Lecture 8.

Cultural Complexity (Hierarchical Societies [Socio-Economic-Political Inequalities]) in Mesopotamia: An Outline

For the remainder of this course we will trace the rise and fall of societies from ca. 10,000 years ago (from the beginnings of settling down, domesticating plants and animals to the entrenchment of states) in both the Old and New Worlds. Based on the archaeological record we will compare the similarities/differences (diversity or variability) in characteristics between regions and attempt to explain how and why these distinctions came about.  Important characteristics are (1) environment, (2) subsistence, (3) population size (4) technology, (5) social organization, (6) political organization, (7) exchange/trade, (8) ideology/religion, (9) occupational and craft specialization and (10) warfare.


10,000-6,000 BC the environment in the vicinity of Mesopotamia was semi-arid.   It is likely that some hunter groups may have either reduced the local wild game supply or overbred themselves resulting in two observable patterns: (1) some human groups moved to less favored resource areas and (2) some increasingly depended on a greater variety of wild plant and animal resources.  This in turn led to two forms of specialized sedentarism without actual food production (1) those that utilized abundant stands of wild cereals (as seen in Natufian sites [referred to below]) and (2) those that found reliable sources of game (Suberde). Whether the original basis of a settled life was game or wild grain the outcome was the domestication of one animal for meat and its gradual establishment as an important dietary source. The presence of an important domestic animal no doubt changed the local ecology such that dependence on wild grains was no longer practical and cultivation of the wild cereals, either for human or animal consumption, followed single animal domestication.

A.  Natufian hunter-gatherer sites, such as Nahal Oren, of ca 10,000 BC are characterized generally by permanent villages with undifferentiated architecture, large populations (100-150 people), numbers of mortars and grinding stones (for processing wild grains and seeds), and flint sickle blades (used for cutting grasses [i.e., wild grains]). No domestic plants or animals have been identified at any of the "early" Natufian sites. Their absence and the presence of wild food goods associated with tools for their harvesting/processing suggests that abundant resources made sedentism necessary--made seasonal movement unnecessary or impractical. The presence of large (common or collective ?) storage pits would allow for a larger sedentary population than previously. Later Natufian sites (ca. 8000 BC) show some goat being domesticated.

Although there are no burials at Nahal Oren there are at other early Natufian sites. A few men are buried with shell headdresses and carved bone pendants; neither infants nor females are associated with burial goods.

Shell in burials suggests trade; goods in a few burials may suggest ritual since the presence of goods included w/burials generally indicates that the value of life takes on a new meaning (as first seen with Neanderthals at Shanidar [a later Natufian site]).

This pre-agricultural phase of existence in the Mesopotamia region is oftentimes classified as a Big-Man Society.

B.  Natufians were followed by the Prepottery Neolithic Phase (6200 - 7500 BC).  A typical site of this phase is Jericho which resides among rolling hills in a semiarid environment. This particular site is situated at the mouth of a spring.  This locality may be (1) for consumption's sake and/or (2) for control of the resource. While the earliest occupation of this site actually was Natufian (ca 7500 - 8000 BC) occupation was temporary and there was an abandonment for a period. By 6500 BC there is the appearance of a mud-brick village which is associated with agriculture (although no direct evidence exists). The presence of numerous sickle blades, digging sticks, kerns, grinding stones, and agriculture at other sites at this time, suggests the same for Jericho. The major meat being consumed is gazelle; both goat and dog are being domesticated. The significance of domestication is that it  (1) is a reliable food source and (2) supports a denser population (population estimated at 2000 people).

The architecture is crude (mud beehives), and placed irregularly around a courtyard.   Spacing becomes more regular through time. Up to 6200 BC there appears to be no difference in the shape or size of houses. The village itself is surrounded by a 5 foot thick wall and there is a 24 foot high tower in the center of one wall.

Early towers generally have been thought to be built for defensive purposes (implying warfare). Such towers, however, are usually on a corner. At Jericho there are not a high percentage of weapons associated with the tower. The wall itself appears to be associated with large grain and water community storage units.  This implies control. The immense size of the wall indicates social change, i.e., someone or group had the ability to mobilize a labor force for community tasks akin to the WPA projects of the 1930's in the US.

