeployment of productive resources into an integrated system of exchange between a core producing high-level manufactured goods and a periphery providing raw materials. This theory gained a great deal of attention with G. Algaze’ s book, The Uruk World System (1993 and 2005), and has been a frame of reference for several subsequent studies and conferences (e.g., Stein 1999, Rothman 2001, Postgate 2002). But many alternative interpretations of the presence of southern Mesopotamian material culture in the periphery have been proposed (cf. Butterlin 2003). That America is the home of much of this work is perhaps no surprise as it is also the base of the contemporary globalization mantra.

What re-emerges in this study is the revolutionary character of the changes that took place. The Uruk phenomenon is not an almost accidental stage in a long development of history, but a conscious change that was challenging to the people involved. The creation of an urban society was a fundamental innovation that has affected the entirety of world history. Rarely did such change occur due solely to indigenous processes and nowhere else did it happen before it took place in southern Mesopotamia. Uruk was thus truly ‘the first city’.

Without a doubt, one of the most significant turning points in the course of human history was the transition from a prehistoric society to one that was historic in the fullest sense of the word. This transition was, and still is, referred to in various ways. Those scholars who primarily look at aspects of urban settlement, call it the ‘urban revolution’. Those who place emphasis on socio-political aspects, refer to the emergence of the ‘early state’. Those who privilege the socio-economic structure (social stratification, labor specialization), speak of ‘the origin of complex society’. And finally, those who take the origin of writing as a result that gives meaning to the entire process, and see writing as an unparalleled instrument for providing knowledge of past societies, call it ‘the beginning of history’ tout court. Without underestimating the importance of the ideological and historiographic implications in the choice of a definition, it is nevertheless unmistakable that they all refer to the same process, but in different ways. That process was so pervasive and multifaceted that it changed human society from top to bottom.

In the nineteenth century CE, scholars saw human history as a unilinear evolution, and searched for the original place of the transition between Neolithic ‘barbarity’ and historical ‘civilization’ (to use the terminology of the time). The original cradle of civilization – in the theories of the time and based on the knowledge available then – was thought to be somewhere in the Near East; first in Egypt, then, after the first archaeological discoveries were made there, in Mesopotamia. Today, scholars usually think that several centers were involved, and that each case should be studied by itself, without preconceived preferences. They believe now that the ‘stages’ (I retain the term as a somewhat useful classification rather than a proper historical division) were realized in various parts of the world, with different speeds and chronologies. Moreover, possible influences of one center on another are not considered as important as indigenous developments.

Nevertheless, among the many possible study-cases, that of Uruk – or of the south of Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium BCE – continues to have a privileged position. It is probably the oldest example of all such turning points, and it is perhaps the best-documented case. It is of particular interest to our Western world, which derived relevant aspects of its culture from it – albeit not directly or simply, but through complicated paths.

After the long-lasting Neolithic period in the Near East, spanning from the ninth to the fourth millennia BCE (see Fig. 1), the so-called ‘Uruk culture’ signaled the first emergence of a complex urban society or a stratified state. In the last of its phases (Late Uruk, c. 3200–3000 BCE) there was a definitive explosion of the evolutionary process. Urban concentrations reached dimensions that were previously unthinkable (as much as 100 hectares in Uruk), and had temple architecture of extraordinary grandeur and technical accomplishment (in particular the sacred Eanna precinct in Uruk). Writing originated, in function of a sophisticated and impersonal administration.

If the documentation on the Late Uruk culture – both archaeological and textual – is sufficiently studied and known, the larger problems related to the process of state formation remain open to debate. To what needs responded the new political and economic organizations? Who were the authors – conscious or not – of the changes that took place? Why was the process so precocious in Lower Mesopotamia? Was it a rapid ‘revolution’ or a progressive adaptation? To what extent did ecological, technological, demographic, socio-economic, political, and ideological factors each play a role? What caused the success of the Uruk experiment, and what changes were caused by its regional expansion and its persistence?

This volume is dedicated to clarifying the processes that formed the city and the state, within the limits set by the available documentation. Particular attention will be paid to factors of economic development, as they seem to precede social, political and ideological factors, even though they are closely linked to them. I will try to show – as clearly as possible – how the explanation advanced here is different from those current today, and how these views are related to different historiographic positions, besides the differently focused readings of archaeological and textual documentation.

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