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Ancient Mesopotamia

Hassuna Culture

by Peter Kessler, 6 January 2008

Farming arrived in the fertile lowlands of Mesopotamia from 8000 BC onwards, and it transformed human society.

For the first time people were able to see the revolutionary potential of an agricultural way of life. Between the appearance of the first farms around 10,000 BC and the seventh millennium, farming villages in this region had been confined to the Zagros Mountains.

Now they began to appear on the rain-fed north Mesopotamian plain, and by around 6000 BC they were firmly established in areas in which there was enough rainfall to allow for 'dry' agriculture.

Early cultures

Within a few centuries the development of irrigation allowed the idea of creating settlements to spread into central Mesopotamia, ultimately reaching the rich alluvial lands in the south, where the first cites were eventually to emerge. The expansion of farming settlement is reflected in a sequence of prehistoric cultures, each of which was characterised by a distinctive pottery style: Hassuna (which flourished between about 6000-5500 BC), Samarra (which dates roughly to 6000-5500 BC), Halaf (5500-5000 BC), and Ubaid (5300-3900 BC).

The Hassuna was the earliest of these cultures. It was centred on Hassuna in northern Mesopotamia, a few kilometres to the south of Ninevah, and extended eastwards to the base of the Zagros Mountains.

Subsistence was based on cereal crops; cultivated wheat (emmer and einkorn), and two-rowed hulled barley, but crucially there is no evidence of irrigation being used. These people kept domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and pigs, but their diet was supplemented by hunting cattle, gazelle, and onager (a type of wild ass).

Houses were originally simple structures of sun-dried mud. They may only have been semi-permanent, with the builders perhaps being intensive foragers who may have left the area in years in which the level of rainfall was too low. As farming methods improved, movement of this nature became unnecessary and houses gradually began to evolve into more spacious and sophisticated permanent dwellings, with small rooms which had plastered floors for work and living, store rooms, and internal courtyards with outdoor ovens.

This style of house-building may have set the pattern which was used by the Samarra and Early Ubaid cultures.

The Hassuna culture was responsible for the first appearance of painted pottery and the earliest two-chambered pottery kiln. There is also evidence of copper and lead smelting, all of which serves to demonstrate that the people of the Hassuna were both innovative and technologically sophisticated.

Finds of imported carnelian and turquoise beads and the first use of stamp seals - a means of indicating personal ownership - suggest that economic horizons were also widening.

By about 5500 BC the Hassuna people lived in very modest villages which ranged in size from under a hectare up to about three hectares. By comparison, the city of Jericho covered four hectares by about 6500 BC. Populations rarely exceeded five hundred in the largest villages.

However, of significance at the site of Tell Hassuna itself are some larger central buildings which were constructed around 5500 BC. They had rows of small, square rooms with unplastered walls and unfinished earthen floors, and no hearths or food debris.

They were probably built, and for the most part used, as community storage buildings, although one room also had 2,400 baked clay sling missiles and a hundred large baked clay balls, which suggests that it may have been a hunting arsenal. Whatever it was, it required a community effort to build it, and it was presumably stocked or used by the group.

Despite these advances, the pattern of settlement in Neolithic Mesopotamia still reflected the need of the early villagers to settle in areas in which there was sufficient rainfall for their crops and pasture for their livestock. Only in the south would that later change.

Map of the Hassuna Culture in Mesopotamia
This map shows the locations of early cultures on the Mesopotamian plains, focussing here on the spread of the Hassuna culture in the seventh millennium BC

The first villagers of the Hassuna culture were confined to the rain-fed grasslands of the north, but as soon as simple irrigation techniques were developed, the dependence on rainfall lessened.


Main Sources

Ember, Melvin & Peregrine, Peter N - Encyclopaedia of Prehistory

Lloyd, S - The Archaeology of Mesopotamia

Owen, Bruce - Hassuna Outline

Postgate, J N - The First Empires

Scarre, Chris (Ed) - Past Worlds - The Times Atlas of Archaeology

The British Museum



Images and text copyright © P L Kessler, including exhibits at the British Museum. An original feature for the History Files.