Some houses have shrines in them with offerings and figurines (representing gods); there is one nonresidential rectangular room with a central basin (interpreted as a ceremonial structure [temple]). This religious/ritual practice is considerably more elaborate than that of the Natufians.

Humans were buried under the floors of  houses, typically without artifacts. There were differences in how some individuals were treated after death, however. Some had their heads removed and the skulls were plastered. This may represent a form of ancestor (cult) worship or war trophies. In subsequent periods very few heads were removed. Infants were not given special treatment -- some were thrown away or in the abandoned tower. Skull handling may represent a prestige factor, i.e., only a few have it.

The presence of obsidian, shell and turquoise from afar suggests trade.  There is no evidence of craft specialization; goods were produced at the kin level.  As with the earlier Natufian sites evidence at Jericho may represent a Big Man society or a Transitional Chiefdom.

C.  Jarmo is located in the Assyrian Hills; a major occupation occurred between 6000 - 7000 BC.  In contrast to houses at Jericho those at Jarmo are constructed of stone and mud; each consists of ca. 7 rooms, has its own courtyard, grain pit and kitchen; all are approximately the same size.  The size, shape and configuration of houses suggest an extended family as the major social unit. The site also contains a community (storage) grain pit.  There is no wall as at Jericho.

Although wild game and plants continue to be hunted/collected much of the diet comes from domesticated wheat, barley and goat. Processing tools present are identical to those at Jericho, e.g., grinding stones and sickle blades. There is one aspect of domestication, particularly agriculture, which has not been discussed thus far, that is, who gets the land (particularly the best land) when an individual dies?  There is the need to have someone or a group to make such decisions.  This is why, in part, more elaborate social/political systems arise when there are large numbers of people living permanently in one place year-round and practicing agriculture.

At Jarmo there are a greater number of religious artifacts than at Jericho, e.g., fertility figurines (to control environment/increase yield ?), beads, discs, bracelets, etc. Burial grounds have not been uncovered as yet although there are a few carelessly disposed infants.

Semiprecious stones and shells suggest trade from afar.

Based on estimates population size is considerably smaller than at Jericho; there may be as few as 150/300 people.

During this phase technological innovation appears in the form of pottery (typically decorated); pottery replaces basketry and goat skin bags.  Ceramic styles, types and designs are extremely important to archaeological interpretations since they change with societies/ethnic groups, etc. They, therefore, can be considered chronological markers (time-sensitive or diagnostic markers). Changes can be seen in shape, size, function, interior/exterior treatment.  Jarmo has been interpreted as a possible Simple Chiefdom.

D.  Catal Huyuk is the first town found on the plains between 5400-6250 BC.  It covers approximately 32 acres; its population has been estimated at 4000-5000.  Much of the architecture consists of rooms which appear to have served as shrines or temples suggesting that the site was specialized (ceremonial center?).  The town was segregated into neighborhoods or quarters. The site is clearly larger than any other of this time period but most of the structures (particularly those indicative of residences) are similar to others in the region of the same time period.

Organic remains indicate that the population had access to a wide variety of domestic plants and cattle. Although many of the murals in the ceremonial chambers depict hunting scenes there are no remains of hunted animals suggesting that hunting may have been reduced to a sport or ritual activity rather than one of economic importance. A principle component of the economy seems to have been the control of some scarce commodity, such as obsidian which is available in volcanic form within the region, and whatever profit may have accrued from the great number of impressive shrines which were unique for the area for the time period. It has been hypothesized that the site gradually declined and finally fell due to growing competition from other incipient market centers as full scale food production became widespread.

Between 8000-6000 BC regional specialization appeared in separate areas; this suggests that areas are adjusting to specific resources in their areas.  After 6000 BC there appears to be a general consensus in the whole area, i.e., all are doing the same thing.   It is then that we begin to see the presence of Ranked Chiefdoms.  With the entrenchment of Chiefdoms one area is more dominant and it forms the basis for all others to copy, i.e., the Tigris-Euphrates region of Mesopotamia (Fertile Crescent).

