History Files

Please help the History Files

Contributed: 175

Target: 400

Totals slider

The History Files still needs your help. As a non-profit site, it is only able to support such a vast and ever-growing collection of information with your help, and this year your help is needed more than ever. Please make a donation so that we can continue to provide highly detailed historical research on a fully secure site. Your help really is appreciated.



Ancient Mesopotamia

City Growth Regardless of Kings

by Roxanne Khamsi, New Scientist, 30 August 2007

Contrary to the assumption that ancient cities always grew outwards from a central point, the urban site of Nawar (modern Tell Brak in north-eastern Syria) appears to have emerged as several nearby settlements melded together, according to analysis by researchers of the archaeological evidence which was available to them in 2007.

Experts were of the opinion that the findings lent support to the theory that some early Mesopotamian cities developed as a result of grassroots organisation, rather than a mandate from a central authority.

The new study in 2007 provided important details about Tell Brak, helping to make it 'the first early city of which we have a picture about how it formed' commented Geoff Emberling at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago, Illinois, US. While he was not involved in this particular study, he had previously himself carried out archaeological work at Tell Brak.

Tell Brak lies between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and can therefore be considered an ancient Mesopotamian site. It is thought to have been settled as early as 6000 BC, according to Harvard University researcher Jason Ur.

Ur and his colleagues examined the distribution of ancient pottery pieces around Tell Brak to determine a timeline of urban development there. He made clear that this was possible because certain ceramic styles appeared within a specific time period.

For example, pottery which contains sand and bits of fabric for structural reinforcement appeared sometime around 4200 and 3900 BC. Around 3900 to 3400 BC people switched to mixing in chaff - the inedible husks of wheat plants - for the same purpose, and created pots with grooves around the top, presumably to hold lids.

The archaeologists determined the presence of six discrete settlements which could be dated to between 4200 and 3900 BC. All of them lay about five hundred metres from the central site at Tell Brak. Ur said it was still unclear whether these six settlements represented offshoots from the central site, or migrants who were coming from faraway places to settle on the edges of that central site.

Either way, the site does not show a pattern which suggests it spread gradually outwards in concentric circles from a central point, as one might expect, he noted.

Ceramic artefacts from the later period, 3900 to 3400 BC, appeared more closely distributed towards the central site, suggesting that the satellite settlements expanded inwards towards the middle. By this later time period some 15,000 people likely called Tell Brak home, according to Ur. Some experts place the number even higher. 'It's not just a sleepy village,' said Emberling.

Map of Mesopotamia c.2000-16000 BC
This general map of Mesopotamia and its neighbouring territories roughly covers the period between 2000-1600 BC. It reveals the concentration of city states in Sumer, in the south (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Pottery finds at Nawar / Tell Brak

Pottery changes at Nawar (click or tap on image to read more on a separate page)

Ur believed that his new findings contradicted the impression given by early written texts that the earliest cities typically emerged under the strict control of kings who liked to keep their people as close as possible.

'Undoubtedly a good deal of early urban development was motivated by the state and by aristocratic rulers in particular,' said archaeologist Michael Shanks at Stanford University in California, US. 'But,' he added, 'one of the major things we've learned in archaeology over the past fifty years is that there's no single pattern when it comes to urban development.'

Shanks added that the different ways in which ancient cities developed points to a diversity in early political structures. And, said Ur, some of these political structures may have been less autocratic than historians had previously assumed.



Images and text copyright © New Scientist or affiliates. Reproduction is made on a 'fair dealing' basis for the purpose of disseminating relevant information to a specific audience. No breach of copyright is intended or inferred.