E.  Tell as-Sawwan is located on the alluvial plain; this is an ideal location for irrigating crops based on canals (a new form of technology). The estimated population for the period between 5000-6000 BC is a few hundred.  Keep in mind, however, that in general there is consistent fluctuation in population size; an increase in death and/or birth rates can often affect a village greatly leading to a surplus of goods/foodstuffs or a shortage.  (An example of the environment and lifeway of these early peoples is depicted in the video "Iraq: The Cradle of Civilization".   Present-day peoples in the same environmental context are referred to as "Swamp Arabs".)

Subsistence at Tell as-Sawwan is identical to that at  Jericho but also includes capers, linseed (indicating increased use of oil), flax (for cord and weaving), fish, domesticated sheep and goat in small numbers and cattle (draught power ?). The latter animals can only be kept in certain areas.

The architecture is similar to Jarmo in that there are large buildings around courtyards suggesting extended families each consisting of 8 to 10 persons.  Some of the households have more goods associated with them than others and some were larger (wealthier).  There are also specialized buildings in which some rooms are associated with religious artifacts; the nature of these buildings suggests that they functioned as temples, residences for an elite class and centralized storage.  The presence of the latter indicates that the flow of goods was controlled by the elite.

Rich religious goods are present in the form of alabaster vessels and copper artifacts; they are buried under the religious structures.

That trade from afar existed can be seen in the existence of shell, obsidian, copper and ochre of non-local origins.

Full-time craft specialization is not obvious at this site. The quality of the alabaster, however, suggests that someone is spending a considerable amount of time in manufacturing such vessels (part-time specialists ???).

It is likely that land is not individually owned but that ownership is held by the community; the leader (head of the community) decides who will get what land each year. If you keep in mind that prior to the state that the political leader and the priest (religious leader) of an area are usually the same person then his decision is verified/justified by divine power.

There is a ditch around the site which might suggest defense but if this is true then the elite center is on the wrong side of the ditch. War of this period was primarily in the form of raiding. It is not uncommon to have warfare in association with extended trade networks and this usually involves goods needed by the elite.  There is no clear evidence of class conflict but the priest (an elite position) versus commoners has the potential to lead to such havoc and, ultimately, internal warfare.

There is clear evidence for 2 types of burials:  (1) most of the population was buried under houses with few artifacts and (2) a few were buried with exotic goods, e.g., shells, ochre etc.  The richest grave contained a female and a child with such goods; these were most likely members of the elite.

Tell as-Sawwan has been defined as a Chiefdom based on the presence of   differential access to goods, infants with goods indicating an inheritable (elite) position, and separate housing for the elite and commoners.

F.  Ubaid Period (3700-6000 BC). Typical sites are Tepe Gawra, Eridu and Ur; they represent the transition from Chiefdoms to States.

    1. Tepe Gawra (ca. 4200 BC) is probably a satellite of Nineveh (a large economic and ceremonial center).  This site contains a large semicircular structure which forms a solid mass; this structure contains a continuous row of houses with no windows on the outside walls  and a large central ceremonial center (not a Temple).  Whoever lives in the center appears to have control of goods based on the proximity of the market to the center.  This center does not seem to have a heavy religious aspect but rather a more secular function as seen from the evidence of the first seals.  Seals are used to mark private property, particularly jars; jars are used to move goods. It may well be that Tepe Gawra is a major redistribution center. The presence of seals indicates a third party relationship, i.e., it is an administrative (middle-man) activity.

   2/3.  Eridu and Ur (4750 BC).  There is a 3-tier settlement hierarchy consisting of towns ---> villages ---> and hamlets; there is not a true city.  There are a number of very specialized sites, e.g., flint quarries, bitumin, etc.

Ubaid Period burials in Ur contain (1) some wrapped in material and associated with few worn goods and (2) a few individuals in rich tombs and associated with many goods.   This is clear evidence of a stratified (class-like) society.

Towns are walled suggesting that war was a major activity.  Housing is associated with temples; temples function as major economic centers.

There is a tremendous amount of  materials and labor going into the manufacture of large jars, jewelry and metal for weapons indicating full-time occupational specialization.

There is a more elaborate trading system than in previous periods Settlement: 3-tier hierarchy.

  4.  A summary of the Ubaid Period Chiefdoms. (a). Settlements become larger -- groups of 1000 people are not uncommon; large sites are along the river; agricultural fields surround the sites; these are fed by canals coming off the major river systems. In between the actual agricultural fields there is grazing. To see how sites interact it is important to look at the redistribution patterns suggested by the archaeological evidence (i.e., begin with the center which tends to be the largest site in the area and where the goods first come. They tend to be redistributed to smaller sites from here).

        (b). Subsistence mainstays are wheat, barley, beans, sheep and goat. Irrigation was increasingly being practiced; hunting/ gathering and fishing continued albeit in very small amounts.

        (c). Social Unit: the elite were a separate class who had differential access to goods; their role was sanctified by religion.  There is no evidence of class conflict.   Ethnic differences may have occurred in areas like Assyria but this is difficult to determine archaeologically.

        (d). Resource Control: the elite controlled access to status goods but not subsistence goods unless it was water at Tepe Gawra.   They may have had, however, control over some pottery and cloth manufacturing, i.e., over goods produced by some craft specialists.

        (e). Population Growth: growth was continual but it varied from area to area; this variation in growth may be due to environmental limitations, technological levels, social/cultural rules and/or social/political climate.

        (f). Redistribution relates to the 3-tier site hierarchy (town - village - hamlet structure). Some food is coming from farmers in the hinterlands but the farmers are also getting non-food goods in return. Extracted surplus works its way up the hierarchy as seen in third party transactions (seal evidence) and storage in temples (storage of a surplus relates to supply/demand). Storage alone, however, is not important. The goods need to be consumed locally to be of use. Temples may take the surplus in to redistribute it in times of need. Markets are probable at this time.

        (g). Occupational Specialization: craft specialists are producing primarily for the elite.

        (h). Religion: regional variation; a theocracy is probable; the elite's role is sanctified by religion.

        (i). Technology: no revolutionary changes; metal becomes more common and is introduced into the subsistence cycle through its appearance on plows; there are architectural improvements (sewer systems; use of bitumen); increase use of wool.

        (j). Trade: informal (no professional traders); goods traded are primarily symbols of elite status.

        (k). Warfare: raiding (regional variation):

G. Development of the State: Uruk and Jemdat Nasr Periods (3000 - 3600 BC).  There is not the development of a single state but 4 simultaneously: Susa, Dijala, Tepe Gawra and Suma.

    1.  In Babylonia the site of Uruk has the most evidence for state development. The site itself is 1/3 sq mile in size (equally divided into thirds of administration, housing and garden/cemetery). Orchards and garden areas are also dispersed throughout the city as part of the subsistence system.

        (a).  Architecture.   There are 12 temples; some can be traced back to earlier levels.  The "White Temple" is the largest and most ornate of all in Uruk with 14' ball fields associated with it. Other temples are considerably smaller. The large size of the White Temple implies that a vast amount of labor is available (i.e., a large population size is present further implying an agricultural subsistence base). What would motivate a work force for such monumental building? Coercion for one and religion at the state level for another.  Remember that separation of state/church usually, but not always, marks statehood. This bureaucratic aspect of the state is extremely important in that the elite plan the building, plan who works, who organizes, etc. and the bureaucracy executes the plans. It is unlikely that a Chief would be able to raise such power.

        (b).  Subsistence/Technology.   A major improvement that increased production and, therefore, supported a greater amount of surplus was the introduction of the plow; a plow put more land into cultivation. For the plow to be most effective they would have needed draught animals, e.g., water buffalo; there is evidence that such existed. Flint sickles become more common in this period; metal (i.e., copper) implements are likely at Uruk as well.

In the previous period (pre-state) agriculture was conducted by the peasants in hamlets. The hamlet owned the land and kin groups divided it; land was rotated as in an egalitarian system. The peasant may have paid taxes to the Temple but this is where the surplus came in since the elite had no say in what the peasant grew. With the state agriculture was owned and run by the elite; they had full control of what was going on; this does not necessarily increase production. The farms were run by hired laborers who had no vested interest in what was going on. The advantage of this system is control over what was being grown hence the state can specialize in those goods which are profitable. Peasants could not do this since they had to feed themselves. It is during the Uruk Period at the site of Uruk that agricultural estates become evident (or inferred based on the Early Dynastic texts and on the presence of double rim bowls). These bowls are mass produced and used for rations. In addition to farming some are fishing in the swamps; boats are evident. Hunting declines. This is not an unusual situation as a population increases in numbers. It is likely that hunting became an elite past time (sport).

        (c).  Craft Specialization.   Numerous ration bowls are located in the cities; rations are being used to support craft specialists which are coming increasingly under the control of the elite.   Pottery is factory produced hence there is a reduction in the quality of some types.  Mass produced pottery is available for both the elite and commoners.  In the previous Ubaid Period it was produced only for the elite.

Metal Molds, carpentry and leatherwork as the products of specialists has been implied from texts.

        (d).  Trade.  There was a major expansion in trade items and area in network. Stone is being imported in some quantity, e.g., temples are being built of limestone which does not occur in the immediate vicinity.  Other goods coming in are crystal, obsidian and quartz. It is likely that traders develop at this time, particularly traders in metals, although much is being transported informally from village to village.

        (e).  Technology.    Major changes in transportation include the use of boats and carts. The development of harnesses are implied by the presence of plows.

        (f).  Warfare.    There are lots of weapons coming up in archaeological excavations but there is very little actual evidence of warfare. There are many art representations of slaves as captives but this is not a major element of warfare until early Dynastic times ( 3000 BC); there is the presence of chariots. There is some evidence to suggest that raiding nomads from and to the mountains, as is common today in parts of Iran, was practiced; this suggests conflict (increased hostility).

        (g).  Institutions.   Previous institutions, such as temples, were both religious and secular. While the Temple continues it increases in power and there is the rise of purely secular institutions, such as palaces (elite branch from temple activities). Art representations show the King as head and as war leader (probably getting booty in war). Many later (Dynastic) temples belong to the King suggesting that there is probably confrontation between the King and the Temple (religious leaders). From the above we know that the temples are expanding and the influence appears to be religious with religious goods expanding into the commoners houses.

        (h).  Redistribution.   The presence of  (a) ration bowls to craftsmen (suggesting a bureaucracy [middlemen]) and (b) seals increasingly elaborate implies that their manufacture becomes a specialty in and of itself  with different patterns indicating different positions in society. The more elaborate (complex) the more status is associated with the individual indicating that there is increased control of exchange by the elite; i.e., the elite standardize exchange as seen in the appearance of weights and measures in particular archaeological sites.

        (i).  Resource Control.   This greatly increases in the Uruk over Ubaid Periods. Based on texts the elite control the land; it is likely that we see for the first time large private (elite) estates. It is likely, as well, that with an expansion of the elite that they are lending money and/or seeds to the peasantry in return for crops, part of which covers the peasants taxes. Clearly, it is necessary for the presence of a surplus in order to support those involved in the bureaucracy, craftsmen, military, construction, etc.

        (j).  Demography (Population).  Since there is no total survey for the area overall population numbers is difficult to calculate.

        (k).  Religion.    Religion sanctifies the peasant/commoner obligation to contribute to temple expansion. From the size of the temples there is tremendous amounts of building underway. There is a dramatic increase in religious fervor, e.g., at the household level -- as seen from the number of religious figurines. Art work shows large community ceremonies. Religious doctrine demands (obligates each) some time be donated to institutions. The motivation for this is difficult to determine archaeologically; inferences are commonly made from mythology.

H.  Early Dynastic Period (ca. 3000-2350 BC). (Sumerian Civilization).  (See Wenke pages 412-420).

Next week we will discuss the formation and disintegration of the State in Africa, with a particular focus on that which evolved in Egypt.